May 24, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1170

Tunisian Weekly Réalités Dedicates Series of Articles to Homosexuality in Tunisia

May 24, 2006
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 1170

The independent French-language Tunisian weekly magazine Réalités [1] dedicated a series of articles to homosexuality - an uncommon initiative in the Arab press. The articles include the personal stories of homosexuals and lesbians, information on their legal status in Tunisia, and a medical assessment by Dr. Kamel Abdelhak, a psychologist specializing in sexual matters. In addition, renowned anthropologist Malek Chebel [2] is quoted as asserting that homosexuality is tolerated in Arab culture. Poems on bisexual love by 10th-century Persian-born Muslim poet Abu Nawas are cited as an example.

The following is a review of the series:

Legal Status of Homosexuals in Tunisia

Lawyer Bochra Bel Haj Hmida argues that the legal status of male homosexuals and lesbians is very clear in Tunisia: "Article 230 of the penal code makes it clear that homosexuals and lesbians are sentenced to three years' imprisonment... Even if the law is not automatically implemented, it remains a threat and should be abrogated... We must stop confusing homosexuality - the free choice of two adults - with sexual assault or pedophilia." [3]

Homosexuality in Classic Arab Literature

Dr Kamel Abdelhak writes, "According to most psycho-sociological studies, homosexuality is not a culturally or socially related phenomenon. It exists in all social classes and cultures. Greek and Arabic civilizations tolerated it." [4]

Dr Malek Chebel [5] authored many books on love in Islam, including Myths and Sexual Practices in the Maghreb, which reports that "in Muslim society, where genders are separated, young people often have feelings for their playmates... In the Maghreb countries, homosexuality and heterosexuality are not as clearly distinct as in the West. This is partly due to the gradual introduction, in classical Arab culture, of the veneration of bisexuality among the elite. Great poets - such as Abu Nawas, Omar Khayam and a few Abbasid princes - praised it..."

In addition, Chebel notes that "the [Islamic] religious tradition itself is very vague on the issue of homosexuality"... "In Koranic verse 56:17, the ghilman (i.e. youth) [6] - a symbol of bisexuality in Muslim lands - appear together with pure virgins, called houris. From this we may infer that bisexuality is not always considered as a wrong." [7]

Réalités cites renowned 10th-century Arab poet Abu Nawas, who wrote: "Man is a continent, woman is the sea. I prefer the land [to the sea]." The article clarifies that Abu Nawas was often criticized for his homosexual tendencies, but was protected by the rulers on account of his talent as a poet. The article reports, "As in ancient Greece, homosexual culture existed in Persia, as is shown by poems praising the beauty of ephebes (usually Christian slaves of Persian origin.)" [8]

Testimony of Homosexuals Living in Tunisia

In an article describing the lives and feelings of gays in Tunisia, Réalités journalist Nadia Ayadi reports, "The education system, the traditions, and the religious and cultural myths present homosexuality as a perverted and abnormal attitude." She says it is "a painful problem," adding that "everybody remembers the collective lawsuits of homosexuals in Egypt, [9] or the stoning of homosexuals in Iran."

Regarding the policies of Arab and Muslim countries toward homosexuals, she says that Tunisia is more lenient than many other Arab countries, and tolerates homosexuality as long as it is not openly displayed: "In Islam, as in other religions, homosexuality is considered a sin against divine order. The Shari'a very harshly condemns homosexuality, and recidivism may lead to the death penalty. In some Gulf countries, homosexuals may be sentenced to death or lose their civil rights... In Iran, two teenagers aged 16 and 18 were hanged on July 19, 2005 in Mashhad, because they were homosexual... Tunisia, which is midway between liberalism and an oppressive implementation of the laws on homosexuality, more or less tolerates homosexuality as long as it is practiced in secret. In rural areas, however, homosexuality may result in shame and rejection - and even in human tragedies [killings] when the family feels dishonored."

However, " Muslim countries, homosexuals cannot quietly be themselves, since there is no way they can reveal [they are homosexual], not to mention claiming rights as homosexuals." Samir, 26, says: "One must be very strong to live as a homosexual in our country [Tunisia]. Today, if you discover at age 15 that you are more attracted to men, you are lost. There is no reference, no model." Therefore, most homosexuals in Tunisia prefer to hide the fact that they are homosexual.

Slimane, 22, says he has no problem being homosexual in Tunisia and has never thought of leaving his country, as many others have. He explains that in Hammamet, as in other large cities, there are meeting places for homosexuals: coffee shops, discos and hammans. In Tunis, there is one coffee shop where homosexuals meet at night; it has become their "headquarters," although homosexuals are not the only ones to frequent the place. Only one homosexual agreed to meet the Réalités journalist there. It is noteworthy that the journalist was careful not to mention the name of the coffee shop in the article.

Another Slimane says that a homosexual couple may even feel freer than a heterosexual couple in Tunisia: "It is easier for a homosexual couple than a heterosexual couple to enjoy a full sexual life, since men can live together, travel together, and even share the same room in a hotel. No law bans this, whereas a non-married heterosexual couple will face difficulties..."

Réalités also provides information on the socio-economic function of homosexuality in Tunisia. In homosexual circles, all social classes are mixed, says journalist Ayadi. Often an older man from a rich quarter has a young boyfriend from a poor neighborhood. Money plays an important part in many homosexual relationships: "In relationships between older men and younger men, money alleviates feelings of guilt. There are many such relationships based on money, not only with foreigners but also between Tunisians." [10]


[2] For more on Malek Chebel, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 273, "Algerian Reformist Malek Chebel: 27 Propositions for Reforming Islam," May 5, 2006, {{nodeurl-}}.

[3]âce%20énigmatique&art=14346&a=detail1, December 1, 2005.

[4]âce%20énigmatique&art=14347&a=detail1, December 1, 2005.

[5] For more on Malek Chebel, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 273, "Algerian Reformist Malek Chebel: 27 Propositions for Reforming Islam," {{nodeurl-}}

[6] The word in the Koranic verse is wildan, which is close to ghilman in meaning.

[7]âce%20énigmatique&art=14344&a=detail1, December 1, 2005.

[8]âce%20énigmatique&art=14345&a=detail1, December 1, 2005.

[9] For more on the subject, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 88, March 6, 2002, "Egyptian Press: 'Since Egyptian Gays Have No Rights, Their Rights Need No Defense,'" Egyptian Press: 'Since Egyptian Gays Have No Rights, Their Rights Need No Defense'

[10]âce%20énigmatique&art=14342&a=detail1, December 1, 2005.

Share this Report: