Photos by Yassine Bellamine
TUNIS, Tunisia —When Khawla Ben Aïcha was first elected to the Tunisian parliament as the youngest member of the assembly, she vowed to challenge the country’s archaic LGBTQ laws.
In the five years since she has lobbied tirelessly against a penal code that still criminalizes homosexuality and subjects people to humiliating anal tests.
At 31, Ben Aïcha is part of a new generation of politicians trying to create a progressive Tunisia after the toppling of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The conversation has been edited for clarity.
What would legal reform mean for the LGBTQ community?
In Tunisia, people labeled as gay have two choices: To accept the anal test, which is a barbaric practice that violates their rights and dignity, or to refuse it.
If they refuse it, they’re considered gay and are sentenced under the sodomy law without any proof. [An amendment to the penal code] would help reduce the number of people imprisoned because of their sexual orientation.
It’s our duty to protect these people by letting them live their private lives as they wish.
Why have there been so many arrests on the grounds of homosexuality?
We have now gone past anal testing to seizing people’s personal messages, photos and data to try to nab them.
Recently, a young man took a selfie outside a police station. He immediately had his phone confiscated by the police [because it is forbidden to take pictures of police and army stations]. Instead of asking him to go to the police station and then letting him go, they went through his private messages and personal photos, discovering pictures of his boyfriend. He was sentenced on a charge of homosexuality, even though he was originally detained just for taking a picture.
It’s just absurd.
Judging people on account of their sexual orientation is incompatible with the essence of democracy. How can we penalize choice in the most elementary sense – when choosing how to live your life? These choices are completely personal and have no effect on anyone.
It violates freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, physical integrity, and so on.
Why haven’t Tunisian lawmakers changed the law already?
We live in a conservative society or at least one that appears to be.
In Tunisian society, which is divided between tradition and modernity, the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality has divided not just politicians but society more broadly.
Challenging people’s fundamental beliefs about homosexuality would sabotage [our aims.] If we did that, the resistance would be overwhelming and the bill would never see the light of day.
For me, concentrating on the violation of a person’s physical and psychological integrity is the best path to decriminalize homosexuality in Tunisia. It’s all about how we package it.
People say that politics is the art of the possible. We just need to make progress step by step. This war will be won by [individual] battles.