Tales of taboo: Homosexuality in Africa

In East Africa, Homosexuality and lesbianism is totally taboo. At best the  the attitude is to ignore homosexuality, at worst, there are deaths, “corrective rape” of lesbians in South Africa, and communities vilifying and occasionally killing gay citizens.

‘We’ve been together for 15 years,’ says Amina*, 35, married with two children, adjusting her burkhah and niquab.  She is fully veiled; only her mobile phone, customised with trinkets and baubles, hint at individuality. ‘We knew each other from school,’ says Amina. ‘I courted her slowly,  watched her, gave her clues with my eyes, sent her SMS (text) messages, brought her gifts, oud (perfume, usually jasmine or frankinsense). It was, and is, really important it’s secret; we meet only in my bedroom, I would bring shame on my family if they knew.’

Although lesbianism is not actually illegal on Zanzibar, it’s taken over six months of Chinese whispers to set this interview up. The deal is that it has to be done in private, in a place far from any interviewees neighbourhoods, and in the middle of the day, with no real names or photos. And yet, ironically, anyone with an interest in lesbianism will happily tell you it’s everywhere here in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa.

At  Raju; the only gay and lesbian bar on the island, the atmosphere is staid. Everyone is seated, the atmosphere quiet and the women older, some in burkahs, many dressed to the nines in glittering dresses and low necklines. There are couples, some women in matching clothes, but no outward displays of affection. There are no exclusively lesbian clubs, bars, cafés, no social or political associations offering support, counselling and social networks for lesbians, nor gays at all in Zanzibar or Tanzania. Women and men rely on secrecy and  international internet sites for information and support. Tanzania is slightly more accommodating than our neighbour Uganda, where gay citizens risk death or imprisonment if a recently-revived Bill becomes law.

Across the African continent homophobia seems to be burgeoning: both ideologically, and violently. Barak Obama said this week he is deeply alarmed by the treatment of lesbian, gays and transgender people, and will be looking at linking aid with the treatment of  lesbian and gay citizens. This is important as many NGO’s here ignore homophobia and are actively conservative, preaching against the use of condoms in a bizarre leap of logic between abstinence and heterosexuality. Condoms, for many here. gives permission to people to sleep around, including having gay (male) sex. The reaction of the Ugandan Presidential Advisor, John Nagenda —  “If the Americans think the can tell us what to do, they can go to hell” —  is not, sadly, unique, or unusual (though Malawi did announce today that it will review it’s anti-gay laws).

And David Cameron’s sentiments, whilst worthy, do not really bear scrutiny — there are no Lesbian, Gay or Transgender projects supported by DFID here on the continent anyway.

In Nigeria, where homosexuality is already illegal,  a new bill has been approved that will imprison for 10 years “Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly make public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria”. Nigerian Lesbian activist Osazeme O speaks for many when she says “ The bill is a distraction. There are so many other things our government could be doing right now Nigeria, people here are concerned with, ‘Will I have light when I get home? Will I have running water?’ Things like that. If we open this gate to this kind of discrimination, what next?”

A common perception here is that it’s illegal under Islam or that gay people are indoctrinated or “Westernised”. Homosexuality is “unnatural” and a threat to social, moral and cultural values. With the exception of South Africa, where lesbians and gays are the cultural emblem of liberal, party-loving Cape Town, and global ambassadors for all kinds of radical HIV activism and arts work, much of Africa has a long way to go. South Africa is the only country on the continent that has a group of active, out HIV positive gay men, who do much to uncover the hypocrisy of the homophobia present.

The rise of Pentacostal and Evangelical churches, (with active strong  links to the USA) here in East Africa has seen a growing intolerance of gays and lesbians, which is associated with Westernism, paedophilia, sodomy, insanity and colonialism. The Muslim mosques and Christian churches in East Africa are vociferously, and often violently, against gays and lesbians. Workshops are held to “make people straight”. It’s even regarded as a mental illness. Variously associated with witchcraft, “shetani” (evil spirits), being “Kafir” (a non-believer, an infidel) or anti-culture, homosexuality is not just a sexual preference, it’s a lifestyle that can cost your life.

Anecdotally, many men and  women in Tanzania and Zanzibar are killed by the Askari Jamani (a vigilante community police force) for having same sex affairs: This is not even considered newsworthy, so accepted is it.

When a local Zanzibar radio phone-in recently tackled this thorny issue of lesbianism, only one caller over five hours had anything positive to say, and she was a Kenyan lesbian. In South Africa the “corrective rape” of lesbian women has received media attention.

