Nawel was in Tunis’s city centre when it happened. “This guy came up to me from nowhere. He was dressed really religiously and, without any warning, he just slapped me across the face – and the weird thing was that it wasn’t just the slap. It was that no one did anything. They all just carried on. It was if I deserved it.”
Nawel shakes her head, still stung by the casual indifference of the crowd. There isn’t anything unusual about her that might mark her out for attack. With her short hair, jeans and T-shirt she is indistinguishable from many other young women.
“Nearly every time we leave the house we get abuse,” says Nawel’s girlfriend, Ahlem. “Sometimes we forget where we are and hold hands, and then we get it from everywhere … There’s one guy in particular who’s always at the cafe near us; every time we pass, he’s always shouting, ‘Here come the lovers’, and he’s not doing it in a nice way. Another time, we had a stalker, who was constantly checking on us, following us, trying to find out what we were doing. He was really offended by us.”
Tunisia’s attitude to its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community goes beyond the social. Article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code forbids acts of sodomy, with those found guilty facing jail sentences of up to three years. Article 226 of the code rules against outrages to public decency, a catch-all law often used to target the country’s trans community.
Much of the focus for Tunisia’s LGBT pushback has focused on the pressure group Shams, which campaigns for the repeal of Article 230. But an organization formed in June last year is providing a feminist alternative. Chouf, whose members see themselves primarily as visual activists, offers a desperately needed safe haven for Tunisia’s most isolated and vulnerable groups, its lesbian, bisexual and trans communities.