When activism gets creative

Tunisian LGBT+ activists unite with artists against discrimination.
Photo by: Fabio Téllez / (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Source: Flickr

Today is International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, celebrated all over the world. In Tunis, Tunisia, there are two big events taking place that protest the existence of the article 230 of the Tunisian penal code, which criminalizes the LGBT+ community, as well as the all too common aggressions and humiliations members of the community experience on a regular basis.These discriminations against sexual minorities are on the other hand not criminalized by the juridical system in Tunisia.

Both events use art as a means of expression and protest. First, there is a collective art exhibition called “Au temps du 230” (At the time of 230), organized by CHOUF, a feminist Tunisian association advocating for women’s and LBT+ rights, in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Fund and the association l’Art Rue, which is taking place in the Old City of Tunis.

The exhibition unites the works of a number of well-known Tunisian artists, such as Hela Ammar, Wafa Ben Romdhan, Ilyes Messaoudi, Atef Maatalah, and Willis from Tunis, in effort to show solidarity with the LGBT+ community and their activism to abolish the article 230 of the Tunisian penal code, which criminalizes sodomy and lesbianism. While this exhibition focuses more on photography, sketches and paintings, the other event organized by

While this first exhibition focuses more on photography, sketches and paintings, the other event organized by Shams, one of the biggest associations openly advocating for LGBT+ rights, focuses more on performance and audiovisual art. This shows that even in critical situations, such as the situation of the LGBT+ community in Tunisia, art can be a powerful means of expressing a message in a way words may not be able to.

The article 230 as such is unconstitutional, as the activists state, and against basic human rights and international conventions. The anal test, which persons who are “suspected to have homosexual tendencies” can be put through with the intention to test if they have had anal sex, qualifies internationally as torture and rape.

Despite the efforts of these activists and their associations, who have issued a recommendation to abolish the law and to make the anal test illegal, and who have called for a law that protects minorities, such as the LGBT+ community, from discrimination of all sorts; despite all of these efforts the article 230 is still in place and the members of the parliament have shown no intention of abolishing it.

The President of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, has spoken out against a depenalization of homosexuality. None of the political parties have given an opinion on the subject, or shown support.

In April, the associations working on this issue, such as Shams, Damj, Mawjoudin, CHOUF and the collective Kelmty have created a coalition, which is called the Tunisian Coalition for the Rights of LGBTI+ People, in order to unite their efforts. The coalition calls not only for the abolishment of article 230, which criminalizes homosexuality, but also of those articles of the penal code, which penalize indecent behavior and scandalization, or a public act of indecency, which all serve to discriminate the LGBT+ community. The coalition wrote a report on the situation of the community in Tunisia and presented it to the UN Council in Geneva in April.

In the negotiations concerning the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between the EU and Tunisia, which were launched in October 2015, the EU has demanded the abolishment of article 230.

The association Damj has documented about a high number of cases of members of the LGBT+ community, who were arrested and/or physically aggressed by the forces of order. In general, there are about fifty to hundred cases of imprisonment of members of the community due to their sexual orientation.

Most of those cases were found “guilty of homosexuality” by the article 230. In November 2016, four persons, who were dressed up for Halloween and two of whom were transsexual, were stopped for an identity control by a police patrol in Hammamet. They were taken to the police station, where they were insulted and mistreated for their dress-up. The one, who kept quiet, was allowed to leave without procedures, but the one, who spoke out against the violence and injustice she was going through, was put up for a court trial and accused and found guilty of violation of morality, scandalization and defamation of a civil servant on duty.

Shams opposed this treatment and its use of the article 226 bis of the Tunisian penal code, which penalizes indecent behavior, as it breaches the privacy of Tunisian citizens and restricts their personal freedom.

Another problem is the degrading treatment of LGBTQI people in public health institutions. They face stigmatization and discrimination. Degrading treatment, mistreatment and a disrespect of the medical confidentiality are the reasons for them to avoid treatment in public health institutions for fear of juridical procedures, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health issues.

Activists who openly oppose the existence of article 230 receive threats, insults, or are physically attacked by strangers on a rather regular basis. Hedi

Hedi Salhy, the vice-president of Shams, was forced to leave the country in December 2015, due to death threats. In an interview with HuffPost Tunisie, he revealed that he and his colleagues frequently receive death threats, but that this time the danger was much higher. He was informed by members of the interior ministry and was urged by his family to leave the country immediately. His family received threats, as well, not to support the militants anymore. This case of intimidation and discrimination is sadly still not uncommon. In March 2017, Shams released a

In March 2017, Shams released a documentary on the situation of the LGBT+ community. In the documentary, the interviewees talk about the threats and mistreatments they often receive, and about how when they report such incidents to the police, they frequently are being turned into suspects themselves, which can result in them being accused and found guilty by the article 230. In the Tunisian society, which is still very conservative, members of sexual minorities may face being rejected by their families, being insulted and attacked in the streets without the real possibility of getting justice, and being prosecuted for their sexual orientation.

In the Tunisian society, which is still very conservative, members of sexual minorities may face being rejected by their families, being insulted and attacked in the streets without the real possibility of getting justice, and being prosecuted for their sexual orientation.

When activism gets creative
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GenderHuman Rights
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in a Gender research project in Tunis. Fluent in German, English, and French, she has spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Living on and off in Tunis, she has been working as a Freelance Researcher, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. She is also interested in photography, art, and has been experimenting with music, and mixing of sounds.
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