Queer Resistance in Tunisia

Article 230 - Over a Century of Queer Criminalisation

On June 26th 2024, in Tunis, a powerful protest was organised by the Tunisian queer community, to fight for their rights and against criminalisation. The protest started in front of the forensic medical office and ended in front of the tribunal.

In Tunisia, homosexuality is punishable by 3 years' imprisonment under article 230 of the penal code. A code that was set by colonial France in 1913. As for the current year, there are 52 individuals imprisoned based on this article.

In this episode we listen to slogans and speeches recorded during the protest, and we are in conversation with Fifi, member of Damj ( l'Association Tunisienne pour la Justice et L'égalité), who explains their ongoing struggles for freedom.

Slogans translation:

Slogan 1:
Downfall the shameful law, downfall the colonial law
Slogan 2:
No no torture, no no torture
Slogan 3:
This law is worth nothing, the judge who issued this ruling wears the police uniform
Slogan 4:
Retrograde state, police state
Slogan 5:
Retrograde state, racist state, torturing you, oppressing me.
Slogan 6:
Freedom, freedom
Slogan 7:
Downfall the shameful law, downfall the colonial law.


SLOGAN "Downfall the shameful law, downfall the colonial law."

Fifi: So this is an extraction from a protest that took place on the 26th of June in Tunis by Damj and the International Organization Against Torture in solidarity with victims of torture and members of the LGBTQI+ community. So the slogan states: "downfall the shameful test, downfall the colonial law" in reference to the anal testings that are still taking place, by the Tunisian institutions, in relation to the restriction and violation of people's sexuality and gender identities. And it's strictly related to a colonial law, the Article 230, an article that exists in the Tunisian penal code and that was set by the colonial French system in 1913. The article criminalizes what is referred to in French as sodomy, and it was translated into the Tunisian Arabic legal system under the French occupation into liwat and musahaqah. 

Even in Arabic and inside the Tunisian legal system itself, there isn't a clear definition of what is liwat or what is musahaqah. The term is highly religious and it refers to a religious connotation in reference to a religious event, the historic events that took place before. However, the contextualizing of liwat in Tunisia does not have clear standards on what is liwat and what is musahaqah, given the contemporary practices of the government of Article 230 of persecuting people, sometimes just because they are wearing a new ring or just because they have colorful hair. And some people that are perceived as outside the norm in terms of their physical appearance.

Deanna: So yesterday there was a demonstration. The slogans we will hear today were recorded during this demonstration. Can you tell us a bit more about this demonstration, why it took place yesterday and what are the key demands?

Fifi: Yes. So, the protest coincides with the 26th of June which is the International Day Against Torture.

SLOGAN "No no torture, no no torture."

Fifi: Torture has been a main problem in addressing the issue of the existence of LGBTQI+ individuals in Tunisia, due to the legal aspect of proving when someone is being accused of homosexuality, which goes through the process of anal testing. Anal testing is being conducted in a way that does not respect human dignity and are forced on the people that are subjected to this form of violation, while they are conducted by forensic medicine staff with the complicity of police officers who actually stay inside the room and somehow contribute in aggressing and doubling the violence and the torture that people are experiencing inside these closed rooms.

SLOGAN "This law is worth nothing, the judge who issued this ruling wears the police uniform."

Fifi: This was the slogan that the protesters chanted for hours. In the judicial Tunisian system, the police state was never dissolved. The police state existed in the pre-revolution context and was the main element in contributing to the eruption of the revolution, when the people went out and called for the dissolution of the system of the police. The police system continues to manifest itself in today's post -revolutionary contexts. In contemporary Tunisia, judges are afraid to release statements against police officers just because they are police officers and these police officers have a very powerful syndicate system in which they perform activities in order to ensure that no legal ruling is being issued against them. The same police officers contribute to the arrests of LGBTQ+ individuals. They choose who to arrest and who not to arrest.

They also contribute to issuing and forcing people to do anal testing by being directly involved in the medical room, a room that supposedly and under international legal norms should only be occupied by the victim and the doctor and the medical staff. In Tunisia, it is very different, the police officer is somehow performing the duty of the medical staff, but not from a medical approach, but from an oppressive approach, where they are involved in dehumanizing and oppressing peoples that are being persecuted and forced to perform anal testing.

