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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Fighting to Exist: LGBTQ Organizations in the Maghreb

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar brought renewed attention and increased dialogue to LGBTQ rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).[1] While much of the Western world has either provided legal protections for the community or, at the very least, decriminalized same-sex relations, this is not the case in most of the Islamic world. The region hosts most of the world’s restrictions concerning same-sex relations and gender expression. In the MENA, only Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Bahrain have decriminalized same-sex relations. Despite no legal restrictions in these states, discrimination is still prevalent. Additionally, out of the eleven states that maintain the death penalty that could be applied to same-sex relations, five are in the MENA region. The remainder of MENA states impose sentences ranging from six months to life imprisonment.[2] Naturally, the primary goal of the LGBTQ civil society organizations in the region is to address the criminal status of same-sex relations. 

The following article addresses various LGBTQ civil society organizations in North Africa. The groups examined are not exhaustive of the activism in the region. Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are essential cases used to examine the dynamics of LGBTQ activist groups. Each of the three states possesses some similarities, such as geographical location, majority Arab Muslim populations, and French colonial histories. Likewise, the punishments for committing same-sex acts are comparable. In Tunisia, convictions can result in a maximum sentence of three years. The same punishment is held in Morocco with an additional fine of up to 1000 Moroccan Dirham (approximately 100 USD).[3] Algeria maintains a slightly less severe punishment, with a maximum of two years imprisonment.[4] The leading distinction between each state is the restrictions placed upon groups by their respective governments.

In Tunisia, civil society organizations have been placed under increased pressure by government authorities.[5] Although harassment against these organizations is widespread, leading to many groups operating under the radar, they are legally allowed to exist. This has not always been the case, as before the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, LGBTQ activism was nearly nonexistent. LGBTQ activism witnessed a turning point during the Revolution. Some organizations, such as Damj, were reported to have been notable in driving campaigns and demonstrations to maintain the revolution.[6] Damj is still operating as one of the oldest and more prominent groups in Tunisia. The organization works closely with individuals needing legal assistance by providing aid and connections to lawyers.[7]

Following the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, other organizations began to emerge alongside Damj. The Association Shams is another highly influential LGBTQ group that is known for its work in securing legal protections for LGBTQ organizations in general. In 2015, the association status of Shams was temporarily denied by the state, to which the group addressed their grievances to the Tunisian Court of Cassation. In a 2016 ruling, the Court recognized that the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 protected the organization from being dismantled.[8] Interestingly, the founder of the Association Shams, Mounir Baatour, became the first openly gay person to publicly announce their intentions to run for the presidency in Tunisia.[9] Another prominent organization is Chouf, a feminist advocacy group that promotes the rights and protections of LBTQ women. Chouf works closely with other organizations, such as Damj.[10] Since the Tunisian Courts have guaranteed the freedom of association for LGBTQ organizations through the legal battle headed by Shams, the environment in which these organizations work allows for more flexibility in both their advocacy work and their cooperation efforts.

The activist environment in Morocco is largely different from that in Tunisia. Because the Moroccan state can deny organizations association status at will, there have been considerable difficulties for these groups to legally organize. In 2004, KifKif wasthe first LGBTQ group to form in Morocco.[11] The organization attempted to legally register with the state several times but was denied association status on each attempt. Finally, in 2008, KifKif relocated its operations to Spain. The organization, of course, maintains its focus on the LGBTQ community living within Morocco. The first magazine that focused on LGBTQ issues in Morocco, Milthy, was produced by KifKif.[12] Recently, KifKif has changed directions, as the magazine Milthy is out of print and the group now primarily focuses on assisting LGBTQ individuals that wish to emigrate or obtain refugee status in Spain.[13] KifKif also works closely with other advocacy organizations and transnational groups. One issue concerning activism noted by KifKif is that many of the groups in Morocco have different agendas and viewpoints on how to address grievances.[14] Due to these differences, cooperation among these organizations has been minimal.

Established in 2009, the Mouvement alternative pour les libertes individuelles (MALI) advocates for secularism and democracy in Morocco with a focus on feminist ideologies. However, MALI is not solely a feminist organization, and the group strongly advocates for LGBTQ rights as well.[15] Other notable feminist organizations with ties to LGBTQ rights are L’Union Feministe Libre (UFL) and Nassawiyat. UFL was able to obtain legal status in 2018. While legally organizing has been difficult for most LGBTQ groups, UFL was able to acquire legality since its primary purpose is to advance women’s rights.[16] Nassawiyat is similar to the Tunisian organization Chouf, whose primary function is to advocate for LGBTQ women.[17] Lastly, the association Akaliyat is well-known for also founding a popular LGBTQ magazine for the region.[18] Akaliyat has more recently initiated a project directed toward the medical community, with the goal of creating a network of LGBTQ-friendly doctors to promote safety and comfort for those needing medical care.[19]

Out of the three Maghrebi states, Algeria is the most restrictive as it pertains to civil society organizations. The law effectively bans any associations whose agenda goes against “public morality,” which includes LGBTQ activism.[20] On accountof this, most organizations work clandestinely. However, unlike in Morocco, other human rights organizations rarely work with LGBTQ groups due to the legal risks involved or their unwillingness to see LGBTQ rights as a critical area of human rights.[21] The Alouen association is one of the more prominent groups in Algeria. They currently advocate for LGBTQ rights as well as place emphasis on HIV aids education and protection. Furthermore, Alouen created Algeria’s first LGBT magazine, El Shad.[22] Abu Nawas, an organization founded in 2007, established a national LGBTQIA day, recognized by the community and their allies on the 10th of October. In 2010, the founder of Abu Nawas, Yahia Zaidi, proceeded to become a co-founder of MantiQitna. This transnational advocacy network works to organize other groups to advance LGBTQ rights throughout the MENA region. MantiQitna and the Alouen association have notably addressed their grievances to the United Nations Human Rights Council.[23] The promotion of cooperation among LGBTQ groups sets Algerian organizations apart from those in Morocco. In this highly restrictive environment, organization leaders recognize that cooperation is necessary for their success.