But the evidence of lesbianism and gays in Africa is centuries old. The chronicles of the Ibo in Nigeria, the Kouria in Tanzania, members of the Sudanese elite — all feature lesbians. And in Zanzibar, where strict segregation of men and women is the norm, there are plenty of places where people meet illicitly for sex: hair salons, each other’s homes, after the mosque. Massage in hair salons is very common here, and one thing often leads to another…

One completely culturally specific perk of being gay on Zanzibar, Lamu and other Tanzanian coastal areas, is that an older lesbian lover brings status, security and respect.

According to Fatima*, “Older, strong women, with good jobs, salaries and status, often take younger lesbian ‘wives’. They support the younger woman with food, social connections and help getting work, and in return, there’s sex involved. But we would NEVER call it lesbianism; it’s just one of those things in Zanzibar. We were colonised by the Persians and the Omanis; lesbianism is in these Arab cultures — look at the poems — but it’s behind closed doors. Behind the veil, if you like! We are socially isolated, we are teased, talked about, but I don’t care, I am strong.”

Maryam* is a prominent artist and civil servant. She says she’s happy to be seen as lesbian when she travels abroad to America and Europe, but would never dream of being out in Zanzibar. She organises the women’s football team that plays in Zanzibar’s main football ground. It’s a place where lesbian women meet. The team are a collection of women playing football in full hijab. Only “Father” is dressed like a man: she’s an out transgender woman, and has relationships with women. “I am able to marry women because really I am a man. I know I am, they know I am, so it’s ok. It’s not wasagaji,” she explains, using the local perjorative slang term for lesbianism — it means grinding. So here’s the rub; anything goes, as long as you keep up heterosexual appearances.

Women’s sexual pleasure is a completely taboo subject, although it wasn’t in the 50s and 60s, when Zanzibar was “the Paris of Africa”. Older Zanzibari women recall the “kibuki” and “kidumbak” – highly secretive nocturnal rituals from which men are excluded. The kabuki is a spiritual invocation for sexual power and attractiveness. Over copious cups of konyagi (the local gin), women harness the mystical power of female sexuality. The kidumbak is a night-long event of overtly sexual music, seduction techniques and dances, where women mimic  explicit sexual positions with each other.

Through the grapevine, I speak to a lesbian Taarab singer, Khadija Buruma*. She tries to explain the contradiction to me. “We live in an intensely private and secretive society, where gossip is everything. If you are public about being a lesbian then you bring shame on yourself and all your family and neighbours, it’s completely un-Zanzibari. But if you do it in private, or at a Taarab, no-one really cares. You need to keep your reputation  and ‘face’ in order to function in society – deal with the government, do business. The only other people who know if you are lesbian are at the Taarab or kibuki too, and they won’t talk. They can’t take the risk of being called lesbians too.”

Uganda’s outrageous Anti-Homosexuality Bill was rejected last year in parliament, and with the death of activist David  Kato in January 2011, for a brief moment the issue hit the global press. However since October 2011 there are moves to reinvigorate it: in Uganda gay citizens repeatedly caught having sex face execution, while people “who touch each other in a gay way” could be jailed. The death penalty will apply automatically if one partner is under 18, has a disability or is HIV-positive. This punitive and regressive law seems to reflect the feelings of many in Uganda and the surrounding countries; there’s a shocking disconnect between what people in this part of the world do behind closed doors and what they will admit to in public.


Journalists’ safety key focus for World Press Freedom Day conference

Journalists from around the world are marking UNESCO’s 20th annual World Press Freedom Day in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Driven by the deaths of 600 journalists over the past decade, this year’s conference — a series of panels, workgroups and ceremonies — is devoted to the theme of promoting safety and ending impunity for journalists, bloggers and everyday citizens who cross red lines to speak their minds. The gathering also honours journalists who have been attacked, imprisoned or died for their work. Of the 600 killed, only in 10 percent of cases have those responsible been punished.

This year’s theme is on promoting safety and ending impunity for journalists, bloggers, media workers and everyday citizens who cross red lines to speak their minds. The annual 3 May conference is a series UNESCO hosts a series of panels, workshops and ceremonies to evaluate global press freedom and to honour journalists who have been attacked, imprisoned or died for their work. 

Journalists gathered in Costa Rica to mark World Press Freedom Day. Photo: Brian Pellot / Index on Censorship

Journalists gathered in Costa Rica to mark World Press Freedom Day. Photo: Brian Pellot / Index on Censorship

Most of the first day’s sessions provided analysis of the dangers journalists face.

