Secrecy, Stones and Insults: The Gay Life on Zanzibar
Reuters, November 8, 2004
By Helen Nyambura
ZANZIBAR—It’s the eve of
Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, but Hamedi says he will not set foot in a
mosque for the whole fasting period, or at any other time for that matter.
As a homosexual in the devoutly Islamic Indian Ocean
island, Hamedi is afraid other worshippers will attack him if he dares enter a
“They know I am gay, they throw stones at me on the
streets, they insult me. I don’t have time for them, I keep to my
business,” Hamedi said, asking that his name and profession be kept secret.
To the outside world, Zanzibar is a laid-back tourist’s
paradise but in recent months, Islamic groups have spearheaded a campaign to
cleanse the island of “corrupting” practices such as homosexuality and
In August, the government of the semi-autonomous island
archipelago that forms part of Tanzania, outlawed gay sex and set prison terms
of up to 25 years for men and seven years for lesbians. The law also set a
penalty of life imprisonment for sodomising a minor.
The government argues there has always been a law against
homosexuality, but that it was vague. Officials say the revised legislation is
effective because it defines clearly what parliament considers indecent sexual
The crackdown seems like a draconian measure to Hamedi,
who says he has always wanted to be a girl.
“It was my destiny, I couldn’t hide from it. I played
with girls and dolls. I want make-up and to look like a girl,” he said,
patting his long hair into place with graceful, manicured fingers.
He currently does not have a boyfriend, nor has he ever
slept with anyone’s husband.
“Men are liars, they just want to use you—male or
female,” Hamedi says resignedly.
Although Zanzibar is 95 percent Muslim, islanders say
homosexuality and bisexuality have been practised among its one million people
for as long as many can remember.
“There are Zanzibaris that we know, and are popular and
every Zanzibari knows that that particular person is gay,” said Ismail
Mohammed, who owns a popular restaurant and nightclub.
“Zanzibaris are hypocrites, we love to do things behind
Abilahi, another gay man, said very few men were
exclusively homosexual in Zanzibar.
“Gay people here are already married or go ahead and
get married. It is not seen as homosexuality as you know it in the West, it is
part of the culture here.”
Some islanders, like Farida, welcome the tough new law.
Farida married when she was only 18. Two years into the
marriage and with a second daughter on the way, she discovered that her
husband preferred the company of other men.
“His friends would tell me, ‘that is your
co-wife,’” Farida said referring to her husband’s male partner.
She divorced soon after she caught him in bed with a man.
“I was happy about the law and hope it will be
implemented,” she said.
However, few islanders believe the law will change
people’s lifestyles much.
“I think homosexuality is a filthy thing for society,
but I don’t think the law will do much to stop it,” said tour guide Jihad
Hassan. “Many things have been banned but that doesn’t stop people from
Zanzibar has long relied on tourism for much-needed
foreign exchange revenue, but the government’s recent move has prompted
travel agencies specialising in trips for gays and lesbians to threaten a
The government protests.
“Homosexuality has not yet been accepted
internationally. When you say you will boycott Zanzibar because of the issue
of homosexuality, then I think that is a very narrow way of thinking,” said
Zanzibar Minister of State Hassan Diria.
But there may be hope for a reprieve for Zanzibar’s gay
community. The main opposition party, the Civic United Front (CUF), say they
would amend the law if they came to power in elections due in 2005.
“In today’s world, human rights are given a very
prominent place. I feel there is need to review such laws that violate some
people’s basic human rights,” said Ismail Jussa Ladhu, CUF’s deputy
director of foreign affairs.
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