It is undeniable that the LGBTQ community in the MENA region is in crisis. Finding a solution to mitigate their plights is difficult, and civil society organizations are a necessary force that may direct change. While Tunisia has the potential to make great strides, the Algerian and Moroccan governments’ restrictive laws on civil society have dampened the ability of LGBTQ associations to operate. One solution is to focus on international organizations that can assist domestic groups from outside with minimal government control. Awareness must be given to not only the discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community but also the inability of organizations to exist without legal punishment or abuse by other citizens and authorities. We cannot take the work of these domestic organizations for granted. While they fight for the rights of their members, they are also fighting for their own survival.


[1]   Edna Tarigan, Mariam Fam and David Crary, “Across vast Muslim world, LGBTQ people remain marginalized,” AP News, 6 December 2022. https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-religion-europe-05020d7baa9f0d5f0b3088e80d0797e9

[2]   Lucas Ramon Mendos, Kellyn Botha, Rafael Carrano Lelis, Enrique López de la Peña, Ilia Savelev and Daron Tan, “State-Sponsored Homophobia 2020: Global Legislation Overview Update,” ILGA World. December 2020. https://ilga.org/downloads/ILGA_World_State_Sponsored_Homophobia_report_
global_legislation_ overview_update_December_2020.pdf.

[3]   Micaela Alvarado, “Pride Month and Morocco’s Ongoing Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights,” Morocco World News, 12 June 2021. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2021/06/342866/pride-month-and-moroccos-ongoing-fight-for-lgbtq-rights.

[4]   Lucas Ramon Mendos, Kellyn Botha, Rafael Carrano Lelis, Enrique López de la Peña, Ilia Savelev and Daron Tan, “State-Sponsored Homophobia 2020: Global Legislation Overview Update,” ILGA World. December 2020. https://ilga.org/downloads/ILGA_World_State_Sponsored_Homophobia_report_
global_legislation_ overview_update_December_2020.pdf.

[5] “Tunisia: Attack on Director of LGBT Group,” Human Rights Watch, 28 October 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/28/tunisia-attack-director-lgbt-group

[6]   Suraj Girijashanker, “Activism and Resilience: LGBTQ Progress in the Middle East and North Africa,” OutRight Action International and The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, 2018. https://www.42d.org/2020/09/11/activism-and-resilience-lgbtq-progress-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/

[7]   Samer Anabtawi. “Snatching Legal Victory: LGBTQ Rights Activism and Contestation in the Arab World”, Arab Law Quarterly 36, 4-5 (2022): 383-421.

[8] Haïfa Mzalouat, “LGBT Rights in Tunisia: The Fight Will Be Televised,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, 17 June 2016, https://www.boell.de/en/2016/06/17/lgbt-rights-tunisia-fight-will-be-televised

[9]   John Gugg, “Diritti: Mounir Baatour, il primo candidato gay alle presidenziali della Tunisia, si è sposato a Marsiglia,” Focus on Africa, 21 December 2022. https://www.focusonafrica.info/diritti-mounir-baatour-il-primo-candidato-gay-alle-presidenziali-della-tunisia-si-e-sposato-a-marsiglia/.

[10] Girijashanker, Activism and Resilience

[11] Girijashanker, Activism and Resilience

[12] Gert Van Langendonck, “MOROCCO: New magazine braves risks to give voice to Arab homosexuals.” Los Angeles Times, 28 April 2010. https://www.latimes.com/archives/blogs/babylon-beyond/story/2010-04-28/morocco-new-magazine-braves-risks-to-give-voice-to-arab-homosexuals

[13] “Kif-Kif?: Know us,” KifKif, 2022. https://kifkif.info/somos/conocenos/

[14] Katherine E. Hirsch. “A Critical Analysis of the Public Sphere: How the LGBTQ Movement Utilizes and Occupies Space in Morocco.” 2016. https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/2380

[15] Girijashanker, Activism and Resilience.

[16] Girijashanker, Activism and Resilience

[17] Nissawayat, “Loubya in the Time of Corona,” 2020. https://nassawiyat.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/3-Updated-Version-Rapport-Nassawiyat-English.pdf.

[18] Benjamin Ale-Ebrahim, ““Your Chance to Make Your Voice Heard”: Akaliyat Magazine and the Creation of a Queer Community in Morocco,”Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective: Vol. 14: No. 2, Article 7. 15 November 2019.

[19] Girijashanker. Activism and Resilience

[20] Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), Memorandum: Assessment of Law 12-06 of 12 January 2012 on Associations, 14 February 2012. https://www.refworld.org/docid/51500d682.html 

[21] Human Rights Watch Skype interview with Zoheir Djazeiri, TransHomoDZ, September 11, 2017.

[22] Dorothée Myriam Kellou, “Behind the scenes with Algeria’s first LGBT magazine,” France 24, 12 March 2014. https://observers.france24.com/en/20141203-algeria-first-lgbt-magazine-gay.

[23]  “Country Policy and Information Note Algeria: Sexual orientation and gender identity,” British Government, 7 October 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/algeria-country-policy-and-information-notes.

Image Credits: Dnai Tsoutreli, Unsplash, “Morocco”