Houssem Ben Issa is 20 years old, and like most of Tunisia’s gay population, he participated in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the brutal leader who ruled this North African country for more than two decades. Fueled by years of political repression, human rights abuses and deep socioeconomic divisions, the Tunisian Revolution sparked the reform movements of the Arab Spring.
“Every patriot we knew was there,” Ben Issa says about the day in January 2011 that Ben Ali was forced out of office. “Communists, liberalists, Islamists, gays and Salafists. I saw rainbow flags alongside of Tunisian ones. We all suffered from Ben Ali, and we were united in a common goal: “Ben Ali, Degage! [Get out.]”
It seems that almost every Tunisian you meet can tell you their story of that day, of where they were when Ben Ali was finally driven from office. In spite of its secularism and its modernity, Tunisia had one of the most repressive police states in the region: No one could criticize Ben Ali or his inner circle. Political dissidents were thrown in jail. The Internet was heavily censored, and repressive laws denied Tunisians’ freedom of expression, association and assembly. Financial corruption and an entrenched system of political patronage brought unemployment to record high levels and had driven down wages.
It was in this environment that Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller and the main breadwinner for his family of seven, frustrated and humiliated by the confiscation of his unlicensed cart and its produce, poured paint thinner over his body and set himself afire in front of government buildings after shouting, “How do you expect me to make a living?” This act set in motion protests across the country against the government, capturing the imagination of a dispossessed society, and resulting in an unprecedented populist revolution.
Since then, Tunisia has been heralded as a model of peaceful transition to democracy. Within weeks after the uprising, banned political parties were legalized and political prisoners were released. A new press code was established, hundreds of new civil-society groups formed and the adoption of pluralist election laws led to the first free elections last October, producing a coalition government that is drafting a new constitution from scratch.
But for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Tunisians such as Ben Issa, their place in the new society remains unclear. A year and a half after the revolution, gays remain marginalized and excluded from discussions about human rights in the new democratic Tunisia. While Tunisians are free from strict political ideologies and are creating new ways of engaging the state and civil society, this has not included any public discussions about gay rights. “We were not allowed to live openly under the old regime, and we are not allowed to live openly under this one,” Ben Issa says. “We hoped that the new government would have more respect for our human rights, but I fear that things may be worse for LGBT people.”
To be young and gay in Tunisia is to be largely invisible. Few are out to their families. The gay community operates largely underground and online, and even there, people use aliases to protect their identities, as most did for this article.
The notion of “underground behavior” is familiar to Tunisiansunder Ben Ali, Tunisians of all stripes were used to masquerading the parts of themselves that were disapproved of by the regimeand for gay Tunisians, this has not changed.
“There are still deep cultural taboos on homosexuality,” says Khaled Azouzi, a gay rights organizer. “Many of us still must hide, and people are in denial that we exist. But we do, and we are here.”
This belief is confirmed by ordinary Tunisians I meet. “How can you write a story about gay rights when there are no gays in Tunisia?” one Tunisian asks me.
When I tell him that I have already met with several gay youth, he is surprised. It is not beyond belief that he would think this. There are no gay role modelsno openly out public figures, and no political party or politician who has shown support for gay rights. Many gay folks have two Facebook pagesone with their own name where they are not gay, and another with their assumed namewhere they can inhabit gay space and express their authentic selves without fear of discovery or retribution. Homosexuality remains criminalized: To be caught engaging in same-sex activity is punishable by up the three years in prison.
The Avenue Habib Bourguiba is the central thoroughfare of Tunis, the capitol city of Tunisia, and its wide, tree-lined streets were the site of many of the demonstrations of the revolution. At its center stands a tall granite-and-steel clock that once commemorated Nov. 7, 1987, the day Ben Ali seized power. It has now been renamed to commemorate Jan. 14, 2011, the day he fell. It is under this clock where I meet Lalou Ben Yahya, a 23-year-old-gay activist.
