The Tunisian LGBTQ scene celebrates the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival

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The Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival (MQFF) returned to the Tunisian capital for its third edition after being postponed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was a long-awaited opportunity for members of the LGBTQI community to finally meet in person.

“It is above all a space of visibility, representation and awareness for the LGBTQ community. And it is a place of cultural and human exchange,” Karam Aouini, one of the MQFF organizers, told Al-Monitor. “We are really happy to be back.”

The opening ceremony took place in a cinema in downtown Tunis on September 22, in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Some 340 mostly young Tunisians arrived at the venue, exchanging greetings and chatting, eager for the festival to get underway.

A mixture of short video compilations and colorful images, as well as uplifting dance performances, were presented, with the audience cheering, clapping and rejoicing at the launch, which ended with a film screening.

The four-day festival promoting queer culture in Tunisia and the Middle East and North Africa region was organized by the Tunisian Association Mawjoudin (We Exist) which defends LGBTQI rights.

Thirty-two films and documentaries, mainly from countries in the South, were screened from September 22 to 25. The event also included artistic performances, workshops and round tables.

Among the panel discussions, one revolved around movement building and solidarity in the queer community, which was moderated by Ayouba Faktayri, a Moroccan non-binary trans activist from the LGBT and feminist association Nassawiyat.

“Solidarity within the queer community has been a very important resistance mechanism to get through the pandemic while staying connected and trying to create a support system for our members,” Faktayri told Al-Monitor.

Faktayri, who is also the regional coordinator of Transatthe first transgender advocacy group in the Middle East and North Africa, explained how the global health crisis has brought together Moroccan LGBTQI activists and international non-governmental organizations to denounce homophobia and provide moral and financial support to homosexuals vulnerable Moroccans.

She stressed that the confinement marked a “key moment” in the unification of the queer movement in Morocco as a online hate campaign [insert correct url] was launched during this period, reporting dozens of individuals because of their sexual orientation, leading many to conceal their identities for fear of harassment and abuse.

Faktayri added: “We are together again to talk, share ideas and strategize in our fight for LGBT rights. These kinds of initiatives are a form of resistance to say: “We are here” and “We are supposed to stay”.

Aouini stressed the importance of “intra-community solidarity” on issues of sexual health, mental and social well-being, and family acceptance.

Speaking about this year’s edition, the festival organizer said there is a bigger selection of films and a variety of activities are planned, including for the first time a vogue dance workshop. He also highlighted the festival’s focus on showcasing cinematic works from the region. “The idea is that local and regional queer artistic production should also find a place in the cultural landscape,” he noted, referring to the fact that queer cinema in the southern hemisphere receives less attention than in the global north.

The program focused on the issue of non-heteronormative gender expression and sexuality. Several countries were represented, including films from Argentina, Brazil, Georgia, Pakistan, Tunisia and Sudan.

The MQFF carries crucial symbolic weight in Tunisia, where homosexuality remains criminalized and is punishable by up to three years in prison on the basis of Article 230 of the penal code. This edition was no doubt a demonstration of defiance towards President Kais Saied who has publicly declared on several occasions that he is in favor of the criminalization of homosexuality.

“Daring to organize and host an event dedicated to the question of gender identity and the reality of queer people is after all a militant act,” said Aouini.

The MQFF unfolded against the backdrop of a reversal of Tunisia’s hard-won democratic gains after a year of drastic measures by Saied that expanded presidential powers since his takeover on July 25, 2021, effectively returning the country – once the Arab democratic exception – to one-man rule.

The new constitution, approved by referendum in July, weakens guarantees guarantee rights and freedoms. It also introduced a provision stating that Tunisia is part of the Islamic ummah (community) and could be used to justify restrictions on rights, including gender discrimination, based on religious precepts.

Aware of the current context of authoritarian restoration, MQFF staff have made it a priority to take additional precautions to maintain safe spaces for festival-goers.

Hanging out outside the movie theatre, Mouna Jerbi showed excitement at the prospect of taking part in the MQFF for the first time. In his view, sexual minorities should be part of the conversation, just like other minorities in society.

She called the event ‘groundbreaking’ and appreciated the presence of heterosexuals in the audience, saying it was a chance for people – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity – to watch queer films , to make them think about and talk about the problems addressed by the filmmakers.

“The fact that we managed to organize a queer festival in an Arab-Muslim country is an achievement,” Jerbi told Al-Monitor. “Coming to this event and meeting people like me is something in itself. We are not here to attract attention; we are here just to see our rights respected.

Police attacks continued and even became more explicit in targeting LGBT Tunisians in a climate of criminalization allowing agents to commit any form of violence with complete impunity. An increased crackdown on gay rights activists was seen during a protest the referendum on Saied’s constitution a few days before the plebiscite.

Queer men and women continue to face widespread discrimination in society, whether in public spaces, political speeches, social networks or the media.

Yet despite the current autocratic climate and anti-LGBT attitudes still present in society, the MQFF strives to keep Tunisia’s queer scene alive.

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