This policy brief addresses the problems faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community in Tunisia and identifies the forms of oppression, violence and exclusion it suffers. It proposes political, economic, and social policies that aim to protect LGBTQ+ rights and promote a culture that accepts the right to be different. This cultural shift would be an indicator of the democratic transition’s success.
Human rights activists apply concepts and analytical tools from the interdisciplinary academic field of Gender studies to address the lives of individuals, their appearances, and the modalities of their coexistence in the social, economic and political environment. These methodologies aim to identify the historical and political dynamics that influence society and highlight how the constructs of masculinity and femininity impose “what we should be” instead of “being what we are”.
In Tunisia, oppression manifests not only within institutions socially (the family, school, public space, etc.) but also in official policies and laws relating to the economy and life, thus creating a social hierarchy in which certain groups dominate at the expense of others.
In these relationships of power, the LGBTQ+ community is a weaker position. It is subject to the various forms of oppression, violence, and domination exercised by people who conform to hetero-patriarchal norms. This situation is compounded by official policymakers who continue to ignore the epistemic and cultural data favourable to the claims of this community.
This issue is not about solving a problem or resigning oneself to international community pressure but the urgent need to establish a democratic culture in society that accepts differences and promotes peaceful coexistence.
Violence rooted in all spheres of public life
To understand the importance of the problem of the rights of LGBTQ + people, we must ask ourselves whether this social group can be protected from violence based on their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their membership in this cause. To answer this, all spaces of life and social interaction which could constitute a threat for these people must be addressed. According to the analysis of discrimination cases report, which is based on data collected by the Points Anti-Discrimination project, discrimination and persecution occur in public spaces, family situations, police stations, the workplace, residential areas, places of entertainment (cafes, bars, nightclubs, hotels), schools, universities, hospitals, transport and social networks. Quantitative data shows that in the majority of cases, discrimination is based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
The family environment
According to the same study, the LGBTQ + community lives on the margins of society and is constantly exposed to all types of persecution, due to how Tunisians have been socialised. This is because the standard conception of the nuclear or extended family is determined by male domination – more particularly by the father figure – as well as by social customs and traditions. LGBTQ + people are therefore subjected to a “disciplinary educational authority” that is determined by the heteronormative vision that the family seeks to impose on them. This generates multiple forms of violence such as beatings, threats, expulsions, and school drop-outs. The family may also force individuals to follow harsh religious teachings or undergo attempts at conversion or correction.
Tunisian society, mostly, perpetuates the myth of a “respectable and well-ordered family”, which goes hand in hand with financial security. Furthermore, this is a model where members of society are forced to comply with standards such as the responsible son and the prudish and chaste daughter. Religion plays a huge role in determining these binary representations. Today, these “myths” have a direct and significant impact. They are widely conveyed on social media and in conservative forums. Also, certain rituals, such as circumcision at an advanced age, contribute to this form of conditioning of individuals.
The school environment
After the family, school is the most conducive place for the development of forms of exclusion and discrimination against LGBTQ + people because it further cements traditional gender roles. The Tunisian education system plays a very important role in the early stages of social development by refusing any possibility of difference. The various achievements of the 2011 revolution in terms of civil, individual and public rights and freedoms have in no way influenced Tunisian official education policy. By not educating students about the importance, and inevitability, of individual differences, a cornerstone of citizenship education, they are left uninformed, confused, and may express their frustration through violence. In addition, students are not educated about sexual health or made aware of the dangers of ridicule, harassment, and rape, or gender, sexual orientation, appearance, and race-based bullying. The lack of a civic and secular vision in the Tunisian school and its official curricula will continue to regenerate all forms of male domination and fuel discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Several students drop out of school or fail to achieve a good level of education due to the double violence they suffer.
Public and virtual spaces
Public and virtual spaces are the third environment where the rights of LGBTQ+ people are most explicitly and publicly violated. These discriminatory behaviours based on gender or sexual orientation are related to those observed in the environments previously discussed. Indeed, other environments (family environment, school and institutional environments) have favoured the normalization of violence against these groups. The dissemination of defamatory images is common in virtual spaces, a propagandist practice aimed at presenting differences as scandalous and indecent. Attacks against members of the LGBTQ+ community (such as the one against feminist and queer activist Rania Amdouni who has been targeted) manifest themselves in verbal assaults such as ” fa***t/dyke”, “yarham aami”, “effeminate”, “kraiek”. Despite the severity of these attacks, they go unpunished, especially on social media where hate speech and harassment continue to proliferate. Ultimately, these acts threaten these individuals’ physical safety in public and private spaces. This oppression underlies the domination exercised by the cisgender majority over those who identify differently.
This violence reveals the state’s negligence of this social group, as well as the lack of a policy capable of enshrining the principle of equality within society. This is evidenced by the maintenance of article 230 of the penal code which condemns sexual relations between males (and more generally between individuals of the same sex), by enforcing what is called the anal test, an unjustifiable examination, neither scientifically nor medically. Evidence on the matter reveals that those imprisoned in the name of this law now suffer from anxiety disorders and trauma. They still suffer the consequences of the humiliation and affronts experienced in police stations and in prisons where they have had to face defamation and attacks, in the most inhumane detention conditions. The protection of LGBTQ+ rights must be embodied in the integration of a gendered approach to public policies relating to family planning and the protection of children’s rights (as championed by several feminist groups). We must endeavour to guarantee the LGBTQ+ community its economic and social rights and offer it the necessary safeguards against verbal and physical attacks. Ultimately, the repression of LGBTQ+ people takes various forms (legal, social, educational, economic, etc.) and extends to all areas of life and places of interaction.
Official policies for the protection of LGBTQ+ rights
Faced with these problems, several possible approaches can benefit decision-makers and official political and economic institutions.