Yes, so for the problem of the forensic medicine system in Tunisia is that it's not only violating sexual minorities and people from non-confirming gender identities, it's also a system of systematic oppression and torture and supervision of people's bodies, even if they conform with the social norms. This institution continues to perform other oppressive tests, such as virginity testings that are being performed against women and young girls to check whether they're still virgin or not. These tests are being carried by medical acknowledged doctors inside structured institutions that are supposedly performing services for citizens in Tunisia. However, they now serve as a patriarchal element and as a patriarchal object to perform the goals of the classical husband who wants to check the virginity or the traditional Tunisian father who wants to check if his girl is virgin or not. This system is also oppressing people from disadvantaged neighborhoods, people who have problems with drugs by forcing them and performing medical and forensic testing that does not meet human dignity and people's ownership of their body in order to establish that they are people taking drugs. And these people are subject to multiple forms of discrimination and forced confessions.

SLOGAN "Retrograde state, police state."

The close relationship between the police system and the Tunisian legal system is very fragmented and it is clearly evident in every aspect when it comes to addressing social issues. For example, people that are being persecuted based on their sexual orientation and gender identity are people that are being referred to the legal system by police officers who gave themselves the ability and the capacity to judge whether that person is gay or not, just by looking at their physical appearance or by attacking them in the public street and through social interactions. Police officers usually refer people to police stations as gay. These attacks are well known as systematic because police officers also rely on networking applications in which they set up fake profiles in order to pursue members of the LGBTQI+ community and somehow harass them at the first level. And then on a second level, or in other occasions, there were people that were being arrested just for being on a gay dating app, they were getting themselves ready to go on a date and then they were surprised that the date was with a police officer and the date had to be spent in the police station and after that in prison.

Speech in Arabic

Deanna: Today there was a press conference in Tunis, where it was claimed that 52 people are imprisoned based on Article 230, can you tell us more about this? And also, they said that one of the imprisoned people is a woman who was accused of having pornographic materials on her computer.

Fifi: So the number was released by Damj, the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality. They proclaimed that as of today there are 52 individuals that are being persecuted based on the Article 230, which is the article that criminalizes sodomy but they also stated that they cannot issue a final number in terms of how many members of the community are now in prison, due to the fact that trans women and queer women are being persecuted based on other articles and legal cases. Article 226, for example, punishes any form of non-compliance with the binary norms in society. So trans women, queer women are being persecuted based on these articles.

And the problem that trans women also face is that they are being persecuted in some cases as sex workers. On that occasion, the state acknowledges them as women, but they only acknowledge them as women for 15 minutes when issuing the case. And after that, they are being punished as males. They are put in male prisons, they are being forced to shave their heads and they undergo multiple forms of harassment by fellow prisoners, by members of the safeguarding and prison staff. So it's very critical in terms of numbers because the organization cannot reach everyone and the statistical matter is also being undermined by the state. The organization had requested multiple times from the Tunisian government to have an indicative number on how many anal tests were performed in the country. The government continues to refuse to give any indication about the numbers and they just state that they stopped doing the anal testing. But reality reveals otherwise, as we speak, there are two people who have been sentenced to two years based on their sexuality. One of them was the first to undergo an anal testing by forensic medicine staff and police officers.

Speech in Arabic: "The Tunisian state is no longer capable of oppressing queers, feminists and activists from all across the social movements. It's a process in which people lost a lot of blood in order to achieve a revolution. And these movements in solidarity, and of intersectionality, they will never give up and they will never accept that they go to the squares in the pre-revolutionary context where discussions around freedom and liberties are being restricted by the political police who uses ethical elements to defame and marginalize people from minoritized communities."

Speech in French: "To threaten the members of the LGBT community and especially the LGBT activists by discrediting them, attacking them and calling them the worst names, by saying that they are traitors and that they are sold out. But we are not traitors, we are not sold out and we are here to defend our rights. And Tunisia is fighting. This is a slogan that we have been wearing for years now. Tunisia is my country, I am here, I stay here."

