Tunisia is a country on the mend. After sparking a wave of dissent throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisians are looking inward and pressing ahead with long overdue reforms despite the political entropy that has absorbed other states in the region. Today, Tunisia seems to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps more so than the rest of the countries which still struggle for normalcy, let alone progress. 

Still, Tunisia is not completely out of the woods yet. A relative oasis of hope in a desert of utter despair, Tunisia’s nascent democracy is surrounded by enemies – ISIS and other Islamist militant factions lurk by the country’s shared border with Libya, while the rest of the Maghreb and West Africa grapple with Boko Haram’s ideological spillover from neighbouring Niger and Mali, that also happens to be swallowing Chad and Cameroon whole and continues to consume Nigeria. Tunisia should be afraid, it should be very afraid.

One man who is not afraid of the ideological spillover trickling down into Tunisian society is Ali Bousselmi, co-founder and director of the Mawjoudin Association, Tunisia’s only LGBTQ+ advocacy group. “When we started Mawjoudin, we wanted to create an organisation unlike any other here. We wanted to make members of the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable and at ease in their own country,” he says.

Providing legal, medical, and psychiatric support to the members of the community, Mawjoudin is more than just another Facebook page staging a virtual sit-in on your newsfeed. With a 360-approach to LGBTQ+ issues, Mawjoudin redefines the meaning of socio-political advocacy, engaging its every capability in the service of the country’s sexual minorities and building a sanctuary community in an otherwise unfriendly society.  

During the revolution, there was this spirit of acceptance. The LGBTQ+ community was very much involved with the revolution, and we even flew our flag during the protests.

Founded in 2014 by a group of Tunisian political activists, LGBTQ+ individuals, and feminists, Mawjoudin is now an officially registered civil society organisation that has helped itself to the helm of the country’s social reform movement. The organisation established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it led an LGBTQ+ coalition in challenging and even rebuking a human rights report by the state to the UN in 2016, denying that Tunisian law enforcement agents performed rectal exams on those suspected of ‘homosexuality,’ with a shadow report of its own. “The Tunisian government is concerned about its reputation with regards to Europe, and the international community at large, especially when it comes to sexual liberties and so on, so we have definitely taken advantage of that,” Bousselmi says.

Unlike other civil society organisations and human rights movements in other parts of the region who opt to stay above the fray, Mawjoudin’s power lies in its readiness to play politics and take its fight for LGBTQ+ rights to the political arena as a civil rights issue. “Personally, I think the best way to approach an issue is to do it directly, the kind where you can see the results right away with your own eyes,” Bousselmi explains.  

But in order to create a climate of LGBTQ+ acceptance in a Muslim-majority country like Tunisia, Mawjoudin has to get creative. When it isn’t lobbying for equality for Tunisia’s sexual minorities, Mawjoudin takes its fight to the streets, fomenting a snowball effect of awareness and taking the cause out of the fringes of society, where its niche supporters and sympathisers lie, to a more mainstream and accessible message that can appeal to a broader segment of Tunisians.

The 2014 Constitution is inconsistent – it upholds individual rights and liberties and equality among all Tunisians, but at the same time, it relies on Sharia law as a source of legislation.

Mawjoudin went to the root cause behind the engines of inequality that govern the lives of every LGBTQ+ individual in Tunisia: ignorance. The association’s first order of business was to raise awareness of the grave human rights violation posed by article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code, which criminalises homosexuality as an act of ‘sodomy’ and ‘debauchery,’ punishable with imprisonment for up to three years. “The law hasn’t changed on paper, but its enforcement varies. Before the revolution, there were a lot of arrests, with most caught during the act of homosexual sex. Afterwards though, something as simple as your neighbours getting even slightly suspicious of you being gay or transsexual could warrant them calling the police,” he explains. “If the police don’t see you as someone who follows society’s heteronormative culture – like if you appear flamboyant or butch due to what you’re wearing or how you’re carrying yourself – they could very well arrest you under article 230.”

