Last edited: April 18, 2004

Gay Men Liable to Jail for Life in Zanzibar

The Guardian, March 25, 2004

By Jeevan Vasagar, east Africa correspondent

A moral panic over homosexuality in Zanzibar has prompted the island’s government to draft a law imposing life imprisonment for men convicted of gay sex. Homosexuality is already illegal on the Indian Ocean island and the gay scene is covert, but the draft bill appears to be a backlash against the increasing numbers of Zanzibaris living more openly gay lifestyles.

The proposed law bans same-sex marriages and sanctions a 25-year jail term for sex between men and a seven-year term for lesbians.

“We have heard that same-sex marriages have taken place here and we want to guard against this trend,” Zanzibar’s deputy attorney general, Omar Makungu, told the BBC.

Homosexuality is still largely taboo in Africa, and bigoted attitudes are held by the church and politicians, but the east African coast has traditionally taken a more tolerant approach. While there are no gay clubs or bars, coastal regions like Zanzibar, and Lamu and Malindi in Kenya, are popular destinations for gay tourists.

The clampdown follows a same-sex marriage reportedly celebrated publicly on the island last year.

There is scepticism about whether Zanzibar’s authorities will put the law into practice, or whether it is simply a sop to conservative opinion on the Muslim-dominated island.

“I don’t think the police are going to go looking for homosexuals in the clubs,” Mr Karim said. “They are just putting out a new law to show the government is serious. It’s a political issue. Because some people are saying openly they are homosexual and are not afraid, the government is showing it is going to take some action.”

Zanzibar and nearby Pemba island enjoy a degree of autonomy within the Tanzanian republic, which already has a law, inherited from the British colonial era, which penalises homosexuality with up to 14 years’ jail, though it is rarely enforced.

African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, regularly fulminate against homosexuality as a practice illustrating western decadence and alien to Africa.

However, anthropologists have documented cases of “male wives” on the continent in pre-colonial times and the main opposition to homosexual equality is from the churches bearing Victorian attitudes to sex.

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