LGBTQI Movement Building in Middle East and North Africa
FRIDAY FILE - On August 1, 2014, the constitutional court of Uganda overturned the discriminatory anti-gay law passed through parliament on December 20, 2013. However, the decision was based on procedural technicalities rather than on the substance of the law, which goes against freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity.
By Mégane Ghorbani
Many African countries criminalize homosexuality through discriminatory laws and social norms. AWID spoke with A.K, a LGBTQI activist (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex persons) and member of Chouf association, to learn more about LGBTQI movement building in Tunisia and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region more broadly.
AWID: What is the legal status of your association?
A.K: For now Chouf association is registered in France as a Lesbian Bi and Trans (LBT) association operating in Tunisia and in the Tunisian diaspora in France. Chouf is in the process of registering in Tunisia, but has chosen to take it slow, seeking legal counsel, because of the sensitive nature of the issues we deal with and given our goals in this patriarchal and misogynist society.
AWID: What are your main goals and what is your approach?
A.K: Chouf is a LBT organization fighting discrimination against women who have sex with women (WSW) in Tunisia. The association is horizontal in structure and rejects any type of hierarchy between members.
In the context of its work, Chouf defines itself as a collective of multimedia activists. Multimedia tools make the most sense to us for the work that we do, and are best suited to the immediate, effective impact we wish to have on our environment, as well as to the stereotypes and assaults that we face on a daily basis.
We have multiple goals, with the single aim of allowing WSW to carve out a space to speak out and build resistance. Such a space is hard to come by because of the double oppression they have to contend with – firstly for being women, and also because their sexual orientation differs from prescribed the norms.
AWID: What are your biggest challenges, and how do you tackle them?
A.K: One of our main challenges is to ensure the physical and virtual safety of our activists and members. We try to ensure safety in protecting our members’ anonymity and in offering online-safety training workshops, for example. Internet is indeed a vital tool for what we do, since the majority of our work is online. We have created a secret Facebook group that allows our members not only to communicate, but to divide tasks without compromising their anonymity.
We are facing the problem of financing. We try to the best of our abilities to unlock funds for our activities by turning to political foundations, non-governmental organizations and embassies aligned with our principles and values. This type of support – which is not only financial in nature – allows us to protect ourselves because we are acting under the umbrella of these actors. The funding is as much for our projects as for our organization. These funders do not impose their way of working on us, and this gives us flexibility, for example, of convening in an exclusively female space, where it is easier for members to voice their thoughts. This is very important to us.
AWID: Are there similarities or differences between the mobilization context and challenges faced in Tunisia, and those in Egypt and Lebanon?
The similarities are many. We share a common, unfinished struggle for women's rights, against gender-based violence and for gender equality, but we have a long way to go still. Moreover, in these three countries LGBTQI issues and people are criminalized by laws which forbid homosexual relations. We therefore share a desire to decriminalize homosexuality at the legislative level. Additionally, we are observing a lack of sanitary facilities for intersexed people, because toilets are always segregated according to female and male. The fight against social discrimination of LGBTQI people is also something we share.
That said, the situation differs between countries in the region, which have unique characteristics and culture. Tunisia has historically been in a favourable position, with the enactment of the Code of Personal Status and the female figure of Dido in the foundation of Carthage city, for example. The country thus enjoys much more openness and tolerance compared to Lebanon and Egypt. Furthermore, in Egypt and Lebanon, religion is more predominant due to the coexistence of multiple faiths, which is also problematic for women's rights. There is a greater challenge in Egypt in terms of collective and arbitrary arrests of LGBTQI activists, which get media coverage and serve to intimidate human rights defenders. If this happens in Tunisia, it remains a private affair and does not get media coverage.
AWID: Has the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the region caused these challenges to change? Conversely, are there alternative forms of religious activism for LGBTQI?
The Islamic rise in the region is the underlying factor for the greater risks faced by LGBTQI people, but the main consequence is that we must, above all, focus on protecting women and girls from the atrocities currently being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq, in the Levant and by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In Lebanon, the fear for women’s rights is all the greater because of geographical proximity to Syria. We are less worried in Tunisia, but we remain watchful of women's rights in general. In the Tunisian context, Chouf focuses more on the economic and social conditions of rural women, rather than the Islamic rise. To address women's sexuality, we believe we must also target sexual and reproductive rights in general, which are often eroded in rural areas.
Regarding alternative forms of religious activism for LGBTQI issues, we have not seen such movements in Tunisia, but it does exist in other countries. A Sudanese female friend, for example, was married to a woman by an imam. We are in fact seeing an increasing number of imams come out. Chouf is not planning to participate in the fight for a queer Islam, but we are very much in favour of this movement which seeks to open up a space for research and debate on LGBTQI issues in the Muslim world.
AWID: To what extent can we say that lesbians, bi and trans women are facing double discrimination? What do these divisions mean for feminist movement building?
A.K: LBT women face double discrimination first because they are female in a patriarchal society. If we look at political participation, for example, it is truly a struggle for women to appear on an electoral list for their skills and not as tokens. Women suffer political and social oppression. Additionally, because of their sexual orientation that differs from the "norm," they are discriminated against by other women and by groups who identify as feminists. Some "feminists" call LBT women "perverse", casting value judgments on their sexuality. It is therefore important to review and update our definition of feminism.
AWID: How is a regional network in the MENA region helpful to your work?
A.K: The main benefit of a MENA network is that together we question gender and roles, and the reproduction of patriarchy, as well as the need for our own definition for feminism, in order to avoid importing concepts that don't fit with our particular context. The goal is also to build capacity in establishing a reflection group where we share information, reading material and writings. This sharing and bonding within the network is enabled by a common social, linguistic and cultural framework within the region.
An international network also allows for a much stronger mobilization and solidarity overall, which encourages activists in their work, because they feel supported. In terms of resources and transfer of skills, for example, an Egyptian association collecting testimonials shares them with us, which increases our expertise and a Lebanese association has been acting as a compass to us, helping us identify relevant actors in their territory.
We are also working on building a LBT Maghreb network, with members from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and Mauritania. This network will allow us to consider the greater geographic, historical and political proximity among these countries, compared to Maghreb and Middle Eastern countries.
 Who will remain anonymous due to the many threats some LGBTQI activists are facing.
 Enacted on August 13, 1956, the Code of Personal Status forbids polygamy, creates a legal procedure for divorce and requires the mutual consent of both spouses for marriage, among others.