Nawel was in Tunis’s city centre when it happened. “This guy came up to me from nowhere. He was dressed really religiously and, without any warning, he just slapped me across the face – and the weird thing was that it wasn’t just the slap. It was that no one did anything. They all just carried on. It was if I deserved it.”
Nawel shakes her head, still stung by the casual indifference of the crowd. There isn’t anything unusual about her that might mark her out for attack. With her short hair, jeans and T-shirt she is indistinguishable from many other young women.
But perceptions of gender are strictly defined in Tunisia, right down to the way people are expected to dress and act, and her appearance encompasses certain qualities traditionally considered masculine. In a male-dominated society, the manner in which women dress and define themselves is a sensitive issue; that Nawel is gay adds to the apparent readiness of people to see her as challenging.
“Nearly every time we leave the house we get abuse,” says Nawel’s girlfriend, Ahlem. “Sometimes we forget where we are and hold hands, and then we get it from everywhere … There’s one guy in particular who’s always at the cafe near us; every time we pass, he’s always shouting, ‘Here come the lovers’, and he’s not doing it in a nice way. Another time, we had a stalker, who was constantly checking on us, following us, trying to find out what we were doing. He was really offended by us.”
Tunisia’s attitude to its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community goes beyond the social. Article 230 of Tunisia’s constitution forbids acts of sodomy, with those found guilty facing jail sentences of up to three years. Article 226 rules against outrages to public decency, a catch-all law often used to target the country’s trans community. Both laws date from 1914 and remain untouched by the 2011 revolution and the subsequent rush to reform.
Much of the focus for Tunisia’s LGBT pushback has focused on the pressure group Shams, which campaigns for the repeal of Article 230. But an organisation formed in June last year is providing a feminist alternative. Chouf, whose members see themselves primarily as visual activists, offers a desperately needed safe haven for Tunisia’s most isolated and vulnerable groups, its lesbian, bisexual and trans communities.
“We founded Chouf [because of] an urgent need to create a safe space, free from lesbophobia and transphobia, where women’s voices find their place and their value,” said one of the organisation’s principal founders, who wished only to be identified as Salander. “Our goal is to work on the double oppression regarding women in our patriarchal and misogynist society and also to focus on bodily and sexual rights.
“Besides, at the beginning we were three people – a lesbian, a bisexual and a transsexual – who felt the need to find themselves in a space that believes in a redefinition of feminism and that gives voice to all Tunisian LGBT women. We also value our ‘Tunisianity’ and our north African, African and Arab origins.”
Chouf has run self-defence workshops, which it considers a priority and a “response to daily assaults on women and on LGBT people”. It also educates members on their rights and on how to organise. The organisation operates workshops on cyber security and is developing a smartphone app to track street harassment and help users identify problem areas.
Some progress, albeit slow, is being made to counter stigma. On May 17, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Tunisia’s LGBT community was able to host an officially sanctioned if low-key Pride event at a hotel in the capital, Tunis. Chouf was present, organising the International Feminist Art festival, Chouftouhonna, to mark the event. The organisation is now working on next year’s Chouftouhonna.
Despite these modest gains, deep-seated prejudice remains. Many of the women in Tunisia’s LGBT community see themselves as excluded from a society that stigmatises their sexuality and gender. “It’s really sad. It’s as much about sexism as it is about being called gay,” said Nawel.
“Masculinity is the dominant trait in this society,” Nawel added. “You want to know why I feel comfortable wearing guy’s clothes? It’s because I get to play the role of being a guy. There have been times when I was mistaken for a guy and I could have corrected them, but I didn’t, because I got to see how guys talk to each other. How you get treated as a guy. You get respected. I got to feel powerful.” – By Simon Speakman Cordall
Some names have been changed.
Image – Screengrab of chouf-minorities.org