Forbidden Love: a student’s struggle for LGBT rights in Tunisia

Tunisia is supposedly the success story of the Arab Spring, but LGBT people still face violent oppression. One Tunisian LGBT activist speaks about his personal and political struggles.

COMMENT“I had to leave my family for I couldn’t face the harassment, the threats any longer.” Ramy Ayari is a 22 year-old computer science student from Tunisia. In the middle of December, via a muffled telephone conversation in French, Ramy shared with me his experiences as a young gay man and LGBT rights activist in a country simmering with social and political tension, where only two weeks ago, six gay university students were imprisoned for three years and banished from their hometown on account of their sexual orientation.

Birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia remains, in the views of many political analysts, the country where the outcome of revolution has been most positive: a lone success story in a storm of terror and turmoil. Tunisia’s revolution began five years ago on 17th December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor street vendor, set himself on fire in protest against the humiliation and harassment he endured from a government officer in his hometown. Bouazizi’s self-immolation and subsequent death served as a catalyst for huge protests across the country, manifesting the frustration and anger of the Tunisian population towards the 23 year old brutal dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. 28 days after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Ben Ali was forced to abdicate and flee to Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali’s ousting was followed some months later by national elections, which were won by Ennahda, an Islamist party affiliated with the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement. The ascension of Ennahda to power worried many members of Tunisia’s LGBT community. Yet it is under the current rule of Nidaa Tounes, a more avowedly secular party, that LGBT people in Tunisia have been most severely persecuted. Many view the increasing state oppression of gay people as a means for Nidaa Tounes to appease the conservative Islamist fringes of Tunisian society. In a post-revolutionary tumult, Tunisia’s LGBT citizens are increasingly finding themselves as scapegoats in a battle for political control.

Emergence of LGBT rights groups
Yet the revolution has also brought welcome changes, most noticeably the empowerment of a well-educated and increasingly vocal civil society. “People are beginning to speak out”, Ramy tells me. The revolution allowed for many new human rights organisations to be established or to finally enter the public sphere. These groups include Without Restrictions, a society Ramy set up, and Shams, a partner organisation, both devoted to advancing LGBT rights in Tunisia. One of their principal aims is to bring about the depenalisation of homosexuality through repealing Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code, which decrees imprisonment of up to three years for “sodomy”. (Of note: the French and Arabic versions of the article differ slightly, the Arabic referring to “male homosexuality (liwat) and lesbianism/tribadism (musahaqa)” , the French referring simply to “sodomie”)

Both organisations found themselves brought suddenly to national and international attention in October, when a 22 year-old Tunisian student, Marwan, was sentenced to one year in prison for homosexuality. Ramy tells me that Marwan had been summoned to a police station to be questioned in relation to the death of a previous partner of his, after the police found Marwan’s details in the phone of the deceased. Upon arrival, he was arrested for homosexuality, beaten and then brought to a hospital where he was forced to undergo a humiliating anal test. These tests, sometimes termed “the test of shame”, involve a digital rectal exam and sometimes the insertion of objects into the rectum in an effort to prove homosexuality. While the results of such exams are wholly unscientific and bear no relation to past sexual behaviour, they are being increasingly performed in Tunisia. Such exams amount to torture, indeed rape, of the individuals arrested, and thus have been condemned by national and international human rights organisations, including Tunisian medical organisations.

Due to significant international pressure, Marwan’s sentence was reduced in late December to two months in prison and a 300 dinar (roughly €130) fine. While the judgement in Marwan’s case was a positive sign, increasing cases of arrest and imprisonment are muting the hopes of LGBT people in Tunisia to create a more tolerant society, treading on their dreams of a brighter future in their homeland. Only a few days before Marwan’s sentence was shortened, six gay Tunisian students were banished from their home town of Kairouan for five years and sentenced to prison for three years. Since speaking to Ramy, a young gay man was murdered by his brother on account of his sexuality. Shams also reports more than fifty known cases of young Tunisians who committed suicide in 2015 due to familial and societal rejection on account of their sexual orientation.

