Ex diplomat quizzes Tunisian leader on gay rights

Farhat Othman questions spiritual leader Rashid Ghannouchi over new Tunisia's commitment to human and LGBT rights

Ex diplomat quizzes Tunisian leader on gay rights
29 February 2012

A former top Tunisian diplomat has sent an unprecedented open letter to Rashid Ghannouchi, founder and spiritual leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that now rules post-revolutionary Tunisia, about the direction the country is going.  

Farhat Othman is a researcher and author. He was a senior diplomat who was unfairly dismissed by the administration of the former regime. In his letter he asks Ghannouchi to clarify the direction of Tunisia with respect to freedom of belief, speech, human and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Othman praises Ghannouchi’s book, From the Experience of the Islamic Movement in Tunisia, largely seen as the ideological inspiration of the now-dominant Ennahda party, calling it visionary, democratic and transparent. 

'We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their own lifestyle, and we are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam,' Rashid Ghannouchi famously said in an interview to Al Jazeera.

Yet nevertheless Othman insists that certain 'embarrassing yet inevitable questions' must be addressed and clarified.

In his letter he asks if Ennahada backs the right to religious freedom, including agnosticism/atheism without being penalized for blasphemy in the new Tunisia. And he wants to know if there will be freedom of faith and equality of all religions before the law.

He also asks if Ghannouchi and Ennahda accept sexual freedom as a basic personal liberty without the state or religion interfering with it? Lastly he asks in his letter if Ennahda will remove legislation condemning homosexuality that was maintained by the previous regime?

The questions come shortly after the first gay magazine (GayDayMag) in Tunisia was officially condemned on a popular TV program by Tunisia's human rights minister and official government spokesperson, Samir Dilou.

The minister stated that 'freedom of speech has limits' and that homosexuality is an illness not a human right. It was also criticized by Amnesty International.

Dilou's statement directly contradicted previous assurances given by Ennahda officials that they would respect LGBT rights, although these were met with scepticim by some of Tunisia’s gay community. 

Insiders say life for Tunisian LGBT people has not changed since the revolution. The anti-gay French colonial law (Article 230), adopted and maintained by the previous regime, is still in effect and penalizes same-sex acts with up to three years imprisonment. So far it has not yet been repealed by the new government who have been embroiled in controversy over a gay sex video allegedly figuring its interior minister

Fadi, the 23-year-old editor of GayDayMag whose magazine is celebrating its one year anniversary tomorrow (1 March), told Gay Star News: 'The letter and its timing is most welcomed as it asks the unresponsive government to take a stand regarding human rights and freedom of expression.'

Fadi is worried that 'Ennahda seems so far more concerned with polishing its image for the west saying it supports the rights of sexual minorities, while in reality party officials oppose it'.

He said: 'This was most clear when the human rights minister and spokesperson for the government, Samir Dilou recently declared he opposes the freedom of expression of the magazine and that homosexuality is not a human right but an illness that need medical treatment.

'Now Othman has urged Tunisia’s ruling party to clarify its position once and for all – does Ennahda support the universality of human rights and freedom of expression or oppose it?’

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