Controversy in Tunisia over new gay association

Friday 12/06/2015
Shams logo. A Sufi “inspiration” - Photo: Shams Facebook page

TUNIS - While homosexuality remains by a large ex­tent taboo in Tunisia, a new Tunisian asso­ciation was recently established to defend homosexual behaviour.
The association, named Shams (“Sun”), has set for itself as a main goal “the de-criminalisation of ho­mosexuality in Tunisia”.
“The name of the association is inspired by Shams Tabrizi, the lover and mentor of Rumi, the spiritual leader of the Sufi. The purpose is to send a message of peace and love,” says Shams Vice-President Ahmed Ben Amor.
The association is considered le­gally authorised since the deadline for objections by authorities elapsed in May. The government said it will monitor the group’s activities and reserves the right to withdraw the permit if Shams swerves from its de­clared objectives.
While many in the homosexual community rejoiced at Shams’ crea­tion, the announcement caused a stir in the country. Some praised the unprecedented creation of such an association but many more opposed it, highlighting the conservatism of Tunisian society.
The association defines itself as a non-profit organisation that aims to defend the rights of “sexual mi­norities” in Tunisia as well as raising awareness about sexually transmit­ted diseases and providing emo­tional and social support for fragile youth.
“The organisation was created in the spirit of defending sexual minor­ities. It started as a Facebook initia­tive to face the terrorism of society, the social homophobia,” Ben Amor said.
One of the priorities of the asso­ciation is to abolish the law that pe­nalises homosexual acts. Article 230 of the Tunisian criminal law punish­es any homosexual act with a prison sentence of up to three years.
Critics of the new association pointed out the contradiction be­tween the creation of such a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and the provisions of the criminal code. A Tunisian NGO, the Associa­tion of Young Tunisians Progression, filed a lawsuit calling for the imme­diate suspension of the activities of the association because of that.
“The goals of the association con­stitute a violation of the Tunisian criminal law since it calls for the abolition of Article 230,” said Mo­hamed Amine Kouki, president of the association.
Shams says it aims to create sup­port groups for young people who struggle with sexual orientation. It will also work on raising awareness about sexually transmitted diseases. Ben Amor pointed out: “Some Tuni­sian homosexuals commit suicide because they cannot stand being gay in this society. They cannot face the abuse of their families. We try to help these people through our or­ganisation.”
Religious figures opposed the cre­ation of Shams saying it is antitheti­cal to the principles of Islam. The Mufti of Tunisia Hamda Saied issued a statement in which he described homosexuality a form of deviance. He called on the government to re­tract the permit accorded to Shams.
Ghofran Houseini, a spokesman for the mufti’s office called the de­fence of homosexuality “an anom­aly that could destroy the basics of human life in a time when we need moderation in behaviour and faith to face the threats that agonise us including terrorism.”
Opponents and defenders of the homosexual association cite the new Tunisian constitution to but­tress their argument. The constitu­tion adopted in 2014 guarantees individual freedoms and rights but also stipulates that Islam is the reli­gion of the country.
Amid the controversy, the office of the Head of Government explained that the association is recognised to be in conformity with the law on NGOs. Shams, it said, was author­ised because its goals did not con­tradict the principles of the law on organisations. It also said authori­ties reserve the right to object to any activities that violate the declared principles and goals of the organisa­tion.
Tunisian film director Walid Tayaa whose recent film Boulitik (“Politics”), tackles the subject of homosexuality, expressed support for Shams and its intention to work for decriminalising homosexual be­haviour.
“It is not acceptable that today in 2015 we are still subjected to a law that violates personal freedom,” Tayaa asked. Chamseddine Bacha, a popular singer and dancer, opposed the creation of the association. “This is not the time for such an associa­tion. Maybe a hundred years from now,” he said. Some in the Tunisian homosexual community are also re­served about the creation of Shams, even if they support its principles.

“The idea is interesting but I think such initiative can make us a target for conservatives, which is not the point,” said a young homosexual who preferred to remain anony­mous. Despite speculation that the association may see its activities suspended, the organisation says it is already conducting various activi­ties publicly. Ben Amor, however, expressed concern over threats the organisation has received.
“We have received a number of threats. Some have even called for the killing of homosexuals,” the Shams vice-president said.
Shams will likely continue to be the subject of heated debate as Tu­nisian society struggles between ac­cepting homosexual behaviour as a personal freedom or considering it to be in stark contradiction with the law and the spirit of Islam.