Tunis is one of the most vibrant capitals in Africa, criss-crossed by the same fault lines that run through Tunisian society. This region is seen as a bastion of human rights in the Maghreb, where women have had the right to abortion and divorce for over 50 years. At the same time, in recent years, the number of Tunisians who have left to join ISIS is very large, considered in proportion to the country’s small population.
In 2018, the first woman, Souad Abderrahim, who does not wear the veil (although she is a member of the militant Islamist Ennahda party), was elected mayor of Tunis. New alternative clubs are springing up all over the city, managed by young people and offering safe spaces where even women and LGBTQI people can drink alcohol and listen to live music. However, the prices are just as “Western” as the interior design, unaffordable for the lower socioeconomic classes, who frequent the traditional bars, which are men only.
I am going to interview Nadhem, a Tunisian nurse and gay rights activist. Our meeting point is just outside the Le Rio theater, on the occasion of the opening late last month of the second edition of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, the first of its kind in North Africa.
The entrance of the theater is crowded, with maybe 100 people trying to go in and out at once. Two bodyguards at the gate are checking whether people have the festival bracelet on their wrists. We are in the very center of Tunis. Around the theater, there are many small fast-food restaurants where people are getting shawarma, kebab or malfouf. Young kids are trying to sell napkins to the fast food patrons for a little spare change. A police car drives by, lights flashing, and slowly turns the corner at walking pace. We are some 300 feet from Avenue Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare that cuts through the capital, and on which, among other institutions, the headquarters of the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior are located—a building patrolled by soldiers and surrounded by barbed wire. Meanwhile, tourists crowd both sides of the road, walking through the maze of shops and umbrellas belonging to the cafes. Some soldiers are managing the flow of people from behind the barriers.
Nadhem points to an intersection. “In October, a woman blew herself up right there,” he says. “Fortunately, there were no victims. Except for her. She had ties to Islamic terrorism.” The police car makes another pass around the crowds gathered outside the theater. Bystanders give many curious looks to the festival goers. While some people can be heard cursing or wondering out loud “what has happened to our society,” others are enjoying themselves as they take photos of the waiting crowd.
The Le Rio café and theater is an old building which has long been a gathering spot for the Tunisian LGBTQI community. The walls are full of posters and flyers for avant-garde art shows from around the world. Nadhem tells me that last year, they had held the festival in a hotel outside the city.
“This year, we accepted the challenge of organizing the festival in the city center. So that it would be accessible to everyone,” Ali Bousselmi says, an activist for Mawjoudin and co-organizer of the festival. Mawjoudin—meaning “we exist” in Arabic—is an association dedicated to supporting and promoting the rights of LGBTQI persons, migrants, victims of violence and people with HIV.
The festival begins with a collective cry of joy from the public, and with the hope that Article 230 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality, will finally be abolished. Ramy Khouili, who wrote The History of the Criminalization of Homosexuality in Tunisia, explains that Article 230 was written by a commission of the French colonial government at the beginning of the 20th century.
Indian film director Faraz Arif Ansari makes the same point in the debate in the main hall, pointing out that the criminalization of homosexuality in India—finally overturned in 2018—had been introduced by the British government. The emphasis on colonial dynamics is also clearly expressed in the festival brochure: “We want to offer a space for the queer identity of the southern hemisphere.”
Cyrine Hammami, a co-organizer of the festival, tells me that “we need to see ourselves reflected in the stories that we’re showing in movie theaters, and this isn’t happening with films produced in Europe. It was not easy, but in the end we put together a schedule of films with which we could identify.”
Most of the 30 films shown at the festival tell stories about love and strength, coming from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Many deal with the delicate moment of coming out to one’s family, and with the reactions of the community, almost always violent. In some, the parents confess their own sexual orientation to their children, or the children discover their parents’ secret lives only after their death, through old videos and photos. Some characters meet in secret to kiss and plan their escape to the city, and some fight openly against macho culture, such as in Bixa Travesty, a documentary film starring Brazilian transgender singer Linn da Quebrada, who enters the United States illegally and denounces the spread of Israeli settlers in Palestine.
The festival also includes artistic performances that combine traditional Tunisian music and dance with drag queen parades and voguing moves. I ask Nadhem if he’s worried that the frustration generated by the economic crisis and rampant unemployment might lead to a political backlash against the LGBTQI community. Particularly worrying was the news last month that Association Shams, the Tunisian NGO fighting for the decriminalization of homosexuality, has been declared incompatible with “the identity and values of Arab and Muslim society.” He tells me that the Islamists are busy with other issues for now.
It is an election year, and the hottest topic is that of equal inheritance rights for both genders. Tunisian women have just recently won the right to inherit an equal share of the family’s assets, provided that the family agrees. “In the end, it is economic power that they are trying to defend, because this is the real key to independence and autonomy,” Nadhem says. He goes on to explain that the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE), appointed by the government, has made the defense of the rights of LGBTQI persons one of its objectives for the near future. Nadhem tells me that there is still need for courage and a lot of patience, but he remains optimistic: “[I]n 2030, all of this will be just an ugly memory from the distant past.”