- Respect international treaties and agreements, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes the principles of respect for dignity, integrity, safety, liberty and life. Therefore, article 230 of the Penal Code should be abolished immediately. Also, other texts that are detrimental to physical and mental integrity and that harm the interests and rights of LGBTQ + people should be amended.
- Design an educational approach that respects and promotes universal human rights. Educate about sexuality to promote the importance of health protection and to support young people in the phase of self-discovery without violence or denigration. This requires an inclusive, gender-sensitive approach, designed by experts and specialists, that preserves individuals’ dignity, irrespective of class, color, or gender differences.
- Create an image of family that is focused on the protection of children from all forms of violence. Furthermore, all forms of violence against children should be criminalized. Guarantee that children have rights that preserve their physical and moral integrity and provide them with a life without abuse that is based on socialization that categorizes social roles according to discriminatory and harmful standards.
- Develop a media and digital charter to protect the freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community. This is necessary to acknowledge their existence and preserve their dignity. All media forms have the power to shape and guide public opinion therefore their outputs and content must conform with the democratic spirit. Emphasize the importance of freedom of expression. Fight against all forms of gender-based discrimination, in particular against stereotypes that aim to denigrate, intimidate and mock LGBTQ+ people and which lead to harassment and exclusion.
- LGBTQ+ associations must promote LGBTQ+ rights as an essential part of the Tunisian legal system. This community’s demands are neither special nor a luxury, but it is essential to establish equality between all individuals.
- Create specialized healthcare units to treat HIV-positive individuals, provide them with the necessary treatments to protect their dignity, their right to live, and support the fight against the social stigmatization of the disease.
- Create centers for LGBTQ+ people who are victims of serious domestic violence or have been evicted from their homes. These centres can offer refuge to anyone who has suffered abuse because of their gender or sexual orientation and provide psychological and material assistance.
- Promote LGBTQ+ rights through artistic creation by providing artists with the necessary assistance for cultural projects and audiovisual or written productions. This can allow LGBTQ+ artists to express their concerns and to represent discrimination, violence, and oppression in various artistic forms.
- State institutions must involve associations that defend LGBTQ+ rights to enable them to express their concerns within the framework of promoting freedom of expression and democratic participation in public, social, and political life.
- Guarantee the right to emigration or asylum to people arriving or passing through Tunisian territory. Work to defend, both nationally and internationally, the right to movement, particularly regarding the persecution and violence suffered by the Arab and African LGBTQ+ community. Protect and support immigrant women because Tunisia is a destination for many people from sub-Saharan Africa who are victims of violence based on skin color, language, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation.
LGBTQ+ people must enjoy the right to a decent life in a family and school environment that accepts difference. It is also necessary to guarantee them access to healthcare and legal protection, include them in cultural and economic life, and ensure their safety in virtual spaces and in media representations.
Ultimately, it is crucial to protect LGBTQ+ people’s rights to address various problems without criminalising activities, as is currently the case in all aspects of daily life. It is no longer possible to neglect or violate the rights of one section of society for the benefit of another, nor to consider the issue from a cultural or religious angle. These are statutory rights that state institutions and policymakers are supposed to guarantee and protect.
- The Tunisian government (particularly the Ministry of Justice) must remove article 230 from the penal code, integrate gender into its political, economic and social approach, and respect international treaties and conventions, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to promote equality and combat forms of violence and discrimination based on identity and gender.
- The Ministry of Family and Children, and other actors in this field, should raise awareness and work for the protection of children with gender identities and sexual orientations different from established social norms and protect them against violence, persecution and exclusion.
- The ministries of education, higher education and culture must collaboratively develop school programs that respect the right to be different, combat forms of discrimination and violence, include the issue of gender as an essential cognitive approach, and work to promote the works of LGBTQ+ artists by encouraging them to express and share their perceptions and concerns.
- A digital and media charter should be established to guarantee the right to be different, to inform the public about the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and to fight against stereotypes that represent the difference of gender and sexual orientation as a disease or a vice.
The term LGBTQ is used to refer to people who are Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T) and Queer (Q), (+) to include other variations of gender identity, sexual characteristics, or sexual orientation, such as asexuality, pansexuality, or two-spiritedness/non-binary. Heteropatriarchy (acronym of heterosexuality and patriarchy) is a socio-political system that privileges the classic male-female couple and in which the male gender, heterosexuality and patriarchy dominate other genders and sexual orientations, within all social and political structures.Jelassi, Mohamed Amine (2020) Analysis report of data on cases of discrimination collected by Anti-Discrimination points. Minority Rights Group International & Damj. Available at https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/rapport-PAD-discrimination -2019-FR.pdf Points Anti-Discrimination project : https://maison-migrations.tn/index.php/terre-d-asile-tunisie/projets/point-anti-discrimination-pad-pour-les-migrantsPreliminary observations by an independent expert on protection against sexual orientation and gender identity based violence and discrimination.: https://www.ohchr.org/AR/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27174&LangID=AInterview with queer activist Rania Amdouni by Jeune Afrique: https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1206551/societe/tunisie-rania-amdouni-jai-ete-condamnee-pour-des-raisons-100-politiques/ Simon Louvet (2016) In Tunisia, homophobia kills. Inkyfada. https://inkyfada.com/fr/2016/05/18/crimes-homophobie-tunisie-droits-lgbt-idahot2016/  Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code states that “sodomy, if it does not fit into any of the cases provided for in the previous articles, is punishable by imprisonment for three years” https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/61250/60936/F1198127290/TUN-61250.pdfRamy Khouili et Daniel Levine-Spound (2019) Article 230: a history of the criminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia. Simpact. https://article230.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Livre-Article-230-FR-WEB.pdf