Furthermore, one of Ramy’s friends, Bouhdi Belhadi, was recently made the target of a death threat from ISIS militants after appearing on Tunisian national television. A recent sermon in a mosque in Hammamet, his hometown, also called for his death. Furthermore, the chairperson of Shams, Hedi Sahly, was forced to leave Tunisia in early December after his family pleaded with him to escape, following ever more frequent and serious threats to his life.

Being openly gay in Tunisian society

After discussing these current cases of persecution against LGBT people in Tunisia, I asked Ramy how he felt himself as a young and openly gay student living in this society: “Life isn’t easy although at least now I fully accept myself. I realised I was gay as teenager but for years I couldn’t accept who I was. I was terrified for I had grown up hearing in school, in wider society, that gay people were wicked, that they would burn in hell. But slowly I began to realise that what I heard wasn’t true and I began to accept myself. The internet helped me a lot in this respect.”

At age 19, Ramy came out to his friends, most of whom supported him. He didn’t formally come out to his family at the time but noted that his Mum knew of his sexuality, but chose not to discuss it. At this point in our conversation, Ramy spoke to me about the “schizophrenia of Tunisian society,” referring to the strict borders delineating private life from public spheres, of the importance of the unsaid: “In Tunisia, as long as something remains unarticulated, it is tolerated. A guy might sleep with a girl in the evening and denounce sex before marriage the following morning. And so LGBT activists here, by openly assuming our identities and fighting for better rights, are the first to challenge these hypocrisies in Tunisia. In this way, we are helping all Tunisian citizens, regardless of their sexuality.”

Ramy’s relationship with his family grew troubled in the autumn, after they came across a picture of him kissing another man, and after the LGBT organisations in which he was active started to receive national media attention. Ramy’s mother forced him to visit a psychiatrist, who explained to her that Ramy’s sexual orientation was not an illness and that he did not require treatment of any kind. Unfortunately, as Ramy explained, not all young Tunisian LGBT people are as fortunate. Despite overwhelming consensus statements on sexual orientation from the World Health Organisation, many Tunisian psychiatrists, particularly in rural regions, still treat LGBT teenagers as being mentally ill. Sadly, Ramy’s mother didn’t accept the psychiatrist’s verdict. Due to his activist work and on account of publicly assuming his identity, Ramy found himself increasingly harassed and threatened by his family members, forcing him eventually to leave his home.

Perspectives and solidarity

Despite being rejected by his family and despite the homophobic slurs Ramy encounters on a daily basis, Ramy remains hopeful for the future. He notes the significant level of support for LGBT people amongst Tunisia’s youth, who having found their voice in this post-revolutionary society are tearing down barriers and challenging social and religious norms. Many of the most famous and influential of Tunisia’s artists, musicians, writers and other public figures, have come out in support of the actions of Ramy and his fellow activists. Support has even come from more unlikely quarters, including Mohamed Talbi, Professor Emeritus of Islamic history in the University of Tunis and one of the most respected Islamic scholars in the country, who recently stated during an interview on Tunisian television, that homosexuality is permitted according to the Qur’an.

Before finishing our conversation, we discussed the history of LGBT rights in Ireland and I asked Ramy if there was anything he felt that Irish people could do to help LGBT people in Tunisia: “Solidarity! We’d really appreciate to have the support of others around the world, particularly from LGBT organisations in other countries such as Ireland. It would help so much to know that our story is being told abroad, to know that others care and that we aren’t alone. Thank you so much to everyone who takes an interest in our story.”

Ramy’s voice was filled with warmth and a courageous enthusiasm as he spoke to me about his commitment to creating a more equal Tunisia. Humble and filled with compassion for the suffering of other LGBT people in Tunisia, his struggle for equality has doubtlessly given hope to many. But Ramy’s courage has meant not only losing the support of his family but also facing significant threats to his safety. I ended the interview by asking him if given such threats, he intended to leave Tunisia and seek refuge in Europe. Pausing for a moment, Ramy replied, his voice filled with a quiet determination:
“If the risks become too great, if my life is in imminent danger, of course, I will have to leave and continue my activism in another form. But for the moment, I wish to stay. I want to stay in Tunisia, stay and fight for the rights of LGBT people in my country. ”