Not only are they persecuted by the law and the police, they also face the threat of societies with religions and customs in complete antagonism with their choices; societies with fears that could cost them their lives.
Being a homosexual man in Egypt or Tunisia amounts to living a double life, with a secret identity shoved behind the hidden walls of clandestine apartments, online pages, and hook-up apps. They live in constant fear of having their sexual identity uncovered, lest they bear the brunt of the state’s punishment, or that of society, which could be more grave.
Blackmail, Violence, and Rape
Ali*, a Tunisian young man, says that when he came out, only his mother and sisters expressed support. As for his father and brothers, they brutally beat him to “make a man” out of him, in their words.
“My father’s family is well-known in Tunisia, and so they treated me as a walking disgrace,” Ali tells Raseef22. Even security officers did not spare him their condemnation; one day while he was walking “differently” in a market, they closed in on him, brutalized him, then left him there.
His blight didn’t end there; one day he was kidnapped by three young men, including one of his colleagues, who took him home and took turns raping hip, then threatened to scandalize him if he said anything about it. Subsequently, he sunk into a state of fear and depression, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.
Years passed and his struggle continued, until he could find no way out but to travel to a Gulf country. He hasn’t been able to go home for five years, fearing death at the hands of his family.
State-Sanctioned Prison and Anal Examinations
Mounir Ba’tour, head of the Shams Association for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia, says that homosexuals face numerous forms of harassment, such as verbal assault on the street, all the way up to rape and violence.
This is in addition to their persecution by the police, as well as their imprisonment, often after they are forced to undergo invasive anal examinations which can be likened to torture.
Legally, Article 230 of Tunisia’s Criminal Law stipulates the imprisonment of homosexuals for a period of up to three years. The Shams Association has been working on reversing this article through providing evidence of its unconstitutionality at the constitutional court.
Socially, people are divided between two opposing camps, each of which broadly approaches the issue in a different manner.
After three men kidnapped Ali and took turns raping him, he fell into a deep depression, ultimately attempting suicide
Persecuted, shamed, and living in fear; homosexuals in Egypt and Tunisia
The Francophone population, as well as artists and the culturati, respect homosexuals’ rights and defend them. As for the “Arabist” population, with its Islamist tendencies, this segment stigmatizes and abases the homosexual community, to the point that an imam once called for their execution by throwing them out of a high building or tower.
The association monitors cases of rape or violence, such as those Ali was subjected to, which leave the victims traumatized and unable to recover their rights or dignity. The association helps such victims by providing medical aid and the necessary legal consultation, as well as representation in court if needed.
Ba’tour affirms that there are no surveys on the number of homosexuals in Arab countries; however, the World Health Organization estimates that their prevalence in the Maghreb area is between 7% and 10%, according to the relative population of each country. He adds that there are those who turn to the association for help from Algeria and Iraq, as well as other African countries. However, outside of Tunisia, the association is only capable of providing advice.
In Egypt, should homosexuals have the misfortune of falling prey to the caprices of the police, they will face punitive measures, as affirmed by Dalia Abdel Hamid, Gender and Women’s Rights Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Abdel Hamid explains to Raseef22 that while the Egyptian law does not officially and explicitly illegalize homosexual activities, practically speaking, homosexuals are frequently prosecuted under the statute of “practicing debauchery”, which warrants a penalty of up to three years in prison.
The EIPR’s role is however limited to documenting violations and torture that homosexuals are exposed to in police stations, and putting the victims in touch with psychiatrists to follow-up on their status.
Fear of Confronting Society and Family
Ahmed**, a young Egyptian man, tells of his own experience as a homosexual, saying that he felt attracted to other boys since he was 12, and soon after began engaging in sex with other boys. However, he made sure to keep his preferences a secret, so as not to subject himself to harassment.
“It’s like I have an alter-ego; on the one hand there is the version of myself that deals with society, and on the other there is the one who has homosexual tendencies,” Ahmed tells Raseef22.
Moreover, despite recognizing their own homosexuality, some men avoid entering a relationship with other men, fearing religious or societal reprisal.
Such is the fate that Hossam** (28) chose for himself, when he fell in love with his friend from college. For years, he has kept silent about his feelings, choosing to love him in silence rather than risk expressing his feelings.
“I created a fake Facebook account just to be able to confide in those who have the same preferences as me; preferences that I cannot act on in Egypt. I can’t unleash my feelings here because they are against religion and custom,” Hossam tells Raseef22.
Perception of Homosexuality as Illness is Still Prevalent
As for Hassan** (18), when he first discovered his attraction to men three years ago, he thought it to be a relatively normal phase, until his attraction started to grow. This prompted him to begin searching online, where he found that he was not alone in his predilections, but that there were many like him all over the world.
He made sure that his friends and family would not find out, entering the homosexual community through Facebook and Grindr, where he was able to meet others like him.
“Sometimes I feel like I want to go to a psychiatrist for treatment, and I get depressed. But when I awake the next morning, these feelings disappear, because I don’t see my sexual orientation as an illness,” says Hassan.
Despite the World Health Organization’s decision to remove homosexuality from the list of psychological illnesses, some Arab communities are nonetheless still searching for a “treatment” or “solution” for what it perceives as an illness.
Gamal Farweiz, a consultant psychiatrist in Egypt, has dealt with numerous cases that have approached homosexuality as an illness. He tells Raseef22 that there are some who go of their own volition, hoping to change their sexual orientation. Thus, they undergo treatment for as long as they believe it will work, and at times certain medications are prescribed.
Meanwhile, there are those who are pressured by family members to undergo “treatment”, despite not being personally convinced that their experiences and feelings are deviant or need fixing. Despite their many trials, they are certain that their feelings are valid and true, and that their identities are fixed and should be respected.
*Name changed upon request
**Full name withheld upon request