Ali Bousselmi is the co-founder and executive director of Mawjoudin, meaning “We Exist,” a Tunisian-based NGO that works towards achieving equality for the LGBTI community and other marginalized groups and individuals. In this interview, he discusses the wide-ranging activities Mawjoudin supports, including counseling services, a guide for LGBTI asylum seekers, and the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival.
By Alexandra Kuenning
How did you become involved in activism?
I think after the revolution, a lot of associations were founded, and when I saw my friends take part in civil society, I decided to do the same thing. Before the revolution there was Amnesty International and other NGOs, and I remember in 2006 and 2008 some friends of my father asked if I wanted to join Amnesty. At one point I visited their offices, but there were no young people and I felt it was a little too weird. But just after the revolution, a lot of younger people joined the movement and Amnesty, so that’s why I decided to join — I wanted to make change and I wanted to really participate in change and saw that change needed to be there in Tunisia.
In LBGTI activism?
After I joined Amnesty, I learned a lot about working on human rights, and I took part in activities focused on art, on women’s rights, and a variety of other activities. After a few years, I saw that they [Amnesty] didn’t really assume that we could work on LGBT issues. So friends and I pushed to try and work on LGBT rights, but we understood that Amnesty didn’t want to do so. That’s why we decided to create Mawjoudin because we didn’t have any space for the LGBT community in Tunisia. The idea began in 2013, and in December 2014 we had official status. The idea when we started was to provide a safe space for the community, to provide training and capacity building, and to provide services too.
What is the focus of your work?
I’m the co-founder of Mawjoudin. When we founded Mawjoudin, we decided to adopt a participatory approach because it’s important to ask people from our community what they need exactly. That’s the risk of LGBT activism, because the needs in Tunisia and the capital are not the same needs as in the other regions. That’s why, as our first activity, we invited 47 people from seven regions to ask them what they wanted to do. We also had a strategic plan for Mawjoudin and we organized a lot of activities, starting with capacity building.
Now, we have a lot of projects going on like the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, which was started because Mawjoudin focuses on queer arts and we want to protect the arts that we have. It is a big festival now in Tunisia; it was the first one in the MENA region and it started in 2018. Another big project is the LILO program — LILO identity for the LGBTQI+ community and LILO Connect for allies — which allows us to have a counselor for Mawjoudin. We have another project called Queer Asylum to help asylum seekers and migrant persons in Tunisia, to help them if they have problems, to help them with services, with their files when they ask for asylum. Our members also organize in our safe space activities and clubs — like French club, cinema club, drama therapy club, theatre club, dance club, and yoga — so we have a lot of clubs in our safe space. And we do some activities in the universities too. We also focus on international advocacy by working on alternative reports, such as the universal periodic review (UPR) every four years. Finally, there is the Advocacy MENA Project, which aims to ensure access to justice for LGBTQI+ individuals by giving lawyers legal defense tools in courts, properly documenting violations of the law, and improving the communication between lawyers and activists.
And for me, as the Executive Director now, my work is to do all the general coordination and administrative stuff, but still, I really prefer doing logistical, organizational things, so that’s why I’m always taking part in the coordination of our festival, because I always want to be near to the community — I can’t stay at my desk and work on administration only.
Can you elaborate on how the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival came about and where the idea came from?
When we started Mawjoudin, we decided that we wanted to focus on art, but thought that maybe our new association wasn’t ready yet. One day, in 2017, an opportunity came to us. Our partner in Germany, the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, had some funds and asked us if we wanted to prepare some activities and so we decided to do a small festival. We prepared the festival in three or four months and we were optimistic. We decided to do it because here in Tunisia we have a lot of queer artists, but there are no opportunities for them; they don’t have managers to protect them and they don’t have anyone to push them or to offer them skills.
In the first edition of the festival, more than 700 people attended, and in the second edition — which was when we started receiving support from LGBT+ Denmark and Access Now as well — we had more than 1,000. We had a lot of support from Tunisian artists that were celebrities. The third edition normally would have happened last year, but due to the Coronavirus we decided to postpone it to July of this year.
It’s important because here in Tunisia, or even in North Africa as a whole, we don’t have a lot of queer production. Our festival provides for the production of queer art in the MENA region and in the Global South. Lots of artists from the MENA region and from the Global South support us and come to our festival, both as participants and spectators, so it’s really an occasion too, because it’s important in this kind of big event that you see each other; you see a lot of people who come from all over the continent to be near the Tunisian community and to know our work. I think art is an important [basis for] networking, and of course the festival is a space for our community too.
What sort of work does Mawjoudin do with asylum seekers?
