[Edited Google translation]
After 23 years of dictatorship, the Jasmine Revolution and the departure of President Ben Ali gave hope a wind of freedom in Tunisia.
As in most Arab countries, homosexuality is banned in Tunisia. Since 1913, the Tunisian Criminal Code punishes “sodomy between consenting adults” three years in prison, although in fact the gay community enjoys relative freedom.
Will the revolution improve things? TÊTU asked the Tunisian director Mehdi Ben Attia if he believes this wind of freedom will also benefit gays and lesbians in Tunisia.
TÊTU: In your film, “The Edge,” released in May 2010, you wanted to show a happy homosexual. Do you consider that homosexuality is more accepted in Tunisia than in other Arab or Muslim countries?
Mehdi Ben Attia: Yes, it is a social fact relatively more visible and more accepted in Tunisia. However, there are laws. They are little used but they exist. And it is mostly the country that is conservative. For seven or eight years, I feel that there is an emerging gay scene. There are pockets of tolerance, first in the arts and culture, and in some cities. But for the rest of society, they are very frowned upon.
TÊTU: But then, what is tolerated? What is frowned upon?
Mehdi Ben Attia: The problem in Tunisia, as in Morocco, is taking the floor. Somehow we are told “Do what you want, but leave us in peace!” … Two men living together, it does not shock. But they should claim nothing [about being gay]. Shut up! It’s quite strange.
TÊTU: Do you think that eventually, the Jasmine Revolution could lead to more rights for Tunisian homosexuals?
Mehdi Ben Attia: Frankly, I want to be very careful. I never thought to attend current events [when] the Tunisian people rose up. … I thought it would be with the Islamists. So I’m low profile. However, today I am optimistic. In the demonstrations, the main slogan was not “Allah Akbar!” Or “Bread!” But “job, freedom and national dignity!” It’s very political. Do not tell stories, gay rights, nobody notices. But there is a strong demand for freedom, to breathe, against censorship. A favorable climate. For example, my film was banned in Tunisia. But I hope it will soon be released. That might be a good indicator of change.
TÊTU: You said, part of society is very conservative. There is also an Islamist party that is expected to return to the political scene. Is there not also a risk of regression?
Mehdi Ben Attia: Throughout my life, Tunisia has been a country without freedom. The reason given was the Islamist threat. We realized it was still good. So not! I hate this ideology, but they do not scare me. The mass of Tunisians is quite homophobic, either voluntarily or unconsciously, but we begin to see a pioneering pro-gay rights and more westernized. Do not forget that a tenth of Tunisians live in Europe. Where we take the habits of freedom that are reported in his luggage when going home.
It is a historic moment where you can borrow one way or another. The claims of freedom are strong in Tunis. One can imagine that after the gay rights movement in a Tunisian movida. But there may also be a mistrust of instability with the determination to find a strong man. In all cases we will never return to a regime like that of Ben Ali. All the fear accumulated in recent years has transformed into courage. So I’m cautiously optimistic.
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