ifa: Originally you studied engineering at the National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technologies in Tunis. How did you get involved with your current occupation in the media and the topic of the CCP workshop Gender and Diversity?
Asma Abidi: It was shortly after the revolution in Tunisia in 2010/11 that I started to work in media and journalism. I wouldn't say that I am an LGBTQ1 activist. I describe myself as an ally. I am interested in discussing the medial challenges of this issue and the way the media frames the discussion around non-normative sexualities. Besides, I am a feminist, and for many years I was a human rights activist in Tunisia, occupying the streets after the revolution. My basic fight is for human rights, and I deal with the public sphere, government monitoring and corruption. I identify myself as a Pan-Africanist and a citizen of the world even though I have a lot of critique for this word. We struggle a great deal with on and offline mobility, not only as activists and journalists, but also as citizens.
ifa: How would you evaluate the media coverage about gender diversity in your country?
Abidi: I have the feeling that the intensive media coverage on homosexuality, their rights and fight against the oppressive laws actually produces the opposite effect. People think: 'Oh my God! What is this homosexuality that everyone’s talking about?' People feel that it is a direct threat. I can imagine different, more useful strategies for media coverage. In Tunisia, the media only talks about homosexuals and makes no difference between bisexuals, gays, lesbians or asexual people, probably because journalists themselves do not have enough background information. Since religion and related taboos are so strong, people cannot really tackle these topics in a pragmatic way. It is always a very emotional issue, and the media often contributes to the misconceptions of homosexuality.
'Activists are coming out online'
ifa: What is the situation for LGBTQ activists in Tunisia like?
Abidi: In the past four years, LGBTQ activists and associations have become more visible. We have a couple of registered organisations and their struggle is recognised as activism now. There are a lot of activists who are coming out online or people who are considered allies – people advocating and defending LGBTQ. We have a lot of Facebook groups and support communities. There is a big group campaigning for #MeToo in Tunisia and many people are speaking up against harassment, so it is not such a prevalent taboo anymore.
ifa: There is a huge potential in storytelling because stories go beyond numbers and statistics. Which formats are necessary to contribute to a more balanced media coverage about gender and sexual minorities?
Abidi: I don't think we should have specific media coverage that shows LGBTQ people as extraordinary because this framing is very critical. We should just speak about LGBTQ as normal members of society. They are our doctors, friends or neighbours. I think longer documentaries are a good form of storytelling, including in-depth interviews and following people and their struggles. We need more extensive stories, more analysis and more expert inputs. We should look for niche media such as podcasts that target specific communities and people. Among the most popular podcasts are ones from people of colour in the US or homosexuals in Kenya. We now have the first homosexual web radio in Tunisia. It is a growing medium for stories.
'Should we create our own narratives?'
ifa: How do you address the topic of inclusive language in your work?
Abidi: I belong to different kinds of online and offline communities. One of them is called Shaml, a collective of women and people who identify themselves as women. We speak about the language the media uses to frame or label persons and we monitor the media in Tunisia regarding hate speech or labelling terms. At the moment, we are communicating a lot about the conception of gender. It is important that we work on our own language in our own region and dialects. In Arabic there are different ways to say transwoman or men. Should we adapt certain terms or concepts, or should we decolonise these and create our own narratives? Even the people who do not directly identifying themselves with LGBTQ, who are cis2 or heterosexuals, contribute to the discussion and believe in basic human rights.
ifa: To what extent does security affect your work?
Abidi: After 2010, the security threats and censorship against activists and journalists declined. To a certain extent, we do have freedom of expression, but I don't think we are safe from threats, attacks or surveillance. I have the feeling that security measures for journalists and activists in Tunisia are quite underdeveloped. The new freedom gives most people the impression that they don't need to be concerned about this issue anymore. My next step would be to increase people’s knowledge and awareness about digital security. We have local organisations that coordinate workshops and journalists who follow the basics of double identification of passwords and so on, but these efforts are not that developed yet. Digital security is not rocket science, but sometimes we are just too apathetic. We think we are safe, but we definitely aren’t.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte
About Asma Abidi
Asma Abidi from Tunisia was a CCP fellow at the German NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT International) in 2014. She received her master’s degree in international media studies at the Deutsche Welle Academy/University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhein-Sieg in Bonn. Asma worked as a digital media trainer with the International Centre for Journalists to enhance the digital literacy of journalists and equip them with the tools for storytelling. She is currently a European Journalism Observatory fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin.
About CrossCulture Programme and 'Gender & Diversity'
On June 28, 1969, transsexuals and homosexuals resisted a police raid at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. A milestone in the LGBTIQ movement, which is celebrated worldwide with Christopher Street Day. But even 51 years after the so-called Stonewall Riots, the rights of sexual minorities worldwide are being restricted and LGBTIQ persons often face social stigmatization in their countries. ifa’s CrossCulture Programme provides a platform for LGBTIQ actors to engage in a global exchange together. In 2019, a first workshop on the topic of 'Gender & Diversity' was implemented for alumni of the programme. In the series 'Gender & Diversity' three interviews of alumni involved in the LGBTIQ movement are published.
1 LGBT, LGBTI+ or LGBTQIA – there are as many different ways of labeling the queer community worldwide as there are identities within it. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, but the more the community and the understanding of its diversity developed the more complex it became to put a label on it. The CCP team wants to give room to the different ways the authors choose to address it. Therefore, you will find different versions of the acronym. The CCP team itself decided to use 'LGBTIQ' which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual and queer or questioning.
2 cis or cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were born with.