Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq’s New Anti-LGBTQ+ Law: A Harsh New Reality

Iraq's New Anti-LGBTQ+ Law came as a shock to some members, who now face increased hostility and risks due to their sexual orientation.

Iraq's New Anti-LGBTQ+ Law
Supporters of Iraq’s Sadrist movement burn a rainbow flag outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad. Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

Dana Hourany

Iraq’s parliament recently enacted legislation that criminalizes same-sex relationships, imposing a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

The law, passed in April, is intended to “protect Iraqi society from moral depravity and the calls for homosexuality that have overtaken the world,” as stated in a copy obtained by Reuters. While Iraqi officials argue that the law upholds religious values, human rights advocates have denounced it as a further assault on the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller expressed concern over the law, stating it “threatens those most at risk in Iraqi society” and “can be used to hamper free speech and expression.” He also cautioned that the legislation might deter foreign investment, noting, “International business coalitions have already indicated that such discrimination in Iraq will harm business and economic growth in the country.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron described the law as “dangerous and worrying.”

Despite homosexuality being taboo in Iraq’s largely conservative society and periodic anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns by political leaders, Iraq previously lacked a law explicitly criminalizing same-sex relationships. The new law’s broad language and severe penalties are expected to encourage further discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ individuals.

Transgender people, in particular, face heightened risks, experts say. In a society where their existence is often stigmatized, this new law could lead to increased persecution, harassment, and physical attacks.

Human rights advocates warn that the law may force LGBTQ+ individuals in Iraq further into hiding, depriving them of the ability to live freely in their country and eventually forcing them to flee.

Renewed Nightmare

Iraq’s new law imposes sentences of 10 to 15 years for same-sex relationships and one to three years for those undergoing or performing gender-transition surgeries or engaging in the “intentional practice of effeminacy.” Organizations promoting “sexual deviancy” now face penalties of at least seven years in prison and a fine of no less than 10 million dinars (approximately $7,600).

The law, passed by a majority of the 170 lawmakers present out of a total of 329, includes provisions for “promoting homosexuality,” which is now punishable by up to seven years in prison. It also addresses “biological sex changes based on personal desires and inclination.” Transgender individuals and doctors involved in gender reassignment surgery face up to three years in prison, except in cases where medical intervention is necessary to “treat birth defects to affirm the sex of the individual” with a court order.

Originally, Raad al-Maliki, the independent lawmaker who introduced the bill in August 2023, had sought harsher penalties, including life imprisonment and the death penalty for same-sex relations. The adopted bill includes reduced sentences.

Iraqi officials argue that the legislation upholds societal values and have dismissed criticisms as Western interference. Acting parliamentary speaker Mohsen Al-Mandalawi described the vote as “a necessary step to protect the value structure of society” and to safeguard children from “calls for moral depravity and homosexuality.”

Al-Mandalawi said that the legislation aims to “protect the moral fabric” of Iraqi society, stating, “There is no place for homosexuality in Iraq, the land of prophets, pure imams, and righteous saints.”

Since then, members of the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq have reported facing numerous crimes due to their sexual orientation. For instance, a woman from the Iraqi city of Al-Diwaniah was poisoned by her family after they discovered she was a lesbian.

The increasing hostility has driven many LGBTQ+ individuals to seek ways to leave the country, through legal or illegal means.

Although homophobia is prevalent in Iraq and across the MENA region, the bill still came as a shock to some members of the LGBTQ+ community. Now, LGBTQ+ individuals are forced to live in fear, hide their real identity, and monitor their followers and interactions online. They cannot be caught following queer people on social media, and no post should even hint at their sexual orientation.

History of Violence and Hatred

Iraq has a history of violence against LGBTQ+ individuals. Armed groups, particularly within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and police have been known to abduct, rape, torture, and kill LGBTQ+ people with impunity, according to a 2022 Human Rights Watch report.

The PMF, although nominally under the prime minister’s authority, has been implicated in numerous cases of attempted murder of LGBTQ+ individuals. Human Rights Watch has also documented instances of abductions, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and online targeting perpetrated by both armed groups and the police.

The Iraqi government, responsible for safeguarding the right to life and security for LGBTQ+ individuals, has taken no effective action to stop the violence or prosecute those responsible for such crimes.

Previously, LGBTQ+ individuals were often reluctant to file complaints or report abuse due to vaguely defined “morality” clauses in Iraq’s Penal Code and the lack of reliable complaint systems and protective legislation. However, the situation has deteriorated further; now, individuals must avoid even the slightest suspicion of their sexual orientation being questioned in public. This increased scrutiny has forced LGBTQ+ people to live in greater fear and secrecy.

