‘It took an hour to laugh and cry about it’ — litigant reflects on Mauritius ruling decriminalising same-sex relations
Abdool Ridwan Firaas Ah Seek – who has just organised the first Gay Pride event in his country since 2020 – speaks to the importance of civil society organisations in preparing LGBTIQ+ activists to take courageous action, as he did when he challenged the archaic colonial law in 2019.
In the wake of his supreme court triumph, litigant and chairperson of the LGBTIQ+ NGO Collectif Arc-en-Ciel, Abdool Ridwan Firaas (Ryan) Ah Seek and other activists organised the first Gay Pride event since the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown at the Rose Hill Plaza in Mauritius last week.
In a historic ruling on 4 October, the supreme court found that Section 250 of the Mauritius Penal Code, which criminalises consensual male same-sex behaviour, is unconstitutional.
The Mauritian police came out in numbers to ensure free passage amid a conservative backlash from religious communities and scathing threats on social media, including an ominous threat that supernatural powers will flood the island in retaliation. For Ah Seek, who has a Muslim father and a Christian mother, the condemnation is close to the bone.
In 2018, 400 LGBTIQ+ Mauritians, expecting to celebrate Gay Pride, were turned away by police who warned that resistance was too fierce and their safety could not be assured.
Regret and disappointment have lingered in the memories of LGBTIQ+ activists, but for Ah Seek, who was president of the Collectif at the time, the tide was turning. He began to question whether he was doing enough to further the LGBTIQ+ cause. “I felt really bad. We were not forcing ourselves on anyone or disturbing anyone. Why this hate?” Ah Seek reflects.
Collectif organisers were vigilant. Some were concerned that the government might appeal against the historic ruling.
“We are overjoyed but cautious. None of us really believes that the government will appeal and there is no indication that this will happen. It would be a really bad decision,” vice-president of the Collectif, Dimitry Ah-Yu, says.
Meanwhile, in a country where politics and religion are symbiotic and the general elections imminent, the government is mute, ostensibly pandering to all sides.
A banker by profession, Ah Seek (33) started campaigning for LGBTIQ+ rights when he was 19. He speaks to the importance of civil society organisations in preparing LGBTIQ+ activists to take courageous action, as he did when he challenged the law in 2019. “I warned the team that as a plaintiff, I would be in the spotlight, in the media, and we must prepare for that,” he says.
The case was submitted to the supreme court that year but because of the pandemic the first hearing only took place in 2021.
The evening before the hearing, Ah Seek says he was in such anguish that a friend asked if he wanted to run away. But there was no turning back.
“On the first day of the hearing I watched the lawyers and judges intently and at some point I heard my name. Walking from that bench to the witness box was the longest walk I have ever walked,” says Ah Seek. “I told myself to be natural, don’t smile too much, don’t cry too much, keep it natural. I had huge support from the collective and from my mom, who was there, and that gave me a sense of calmness inside.”
Once in the witness box, “I had to talk about myself, talk about my personal life, my intimate life, and I knew that every single word I said would be written down and used in the judgment. I was opening myself to people making a judgment of my life and the way I live.”
I thought, we are in Mauritius and it is ruled by religion and politics. It was hard to keep faith. I wondered whether there would be a judgment before I retired.
When it was over, the air was filled with the buzz of lawyers talking to one another and Ah Seek was flooded by self-doubt: “I should have said that. I shouldn’t have said that,” he thought.
The atmosphere shifted when supporters came to hug him and even the lawyer, Gavin Glover, with whom Ah Seek had a very formal relationship, came over to congratulate him. “I was intimidated by him but he came to me and said, ‘give me your hands’. I thought, what is going on? Lawyers and clients are holding hands now? He held both my hands and said: ‘Thank you so much, you did so well.’”
After the second hearing, in 2022, the judges said they were giving themselves some time to make a judgment.
“I asked people how long this could take and they said it might be in one year, it might be in one month, it might be in 20 years,” Ah Seek says. “I thought, we are in Mauritius and it is ruled by religion and politics. It was hard to keep faith. I wondered whether there would be a judgment before I retired.”
A year later, on 4 October, Ah Seek was working from home when he received a message from his attorney: “Judgment is now. I am sending someone to get it.”
Fifteen minutes later, the message was delivered: “We won!”
I had to try to keep myself away from attacks and negative comments on social media… people were saying things like: ‘He’s a fake Muslim. He doesn’t deserve the name. We have to get rid of him.
“I was so shaken that I didn’t react immediately,” Ah Seek says. “It took an hour to digest it and to laugh and cry about it. I received hundreds of phone calls. People were congratulating me but I didn’t absorb it immediately. I didn’t realise the implications of it. The coverage that this case had around the world was just phenomenal and it still is. I still can’t believe the impact of it on people’s lives,” says Ah Seek.
Thinking back on the key elements culminating in the victory and beyond, Ah Seek notes that personal courage, determination and long preparation within a civil society movement are critical.
“I had to prepare in every direction and I had to try to keep myself away from attacks and negative comments on social media. There was also a lot of media coverage and my name is a very Muslim name, so people were saying things like: ‘He’s a fake Muslim. He doesn’t deserve the name. We have to get rid of him,” Ah Seek recalls.
With this ruling, the judicial system in Mauritius, like Botswana’s, has overturned archaic colonial laws and pledged to ensure fundamental human rights for all its citizens.
Legal battles and civil society support
Meanwhile, communities in Namibia and Kenya are in the thick of legal battles aimed at decriminalising same-sex relations between consenting adults.
Robust civil society networks on the continent are intrinsic to the outcome of these crusades. These networks not only provide essential technical support, but also offer crucial moral support.
The same governments that we as civil society brought to power across the continent are implementing conservative colonial laws that have remained.
“Civil society plays a vital role in the struggle for legislative change across the continent. Regional and national organisations serve as a collective voice representing diverse groups, and advocating for human rights, equality and social justice,” says Nate Brown, executive director of Pan Africa ILGA.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Mauritius decriminalises same-sex relations in a divided Africa
“Civil society bridges the gap between communities and governments, fostering dialogue and accountability,” he adds.
Pan Africa ILGA, a network of LGBTIQ+ organisations across the continent, plays an important role in fostering resistance in Africa. Notably, just before the ruling, it held one of its biennial conferences in Mauritius in collaboration with Collectif Arc-En-Ciel and the Young Queer Alliance, bringing together more than 400 delegates under the theme “Pride and Resilience”.
“Every time there is a victory, such as the Mauritian Supreme Court declaration that overturned an archaic British colonial law going back to 1898, there is a seismic reverberation across the globe, heralding the dawn of a new era in LGBTIQ+ rights advocacy across Africa and on the global stage.”
Ah Seek emphasises the importance of building inner strength and resilience with the support of a collective.
Steve Letsike, executive director of South African-based Access Chapter Two, said in the keynote address at the conference: “The role of civil society is paramount… The same governments that we as civil society brought to power across the continent are implementing conservative colonial laws that have remained… and adding their own retrogressive laws. We, as civil society, need to challenge our governments as we challenged colonial governments.”
Letsike compared the LGBTIQ+ struggle to political liberation struggles in the region. “Many struggle heroes in our regions, many liberators of our regions, are the oppressors of today. We see it in Uganda. We see it in Ghana. We see it in Kenya. We see it in Namibia. We see it in Liberia… there is silence from people who claim they are our friends.”
Pan Africa ILGA “will not stop fighting until the victory in Mauritius is a victory for Africa”, says Brown.
From Cape to Cairo
Morocco to Madagascar
Bathi yone iAzania, izwe lethu, solithatha ngebazooka.
(South African liberation song) DM