Custom Search

Gays in Francophone Africa (Part 4)

James Doughty
Student, French & Political Science Department
Montclair State University
New Jersey
Spring 2009

It seems that indeed Islam and homosexuality can exist, with the appropriate cultural perspective, peacefully together, without being mutually exclusive; even from the highly emotional point of view of religion.

Islam only gives one explicit reference to male-male homosexuality in the Qur’an, but fails to define and give a punishment, leaving it very vague and open to interpretation. From its lack of giving ‘adequate’ punishment, it can be surmised that the punishment doesn’t need to be physical, probably just a verbal lashing or insult. Even with the Hadith, and its contradictory statements, it is this contradiction that makes any arguments, whether for or against, invalid at worst, and strongly debatable at best. There are too many disparaging point of views regarding the issue of homosexuality to come to a clear, concise decision on where the Prophet actually stood on the issue. Also, important to note and mention, from a religious point of view, if the only qualifications to be a ‘good’ Muslim are indeed to follow the five pillars, then there is no contradiction of ethics or morals, because the Pillars do not discuss sexuality of any kind, heterosexual or homosexual.

Throughout most mentions of homosexual studies, regardless of the geographic area of interest, there is always one group that is overlooked, not on purpose, and not for any malicious reason, but just because when fighting for gay rights, in whatever context, the people that come to the forefront are gay men, never the other half of the gay population: women. The struggle of gay women (lesbians) in Francophone Africa is perhaps even more difficult than their male counterparts for one vital reason: they’re women. In her essay explaining the difficulty of homosexuality in Africa, Deborah Amory brings up this very subject. She asks, “And where are the women? This was another difficulty we faced…The question of women’s representation has been a historically vexed on in African studies.” She goes on to mention that even though she was able to find some, limited entries in her Sociofile database by the subject “homosexuality and Africa” she was only able to find entries that focused on gay men. 35

Of course this raises important questions, the biggest one being: why? Why aren’t women more represented in this research? Why aren’t their more entries and studies based upon lesbian activities in Francophone Africa? Unfortunately, the answers are extremely disappointing. It is not from a lack of interest, or some inherent patriarchy anti-feminist branch of sociology which only cares about the ‘gay man’s struggle.’ In fact, most gay men, and especially gay scholars, are feminists and would welcome a further investigation to the lesbian fight for rights and equality throughout not only Francophone Africa, but throughout the rest of the world. Amory answers these questions, much to her dissatisfaction by saying “There are a few obvious answers to these questions. One is that women in the academy and in African Studies are too vulnerable to risk their careers on ‘controversial’ topics. African women have argued that their feminism centers not on sexuality, but on the economics and politics of mere survival in present-day Africa…36 ” Basically, it seems that the answers to the pre-mentioned questions revolve around two things: fear and the fight for social equality, not as lesbians, but as human beings first.

There is another hurdle that lesbian women in Francophone Africa have to fight through, that being the messy subject of Islam. Though Islam has made some mention of its stance (however vague) on male-male homosexuality, it says nothing regarding lesbian relationships. The assumption of course being, that because women are naturally subservient to their husbands and men in general, if men are not ‘allowed’ to partake in homosexuality, then for women it is not only forbidden, but unthinkable. Correlating with this thought, the punishment would also be much more severe.

Even the romanticized notion of the Harem is something to question. Stephen Murray notes in his essay “Woman-Woman Love in Islamic Societies” that “Sexual relations between women within harems has been more supposed than observed.” He goes on to note that beyond his references at the end of his essay, works and publications focusing strictly on Islamic lesbian relationships, is limited and needs further research. 37 Unfortunately, with the natural subservient role of women both in religion and in every day society, it is more difficult for a lesbian within a Francophone African context to emerge safely and productively. As in most cases in social movements, women are once more pushed to the back burner of the ‘revolution.’ Even though there are significant advances concerning the topic of homosexuality in Africa, such as the GLAS (Gays and Lesbians in African Studies) organization, men still dominate the field. As further proof of the predominantly male concentration in the construction of this field of study, is the fact that five of the six articles used (including the online accounts of gay life in Francophone Africa) were all written by men, with little to no acknowledgement of lesbians as peers, co-researchers or members of societies.

So is there anything for lesbians in Francophone Africa to really do? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple, in any way shape or form. They are indeed fighting a multiple level battle, against a society which places them as property of men; underneath a religion which doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of lesbianism, and in a cause which focuses primarily on the gay man’s struggle throughout history. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Gays and Lesbians in African Studies organizations are two groups that could significantly help lesbians by giving them the networking resources they need. However, even organizations meant to protect minorities sometimes fail, such as the four lesbians raped in Nigeria who were seeking refuge at a women’s shelter. Likewise, these organizations cannot interfere in a sovereign country’s government rule, they can only petition a government to cease an action or interfere in another country’s policy in favor of the individual or organization.

Though this works occasionally, it is a costly process which only assists one or two individuals in a terrible situation, even though there are significantly more people who exists the confines of daily suffering. Outside the religious and moral constraints, the cost of these interventions can, most often, extend into the political and economic realms. If an organization convinces its native country to interfere in another country’s sovereignty, multiple times, the affected country will grow to distrust and dislike the intervening country, and thus political ties are damaged or dismantled.

So if the fight for lesbians will not be productive, what can those bound within these countries and their allies to do? The answer is to continue working with gay men, as a unified front, without losing their own voice to the ‘cause.’ Unifying self identified gay French Africans together under one ‘cause’ is indeed a daunting task that would need to overcome both lingual and political boundaries, and one that cannot be handled as a Westerner would want to handle it. There are too many other factors in the way for this movement to be handled from an Occidental approach.