It is nighttime and the avenue is filled with families strolling, men sitting in sidewalk cafes and teenagers in scuffed jeans smoking cigarettes. Wearing baggy jeans and a plaid, collared shirt, Ben Yahya stands out among the girls in headscarves and the women in heels and skirts. “I have always dressed like a boy,” she says, “It wasn’t a decision, it was just what I liked. My mother finally gave up trying to get me to wear dresses.”
Since she was 7, she has known that she liked girls, but she didn’t have a name for it. “There is no cultural awareness here about what it means to be gay,” she says. “Nobody talks about it in public.”
After the fall of Ben Ali, she and a friend started a Facebook page called The Lesbian Diary. “We wanted to build community and gay culture and gay pride,” she says. “We wanted to tell stories about lesbians and introduce lesbian writers and singers. Some gay people don’t even know the meaning of the rainbow flag.”
Like many gay Tunisians, she is out only to a few close friends. “They were afraid for me when I told them,” she says. She has no plans to tell her parents. and says it is not important to her that they know. “My mother continues to try and marry me off. I know that they would not accept it.”
This is what I find over and over again: gays who want equal protection but who do not see themselves coming out publicly anytime soon, or perhaps ever. “My family is not very religious and they are very open-minded,” says Houssem Ben Issa. “My mother doesn’t wear a head scarf, and my dad drinks from time to time, so we’re very laid-back at home, except for homosexuality. My parents and my brother are very homophobic. Maybe they are just scared because they don’t know anything about it, but I know it will break my mother’s heart if I tell her I am gay. I am still really hesitating about my future.”
Salim Tarek is a 22-year-old dentistry student at the University of Monastir who recently came out to a few friends. “They told me that that they loved me just as I am. Since I have done that I am feeling very good, much better than when I was hiding it,” he says. “But I do not think I will tell my parents. In their reading of Islam, it is wrong. I know that if you can’t tell your family, then you can’t tell your neighbor, and change will be slow to come, but I am not there. Maybe I never will be.”
Bechir B. is a 32-year-old writer and organizer who understands how hard it is to come out. But still, he wishes more people would do so. “I went through really tough years accepting my gayness,” he says. “But once I made peace with myself, nothing could have stopped me. I told my mother, and she accepted me, and I am thankful for that. I understand that it is much harder in conservative families. I have done my small revolution, and I wish for more to do it. Then we can constitute a strong movement that can have public debates, write articles, publish newspapers. But if everyone is hiding and doors are closed, there won’t be a strong community and there won’t be a strong movement.”
The forces that generate popular revolutions are rarely the same ones that build electoral power. And so it was in Tunisia. In the months following the revolution, it became increasingly clear that the people who had initiated the uprisingsthe youth, the workers, the unemployed and the marginalizedwould be pushed aside as the vacuum left by Ben Ali’s departure was filled by political interests that were better funded, better resourced and more widely known.
The Islamist Ennahda party, whose name means The Renaissance in Arabic, came relatively late to the revolution. It joined in only after it appeared Ben Ali’s grasp on power was weakening. But the Ennahda party was also politically and religiously repressed under Ben Ali, so its members were ready when the revolution came.
Ben Ali believed in secularism with an iron fist. The party itself was banned, and its members were routinely harassed and thrown in jail. Women were not allowed to wear the niqab (veil) or hijab (headscarf)in public places, and men were forbidden to grow beards. The suffering they experienced under Ben Ali, and their promises of a more democratic and moderate Islam, helped them win the largest percentage of votes in last October’s first free elections. “The Ennahda party fought against Ben Ali, so I voted for it,” says Amel Bakir, a middle-class Tunisian who supported the revolution. “I think that they have original ideas.”
The victory of an Islamist party surprised many people; after all, the revolution was a secular one and not a religious one. “We did not know when we made the revolution that we would end up with an Islamist government,” says Nadia Jaafar, a straight ally in the gay rights movement. “We fought for a democracy. We fought for economic reforms. We expected the God propaganda, but it was a big disappointment that a large portion of the population voted this way.”
