LGBT activists in Tunisia under pressure

In this anonymous interview with CIVICUS, a Tunisian activist who works for an LGBT organisation speaks about the conditions for LGBT activists and organisations in Tunisia. CIVICUS also asked her about the general situation for civil society post-revolution and post the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Tunisian civil society actors half a year ago.

1. What are the conditions for civil society organisations and human rights defenders working on LGBT issues in Tunisia?

There is currently a public campaign against LGBT persons and civil society activists and organisations working on LGBT issues on national television claiming that we are a threat to Muslim and Arabic identity. This has led to increased aggression against LGBT activists in the streets and especially those activists who go on television to speak about LGBT issues. Some activists have also been beaten in public spaces. The campaign against LGBT activists has not only been supported by ordinary people but also by the military and police who have said that they would fight against LGBT people where they meet them. Some LGBT activists have even been expelled from their schools and universities. The LGBT people and activists who look a bit different to what are gender norms in Tunisia, such as women with short hair, people with piercings or a man who is a bit feminine, can be arrested at check points.

This makes it very difficult to work because while we might have plans to do lobbying or digital security trainings, we found ourselves in a situation where we have to deal with a person being arrested. This is taking a lot of our time, energy and money and sometimes we even have to stop a meeting because we have an urgent case. Non-heterosexual women face double stigma because of the patriarchy of the Tunisian society. We are much more under pressure and face more attacks because we are accused of wanting to destroy the ideals of a family unit and are seen as a threat to the welfare of children.

We also face issues with digital security as an LGBT organisation. Our organisation’s Facebook account is hacked constantly and we are under surveillance. For this reason, we do digital security training for our employees and activists working on LGBT issues. We have also experienced that after doing a lot of work online, it has been destroyed by a hacker all of a sudden. Additionally, my phone is under surveillance, hence I don’t speak on the phone about the issues we work on but rather just about my dog and my general social life.

The Tunisian authorities make use of Article 230 of the Penal Code to charge LGBT persons and activists working on other human rights issues if they are critical of the authorities. This law criminalises homosexuality and carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. Many people I work with have been arrested and charged under this law.  

2. Have you ever feared to continue to do your work? 

Even though we face many threats, I am never afraid to do my work and have never missed a meeting or a training. When I leave and return to Tunisia, I always have to tell the customs that I’m going to a training about women’s rights or corruption because the authorities don’t have an issue with that. As long as the reason why I’m travelling is not an LGBT issue, they’re okay with that.

I also take care not to show my face on local media, though, so I am not known. It is only the president of our organisation who will speak on television but our President will only participate if we know that the station that invites us is doing so purely for proper debate and dialogue. Unfortunately, the nature of many shows is to give the message that homosexuality is a disease and instead of having a debate, the television channel will just try to expose the activists and say “look at them”, hence building negative public sentiment against activists and putting them in danger. 

There was a mini pride parade during the World Economic Forum in March 2016 in Tunisia where the environment actually was very safe because many organisations from all over the world participated in the march. There was freedom and space to have the demonstration and the police were even ordered to protect the people. The problem was that the only reason why the police protected us was because they knew if anything happened to us, Tunisia would not be seen as a good host for the World Economic Forum. Instead, there was a call to protest for gay rights on 15 May 2016 but we knew that the Tunisian authorities or homophobic groups were calling for the protest to enable them to identify and beat those participating. For this reason, we were sending people alerts that it was not us who called for the demonstration so that they wouldn’t go.

3. In light of these restrictions, what are the tactics employed by Tunisian civil society working on LGBT issues?

We try to be discrete when we, for example, lobby against Article 230 that bans homosexuality. We have actually been very successful with this approach because we managed to convince many parliamentarians to change the law. However, this work was ruined when another LGBT organisation went to talk about it publicly on television about this and then a large public counter-campaign against us started.

Besides from our discrete work we do, we have our public Facebook page and we do public events. During these events we do not take photos because we know that this will compromise the people who participate. We have experienced many times that the Tunisian secret service will be present at the events dressed in civilian clothes. They will not arrest us at the event but just take notes and later follow and arrest people at parties or in their homes and charge them under Article 230.  

Another LGBT organisation had to stop their activities for two months because the government accused them of not fulfilling the objectives of the organisation. The organisation won the court case but this was pure luck, as there is a fifty-fifty chance of having a biased or corrupt judge in Tunisian courts.

4. What is the situation for civil society in Tunisia post the 2010-2011 revolution and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015?

From an activist point of view there is a lot of motivation among LGBT civil society but we cannot keep working this way because we don’t have any protection. There is no law that especially protects LGBT activists. Many LGBT activists are under attack and beaten either by ordinary people or by the police. The violence is everywhere for civil society activists and is not only limited to LGBT activists. 

The Nobel Peace Prize was given to actors in Tunisian civil society but in my opinion there is no peace in Tunisia. It is clear that the prize was given to Tunisia to encourage us that we are the only “successful” Arab Spring country but we have not been successful when it comes to human rights. A country that won the Nobel Peace Prize, cannot be a country accepting the calling for the murder and death of homosexuals or a country where campaigns are taking place telling men that their Arab and Muslim identities are threatened if women are given their rights. Those actors who won the Nobel Peace Prize are unfortunately not understanding what the younger generation of civil society needs and they never protected LGBT rights. The winners are not homophobic but they do not want to support civil society working on LGBT issues because they don’t see it as the right time to talk about this.



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