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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Queer Activism and Postcolonial Identities in Post-Revolution Tunisia

The revolution of 2011 changed LGBTQ+ activism in Tunisia leading to the mobilisation of a movement that combines queer and/or feminist struggles with the postcolonial identities of the activists. A closer look at their struggle as well as the manifestations of homophobia in Tunisia reveals how discrimination against sexual and gender minorities is interconnected with (post-)colonial structures and gender norms.


Gender and Sexuality in Post-Revolution Tunisia

The revolution of 2011 did not only push for democratic rights and freedoms. It also gave rise to the mobilization of a new generation of Tunisian feminist and queer activists exploring ideas about (female) bodies and sexuality and seeking to make visible LGBTQ+ people and issues while deconstructing gender norms (1, 2). Following the revolution, six LGBTQ+ organizations were created. Part of their goal is to achieve the abolition of articles 230 and 226. Article 230 makes homosexuality punishable with up to three years imprisonment while Article 226, a law against outrages to public decency, contributes to repression against minorities, including sexual and gender minorities (2).

Homophobia manifests in two predominant ways in Tunisia which also in part becomes visible through and impacts how Article 230 in particular is enforced. Firstly, homosexuality is portrayed, i.e., by the media, either solely concerning HIV/AIDS or as immoral behavior adopted by Tunisian men from Western men (2, 3). Secondly, it is mostly queer men who are arrested based on Article 230. Those men are often poor and/or sex workers and appear more feminine than the average heteronormative men whose gender expression aligns with notions of virility as part of the current hegemonic masculinity (1).

The concept of hegemonic masculinity derives from the acknowledgement that masculinity is not universal and homogeneous but that there exists a multitude of diverse masculinities (4). These, even though they influence each other and are thus susceptible to change, are put in a hierarchical relation to each other. Thus, men who fall within the norms of hegemonic masculinity are granted more power and privilege than women but also men expressing subordinate masculinities, i.e., as here queer men, within a patriarchal society.

As masculinitiesas well as femininitiesare not fixed, certain mechanisms are required to reinforce them (4). Discourses on masculinity and moral values, as well as legal structures including articles 230 and 226 thus help to maintain power imbalances in favor of hegemonic masculinity. While the most direct consequences of these processes can be seen in the lives of men, they also have an impact on women. Added to the heterosexual/homosexual binary underlying homophobia is thus the gendered dimension of the hierarchical man/woman dichotomy.

The overrepresentation of men among those arrested, as well as forced rectal examinations to prove homosexuality indicates a heteronormative reduction of sex to penetration. It suggests 1) that lesbian sex is not considered ‘real’ sex, and 2) that a man taking the ‘woman’s role’ during sex threatens male gender norms (1). Article 230 thus constitutes a case which reveals how gender inequalities and homophobia are interconnected by making evident gendered social hierarchies in which both women and queer men are considered subordinate to heterosexual men (5).


Queer Activism and Postcolonialism

What stands out when looking at queer Tunisians’ self-understanding and activism is that their struggle is often not only directed against homo- and/or transphobia but that it also includes aims of decolonization (1). The demand to abolish Article 230 itself can be understood as a postcolonial project since this law was introduced in Tunisia by the French colonizers. Likewise, it was 19th-century French doctors who suggested that homosexuality was visible in the human body which represents a notion that has influenced the contemporary practice of rectal examinations (3, 5). Therefore – even after Tunisia formally gained independence from France – some colonial structures and influences remain (6). Full decolonization requires not only the achievement of the official status of independence but also the decolonization of minds and bodies.

Queer decolonization efforts are further expressed through resistance to European and North American paternalism which is to a large extent embodied by Western organizations that are perceived to try to impose specific Western agendas and strategies on Tunisian LGBTQ+ and feminist movements. Similarly, homosexual (and other queer identities) and heterosexual are not naturally given identities but labels that have been developed in particular socio-historical contexts (2). Sexual and gender identities – and conceptualizations thereof – are therefore not universal and may be adopted, adapted or rejected as is demonstrated by the different uses and rejections of the term lesbian by queer women in India (7).