The situation is very difficult. A lot of people come here from Libya, sometimes from Morocco, from Algeria, sometimes sub-saharan people too, and when they come they don’t know what they will do, or which association they will contact if they need psychological support. They don’t know who to contact when they need other services, they don’t know that they should go to UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to ask for asylum, they don’t know how to prepare their files. So in Mawjoudin, we decided to provide them with all these services, and we created a guide with the contacts of all the NGOs working directly on migration and with asylum seekers, which we distribute to asylum seekers who are queer. We organize some activities too, for example security training and Lilo-identity training.
What are the counseling services Mawjoudin provides?
We have a psychologist who comes twice per week to Mawjoudin to receive people and we also have a proper counselor. It’s important to have a counselor from the LGBT community; sometimes people just need to talk, not with a specialist, but with someone who shares the same gender identity or sexual orientation, someone who really knows your troubles in Tunisia. So we have a counselor in Mawjoudin, and you can have a meeting with them by phone, you can call in emergency cases, or you can even call us on our greenline at 80106969 twice per week, Monday and Wednesday. Some people want to discuss on our Facebook page or Instagram too, so you can always meet with a counselor, we have a lot of different ways you can do so. Of course sometimes the counselor orients people to the psychologist and our psychologist sometimes recommends a psychotherapist and maybe the person needs the intervention of doctors too, so we orient them with someone outside the NGO with whom we have an accord.
How did that project get started?
The project started after we received a lot of messages and requests for help from our community, and we realized we didn’t have any skills for that and that we needed training. We asked LGBT+ Denmark for help, because in Tunisia you can do training on counseling, but we were against that kind of training because you can’t come to a training for three or five days and say you are a counselor. We decided to do this in a better way, and that’s why we held a training for 12 people. Two facilitators were there, one of whom was a psychologist, and we had a longer process. After that we had a session which the psychologist decided was only for the people who could be counselors, because it’s a big responsibility to decide to become a counselor.
How would you describe the LGBTI community in Tunisia?
After the revolution in Tunisia, we saw a lot of associations start to work on human rights, and we are happy to see that there is an LGBT NGO that exists. We have a law that criminalizes homosexuality, but LBGT activism isn’t really forbidden. We are able to exist as an LGBT NGO and we don’t have any problems regarding that. However, the situation in Tunisia is very complicated; it changes a lot and we are not 100 percent safe. We can still have some trouble (it depends on the political situation in Tunisia).
So we have some positive points and some negative points. For example, the situation for trans people is really difficult because they can’t have surgery, they can’t find work easily, so most of them are sex workers. In addition, for a lot of people from the LGBT community, their families don’t accept their homosexuality so they find themselves out of the home. Sometimes they can’t find a job or even a new place to live, so this situation is very difficult.
How does the situation in Tunisia compare to the rest of North Africa?
In Mawjoudin, we’ve always had the dream to work on the Maghreb region, and this dream is shared with other activists from Libya, Algeria, Morocco, so we decided to create the Queer Maghreb Coalition. We had two meetings led by Mawjoudin here in Tunisia in 2018 and 2019, and in September 2020, we officially launched the Coalition.
[The situation in Tunisia] is different, but we have a lot of similar points, and that’s why we pushed to work together because we have the same mentality, we have the same society. We discussed a lot of points and what we should do, and we decided to start with a training on counseling because in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, activists also receive a lot of requests asking for help and for counseling. But with Covid-19, we can’t see each other and do a big event, so we decided to work online and to have a platform like a website with the contact information of all the NGOs and collectives in the Maghreb region, and to have a radio station for the Maghreb region and for MENA. It will be a web radio that will have a diversity of programs, both serious and just for fun.
Have you seen a change over the last few years in regards to LGBTI rights in Tunisia?
Of course, because we have a lot of support from allies and the community, and it’s so important to have this. When we compare our situation with other countries, like Algeria, Egypt, or Morocco, they don’t have this support and this support is really, really important. For example, in 2015 we at Mawjoudin campaigned to say “stop to Article 230” which criminalizes homosexuality and a lot of celebrities and artists supported us in this campaign. It’s really important because now we can move together. For example, sometimes we participate with other NGOS in meeting with the government and we feel like they [the government] accept the discussion, even if they don’t agree sometimes, but it’s good when they accept that you are an LGBT association and you are invited to take part in the discussion, it’s really important. We have always found some support — even in 2014 we received a lot of support from politicians, and they are our friends because they are from civil society.
