Gay & Lesbian Mobilization in Algeria: the Emergence of a Movement

Over the past few decades,[i] human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) have became more visible across the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).[ii] Eighty-one countries criminalize homosexuality, with penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment to the death penalty. Each country in the MENA region directly or indirectly criminalizes homosexuality.

Algeria is part of this group. Forbidden by the Qu’ran, punished by the Penal Code, and stigmatized by society, non-normative sexuality is still taboo in Algerian society. Nevertheless, for several years now, the country’s gay and lesbian community has organized to claim its rights through a network of associations. This mobilization has been efficient and innovative, and relied, in part, on the Internet and digital social networks.

Homosexuality in Islam
Islam is Algeria’s state religion. Liwät (male homosexuality) is mentioned in approximately thirty Qur’anic verses distributed in seven suras. It is treated less as a matter of sin or fault than a question of purity and blemish.[iii]

And Loth, when he said to his people: ‘Do you commit such immorality as no one has preceded you with from among the worlds? Indeed, you approach men with desire instead of women. Rather, you are transgressing people’ (Sura 7, 80-81)

On a literal reading of the Qu’ran (which not all Muslims share), homosexuality is judged as against God’s wish because it denies the experience of otherness. The academic Abdelwahab Bouhdiba has observed that the Islamic tradition “considers that four categories of people suffer from the anger of God: men who dress as women, women who dress as men, those who have sex with animals and the ones who have sex with men.”[iv]

Imam Yussuf Al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and author of the book entitled The Lawful and the Prohibited (1997) declared that murder of homosexual people “is just a means to purify the Muslim society of those noxious human beings (homosexuals) who bring (cause) to the loss of humanity.”[v]

In 2007, a member of the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs, Mufti Yahia, confirmed this view: “homosexuality is an inversion against nature that has to be cured and, literally, in the Holy Koran, punished by death. How, therefore, could this practice not be perceived as an aberration?”

This religious rejection of same-sex relationships also finds its origins in patriarchal societies where sexuality is only considered through the lens of procreation within marriage. In states, like Algeria, which criminalize homosexuality, the law is used to enforce these religious and social norms

Criminalizing Homosexuality in Algeria: Articles 333 and 338
In Algeria, homosexuality is criminalized in Section 6 of the Penal Code, “Offenses against Morality,” specifically in Articles 333 and 338. Both male and female homosexuality are denied and seen as “abnormal.”

Article 333 states that “[e]very person who commits a public indecency outrage is punished by imprisonment of two months and a fine ranging from 500 to 2000 DA (Algerian Dinars). When the public indecency outrage consists of an act against nature with a same-sex person, thesentence is imprisonment from six months to three years and fines from 1000 to 10000 DA.”

Article 338 states that “Whoever is guilty of a homosexual act will be punished with imprisonment from two months to two years and a fine from 500 to 2000 DA. If one of the persons is a minor under 18 years old, the sentence for the adult person maybe raised to three years of imprisonment and a fine of 10000 DA.” Article 338 has not been modified since June 1966 and is theoretically classified as a rule of public order, which governs social interactions. But, the way homosexuality is treated is first and foremost a question of custom. Society punishes gay and lesbian persons by marginalizing them. In fact, few Algerians are aware of the penal articles criminalizing homosexuality. They are rarely enforced, and few complaints are filed. As such, this legal framework strengthens the fear and shame surrounding homosexuality and supports religious, social, and familial-based prohibitions about sexuality in general and “deviant” sexual behavior in particular.

In many regional states, homosexuality is seen as a real danger jeopardizing the social order and Muslim culture. The Algerian state has embraced this commonly shared view and used homosexuality’s criminalization to protect against it. While this legal framework is somewhat “flexible,” social and family pressures are harder with which to deal.

The Daily Pressures from Family and Society
In big cities, like Algiers, gay and lesbian visibility is growing. People reveal their sexual orientation among close friends, within their intimate spheres. More and more “rainbow weddings” (unions between lesbian and gay persons) are even being celebrated. But, while social acceptance and diversity are ongoing processes, the family remains an impenetrable and unforgiving realm. As a result, for many gay and lesbian persons, the secrecy of a double life is the only option.