In societies where journalists feel unsafe or where attacks against them go unpunished, a culture of self censorship often emerges. Javier Darío Restrepo, a journalist and writer from Colombia, said journalists self censor to survive, but in doing so they cease to be a voice of the powerless in their societies. Building on that point, OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media Dunja Mijatović described the right of journalists to carry out their work without fear — an important prerequisite for media freedom in society.

One common reference on day one of the conference was the recently published UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity – which Index on Censorship contributed to. The plan calls on UN agencies, member states, NGOs and media organisations to work together in promoting the safety of journalists and raising awareness of the primary threats they face.

Adnan Rehmat, executive director at Intermedia Pakistan, said the main issues facing press freedom in his country are that attacks on journalists are not recognised as attacks on freedom of expression. One positive development he mentioned was the establishment of a Pakistan Journalist Safety Fund to provide assistance for journalists in distress.

In the same discussion, Andrés Morales, executive director of La Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa in Colombia, cited a recent attack on noted Colombian investigative journalist Ricardo Calderon as indicative of the wider problems facing journalists in the region and around the world. Colombia has seen a markeddecline in the number of journalists murdered in the past decade, which he attributes in part to a protection programme for journalists but also to self censorship. Many journalists believe that if they don’t write about sensitive issues, they won’t be punished for their words.

In a panel devoted specifically to freedom of expression in Costa Rica, local journalist Mauricio Herrera Ullola outlined some of the greatest obstacles media professionals face in his country today. By some measures, Costa Rica’s press can be considered free. But “crimes against honour” are still prosecuted criminally and carry a penalty of up to 100 days in prison if someone feels personally insulted by a journalist’s story. Herrera Ullola said that media ownership is very concentrated, self-censorship is common, and current laws around slander and libel can be chilling in Costa Rica. He also said the country needs freedom of information laws to promote greater transparency and access to public records.

Several speakers described great improvements for the rights of women, indigenous populations, youth and sexual minorities across Latin America in recent decades, but agreed that many countries in the region still have work to do to ensure full freedom of expression. Colombia and Mexico are both on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ top 10 list of deadliest countries for journalists, a clear sign that freedom of expression remains under attack in the region.

In a poignant moment during the conference’s first day, one delegate asked whether journalists dying on the job is an occupational hazard; an unavoidable price society must pay for good journalism and ultimately for the truth. Adnan Rehmat from Intermedia Pakistan responded: “The price of journalism should not be more than feeling tired after a long day’s work.”

Brian Pellot is Index on Censorship’s Digital Policy Adviser. UNESCO’s three days of events for World Press Freedom Day in Costa Rica complement dozens of local and regional events around the world. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianpellot (along with the hashtags #wpfd and #pressfreedom) as he reports on the rest of the conference, and read the full programme of events in Costa Rica here.

World Press Freedom Day

European Union: Is the European Union faltering on media freedom?
Tunisia: Press faces repressive laws, uncertain future
Egypt: Post-revolution media vibrant but partisan
Brazil: Press confronts old foes and new violence

Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”

Tyrant of the year 2022: Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua

There is nothing more disappointing (or predictable) than a revolutionary hero turned tyrant. In the great tradition of Lenin and Castro, Ortega promised a new dawn as the leader of the rebel Sandinista National Liberation Front which opposed the Somoza family dictatorship in the late 1970s.  

Ortega first took power in 1979 after the overthrow of the regime and served until 1990, first as the head of the Junta of National Reconstruction and then as President. After an absence of 17 years, he was re-elected in 2007 and has remained in office ever since. His rule has become increasingly brutal with crackdowns on his former political allies and opponents to his autocratic methods.

Protests against his regime began in 2014 over plans to grant a concession to a Chinese businessman to build the Nicaragua Canal. Protests were led by local campesinos whose faced the expropriation of their land. Further protests by indigenous people who blamed the government for forest fires flared in 2018 and compounded by opposition to tax increases and benefit reductions.

According to Human Rights Watch, Ortega has dismantled nearly all institutional checks on his presidential power. Opposition parties were banned in advance of the 2021 presidential elections and opponents imprisoned. Civil society has been neutered and an estimated 2,000 NGOs closed down with organisations receiving funding from international sources labelled as foreign agents. Over 100 journalists have been forced into exile in Costa Rica along with an estimated 80,000 asylum seekers.

In elections held in November 2022, the Sandinista Liberation Front announced it had won control of all 153 municipalities in the country. The result was inevitable after the banning of all opposition parties.

“For his critics, the Nicaraguan president has recreated a family dictatorship on the lines of the hated Somozas. His vice-president Rosario Murillo would disagree. She described the recent elections as ‘an exemplary, marvellous formidable day in which we confirm our calling for people.’ But then she is Ortega’s wife,” says Index’s editor-at-large Martin Bright.