A Western political movement would be rallying around government offices, picketing or writing petitions. A Western political movement would be trying to appeal to the government’s sense of secularism and individual rights. Right from the beginning this method would fail in most Francophone African societies because of one thing: the heavy roots of Islam imbedded into the region. Jim Wafer says this idea perfectly by saying “In countries where Islam is the dominant religion, equal rights for gays and lesbians are unlikely to be achieved by means of secular arguments that do not pay due respect to the sacred sources of Islamic culture. Such an approach is more likely, as Khalid Duran points out, to result in a backlash against what is perceived as an attempt to impose the values of the former colonial powers.” He goes on to state the “Duran, who is one of the few Muslim scholars to have addressed homosexuality as a human rights issue, believes that the best hope for gays and lesbians in Muslim countries is to find some form of ‘theological accommodation’ with Islam…38

This accommodation begins with approaching Islam from a more homophilic point of view. This can be done by switching the argument from the ‘sin’ of homosexuality according to certain passages in both holy texts, to the commonality of same-sex attraction. Appealing to Islamist governments, and attempting to review the Sharia, or Islamic religious rule, from a gay friendlier point of view, will be the only way that gays and lesbians will have any chance of gaining some equality in the Muslim Francophone African context. It’s hard to imagine that the clerics and leaders of these countries and societies will accept these new points of views openly in public view, and with an open heart. Undoubtedly, it will create various conflicts which may end in either violence or bloodshed. Likewise, these new points of views regarding Islam will not change the hearts and minds of a people within a short period of time; social change takes a lot of time, usually decades before any progress effects government or social policies; even more so regarding religious change.

For proof of that, merely look at the gay rights struggle within the United States. Most gay rights activists feel that the gay rights movement in the US started with the Stonewall Riots of New York in 1969. Normally, cops would raid various known gay bars throughout Greenwich Village in New York City, with no other intent than harassment. This changed on the night of the Stonewall Riots, the gay patrons decided to fight back starting a movement that would sweep the country and continue to this very day. The Gay Rights Movement in the United States has been met with violence, fear and legislation. However, the members of the various gay rights organizations did not give up, and they continued to fight for their rights, by appealing to the secularism of the United States government. This worked, in certain cases such as in New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts where after several long bouts in court, each state was able to win significant steps in gay rights including civil unions, domestic partnerships, and in the case of Massachusetts, marriage; however, this same process failed to work in various other states, which continue to deny equality to same-sex couples based on religion and ‘family values.’

Though the Untied States methodology regarding gay rights should not be followed in Francophone Africa, the struggle within America can offer Francophones the gift of hope. Though undoubtedly faced with higher oppositions and stronger forces working against them, especially lesbians, gays in Francophone Africa can learn to not give up on their struggle in the face of governmental legislation and religious law. Moreover, with additional exposure, and the realization that everyone knows someone who enjoys same-sex relations, will help turn the tide in public opinion in Francophone Africa.

And for those who feel that the United States is not a good example for Franco-Africans, then there are two which will please those naysayers. The two examples, one Western and one non-Western can definitely offer some inspiration and hope. Spain is the perfect example of a Western nation accepting full marriage and citizen equality for gay people. Spain is included, not because of its very interesting Muslim history, or its proximity to the countries of Africa. Rather, it has been included to show that even a nation, who was once considered to be a prominent orthodox Catholic country, where anything outside canonical norms would be squashed and ridiculed, can change their attitudes, and find a symbiosis between religion and politics between morality and human rights and the religious canon. Spain, even after its legislation allowing homosexuals the right to marry in 2005, retains its Catholic roots. Therefore, if a Catholic nation, once the strictest religious monarchy in the Roman Catholic Church, which is arguably more intolerant of homosexuality than Islam, can acknowledge the equality of homosexuals, then surely Islamic regions of the world can as well.

The non western example of a Francophone African country is Cote d’Ivoire. Though the nation does not allow same-sex marriage, or have any anti-discrimination laws to protect homosexuals, it is still relatively moderate. It does not forbid homosexual sexual acts, nor are there any laws which forbid sodomy, therefore, within the Ivory Coast; hope can be given to gay and lesbian French speaking Africans that change can be made in their own region39 . Though it is interesting to note, that the Ivory Coast is not a predominantly Muslim country, and is still heavily involved with France, though debatable, these factors should still be included in order to question whether or not France’s heavy involvement culturally has any effect on the Ivory Coast’s attitude towards homosexuality.

It is always important to remember that social change, especially the change for equality is a fight that is long, arduous, and sometimes bloody. However, with the advances being made in international Gay Rights Organizations, surely the gay voices of Francophone Africa can be heard, and hopefully helped. But as always, one should make sure that these organizations are not ‘westernizing’ Francophone Africa for their own purposes, by applying the same terminology to non-Western contexts. It is time for the Western anthropologists of the world to stop looking for the ‘universal homosexuality’ to serve their own purposes, and realizes that there are gays and lesbians throughout the world who identify with the Western struggle who not only want help, but need the resources that anthropologists and international organizations can offer, to not only bring a financial or humanitarian aid, but also help on the academic level by examining the multi-cultural terms and practices of same-sex relationships, which have not only existed throughout human history, but will continue to evolve and develop. It is time for the two sides of the Francophone African gay debate to come together, and realize that the only way for both branches of debate to find any answers, it is to work together, utilizing all the factors central to the gay rights movement in Francophone Africa including new approaches to religious arguments and the ever changing landscape of the society.

35Amory, Deborah p. 9

36Amory, Deborah p 9

37Murray, Stephen O Islamic Homosexualiiesy: Culture, History and Literature p. 97-102

38Murray, Stephen O, Roscoe Will Islamic Homosexualities p. 87

39Information gathered from'Ivoire