Family and marriage are two of the main pillars of Algerian society. Many gay and lesbian Algerians endure significant pressure from their families to get married. Fearing rejection from their families, friends, and society, some individuals, homosexual persons, especially lesbians, will have heterosexual marriages.

Outing oneself within one’s family is still unthinkable for most lesbian and gay Algerians because of social norms and binding traditions. With gay and lesbian individuals trapped within a four-tiered prison of religion, law, family, and society, several Algerian associations have been coordinating to defend gay and lesbian rights.

Algeria’s Gay and Lesbian Associations: Claiming the Right to be Different and Fighting for Decriminalization of Homosexuality
Because of homosexuality’s criminalization, it is impossible to create an organization or space openly dedicated to gays and lesbians in Algeria. However, in the last several years, two main associations have emerged.

Founded on October 10, 2011,[vi] Alouen is an association gathering together young gay and lesbian volunteers with one goal: the improvement of the legal situation for homosexuals, i.e. the abolition of Articles 333 and 338 of the Penal Code.

Alouen emerged from Algeria’s particularly hostile atmosphere for gays and lesbians. Within the MENA region, Algeria has some of the slowest rates of improvement when it comes to gay rights. Alouen is dedicated to ending the isolation of gays and lesbians and helping a real community emerge. Alouen’s mission has four components: 1. fighting against any forms of discrimination against homosexuals; 2. fighting against any forms of violence (especially through awareness-raising campaigns against physical, psychological, and moral violence); 3. facilitating acceptance and integration of gays and lesbians; and 4. fighting against HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections through support group.

Founded on October 10, 2007, Abu Nawasis another association dedicated to gay and lesbian mobilization in Algeria, and is composed of activists from both Algeria and around the world. Like Alouen, Abu Nawas takes action to abolish Articles 333 and 338 and support gays and lesbians at a national and international level. It is also a member of the first North African LGBT network, Khomsa.

Virtual Mobilization to End Isolation
While Abu Nawas and Alouen’s activities have been limited by the criminalization of homosexuality in Algeria, the Internet and social media have created new opportunities to challenge norms and values that once seemed unchangeable.

For several years, blogs, websites, forums, and online magazines have been increasing in Algeria, creating spaces where gays and lesbians can openly discuss their sexuality free from restrictions.

Virtual communities facilitate expression, communication, and cohesion. These include Lexo fanzine,a small, online, lesbian magazine responding to a lack of information on lesbian culture in Algeria, and Kelmaghreb, its equivalent for gays. Created in 2007, the G.L.A forum (Gays and Lesbians in Algeria), which was created by lesbian activist El Djazaira, is dedicated to gathering together the gay and lesbian community. Facebook has also been an excellent tool used by associations, forums, and magazines to raise awareness about gay mobilization in Algeria beyond the country’s borders.

Advocacy and Awareness Raising: A Success Story
In Algeria, gay and lesbian mobilization is ongoing and quite efficient when it comes to support, exchanges, and expression among the gay and lesbian community. Their actions have led to positive changes both inside Algeria and on the international scale.

One of the most important successes for Algeria’s gay and lesbian community is the creation in 2005 of TenTen, a national day of celebration for gay and lesbian Algerians. The eighth anniversary, TenTen2014, was celebrated on October 10, 2014.

Algeria’s gay and lesbian organizations have also participated in international events in support of LGBTQ rights. The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) is a global day for mobilizing LGBTQ communities and civil society against hatred based on gender identity (transphobia) and sexual orientation (homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia). In 2013, the theme was “freedom of expression.” In 2012, Alouen participated in IDAHOT for the first time.

In 2007, Abu Nawas took its work to the international level at the ILGA Pan-Africa conference (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association). On this occasion, more than 60.000 activists gathered together in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Thanks to the hard work and courage of Algeria’s gay and lesbian movement, the international community called upon Algeria to remove Article 338, during its universal periodic review session before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2012.

Algeria’s LGBTQ community is becoming bigger and bigger, with its members united to end the taboo against homosexuality. TenTen and the international community’s support for gay rights are reflections of the continuing evolution toward universal decriminalization of homosexuality. Alongside this evolution, the fight for respect, dignity, and fundamental rights for LGBTQ individuals in Algeria continues.

by Sarah Jean-Jacques
Source – Muftah