Ennahda defines itself as a moderate Islamic party, one that believes in democracy and human rights and engaging with the West. But according to Samir Dilou, Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, Ennahda also “gets its bearings from the principles of the Koran.” After its victory, Ennahda continued to assure Tunisians it would not impose its interpretation of Islamic social and moral dictums on society, and that it intended to preserve individual freedoms and human rights. Gay and human rights activists were initially encouraged when a party spokesman said shortly after the election that “individual freedoms and human rights are enshrined principles” and that atheists and homosexuals were a reality in Tunisia and “have a right to exist.”
Those hopes were quickly dashed several months later when Dilou stated on a national television show that homosexuality was in fact not a human right and that it was a “perversion” that required medical treatment. He went on to say that freedom of expression “has its limits. They (gay, lesbian and bisexual people) must respect the red lines that are defined by our culture, religion and heritage.”
Gay rights activists were further dismayed that the Ennahda party has upheld the law that criminalizes same-sex sexual activity, in spite of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recommendations that they decriminalize homosexuality and abolish the law. In rejecting their recommendations, Dilou said that the “concept of sexual orientation is specific to the West” and not compatible with Islam.
Human rights activists fear that in making these statements, the Ennahda party is making it clear that it wants to reshape the country’s political and cultural map to reflect an increasingly narrow view of Islam. And in this view, homosexuality is unwelcome.
It is not just fundamentalist Muslims who believe this. In a country with a population that is 99 percent Muslim, Islam is as much a cultural expression as a religious one. Unlike the young secularists who took to the streets, many Tunisians see Islam and its traditions as a defining part of their personal, cultural and political identities. Viewing homosexuality as a sin and an illness is part of this worldview: “Morally, it is not accepted. We do not hate or discriminate, but it is against Islam,” says Bakir.
But some Islamic scholars say that there is no fixed truth about the Koran’s view on homosexuality. The prevailing Islamic interpretation against homosexuality stems from the story of the Prophet Lot, who told the people of Sodom to follow God’s path and then punished the entire city for rejecting him and for their “transgressions.” Conservative Islamic scholars interpret “transgressions” as a reference to male homosexuality, yet others say that “transgressions” refers to rape. The former interpretation informs the prevailing view that homosexuality is a sin.
In his book Homosexuality and Islam, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle writes, “Many Muslims cling to presumptions when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, and feel that they already know ‘what Islam says’ without reflecting on whether they have based their opinion on patriarchal culture or knowledge of religion. Islam, after all, has no voice. Only Muslims have voices. Only they speak in the name of Islam, and Muslims speak from distinct social and political contexts that shape how they practice and represent their religious tradition.”
He asserts that justice and tolerance have always been part of the Islamic social ethic, including the acknowledgment and acceptance of gender and sexual diversity, and that it was only after the Prophet’s death that “Muslims inscribed patriarchal values deep into Islamic culture, allowing the Islamic shari’a to compromise the Qur’an’s ethical voice.”
In Tunisia, the growing influence of hardline Islamists, known as Salafists, has made the struggle to determine the role of Islam in public and private life all the more crucial. Salafism, an ideology that posits that Islam has strayed from its origins, is associated with a brand of Islam that calls for a strict and absolute interpretation of Islamic law and that rejects many Western concepts.
Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the Salafist movement has rapidly gained purchase. Salafists have attacked hotel bars that serve alcohol, incited riots over the showing of the film Persepolis (which shows God in cartoon form), vandalized media outlets, threatened journalists and disrupted music festivalsall in response to depictions and actions that they deem an offense to Islam.
Although the government has made statements condemning these actions, many moderate Tunisians say they are not doing enough to rein the Salafists in. Others say they are simply letting the Salafists do their dirty work for them. Last month, in response to large-scale riots by Salafists angry over artwork they found offensive to Islam, the Ennahda party submitted a bill in the National Constituent Assembly that would criminalize offenses against “sacred values.” If passed, the law would create new forms of censorship by punishing remarks and words broadly defined as mocking the “sanctity of religion” in the form of “insult, irony, sarcasm or the physical and moral desecration of these values.”
The artwork that inflamed the Salafists was exhibited at a gallery in a Tunis suburb and included sculptures of veiled women being stoned and another that depicted a line of ants spelling out the words “Sobhane Allah” (Praise belongs to Allah). Salafists broke into the gallery and vandalized some of the artwork, leading to riots in several parts of the country with some calling to apply the “hadd,” the Islamic death sentence, to the artists.
