“The state forces gay and bisexual men to undergo anal exams, which amounts to torture according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.”
How does one campaign for LGBT+ rights in a country where homophobia is practised on state and community levels? The IPF had the opportunity to speak to one of the co-founders of L’initiative Mawjoudin pour l’égalité, (Mawjoudin), a NGO in Tunisia who is doing just that.
Mawjoudin, the Arabic word for “We Exist”, was founded in 2014 by a group of young activists who had been working with other groups to advocate for the rights of Tunisia’s LGBT+ community and to fight against the restrictions imposed on them.
Strengthening solidarity amongst Tunisia’s LGBT+ community
Co-founder, Abir, started Mawjoudin with her best friends, knowing their own needs as young LGBT+ Tunisians. The 25-year-old said:
“Our core program is to create a community and resource spaces that works critically and actively to strengthen and build solidarity amongst Tunisia’s LGBT+ community.”
Tunisia’s Article 230 explicitly criminalises same-sex relations, with sentences of up to three years imprisonment, followed with a five-year ban from their cities after being released.
“The state forces gay and bisexual men to undergo anal exams, which amounts to torture according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture,” explained Abir.
On the other hand, non-heterosexual women face more pressure and violations from their families to conform to marriage and live a heterosexual life. Transgender and gender non-conforming people are persecuted by “good behaviour and respect of culture” laws, and are usually excluded from the working places and forced in to poverty.
Cautions about security
In order for Mawjoudin to work under these conditions, they have had to be cautious about security. Abir said:
“We keep a low profile by avoiding media exposure, we keep our activists anonymous, and are careful about where we meet and so on. We are extremely cautious and it has become part of our work ethics.”
The role of social media
Mawjoudin has been lobbying against anti-LGBT+ laws through social media and university debates, as well as working in collaboration with partners to raise awareness about sexual orientation, gender identity and bodily rights.
Abir said that social media has been a key awareness tool. One of their campaigns against Article 230 inspired well-known artists to stand up against the Penal Code. Even though the campaign did not result in any legal change, it got people talking.
“The campaign didn’t change the law, but it mobilised many Tunisian journalists to write objectively about the law. It showed that there is an opposition to the said Article among the Tunisian society, and it gave the voice to allies across civil society.”
Thanks to social media, Mawjoudin has been able to challenge hate speech and threats against Tunisia’s LGBT+ community. People in need of support have also been able to contact them easily for various reasons, such as medical, psychological, legal and financial aid.
The people behind Mawjoudin consists of a diverse group of activists, from students, engineers, waiters, professors, artists and psychologists, from all walks of life working actively and continually for the rights of the Tunisia’s LGBT+ people. Knowing that they are not alone in this, Abir has one message for young LGBT+ people in countries facing similar restrictions as in Tunisia:
“It is a long path, and we have to look after each other while walking through it.”