It’s important to also talk about the commision, COLIBE [Commission des libertés individuelles et de l’égalité], which was created by Beji Caid Essebsi, the [former] president of the Tunisian republic, to work on individual rights. In their report they talk about homosexuality, and it’s really good when the president decides to do such work; I think it’s a good step. For example, when we do our shadow report, and compare our situation to that of other states, the government in Tunisia actually sees the recommendations. They know that here we have a lot of problems — political problems, economic problems — and that we have a lot of government decay on the left, so they don’t deny that everything is ok. Compared to Egypt or other countries, where the government says [homosexuality is] against our tradition, against our society, we are a Muslim country, Tunisia doesn’t say this. They always say, we see the recommendations and we will see after four years what we can do and what we can change. I think that even if nothing changes, it’s good that they can say this.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
It was very difficult because the day that Tunisia announced that we would have a lockdown was the same day that we had a conference to announce that we would do our festival, so it was very hard for us and we were a little bit shocked. But after that we did as all the NGOs: all our activities moved online. We received a lot of calls at our emergency number and we had a fund from Outright and LGBT+ Denmark to help our community because there are a lot of people from the community who lost their jobs, can’t pay their rent, don’t have access to food or healthcare, so it was very difficult for us to maintain all our activities online and to maintain the survival of our community. But we were happy because we actually helped a lot of queer people all throughout Tunisia. For example, we provided shelter and utilities for 35 people, including trans people and sex workers, affected by the pandemic. We also covered the necessities like food and other products in the form of coupons, in agreement with store chains across the country, for 40 people in the month of April and 96 in the month of May, including for the queer refugees that we are in contact with through Mawjoudin’s Asylum project. This was done in many cities including Tunis, Sousse, Gabes, and others.
I saw that you created a comic about isolation and the pandemic. Can you tell me more about that?
Across the globe, LGBTQ activists in lockdown have been forced to embrace new ways of celebrating Pride this year. In Tunisia, we turned to the age-old art of graphic storytelling, publishing a new comic book that celebrates life in quarantine for LGBTQ people. Queer Squad episode 1, “Bored in the House,” explores the lives of more than six characters — Rym, Nawress, Zach, Rafa, Balsem, and Nour, who identify respectively as pan graysexual, lesbian, bisexual, queer, gay, and heterosexual — in the context of COVID-19.
We decided to create the comic book to speak about our community during the pandemic because we said that we should give to our community something to read, something like comic books, and also to put our vision of Mawjoudin in these comic books. Normally we should have five or six comic books, but after number one we had a lot of problems and that’s why now we are only now working on the second edition of the comic book. We want to show the world how the LGBT community lives, how it works during the pandemic. It’s important to show comic books based on true stories from our community, and it’s important to base these stories between the people who are in the comic books, to show, for example, that there is a toxic relationship between two people. It’s important to talk about these things because there are a lot of subjects people don’t want to talk about in our community. We decided that we want to evoke some sensitive points and to give readers a solution too, because it’s important to do workshops, to speak and talk about consent, to give solutions, to talk about gender-based violence. It’s important to discuss all of these important points in the comic books.
What are Mawjoudin’s mission and objectives?
Our main aim is to promote diversity and non-discrimination to combat oppression. We are dedicated to defending the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals so that they can live openly in a culture that respects and values their dignity.
Our vision is to spread human rights culture to be able to live in a society where discrimination on the basis of SOGIESC* [Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Sex Characteristics] do not exist, and to be able to live in a society that promotes integrity, dignity, celebrates difference, and where love, identity, and expression are not crimes.
We believe that we should live in a society that accepts us as an LGBT community, a society that can accept difference. We have the mission to support our community, because it’s important to work on change, changing the mentality and changing society. But we should not forget our community because they don’t have any space. So our mission is to provide a safe space for our community, and to protect and create solidarity in our community, because without this solidarity we can’t ask for anything, we can’t ask for change.
How does Mawjoudin operate?
We get funds from international organizations, for example, we have a partner, it’s our first partner, LGBT+ Denmark, and they support our big projects like the Lilo project. We have a partnership with the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation in Germany, and we have funders from the US, like The Fund for Global Human Rights and Access Now, an NGO working on digital security. We also receive funds from the Sigrid Rausing Trust, they’re based in London. We like working with all our partners because they are very flexible. We boycott all the funders and NGOs that are really bureaucratic, that’s why we decided to work only with people who respect us, and who adopt our approach.
How can readers best support you?
It depends. Sometimes we need money, because there are not a lot of funders or partners who give money directly for LGBT people in emergency cases, for example when someone needs rent. Last year we had a fund from OutRight and LGBT+ Denmark because it was during the lockdown, but normally without the pandemic there is no fund for LGBT people to pay their rent or to buy some food (normally there is an emergency fund only for LGBTQI activists). And it’s important that when people support us, they help our community. In Tunisia we’ve asked people to help us with this; for example last week we helped a trans person have surgery — it was an emergency case and she didn’t have any money to do it herself — so we asked all our friends to help us raise money to pay for the surgery. People can help too by sharing our work and can help us to connect with other NGOs.
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