Activists describe current developments in Tunisia
Ten years have transpired since the “Arab Spring” was touched off in Tunisia. The country has had a new constitution now for seven years. But homosexuality is still criminalized under article 230, and large-scale protests have broken out numerous times since November 2020. Reports of arbitrary detention, violence and oppression against civil society are on the rise – what exactly is going on in the country?
Ten years have transpired since the “Arab Spring” was touched off in Tunisia. The country has had a new constitution now for seven years. But since November 2020 there have been numerous large-scale protests, also attended by many lesbians, gay men, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people. The police have suppressed the protests and arrested many demonstrators, including LGBTI people. Reports of arbitrary detention, violence and oppression against civil society are on the rise. What is going on in the country?
These questions were addressed at a talk on 15 April 2021 with Guido Schäfer from the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation (HES) and Syrine Boukadida and Asala Mdawkhy, two activists from Tunis who work for our partner organizations Mawjoudin (“We Exist”) and Damj (“Inclusion”). Around 40 people attended the online talk.
A growing civil rights movement, but retrograde politics
Syrine Boukadida (Mawjoudin) does not like to use the term “Arab Spring” because the situation in each country is completely different. She prefers to speak of a process that began long before 2011 and still continues. “The struggle for justice and human rights has resulted in greater rights in general and more visibility for activists and their work,” she said. The government is now also hearing these voices, and the situation is more open than it was before 2011. However, she also noted that politicians seem to be lagging behind in this process, while the civil rights movement continues to grow.
Asala Mdawkhy (Damj) also doesn’t think it makes sense to describe the current revolution as the Arab Spring or Jasmine Revolution. She points to the lengthy struggle for human dignity and rights, which led to a revolution in 2011 because repression, arrests and ever greater pressure to leave the country had reached a point of no return. Since then there have been highs and lows, especially for LGBTI people. The transformative process is far from over.
Article 230 criminalizes homosexuality
The situation for LGBTI people has changed. Article 230, which criminalizes homosexual acts, is still in the penal code and is still applied, said Asala. But there is now greater visibility. The media are covering LGBTI issues, even if their reports are still full of bias and clichés. Homophobia is still very widespread, she added.
In 2011 organizations like Damj could finally register as NGOs. This was inconceivable during the many previous years of working in secrecy. Arbitrary detentions and abuse at police stations could then be publicized and denounced. In the UPR process for Tunisia in 2017, the government promised to stop using anal tests to investigate homosexual acts, a degrading practice that violates human rights. But the tests are still performed by physicians paid by the state. People can refuse the tests, but with negative repercussions.
Syrine describes Tunisia as a country of contradictions. On the one hand this is the third year of the Queer Film Festival, yet at the same time lesbians and gay men are being persecuted and imprisoned. Politicians and the parliament are slow in dealing with developments. When a minister of justice publicly considered abolishing article 230 a few years ago, he was removed from office a few days later. “The situation in the country is very tense, there’s a lot of poverty, unemployment and other problems. When we come with our demands we’re told we’re not taking the big picture into account,” she said.
Today there is a completely different level of mobilization. There are NGOs and lawyers working for LGBTI rights, which used to be unthinkable. There are some good legal texts as well as access to the justice system, although things are far from perfect. The anal tests are illegal, but refusal is considered an admission of guilt. Mawjoudin worked to abolish the anal tests, and even the country’s medical commission opposed them, but a physician told them that if two policemen bring a detainee to his office he has no choice but to perform the test.
Visible LGBTI presence in protests against new police law
The protests that began in November 2020 were triggered by a proposed bill to protect the police. It was intended to thwart opposition by civil society to police brutality, and even to protect police family members from criticism and defamation. The bill was discussed in parliament and the police used violence to dispel protests on the streets. Even some of the female members of parliament who criticized the bill were harassed. Ultimately the vote was indefinitely postponed.
Many LGBTI people have joined the demonstrations. “They were very visible, carried rainbow flags and became targets,” said Syrine. The police posted videos of the demonstrations on social media, as well as photos and names of individual demonstrators with calls for action against them.
Asala added that the queer community cannot be viewed separately from society as a whole. They are part of the protest movement. The media claim that the LGBTI demonstrators are not Tunisians but instead are brought in and paid from abroad. The police protection law is used as a pretence to forestall criticism. “They know how to provoke you, and then the only evidence is a police statement that is used against you.”
In January protests broke out again on account of the economic situation, curfews and other Covid regulations, even though the government had banned demonstrations marking the tenth anniversary of the revolution. Once again the police took strong action and arrested thousands of people.
Syrine noted that civil society organizations have been very present and active over these months, exerting pressure and doing advocacy work. This has fostered debate in parliament about the arrests, and led to more calls to release detainees.
Western states support human rights projects, but also the police and government
Western embassies provide support, of course, but Syrine views this as a two-edged sword. “It’s a matter of politics and there’s always a lot of hypocrisy involved. On the one hand they support human rights projects, but at the same time they’re training our police and supporting the government.”
Mawjoudin wants to ensure that LGBTI people can live safely in Tunisia. It also organizes the Queer Film Festival, whose sponsors include the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation and the German Foreign Office. Another project focuses on queer refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa who are stranded in Tunisia. Mawjoudin holds advocacy workshops and conducts studies on the situation of LGBTI people in the country.
Damj offers legal consulting and maintains a network of lawyers in the country. It also documents police brutality as well as hate speech in parliament, and reports these cases to the police. Asala explained that the reports can then be processed for a very long period of time, sometimes without any consequences. Damj also provides psychosocial and medical assistance, holds workshops on capacity-building and empowerment and – very important – Damj represents LGBTI interests and does the associated lobbying work.
The overarching goal is to achieve societal acceptance and integration of LGBTI people. True, there is support for this work from abroad, but not enough concrete assistance in matters such as granting visas and residence permits to LGBTI people who have to leave the country. As a further point, Tunisian organizations need to be involved from the start in the development stage of joint projects, not just brought in later when it’s time to carry out the projects.
Syrine knows that change will not come overnight, that there’s a long road ahead and a lot left to do. She wants the future to bring not only decriminalization of homosexuality and abolition of article 230, but also what the EU already has, namely freedom of movement and the ability to choose freely where one lives – instead of being forced to move elsewhere to escape abuse by the police.
For Asala, abolition of article 230 is the precondition for reducing discrimination and aggression against LGBTI people. Although not terribly optimistic about the future, she says with assurance, “We have to keep fighting.”
This online talk was part of the “LGBTIQ Human Rights Defenders” project by the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation. All blog articles about the project can be found under the tag MRV-2021