Inside Tunisia's Shams Rad - the Arab world's 'only gay radio station'

By Ed Ram
BBC News, Tunis

Media caption,
Bouhdid Belhedi says his radio station now has 10,000 weekly listeners across 15 countries

Homosexuality is both illegal and widely considered to be unacceptable in Tunisia. But since the 2011 revolution, activists have seen that standing up for their beliefs can result in change. Now LGBT people are gaining confidence and are coming out of the shadows to push for equal rights.

"I was the first person to annoy people in the media and speak openly about LGBT issues in Tunisia on air," says Bouhdid Belhedi, director of Shams Rad.

In the Tunisian capital, Tunis, the 25-year-old shows us around an office space that has been converted into what he calls "the Arab world's first LGBT radio station".

It is low budget but professional, with enough space for seven contributors. The corridors are painted in the colours of the LGBT rainbow flag.

Mr Belhedi says that six months after the station was set up, it has 10,000 listeners each week across 15 countries, and is streamed online and live via YouTube six days a week.

The station plays music and issues are discussed in depth but LGBT contributors don't identify themselves as sexually active on air.

Image caption,
The other people who work at Shams Rad did not want to be identified

The Dutch embassy in Tunis is partly funding the station and after international pressure and a legal challenge, the station's parent organisation, Shams, was officially recognised. This is believed to be the first time any LGBT group has gained this status in North Africa.

When the station started, Western media attention focused on the abuse Mr Belhedi was receiving.

People are angry the station exists. Mr Belhedi says he has received 4,700 messages of abuse, including death threats and "even imams calling for me to be to be killed or beaten up".

He has also been physically assaulted.

Gay and lesbian sex is punishable by up to three years in prison in Tunisia and it was only last year that the government said it would stop forced anal examinations for people suspected of homosexuality.

A presidential commission, the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, has recommended that homosexuality be decriminalised, part of a package of reforms including abolition of the death penalty and greater rights for women.

A more modest alternative proposed by the committee is the replacement of prison terms for homosexual activity with a fine.

However, it is unclear whether these proposals have any hope of being adopted.

Image caption,
Shams Rad's equipment is low budget but professional

Outside liberal metropolitan circles, the majority of people in Tunisia follow traditional cultural and religious thinking. Homosexuality is a taboo and LGBT issues are often dismissed.

"In the mainstream national media, the Arabic words that are normally used to refer to homosexuals have negative connotations," says Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher at campaign group Human Rights Watch. "They translate as pervert or deviant."

"That's what organisations like Shams are trying to change," she says.

And that is why Mr Belhedi says it is important to keep broadcasting. The station aims to promote "the dignity of LGBT people" and "equality in the eyes of the law, equal rights and equal treatment," he says.

'Watershed moment'

Tunis hairstylist Abdisslem Ben Othmen, 24, says he listens every day.

He says the station has helped him to "feel stronger" and has made him confident that he can "live life as a homosexual in private" in Tunisia.

The government says that since the 2011 revolution, people have been free to express themselves however they like, within the law.

However, the Tunisian Ministry for Human Rights declined the BBC's request for an interview on the subject of homosexual rights in the country.

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"The revolution was a watershed moment," says Ms Ghoshal. "People stood up for their rights and saw that they didn't need to suffer in silence."

The picture is still mixed but the climate for LGBT is changing.

While the government at times arbitrarily shuts down LGBT activism, before the revolution the existence of an LGBT radio station would have been unthinkable.

"Recently there have been real strides in women's right movements. And that's encouraged LGBT people to speak out," says Ms Ghoshal.

An LGBT film festival was staged in central Tunis in January 2018.

"It was a success and the government or police didn't interfere," says Ms Ghoshal.

But she warns that "there could be increased violence against LGBT activists as their voice gets more prevalent - both trends happen in parallel".

Image caption,
Imam Shihab al-Din Tlesh disapproves of Radio Shams

In the religious world, some are saying that there is a need for modernisation in attitudes.

Progressive religious scholars recently held a three-day conference on how religious identity can be squared with freedom of expression in North Africa.

It was one of the first of its kind.

"I personally think the LGBT discussion has a place in modern Islamic discourse," says Abeljaleel Salem, a former minister for religious affairs.

Mr Salam, who chaired one of the discussions, says that everyone should have the liberty to express their identity freely.

'We're not calling for them to be executed'

Within the religious context, this is a progressive standpoint and is not shared by the traditional majority, whose minds will not be changed easily, if at all.

"Radio Shams was launched to promote ideas which are morally not acceptable in Tunisian society," says Shihab al-Din Tlesh from the National Council of Imams at a mosque in the north of Tunis.

"We're not calling for them to be executed but I think they are ill and need treatment," he says.

Back in the Shams Rad studio, they say it is too early to tell whether the station will change policy but the conversation will continue to be broadcast.

Mr Belhedi is getting less abuse online now than when the station was first started.

"When current LGBT activists were coming to terms with their identity, they would often feel isolated, like they were the only person like it in the world," Ms Ghoshal explains.

"Now in Tunisia, if a young person feels like they are different, organisations like Shams Rad tell them they are not alone."

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