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LGBT rights in Tunisia: An urgent call for change Open in fullscreen

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh

LGBT rights in Tunisia: An urgent call for change

Members of Tunisia's 'Shams' association for the decriminalisation of homosexuality [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 June, 2016

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Comment: LGBT rights in Tunisia remain low on the agenda, and state perpetrated homophobic violence is common. The time has come to repeal the country’s Penal Code, writes Conor McCormick-Cavanagh

Tunisia's parliament recently passed two landmark bills, one criminalising racial discrimination, the other, requiring horizontal gender parity on electoral ballot lists in local elections.

These two bills represent a huge achievement for Tunisia's legislative body and should lead to increased diversity of Tunisian citizens in the public sphere and government. However, although the bill criminalising racial discrimination was written with reference to wider themes of discrimination, any specific mention of LGBT rights was noticeably absent.

This omission is particularly glaring, as Tunisia's LGBT community is now more susceptible than ever to state violence and homophobic vigilantism. While the chances of passing a bill specifically enshrining LGBT rights in the constitution are currently slim, one thing is for sure: Tunisia's government must decriminalise sodomy and repeal Article 230 of the penal code.

On December 28 2015, Mounir Baatour - the lawyer for Tunisia's LGBT advocacy group, Shams - submitted a bill to parliament calling for the repeal of Article 230. This article criminalises sodomy and men found guilty often receive prison sentences ranging from one to three years. The Tunisian parliament failed to act on this call for reform.

In addition to submitting this bill, Baatour also sent 217 personalised letters to MPs regarding the need to decriminalise sodomy, justifying this need on a legal basis. Not one of those he wrote to responded.

In order to prosecute men accused of sodomy, police order doctors to perform anal examinations to acquire evidence

MPs perhaps chose not to respond for pragmatic reasons, since the debate about LGBT rights is particularly controversial in present-day Tunisia. According to Ahmed Ben Amor, Vice President of Shams, "there are MPs who support LGBT rights, but won't do so openly for fear of sparking controversy". Most politicians in Tunisia would either say they don't support LGBT rights or would say there are bigger problems to handle.

When it comes to civil rights for minority communities, the initial instinct of many politicians is to trivialise the issue. Former Minister of Justice Mohammed Salah Ben Aissa was sacked from his position, mainly because he attempted to prioritise repealing Article 230.

In October of last year, Tunisia's president Beji Caid Essebsi flat out rejected the call to repeal Article 230. At present, he oversees a ruling coalition with a vast range of different viewpoints and taking a stand against Article 230 could threaten the fragile government.

Article 230 not only violates four articles in Tunisia's Constitution (21, 23, 24 and 49), but also four international conventions to which Tunisia is a signatory. In order to prosecute men accused of sodomy, police order doctors to perform anal examinations to acquire evidence. Such a test is classified as a form of torture under the Convention Against Torture, one of the aforementioned conventions to which Tunisia is a signatory.

When it comes to civil rights for minority communities, the initial instinct of many politicians is to trivialise the issue

Tunisia's revolution focused people's collective attention on the struggle to regain dignity or "karama" as it's known in Tunisian Arabic. Prior to Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation and the events that followed, the Ben Ali regime - and before it the Bourguiba regime - used torture to quash political dissent. The anal examination is simply another iteration of state-sanctioned violence and sexual torture.

In addition to violating peoples' rights through humiliating anal examinations, Mounir Baatour states that, "the homophobic climate in Tunisia has contributed to the murder of 15 LGBT individuals since the revolution". Suicide is also a huge problem within the LGBT community. Many are driven to desperation by homophobic and/or transphobic harassment perpetrated either by police or citizens, and have chosen to take their lives. The rate of suicide among the LGBT community is 13 times higher than it is for heterosexuals, says Baatour.

Homophobic violence, perpetrated by the Tunisian state, bolsters the idea that LGBT people are subhuman

Last month, an imam in Sfax called on the government to execute homosexuals. He has faced no immediate repercussions, although Baatour says that a local prosecutor has opened an investigation into his remarks. In addition, just last week, a presenter on Zitouna TV - Tunisia's main religious channel - also called for the death of homosexuals.

Such blatantly homophobic rhetoric is reinforced by the continued enforcement of Article 230. Homophobic violence, perpetrated by the Tunisian state, bolsters the idea that LGBT people are subhuman; deserving of punishment. This status quo is unacceptable. LGBT citizens in Tunisia deserve karama, just like everyone else, and Article 230 violates their right to this. As recently as last week, a man from Sfax had his freedom snatched away from him, as he was found guilty of violating Article 230 and sentenced to one year in prison, later reduced to four months on appeal.

LGBT activists aren't asking for marriage equality, but are calling for the law and society to respect their private lives. Tunisia has made progress in many areas of human rights and this is the next logical step in this process. The time has come to repeal Article 230.

Conor is a journalist based in Tunisia. His work has been published in the Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, and Al-Monitor. He also works in the Tunisian education field to promote cross-cultural understanding.

Follow him on Twitter: @ConorMichael28

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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