Last edited: November 08, 2004

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 mosque.

“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 alcohol.

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 practices.

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 the door.”

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 doing them.”

Human Rights

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 boycott.

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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