Shams-Tunisie and Shams-France: Organisations fighting for LGBT rights and protections of those from the Middle-East and North Africa

I came across Shams-France and their counterpart in Tunisia, Shams-Tunisie, after reading a report about one of their founders, Zak Ostmane, who was attacked and raped in Marseille a few weeks ago. I thought I would share some information about them because there doesn’t seem to be much written about them in English. The group came about almost a year ago, and their main aims are to campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia, and to provide a service to LGBT people from the Middle-East and Northern Africa who are now living in France.

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Translation: Last weekend, Zak Ostmane, a prominent LGBT militant and one of the founding members of Shams-France was held captive for more the 48 hours, beaten up, and savagely raped by two men in Marseille. We strongly condemn this barbarous and despicable act and carry all our support to our dear friend.

Recent reports have found that many LGBT refugees and migrants from the areas concerned live in fear. There have been reports of attacks on Syrian LGBT refugees in Turkey, and the associations that work to help these individuals should be given more support and recognition for their work. The countries in the Middle-East and Northern Africa tend to have very strict laws against LGBT people, and conservative attitudes to match. There are also many cases of entrapment, blackmail and violence towards these vulnerable people, more so than towards LGBT people in ‘western’ societies.

In Tunisia their sodomy laws carry a three-year sentence, and, as was the case in the UK and USA before such laws were decriminalised, there are many cases of entrapment. This means that the authorities will lure a gay man into compromising situations, such as a hotel room with a young undercover male officer, and then either arrest or blackmail them. If they are arrested then that could also mean that they are subjected to further police abuse, including sexual harassment.

The situation in France is different, but still problematic. Many LGBT people from the Middle-East and North Africa will, if they can, migrate to Europe so that they can live more openly and without fear of violence. France is the preferred location of those from Northern Africa because of many of them will be more familiar with the French language due to the colonial history of France in that region. However, once they reach France they are still problems. If they are open about their sexuality then they may be ostracised by migrants and refugees from the same country that they have fled. However, if they do not settle in that community, then there is also the risk that they will face racism from the so-called ‘français de souche’ (the white French population), and  possibly from within the LGBT community in France.

From this it is understandable that Shams-France and Shams-Tunisie exist, and that they need to exist in order to support LGBT people from these countries. I think both of them will have a long road ahead in getting the rights and protections they deserve. But we should keep an eye on their progress, and offer help where we can.

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