How the LGBT community rallied against a 'homophobic' Tunisian influencer

How the LGBT community rallied against a 'homophobic' Tunisian influencer
With same-sex relations criminalised in Tunisia, the queer community is usually forced to live in the shadows - but now an influencer is endangering their safety.
6 min read
07 October, 2020
Same-sex relations are still illegal in Tunisia. [Mawjoudine]
During a 23-minute monologue on Instagram, the Tunisian beauty influencer Lady Samara veered off-piste when she said: "I do not respect homosexuality. A homosexual person is an individual who has stripped himself of all morals and values… gay people are trying to brainwash our children to become gay.

"The new generation is in grave danger because they see sassiness and homosexuality becoming normal. Stop this phenomenon!" she added, urging her half a million followers to speak out against homosexuality.

Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code punishes consensual same-sex conduct with up to three years in prison, so the queer community in the small North African country are forced to hide in the shadows - except when they are forcibly outed on social media for the whole world to see.

"Several times she said that she does not like homosexuals and that it disgusts her, but this time she is encouraging people on purpose to attack and intimidate the LGBTQIA+ community," queer activist Ramy Ayari told The New Arab from his home in Canada.

Ramy left Tunisia in 2016 because of his activism, so he says he wants to take advantage of this "privilege" in order to support LGBT+ rights in Tunisia by mobilising the international community.

We have called for everyone, especially human rights groups, to take a clear position on hate speech online and express solidarity with the queer community

"I never hesitate to do my duty, and support my community," he said, no matter at what cost. Ayari became the face of queer Instagram resistance against Lady Samara, and one of her primary targets.

"Her goal is clear: to spread hatred and homophobia. She even named me and encouraged her followers to attack and harass me on Facebook," he said.

"Because of her influence on people, the gay community is currently being subjected to a wave of homophobia and outing on social networks. They have even suffered aggressions and they cannot file complaints because they risk being accused of homosexuality by the authorities."

Lady Samara has not replied to requests from The New Arab to provide a comment on the matter, but she posted on her Instagram that she was "neither for… nor against" gay people, and insisted that she has "lots of gay fans".

In a small victory for Ayari and the gay community in Tunisia, her posts regarding homosexuality were removed by Instagram, after many came together to follow Ayari's example in reporting her account to Instagram.

But for many, this did not go far enough. A petition demanding to have her Instagram account entirely removed has already been signed by more than 9,000 people, as the #removeLadySamara flooded social media.

Mawjoudin, one of Tunisia's only LGBTQIA+ organisations, is now collecting all of Lady Samara's posts and preparing a case to bring to Instagram for the social media platform to take a stronger stance on hate speech.

"We have called for everyone, especially human rights groups, to take a clear position on hate speech online and express solidarity with the queer community," Rania, a member of the steering committee from Mawjoudin, told The New Arab.

"LGBTQIA+ hate speech will set challenges for queer people who will view the world as more violent and discriminatory, and they will become hyper-aware they are exposed to more future abuse. This is exacerbated by the fact there is no legal framework from the Tunisian state and from a lack of effective responses from social media platforms."

Mawjoudin joined forces with their counterparts in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon to conduct a study on the digital security of the LGBTIQA+ community, which showed that 62 percent of the 238 queer people interviewed said they had been victims of cyberattacks, hate speech, blackmailing, or cyberbullying. A stark 95 percent of those who suffered cyber-attacks had psychological after-effects like anxiety, anger, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Social media is a double-edged sword. It has become a very important platform for empowerment, but also for discrimination and targeting LGBT+ people

"Hate crimes are targeted to attack the whole group of people, which means one attack - like the one by Lady Samara - can affect a whole group of people," said Rania.

"Across MENA queer people face legal punishment so I think that we have to be aware to not confuse hate speech with freedom of speech because when you are telling your followers to 'out' queer people on social media it becomes about harming and attacking and killing queer people using these platforms."

The fatal consequence of online hate speech was encapsulated when a gay man in Morocco took his life after he was outed less than six months ago. Influencer Sofia Talouni, also known as Naoufal Moussa, encouraged her hundreds of thousands of followers to track down gay men through dating apps and publicly out them.

Other men said that they were blackmailed, threatened, and in the case of at least three, kicked out of their homes by their parents due to people forcibly "outing" them, human rights groups said.

In one case, a man had been homeless for at least three days, putting him at risk of contracting Covid-19. Facebook and Instagram suspended Talouni's accounts and she eventually apologised for her actions.

Another case in Saudi Arabia saw a Yemeni vlogger jailed for expressing sympathy for gay rights, while the Egyptian government's entrapment of gay men on social media apps remains commonplace.

"Social media is a double-edged sword. It has become a very important platform for empowerment, but also for discrimination and targeting LGBT+ people," Rasha Younes, LGBT Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab.

She said the protection of the LGBT+ community online requires international attention and the cooperation of social media platforms to combat the targeting of people's identities online, but also government legislation and action.

Most recently, a Tunisian appeals court on 28 July, 2020 upheld the conviction of two men accused of sodomy. Hassina Darraji, the lawyer who represented the men before the appeals court, said she brought to the court's attention the defendants' statements that the police bullied, insulted, and threatened them to get them to confess to being gay, and attempted to persuade them to undergo an anal exam, purportedly to test for sodomy, which they refused.

Younes says the case exemplifies the institutionalised discrimination the gay community faces in Tunisia: "The court's decision obviously violates privacy and nondiscrimination under international law and domestic law. The sentence was reduced to one year which is still harsh for Tunisia's standards. While it has made strides on individual freedoms, it seems that these laws and positive developments do not include LGBT people.

"The international community views Tunisia as this progressive country, one of the only places in the region which is a safe-haven for the LGBT+ community, so this praise is discredited by its persecution of homosexual conduct."

Gaia Caramazza is a staff journalist at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter @GaiaCaramazza.