The current political context in Tunisia now is being under the process of restricting civic space and attacking civil society organizations by proclaiming that they are foreign agencies and they are receiving foreign funds and whatsoever. And the issue of LGBTQI+ identities had always been portrayed as a westernized element in Tunisia, despite the fact that France was the colonizing country and was the one responsible for criminalizing these identities. The Tunisian current system is now appropriating these forms of hate speech and incitements on killings and whatsoever against minorities including LGBTQI+ individuals, migrants and the Black community in Tunisia, by proclaiming that the organizations and civil communities that were created in the post-revolutionary context are being westernized. The participants in the protest clearly reject this idea and they proclaim that these kind of conversations and discussions had already taken place before the revolution. People had resisted and had fought for their right to have representativity through organizations, through political bodies and so on, and they will never give up on the right that they won after the revolution.

Speech in French: "Celebrate this freedom, freedom of expression and all that. Freedom of expression that is unfortunately threatened in Tunisia, with Article 54, in fact, which threatens and limits a lot, in a way. These are very strict rules, in fact, which may minimize the margin of maneuvering for activists and all Tunisian citizens. So, it's important that people mobilize, especially the youth and the most young, to remind us that the revolutionary process has never stopped."

Fifi: It is definitely a brave action from the LGBTQI+ community to go out and protest during the current circumstances that Tunisia is living at the moment. I share the same concerns as Mr.

Badr Babu, the honorary president of Damj, the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality. As the law 54 is now being deployed against journalists, political opponents, civil society activists. The LGBTQI+ community today did not stand silent against this law and did not accept to obey and be silenced by this form of law. And they continue to go out and protest this form of oppression and restrictions of civic space and freedom of expression, a freedom of expression that martyrs had fallen for and blood had been [spilt] all around the country in order to realize it and bring it back to the people. The revolutionary process has not ended, and the youth and the young people will continue to play an important role in realizing this freedom of expression.

Deanna: You were saying earlier that the investigation techniques that are used against the LGBTQ community are also affecting activists and journalists and people who are indeed talking about fighting for freedom of expression. How is this happening?

Fifi: Yeah, so it's mainly by launching an ethical war against people that are considered members of the LGBTQI+ community, or whether just as allies or even as lawyers that are delivering the services for members of the community, by portraying them as servants for the Western powers, as people who are no longer in the case for the family unity system and they are contributing to the eruption of the social values and ethical sets in the Tunisian society. This ethical dynamics are being used to portray people in very bad settings by defaming their social presence and attacking their direct jobs and services that they deliver for people, whether services of protection or services of legal persecution or services of legal protection or even services of social and economic empowerment to these people.

SLOGAN "Retrograde state, racist state, torturing you, oppressing me."

Fifi: A racist state is a state in which a president goes out in public and calls for the mass deportation of sub-Saharan migrants because he believes that this population is here to change the demographic dimensions of the country, while forgetting that among these people are asylum seekers and refugees who are being persecuted due to wars, conflicts, and even their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Tunisian government continues to [turn] a blind eye in terms of refugee protection systems by knowing that the UNHCR is granting refugee status and asylum seekers an international protection due to the fact that they face persecution based on gender identities and sexual orientation, while the state itself continues to criminalize non-confirming gender identities and non-heterosexual orientations, putting asylum seekers and refugees at a double stigma. First, by stigmatizing them due to their documentation and regular status, knowing that the fact that the government does not acknowledge these asylum seekers' card and refugee cards. And a double and even aggravated stigmatization based on their skin color and sexual orientation, two important elements that are now being refused and persecuted within the Tunisian society.

Hope, for those who are trying to regain their legal rights after they experienced torture by the Tunisian state, is now also being hindered by the slow legal system in realising social justice. People who submitted complaints against police officers that were accused of torture and misbehaviour, these cases never saw the light and the judges had never issued a ruling for people that were victims of torture up until nowadays. Meanwhile, the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, DAMJ, is trying to issue legal proceedings against the judges and the forensic medical staff that are currently conducting anal testing, by issuing legal complaints and administrative complaints against the people who are performing these kind of tests.

SLOGAN "Freedom, Freedom"

Fifi: Freedom. Freedom is something that we have always dreamed of. It's the main motivation behind the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and it is a value that we still hold on to and continue to believe in. It's something that is the main principle in our social fight and social crisis when we stand against the oppressors and call for freedom. For freedom we stay in Tunisia, for freedom we fight in Tunisia and for freedom we remain queer in Tunisia.