Mass anti-government protests and COVID-19 restrictions have led to a crackdown on the LGBTQ community in Tunisia, activists have told VICE World News.
Earlier in the year, LGBTQ groups joined a wave of mass protests across Tunisia demonstrating against police brutality and widespread unemployment triggered by the pandemic. In a report released in February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented dozens of cases in which the police specifically targetted known LGBTQ activists among the demonstrators, subjecting them to arbitrary arrests, physically assaulted individuals, blocked them from receiving legal aid, and threatened to rape and kill individuals. The human rights organisation also observed cases of online harassment and the “forced outing” of activists.
“Such targeted repression took place against the backdrop of increased persecution of LGBTQ people and crackdown on LGBTQ organising during the pandemic in Tunisia,” Rasha Younes, LGBTQ rights researcher at HRW in the MENA region told VICE World News.
Ahmed El Tounsi is the founder of the trans-rights organisation OutCasts. When VICE World News spoke to him, the 38-year-old transgender man was half-asleep, sprawled on some sofa pillows on the floor in plain T-shirt and shorts. He had been up late at a leaving party for prominent LGBTQ rights activist Rania Amdouni. Her request for asylum in France was accepted in late June as she sought to flee her homeland to escape bullying and threats of violence. Earlier in March, Amdouni was detained for 19 days after reporting relentless harassment she had faced from the police due to her LGBTQ activism and participation in protests against police violence.
Ahmed El Tounsi.
El Tounsi has been actively involved in trans rights ever since he came out publicly ten years ago. He has long experienced mistreatment at the hands of Tunisian security forces, especially over the past year.
“Being a well-known trans person leaves me vulnerable to more abuse,” he told VICE World News. “The police know where I live, since the beginning of the pandemic they’ve been carrying out raids on my home regularly as I’m hosting lots of trans people”.
On the 5th of August 2020, El Tounsi and a group of fellow trans activists were near the French embassy in Tunis when they were approached by police forces and asked for their IDs. After the police discovered their gender expression did not match the gender on their IDs, the officers physically and verbally assaulted them. More officers arrived and beat them while inciting bystanders to join in, El Touni said, shouting: “Kill them, they are sodomites.” People chased the activists, hit them and took their phones to delete evidence of the aggression.
“One policeman knocked me down which resulted in internal bleeding. I couldn’t breathe, I felt I would bleed to death on the street,” El Tounsi said, showing VICE World News a picture of himself thrown on the ground from his mobile phone. He added that when he tried to get treatment from three different hospitals, he was mocked and refused entry.
Activists filed a complaint seeking to hold the police officers accountable, however the courts refused their request to review nearby CCTV footage. Several lawyers involved in the case appealed in late October and are awaiting a final decision.
A similar incident occurred in February in downtown Tunis, when a group of policemen forced El Tounsi into a police vehicle and violently attacked him after stopping him on his way back home, asking to see his ID, he said. They told him they had seen him at protests. Cursing him and ridiculing his appearance, they took him to Bab Souika police station and invited other officers to attack him.
“When they saw my identity card and how I look, they began kicking me to ‘teach me a lesson’”, El Tounsi said.
Referring to figures from the Tunis-based human rights organisation Damj, Younes from Human Rights Watch said that in 2020, the organisation provided legal assistance to LGBTQ people at police stations in 116 cases and responded to 185 requests for legal consultation. “These figures are five times higher than those recorded in 2019,” she said.
El Tounsi is also one of the many who fell prey to an online disinformation campaign aimed at inciting violence against LGBTQ groups. A large number of the social media posts singling out LGBTQ activists were published on Facebook pages affiliated with Tunisia’s police unions. The post featured photographs of some activists that taken part in a rally against an infamous draft law that, if passed, would make it harder to sue police officers for using excessive force.
Like others in the movement, El Tounsi has lived through a very tough year. Throughout the general lockdown, he could not find stable work or receive hormone injections. The economic fallout of COVID-19 has hit the trans community hard. Over the past year, in his one-bedroom flat, the activist has provided refuge to anything between two to 11 people at a time, while himself struggling to pay bills and provide food. “It’s stress from being different, from unemployment, from police violence, everyone is depressed,” he explained. “Sometimes I get more than 50 phone calls a day from trans men and women asking for help”.
“For a long period I couldn’t get psychological support, then I couldn’t leave the house without being beaten up, I couldn’t go and get some fresh air,” he said. “It was too much for me!”
Amani Mkaouer is a 26-year-old human rights activist. She facilitates workshops on gender identity and women’s sexual health and rights. Her life has been shaken by the pandemic as restrictions placed on social gatherings have further reduced the little space available for LGBTQ members.
“It’s been hell,” Mkaouer told VICE World News. “Imagine yourself trapped with your family, getting comments about your gender expression daily, but you have to stay there because there’s no other place to go.”
Mkaouer added: “Now with the night curfew and all the closures,” she added, “we’re deprived of the very few LGBT-friendly venues where we’re free to hang out.”
She feels lucky to be able to express her sexual orientation, but being openly trans makes her vulnerable to police harassment; on her daily commute to and from work, she is regularly stopped by the police, asked to produce her ID, and questioned over her identity.
“I’m now avoiding the locations where they are stationed, I’m really so done with them,” Mkaouer said. “Last time I was hit by the cops I couldn’t move for four days after they pushed me to the ground and stepped on me.” That incident, she said, happened during protests in which activists were demanding the release of roughly 2,000 arrested protesters.
At that time, surveillance drones were often seen hovering over the crowds and taking aerial photos of the demonstrators, including people with alternative hairstyles, tattoos or piercings, so that they could be easily spotted at later protests.
In the North African country, same-sex relations are illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison under article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code while article 226 penalises “attacks on public morals” and "public indecency". These two articles allow to prosecute and convict people on the basis of their non-normative appearance or behaviour.
Though the right to privacy and non-discrimination are constitutionally protected under articles 24 and 21, these provisions are often not applied to sexual and gender minorities, which in turn limits their access to legal aid. While human rights activists continue to campaign for the decriminalisation of same-sex conduct, Younes explained that protection for members of the community is the priority. “We need to make sure individuals are able to move freely and access basic services without facing discrimination or violence,” she said.
After coming out three years ago, Jade, a trans man, took him two years of counselling until he started hormone treatment. With the help of local LGBTQ rights group Mawjoudin, he found answers to his questions about his own identity. Since then, he has been active in raising awareness about Tunisia’s trans community.
As the first wave of the pandemic hit, Jade struggled living in lockdown with his family. “It was horrible. My parents would refer to me as ‘she’ and deadname me,” Jade said. “I couldn’t go to see my therapist. I felt like my heart stopped beating, I was short of breath, and started shaking.”
Eventually, he went to live with a group of friends after his parents made it clear they would not support his transition. After taking up some casual jobs, last April he finally secured a position as a customer service agent at a call centre where he is currently working. With bars closed and in-person activities suspended, he’s found it difficult to receive support from his regular network. Still, Jade remains hopeful and confident that he has a role to play in the movement. “We don’t have to give up on our cause,” he said. “I believe the LGBTQ community will overcome this period.”
Others are not so positive about the future. “You have no idea how many of us are depressed – I’m one of them,” Mkaouer said. “I’m trying to resist but this is the reality. I fear that once the pandemic is over, the security forces will retain a lot of the powers they took, and some freedoms may be taken away from us completely.”
El Tounsi agrees. “I almost can't fight anymore,” he admitted. “People from my generation need to take a step back. The younger ones shall continue the struggle.”