Zanzibar’s Gay Community Fears Tough New Law Will Force It into Twilight
Guardian, June 2, 2004
119 Farringdon Rd., London EC1 3ER England
By Jeevan Vasagar in Zanzibar
Sabri Ali sashays through the narrow alleys of Stone
Town, the warren of 19th century streets at the heart of Zanzibar, attracting
delight and disapproval in equal measure. Children glance at him curiously and
teenagers mimic his catwalk strut. Some men give him hostile stares. A woman
in a bui bui, the flowing black veil worn by Muslim women on the east African
coast, calls out in Swahili: “By Allah, he looks fine!”
And he does. Sabri’s eyebrows are plucked, his glossy
hair is swept back and he has dressed for the evening in an olive-green
trouser suit and a ruffled, black satin blouse.
But few gay men on Zanzibar dare to be so bold. Last
month, legislators passed a bill bringing in stiffer penalties for gay sex, a
sign that a mood of conservatism may be creeping over the traditionally
tolerant island. As in most African societies, homosexuals in Zanzibar have
been regarded with disapproval and scorn, but until recently there was a
willingness on the island to turn a blind eye to discreet gay relationships.
Although, contrary to earlier press reports men convicted
of gay sex will not risk being jailed for life, the crackdown has caused
dismay among members of the gay community.
Once the new law is approved by the island’s president,
Amani Karume, gay sex acts will be punishable by up to five years in prison,
while gay partners who celebrate a “marriage” will face up to seven
years’ behind bars.
Homosexuality was already illegal, but the penalties were
toughened after two gay men outraged conservative opinion by publicly
celebrating their “marriage” at one of the island’s hotels last year.
Othman Masoud, the director of public prosecutions on
Zanzibar, said: “In the past, this was a closed society and very religious.
Those who were doing this kind of thing were doing it in private. But now it
is becoming much more public, and causing public concern.
“We cannot allow our society to crumble, to decay like
Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean island 25 miles off the
Tanzanian coast—the birthplace of the late rock star
Freddie Mercury—has got a thriving, if covert, gay
scene. Certain clubs and bars are known to be occasional gay hang-outs. At the
Bwawani hotel, where the gay “marriage” was celebrated last year, men meet
to flirt and sometimes dance with each other on a Tuesday night. At the Garage
bar in Stone Town, the cultural heart of Zanzibar, Monday is the unofficial
The scene is dominated by casual and often anonymous sex.
Some of the men involved are married, and matters are complicated by the fact
that many do not regard themselves as homosexual, even if they have got
“In Swahili a gay man is known as a msenge,” one gay
Zanzibari explained. “He is the passive one. The active one is called the
basha. He gets respect and he will not call himself gay.”
The dishonesty around gay sex tends to encourage dubious
relationships. Ahmed, a hairdresser, is openly gay, but prefers to conduct
affairs with married men.
“When someone is married they respect you, because they
are afraid of being found out,” Ahmed explained at a dimly lit salon
decorated with posters of women’s haircuts and a newspaper picture of his
heart-throb, the actor and singer Will Smith. “And I like to play around. If
someone is married, they will not have time to see anyone else, but I am free
to get another man.”
Health workers fear that the advent of a more repressive
climate in Zanzibar could trigger an increase in HIV/Aids infections.
Ricardo Fernández, the project coordinator for a Spanish
medical aid agency, said: “This measure will increase the stigma of
homosexuality and increase the risks, by making homosexuals behave more
The legislation is also likely to entrench the repressed
attitudes to homosexuality, making gay men even more cautious about openly
identifying themselves, and more fearful of being caught.
“In the past, it was simple,” said one gay man who
runs an Aids charity on the island. “You would look at somebody and if you
wanted them, you would call them over—as long as you didn’t call them gay.
But with the new law, you need to know if you can trust them.”
The changes in the law have been supported by the Islamic
Awareness Society, a Muslim pressure group which wants Zanzibar to adopt
Although Muslims on the island have traditionally
practised a gentle and tolerant brand of the faith, there have been occasional
flare-ups of violence, thought to have been inspired by Islamist militants.
About 90% of Zanzibar’s one million people are Muslim.
In March, a spate of bomb attacks, including a
hand-grenade which was tossed into a tourist restaurant while a British
diplomat was having dinner, was blamed on Muslim radicals.
The director of public prosecutions said that criminal
cases were unlikely if the island’s gay population behaved with discretion.
He said: “So far as that [homosexuality] is done in private, it is not the
concern of prosecutors.
“But when it is in public, that is our concern—like when the two men openly celebrated
their union at the Bwawani hotel. That caused a lot of complaints from the
public. This is not a question of trying to spy on the private life of
somebody, but when it is done publicly, there will be concern.”
Even if prosecutions turn out to be rare, the new law on
the statute books gives an effective tool for blackmail and repression.
Sabri Ali, who sings traditional taarab music at a
Zanzibar club, is already aware of the cost of being different. Sometimes he
is feted in the streets, but at other times youths have called out insults and
thrown stones at him. He was ostracised by his family after his younger
brother shaved off his hair and locked him in his bedroom for four days in a
futile attempt to stop him being gay.
Now he fears having to conceal his sexuality.
“I want to be free,” he said. “I don’t want this
law. But maybe I will have to change the way that I dress.”
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