Last edited: June 10, 2004

Zanzibar’s Gay Community Fears Tough New Law Will Force It into Twilight Zone

The Guardian, June 2, 2004
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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 this.”

Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean island 25 miles off the Tanzanian coastthe birthplace of the late rock star Freddie Mercuryhas 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 gay night.

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 boyfriends.

“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 secretively.”

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 overas 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 sharia law.

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 concernlike 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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