The interconnectedness of queer and postcolonial struggles which becomes evident in post-revolution Tunisia questions the apparent natural universality of Western (often referred to as ‘global’) standards, norms, identities and interests. It shifts focus to alternative, subjugated bits of knowledge; knowledge which has been classed as inferior or inadequate through (neo-)colonial mechanisms (8, 9). The very use of alternative terminologies and locally developed (understandings and framings of) identities represents a postcolonial act of resistance to the promotions of universalist Western narratives of LGBTQ+ identitiesboth within activist movements as well as within other contexts such as development work (9).

The diversity of (conceptualizations of) identity and its interconnectedness with decolonization becomes visible in language and debates on its use (10). Some francophone queer Tunisians have begun to incorporate more Arabic into their language (1). Jargon and local conceptualizations of their sexual and/or gender identities replace identity models imported from the West and co-construct their identity as non-Western feminists and/or LGBTQ+ activists. At the same time, debates take place on the exact terms that should be used to conceptualize queer identities: Is it preferable to reappropriate pejorative words which are commonly used to refer to homosexuality, to adopt different terms, or to create entirely new ones?


A Final Remark

In her ARTE podcast Un podcast à soi, Charlotte Bienaimé documents the story of a Tunisian trans-non-binary woman, Khookha McQueer, who experienced discrimination in both heterosexual/-normative and queer spaces. Khookha contrasts their own feminine gender expression and ‘failure’ to adopt masculine-coded behaviors with their brother’s ‘success’ of being a man by embodying masculinity based on physical strength, violence and virility. The contrast between them and their brother combined with a lack of words to express their identity prior to the revolution led them to come out as gay. Their second coming-out as transgender took place after the revolution within a context in which they experienced discrimination by gay men who performed a heteronormative masculine gender expression which is more accepted and discrete than Khookha’s feminine gender expression (1, 2).

Thus, discrimination does not always take place in encounters between heterosexual people and/or heteronormative structures, and queer people but also exists within LGBTQ+ communities which once more highlights the interconnectedness between gender hierarchies and LGBTQ+ struggles.


Written by Merle Emrich.


References

(1) Bienaimé, Charlotte (2019) ‘Luttes féministes et LGBT en Tunisie’, Un Podcast A Soi (20), accessible here.

(2) Kréfa, Abir (2019) ‘Le movement LGBT tunisien: un effet de la revolution ?’, Ethnologie française, 49, pp. 243-260.

(3) Bosia, Michael J. (2014) ‘Strange Fruit: Homophobia, the State and the Politics of LGBT Rights and Capabilities’, Journal of Human Rights, 3(3), pp. 256-273.

(4) Connell, Raewyn & James W. Messerschmidt (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender and Society, 19(6), pp. 829-859.

(5) Harcourt, Wendy (2009) Body Politics in Development, London: Zed Books Ltd.

(6) Young, Robert J. C. (2003) Postcolonialism: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

(7) Naisargi, N. Dave (2010) ‘To Render Real the Imagined: An Ethnographic History of Lesbian Community in India’, Signs, 35(3), pp. 595-619.

(8) Spivak, Gayatri S. (1995) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin (eds.) The Postcolonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 24-29.

(9) Obendorf, Simon (1999) ‘Homosexual Rights and the Non-Western World: A Postcolonial Reading of Homosexual Rights in International Human Rights Law’, Third World Legal Studies, 15(7), pp. 179-204.

(10) Jad, Islah (2006) ‘The NGO-ization of Arab women’s movements’, in Cornwall, Andrea, Elizabeth Harrison & Ann Whitehead (eds.) Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges, London and New Delhi: Zed Books, pp. 177-190.


Further reading:

Khouili, Ramy & Daniel Levine-Spound (2019) Article 230: A History of the Criminalization of Homosexuality in Tunisia, accessible here.


Speakman Cordall, Simon (2015) ‘Tunisia’s lesbian community mobilises against deep-rooted prejudice’, The Guardian, accessible here.


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