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From partying at Pride to changing the law – the journey towards advancingLGBTI+ rights in Mauritius

By Abdool Ridwan (Ryan) Firaas Ah Seek, President, Collectif Arc-en-Ciel


My journey to becoming an LGBTI+ rights activist began in my late teens, in 2009. That’s when I first attended Pride in my country of Mauritius. I have to admit, before going to Pride that first time I was really scared. Scared about being seen, about being there so publicly as a gay person. But once I was at Pride I got a real sense of liberation. For the first time I felt truly a part of a wider LGBTI+ community.


I’ve always been someone who was motivated to stand up for rights and fight against injustice but attending that Pride event made me realise that I needed to be brave enough to stand up against injustice that affects me personally as a gay man. I also wanted to make sure that all LGBTI+ people had the opportunity to experience that same sense of liberation and community. So I started volunteering with Collectif Arcen-Ciel, the longest-established organisation supporting the LGBTQIA+ community in Mauritius. Collectif Arc-en-Ciel campaigns against homophobia and different forms of discrimination linked to gender identity and sexual orientation, works to protect human rights and also organizes the annual Pride celebration.


Over several years my involvement with Collectif Arc-en-Ciel increased and by 2018 I was the organisation’s President. This meant I was responsible for overseeing the organisation of that year’s Pride, which we were hoping would be the biggest and best one yet. That’s when one of the saddest moments of my life happened.


Shortly before Pride 2018 we got some devastating news: voices that opposed LGBTI+ rights had become increasingly vocal in Mauritius and now a group of about 400 people were gathered, ready to attack our community. If Pride went ahead there was a very real danger that we would be victims of violence. We simply couldn’t guarantee people would be safe. There was only one decision we could make: Pride was cancelled.


After the threat of violence and the cancellation of Pride I felt really down. For years it felt like we had been gradually building up the LGBTI+ community, providing spaces for people to come together whilst also staying under the radar. But the fact of the matter was that when our community was threatened with violence we weren’t protected. In fact, as a gay man, I was living constantly with the possibility that I could be prosecuted just because of who I love. That fear hung over our whole community and inhibited our ability to stand up for our rights.


Like many Commonwealth countries, Mauritius inherited a legal code which criminalised LGBTI+ people from its time under British colonial rule. Section 250 of the Mauritian constitution dated back to the 1800s and criminalised sexual intimacy between men regardless of whether there was consent. Whilst the law has not been frequently enforced in recent years, its very existence meant that there was a risk that the police could turn up at my door and arrest me.


In my day job I’m a banker and I try to be a respectable and law-abiding citizen. But this law meant that I could face up to five years in prison and a huge fine just for expressing my love for another human being.


I knew I might not be able to change the minds of every one of those people who had threatened my community with violence, but I needed to make sure that we had legal rights and that we weren’t living in fear of being prosecuted. The discriminatory Section 250 needed to be overturned. But for that to happen, someone had to step forward and be the visible face of challenging that law. I knew that I had a community around me and my colleagues at Collectif Arc-en-Ciel to support me. It was time for me to step forward and challenge the law.


Through working with partners in The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), I knew that the fight to overturn discriminatory laws was going on across the Commonwealth. And I knew there were international partners who would have the expertise to help us take on that fight in Mauritius.


Collectif Arc-en-Ciel worked with local lawyers and with experts from the Human Dignity Trust,a UK-based charity which focuses on using the law to defend the human rights of LGBT people globally and is also a member of TCEN, to build our case. We filed the constitutional challenge in 2019 but then the Covid pandemic hit so the first court hearing wasn’t until 2021.


That first court session was quite intimidating. I had done lots of preparation and my legal team gave me great support, but nothing really prepares you for putting your whole life in front of a court and inviting a panel of judges to sit in judgement on it. And of course, that’s really what the case was about – what right did the state have to intrude on a person’s most private decisions such as who they were intimate with?


After that initial hearing in 2021 there was a subsequent hearing in 2022 for legal arguments - thankfully I didn’t have to give evidence this time. And then we waited. And waited. October 4 2023 was just a normal day, I was starting work. And then, nearly two years before I’d stood in front that panel of judges, I got a call from my attorney: the judgment was out.


We’d thought we would have some warning of when the judgment would be released but no, it came out of the blue. My attorney sent someone straight down to the court to get the judgment whilst I waited to find out what it said. That wait was the longest 15 minutes of my life!


We’d won. The Court had ruled that Section 250 was unconstitutional. My relationship with my partner, and those of every other LGBTI+ person in Mauritius, was no longer illegal.


There was no time to digest the news. Almost immediately I was inundated by calls and media requests – for the next three days I was only sleeping four hours a day as I tried to respond to it all. It didn’t seem real at first.


I think the fact that we had actually changed the law only really started to sink in a few weeks later, when things had calmed down and I was able to start going back to normal life. When I started going out people of all ages would come up to me, thanking me for taking the case, for bringing light in the darkness. People were saying that they felt they had been given their freedom, that the successful case has made them hopeful for a better future, for a better Mauritius.


Of course, the fight never stops. Although the law is automatically overturned, we need parliament to formally amend the constitution to finally erase Section 250 from the statute. And we need legal protection and recognition for all LGBTI+ people in Mauritius. At the moment we’re working on a project to advance the rights of trans people – in Mauritius there’s no legal recognition of trans people. This means they have no protection from discrimination and often struggle to access healthcare and employment.


My advice for young people wanting to campaign on LGBTI+ rights is to build a community around you and learn from others. You truly can’t do it alone and I have been blessed to work with people from all ages and backgrounds. I’ve also been lucky to learn from activists and human right experts who are fighting for LGBTI+ rights in different Commonwealth countries.


Also, you’re never too young to fight for change. I was nineteen when I first got involved in LGBTI+ activism and 29 when I brought the legal challenge. In that decade I learned so much, initially by volunteering with others and then by stepping forward and taking the lead myself. I’m proud that the movement for LGBTI+ decriminalisation in Mauritius has been led by young people with fire in our hearts.


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


I am Ridwan A. F. Ah Seek, aka Ryan, a Mauritian citizen, aged of 33. A banker by profession, a part time presenter, I am also a human rights activist and the President of the Collectif Arc-En-Ciel, an NFO fighting for the LGBTQIA+ Community. And I won a constitutional case against the State of Mauritius. My aim in life to make a better world, where each and every one feels proud of who they are and that each one has the same treatment and opportunity






 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

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