One of Mawjoudin’s first outreach campaigns came in 2015 in the form of a photo series featuring Tunisian celebrities, public figures, and bloggers holding signs that read, “Article 230, how much longer?” which helped put LGBTQ+ issues on the country’s social radar and build on the growing civil rights conversation currently gripping the nation. “Most people would use derogatory terms to refer to members of the LGBTQ+ community in the media, but after these social influencers lent their support to the cause, we started to notice that most media personalities were too cautious of using inflammatory terms to refer to homosexual individuals,” Bousselmi illustrates. “We’ve even seen interviews of famously homophobic celebrities starting to lean towards using less offensive terminology, and this has permeated Tunisian media.”

However, Mawjoudin’s biggest triumph came early this year when the association held the first edition of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, organised by its film club, Cinéxiste. The festival, judged by famed Tunisian film critic Mohamed Nasser Sardi and critically-lauded actress Nadia Boussetta, among others, held movie screenings and panel discussions on non-heterosexuality in film. “The opening was at the French Institute, and it was a full house, even though it was a weekend, people were sitting on stairs and on the floor – that was a pleasant surprise,” he says. “It was heart-warming to see people coming out to show their support for the community – actresses, celebrities, influencers… It was attended by over 700 people.”

Something as simple as your neighbours getting even slightly suspicious of you being gay or transsexual could warrant them calling the police.

Mawjoudin’s activism, like the Tunisian uprising in 2010, turns on intersectionality, which is a regional novelty that social reform movements across the Middle East and North Africa have yet to catch on to. Some may argue the groundwork was already laid for Tunisian society to reach this degree of LGBTQ+ acceptance – after all, Tunisia ranks among the highest on the Human Development Index in the MENA region and its social fabric certainly differs from other Arab Spring counties in that it is far more liberal and secular. Perhaps a little different to other uprisings in the region, Tunisia’s was an intersectional one that witnessed a level of social cohesion not seen anywhere else in the Muslim world. It was on these early days of the uprising that Mawjoudin and other movements found their origins. “During the revolution, within the first two weeks or month, there was this spirit of acceptance, people accepted each other,” he says. “It wasn’t based on gender or social class, we felt loved in the streets. The LGBTQ+ community was very much involved with the revolution, and we even flew our flag during the protests.”

If the police don’t see you as someone who follows society’s heteronormative culture – like if you appear flamboyant or butch due to what you’re wearing or how you’re carrying yourself, they could very well arrest you.

Almost ten years later, Tunisian liberals and progressives, most of whom advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, feel excluded from the country’s social fabric. With stunted economic growth and growing religious extremism in Africa and the Middle East that’s already starting to trickle down into Tunisian societal values, modernisation is an uphill battle that requires huge political concessions from the country’s opposing factions. Tensions have run high after Tunisian president Beji Caid Essbsi, a secular politician announced the creation of a committee to review the state of individual liberties and equality in the country’s legal system and present legislative recommendations – the same committee that passed a law allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, contradictory to Sharia law, a main source of Tunisian jurisprudence. “The current civil laws clash with the 2014 Constitution, which is inconsistent itself – it upholds individual rights and liberties and equality among all Tunisians, but at the same time, it relies on Sharia law as a source of legislation, which is something that needs to be settled by the committee.”

The fate of Tunisia’s women and sexual and religious minorities now rest on the shoulders of the members of said committee. As the country seeks to conform its laws to international human rights standards, Tunisian society is becoming more and more polarised, with Islamists and conservatives doggedly refusing budge on issues such as equal inheritance rights for women and a secular civil and penal code. “As per the relevant international laws and agreements that have been amended recently, rectal exams now fall under torture,” Bousselmi explains. “That was a major point of focus in our LGBTQ+ advocacy strategy, as well as spreading awareness. We would contact the medical examiners performing these checks and make them aware that they were torturing individuals and that they need to uphold human rights.”

You can check out their Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @@Mawjoudin_We_Exist.