Sam, an Iraqi LGBTQ+ activist, and member of IraQueer, an Iraqi LGBTQ+ organization, told Fanack that the new law introduces the role of a secret investigator tasked with “exposing” LGBTQ+ individuals for prosecution. There is also a risk associated with dating apps, as government agents may pose as potential dates to entrap users.

He notes that the LGBTQ+ community has already had to routinely hide their real identities, with transgender individuals being the most affected due to their visibility.

“The worst affected will be transgender people, as they are the most visible targets who cannot alter their looks,” he said.

Although the bill has not yet been enacted, pending government approval, its effects are already being felt. People are deleting posts and photos on social media to avoid exposure. Even previously safe spaces for LGBTQ+ members to meet are now considered too risky for public gatherings, according to Sam.

Sam also highlights the ambiguity of the law regarding the “intentional practice of effeminacy,” which could be interpreted as any behavior deviating from stereotypical heterosexual masculine norms. He points out that actions like wearing earrings or having long hair might be seen as violations of the law, even for heterosexual men.

Living in Fear

Another concern raised by Sam is that the law also threatens feminist organizations, as they may offer services or support to LGBTQ+ members, even if only in minor or secretive ways. Under the new legislation, these organizations will now have to cease such assistance, further isolating the LGBTQ+ community.

“If they start investigating the work and funds of these organizations and find anything related to LGBTQ+, these organizations will definitely be closed down for good,” Sam said.

Seif Ali, founder of Gala Iraq, a platform advocating for the LGBTQ+ community, told Fanack that both international and local organizations will be unable to report on human rights violations or issues related to the LGBTQ+ community for fear of prosecution under Iraqi law.

“There are also militias that hunt down members of the LGBTQ+ community, and this law essentially gives them the green light to commit even more violence,” he added. Ali also expressed concern that individuals who were previously suspected of being LGBTQ+ could now be threatened with being reported to the police under the new law.

Additionally, there is fear among people with HIV, who no longer feel safe seeking medical help as they might be perceived as members of the LGBTQ+ community, even if they are not.

According to Sam and Ali, the parliament’s decision is a decoy to distract from their failure to implement meaningful decisions that bring about change and growth in Iraqi society.

Sam theorizes that Islamist politicians in the Iraqi parliament, feeling powerless to confront Israel in its brutal war on Gaza—which has claimed over 35,000 lives and continues to wreak havoc on the lives of Gazans for seven months now—are redirecting their efforts elsewhere. By fighting “homosexuality,” they believe they are combating Israel and its ally, the US.

“Iraqi politicians believe that homosexuality is a western product brought by the US and Israel that needs to be fought and removed from society,” he said.

Ali believes the motive behind the new law lies in the political battle between Muqtada al-Sadr and his opponents, the Coordination Framework Alliance (CFA).

Two years ago, influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew from parliament but remained a staunch opponent of the LGBTQ+ community, frequently launching campaigns against them.

“By enacting a law that prosecutes LGBTQ+ individuals, al-Sadr’s opponents have scored a win against him,” Ali said. “While al-Sadr could only launch verbal attacks, his opponents have taken concrete actions, translating words into reality. This will help them garner more support, especially from the Sadrists.”

No Safe Space

Both IraQueer and Gala Iraq are actively assisting individuals in leaving Iraq, as means for safety within the country are becoming increasingly limited, especially for transgender individuals. Sam pointed out that soon “they [transgender people] may not be able to leave the airport.”

“Lebanon is one of the most popular destinations for visa-free travel as is Canada for Iraqi LGBTQs,” Ali said.

The activist pointed out that many platforms, especially feminist channels, have kept quiet about the new law because they are aware of the dire consequences of speaking up.

“They are quite literally silencing every voice so that no one is left to speak on the topic,” he said.

Iraq is not alone in facing significant challenges regarding LGBTQ+ rights in the MENA region.

Recent years have seen waves of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in several countries, including Lebanon, where extremist religious groups like the Christian “Jnoud El Rab” (Soldiers of God) attacked a gay bar last year.

In Jordan, authorities have systematically targeted LGBTQ+ rights activists, coordinating an unlawful crackdown on free expression and assembly related to gender and sexuality.

In Egypt, authorities frequently use morality and sex work laws to arrest and prosecute LGBTQ+ individuals.

Religious institutions across the MENA region significantly intensify these sentiments, often dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people through hate speech and allowing discriminatory laws, like Iraq’s, to proliferate.

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