Violating rights of homosexuals: The conservative face of modern Tunisia

A Tunisian student sentenced to one year in prison for being homosexual was released on bail Thursday until Dec. 10, his lawyer said, according to French news website L’Express.

The case of the 22-year-old young man heated the debate over same-sex relationships in late September in Tunisia. As outrageous as his court ruling seemed, it remains legal, as Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code stipulates that private acts of sodomy between consenting adults results in up to three years of imprisonment.

March during the World Social Forum 2015. Photo credit: 

March during the World Social Forum 2015. Photo credit:

The Constitution of Tunisia, regarded as the most progressive in the region, was adopted in January 2014 after being drafted by the Constituent Assembly. Tunisia has been illustrated ever since as an example of a nascent democracy among the countries of the Arab Spring.

However, the north African country has been neglecting and violating the human rights of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community, which is considered as a consolidation of its religious values.

The convicted young man was first called by the police for questioning in an investigation of a murder because his phone number appeared in the cellphone of the dead person. The interrogation shifted to an enquiry about his sexual orientation and the young man was forced to admit that he is homosexual. He then underwent an anal examination to confirm his statement. His lawyer told HuffPost Tunisia that the sentencing was “harsh but unsurprising.”

Amna Guellali, the Human Rights Watch representative in Tunisia, condemned the acts of the police and said in a statement: “In this case there is an accumulation of abusive acts and a violation of the physical and moral integrity of the person.”

There is no available data that shows the exact percentage of the LGBT community in Tunisia, a de jure Muslim country that criminalizes same-sex relations.

In the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution almost five years ago, non-governmental organizations started defending the rights of homosexuals openly. The organization Mawjoudin, Arabic word for “We exist,” participated in organized marches during the World Social Forum that took place in Tunisia in March under the slogan “Rights and Dignity.” The raising of the rainbow flag, symbolic of the LGBT community, during the marches, caught the attention of news outlets and engendered hatred campaigns on social media.

Graffiti in Tunisian Arabic that says "Article 230! Until when?" Photo credit:

Graffiti in Tunisian Arabic that says "Article 230! Until when?" Photo credit:

On May 18, when Shams, an organization that advocates gay rights, became legal, the Tunisian public expressed strong disapproval of its establishment.

Marouen Achouri, editor-in-chief of Tunisian online journal Business News, wrote: “In Tunisia, it is better to be a pedophile than to be homosexual,” in reference to a party leader who encourages the marriage of 13-year-old girls and whose party is considered legal.

It doesn’t seem like the LGBT community will be fully accepted or protected by the law anytime soon. The government has at various times voiced its firm disapproval of this minority.

Samir Dilou, former minister of Human Rights, declared in 2012 that “freedom of speech has its limits,” that homosexuality is “a perversion” and that homosexuals “should be treated medically.”

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said on Oct. 5 that Article 230 “will not be removed from the penal code,” and thus trespassing his prerogatives as a president and substituting the legislative branch of the country through this statement.

Despite its efforts, Tunisia seems to be suffering from a syndrome of schizophrenia that is provoked by an identity crisis. Is the country on a steady path of modernization or is it moving backward to embrace its conservative ancient history?

Let’s not forget that, on the one hand, Tunisia is the world's single biggest exporter of violent jihadists to Syria, and on the other hand, it has the highest rate of consumption of alcohol in north Africa with 26.2 liters of alcohol per year, even surpassing countries such as France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.

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Meriam Ayachi

Management major at the Higher Institute of Commercial Studies, Carthage Tunisian Global Youth Ambassador, former US Department of State Scholar, former Intern at Empower Peace in Boston and at Tunis International Bank in Tunis, former In-Country Consultant at UN Global Education, attendee at: Preparing Global Leaders Academy in Amman, Young Leaders Exchange in London, North Africa International Model United Nations in Tunis, MENA Exchange Leadership and Development Seminar in Beirut, International Student Summit in London and Young Diplomats Forum in Athens. "I like to write because it is the only way I feel that I can express my ideas fully."