While the government called for an end to the violence, it also released a statement that said, “Freedom of expression and the freedom of artistic creativity, even if they are among the freedoms we approve, should not be absolute and without controls.” This led to the introduction of the legislation, known as the “blasphemy bill.” For gays, the passage of this legislation could further limit any public discussion of homosexuality as an offense to the “sanctity of religion.”
Ennahda had a similar reaction last week after Salafists stormed the U.S. Embassy and looted the American Cooperative School in response to the widely circulated YouTube video that cast the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light. In their statement following the violence, the leadership of the party cited “the need for condemnation of such deplorable attacks on faith, and refraining from justifying them under any pretext, such as freedom of expression, while insisting on commitment to the limits of civilised and peaceful protest.”
Statements like these bring into sharp focus the challenges for an overtly religious party like Ennahda to govern in a newly emerging democracy, a democracy whose very genesis was birthed by millions of people chanting, “Huriyyah, Adalah, Ijtima’iyah, Karamah! [Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity!]”
There may be little outward appearance of gay life in Tunisia, but online, gay culture thrives. Fadi Krouj is the 24-year-old editor of Gayday, the first online gay magazine in Tunisia.
“I wanted to start an online gay journal because I thought that I might not be the only gay person who wanted more stories about gay life and more information about the policies affecting us,” Krouj says. “I never thought it would grow to be so big and controversial.” When Gayday launched last March, the Islamic media responded harshly and Krouj received threats and hate mail. Earlier this year, hackers broke into Gayday magazine’s email, removed contributor accounts and renamed it “Garbage Day Magazine: never accept your DIRT and MOLD.”
Nevertheless, Gayday has become an important part of the burgeoning gay rights movement.
Published in both French and English, Gayday is targeted toward the LGBT community in North Africa and the Middle East and covers a diverse range of topicsfrom interviews with well-known gays in the Arab diaspora to book and movie reviews to news stories about issues affecting gays. A recent series of stories covered the massacres last spring of more than 50 youth in Iraq that were perceived to be LGBT or nonconforming (dyed hair, tight jeans, boys wearing eyeliner), a story that recieved little attention in the Western media.
For many young gay Tunisians, as with gay youth around the world, the Internet has played an important part of their education and journey towards self-acceptance. They belong to a generation of tech-savvy Tunisians who, because of the Internet, have more access to global culture than ever before. Despite years of Internet censorshipthe Ben Ali regime blocked video-sharing sites such as YouTube, periodically shut down social networking sites such as Facebook and blocked blogs and intimidated bloggers who dared to speak against the governmentyoung Tunisians, including gay Tunisians, were able to use the Internet to loosen the regime’s strict monopoly on information. These youth were able to break through Tunisia’s media blackout to spread word of the growing uprising against Ben Ali.
Today, with strict censorship rules from the Ben Ali regime abolished, Facebook pages like Gay Tunisia and Gay Love in Tunisia post and disseminate information and circulate petitions, and chat rooms have become the equivalent of a gay neighborhood bar. Activists hold regular meetings on the Internet, via Skype or other video conferencing tools, circulating petitions calling for the Human Rights Minister to retract his homophobic statements and to push for the ratification of the U.N. Human Rights commission recommendation to decriminalize same-sex activity.
“In spite of how far we have to go, we are starting to make our voices heard,” says Ben Issa. “This was not possible before. We want to reinforce the LGBT community spirit and build our associations with the more liberal and open-minded parts of civil society. Together we will be stronger against Islamists and against Salafists and any others that oppose our equal rights and liberties.”
For now, these small but significant openings toward a public dialogue are where most of the hope resides.
“Since a year and a half ago, I feel much more free,” says Bechir B. “I really feel it is in the air. People are worried about what is going to happen to us, but I see that this will take a long time and we have to go through hard times to build something strong. I admit that in the first few weeks after Ben Ali fled, I was really dreaming, but then I realized that, OK, things will come with time. Our democracy is still blooming.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Public self, private life.”