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LGBTQ+ in MENA are fighting for their rights through a wave of homophobic hate inspired by the far-right movements in the West.
Nina, a 30-year-old queer Lebanese artist, has never been this anxious. Despite formerly being recognized as one of the most open countries in the Middle East in terms of LGBTQ+ visibility, recent events are spelling a different reality for Lebanon.
As hostility towards the community increases, Nina’s heart is filled with fear of probable humiliation due to her nonconformity or possible interrogation if her sexuality is outed.
Her fear manifested when the Christian extremist group Jnoud al-Rab “Soldiers of God” attacked a bar hosting a drag queen event in Mar Mikhael, Beirut. During the incident, the relatively newly formed Christian group verbally and physically abused the customers, and individuals were reported to have sustained injuries.
“The incident triggered a lot of homophobic remarks from my surroundings which is increasingly making me feel unsafe. I now even worry about being on social media or representing as masculine,” Nina told Fanack.
Although Lebanon is known for its religious plurality and liberalism, opponents of individual freedoms often cite article 534 of the penal code, which punishes “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. In July 2023, nine members of parliament submitted a draft law to repeal Article 534. The draft law’s signatories have since been subjected to an online harassment campaign from political and religious authorities, resulting in one parliament member withdrawing his signature.
Over the past few years, the community has been subjected to a range of offensive behavior from politicians and online haters. These attacks have taken place in various forms, ranging from verbal harassment to discriminatory policy making.
A crackdown in Lebanon in 2022 resulted in serious repercussions for LGBTQ+ activists and the suspension of Pride celebrations. Security forces were directed to put an end to events promoting “sexual perversion” by order of the Interior Ministry.
This is not an isolated event, as many countries in the MENA region have recently escalated their discriminatory actions against the LGBTQ+ community. Although activists are unsure of the outcome of these actions, they can all agree that the struggle has become more intense and does not appear to be waning in the short run.
Earlier in the year, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah Secretary General, spoke out against same-sex relations as being a “sexual perversion.” He declared that gay people posed a danger to society.
Nasrallah has previously made proclamations that homosexuality should be combatted through any means possible. He advocated for the killing of LGBTQ+ people and even advised others to denigrate them by using derogatory terms.
According to a 2023 Human Rights Watch report, the online targeting of LGBTQ+ people can have serious consequences in real time. Blackmail, being outed, assault from family members, and erroneous arrests by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces are a few examples of this.
In August, Lebanese Culture Minister, Mohammad Mortada announced that the movie ‘Barbie‘ would be banned from cinemas, claiming its promotion of homosexuality conflicts with religious beliefs. Although the ban did not pass, the Minister further made a series of tweets where he presented LGBTQ+ community as a hazard to society and proposed a law to prohibit what is seen as “sexual deviancy,” including homosexuality and gender transitioning.
Mortada’s legislative proposal contains severe measures targeting individuals who support or advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Under this forthcoming law, those found guilty of such actions could be sent to jail for a period of up to three years or fined up to 500 million Lebanese liras.
Shortly after, Ashraf Rifi, a Member of Parliament from Tripoli, declared that he was going to craft legislation that would make homosexuality illegal.
“Western associations, under progressive cover, encourage the promotion of homosexuality, claiming that it is something natural,” Rifi told local outlet L’Orient-Le Jour. “This threatens our society, whether we are Christians or Muslims.”
Meanwhile, an associated research center of Hezbollah posted its proposed version of the “draft law to combat sexual deviance in Lebanon”.
According to Article 1 and Article 5, homosexuality is classified as a criminal danger, and anyone who promotes or advertises homosexuality via schools, theaters, social media outlets, organizations, and other media avenues is subject to imprisonment and substantial fines. The sentence for non-compliant offenders, ranges between seven to ten years.
Overall, this year has seen numerous assaults on the LGBTQ+ community and its alleged symbols, from boycotts of Lebanese patisseries over rainbow cakes to the removal of games such as snakes and ladders from schools for also containing rainbow drawings. Politicians like Mark Daou, Najat Aoun, Paula Yacoubian, Camille Chamoun, Cynthia Zarazir, George Okais, Nada Boustani and Elias Hankash have drafted legislation to decriminalize homosexuality in Lebanon; however, it faces mounting opposition.
In the wider MENA
While the Iraqi government has not yet passed the measure into law, failure to comply could result in fines. It should be noted that while freedom of expression is included in the Iraqi Constitution, Article 401 of the 1969 Penal Code prohibits “indecent acts” and as such can be used as an excuse to arrest LGBTQ+ people even though same-sex relations are not explicitly criminalized.
This comes after a proposal to outlaw homosexuality across Iraq was introduced by the deputy head of the committee on legal affairs at the federal parliament in Baghdad, Mortada al-Saadi. This bill was presented to be expedited for discussion once the legislative period resumes in September, as reported by Basnews news agency based in Erbil.
Under the “bill on the prohibition of promoting homosexuality,” advocates of the community face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to five million dinars (£3,000).
According to Basnews, the move follows Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement that millions of Iraqi citizens will be rallying to call for a ban on homosexuality.
Similarly, Jordan’s queer population has come under attack by conservative parliamentarians. This unprecedented crackdown was sparked by attempts to show the Egyptian LGBTQ+ movie, “Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day,” at an Amman cultural space during Pride month. The proposed screening was eventually canceled due to demands from parliamentary leaders.
Recently in Jordan, opposition to the LGBTQ+ community has grown exponentially on social media. This month, a local Jordanian publication named al-Taj News published an article calling for the arrest of Grindr users as well as a ban on the usage of the online dating service.
To further compound matters, the Jordanian government introduced a new cybercrime law threatening those who produce or spread “pornographic content,” which is left undefined, and any kind of material that “promotes, instigates, aids or incites immorality”– with six months minimum imprisonment and an associated fine. Human Rights Watch reported that the proposed legislation may be used to target any digital material concerning gender and sexuality, as well as those advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals through digital forums.
Matters have gotten worse this year, according to Ahmad*, a Jordanian queer activist who spoke to Fanack on condition of anonymity. He cited instances including the dissolution of two LGBTQ+ organizations and the staff’s reported abrupt departure from Jordan.
According to Ahmad, multiple bank accounts were frozen and events stopped, showing a previously unheard-of level of hostility toward queer organizations in the country. This was coupled with venomous political campaigns targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
The Guardian reported that Jordanian queer activists have experienced violations of their freedom, including abduction, harassment and surveillance.
Recently, reports have emerged regarding the intensification of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate’s (GID) intimidation campaign specifically against LGBTQ+ individuals and groups. In January, two activists are purported to have been taken into custody by GID officers in addition to having their finances frozen.
In the beginning of August, a former member of the Jordanian Parliament Adab al-Saud took part in a show on Roya TV to express her views on the necessity for punishing those who “promote” homosexuality. Yanal Frehat, a Member of Parliament for the Islamist organization known as the “Muslim Brotherhood,” also proposed an article to be added in the new cybercrime law which would criminalize homosexuality.
The Islamic Action Front (IAF), being the political arm of the Brotherhood and Jordan’s most prominent political party, has been at the forefront in condemning queer individuals with Dima Tahboub – a former MP and spokesperson for IAF – spearheading these efforts.
“The majority of Jordanians support the basic human instinct that God created humanity as male and female and that families evolve from legal matrimony,” Tahboub told Al-Monitor. She referred to the public support she has received for the anti-LGBTQ+ campaign and the growing calls from parliament to criminalize homosexuality. “It is our right as Muslims and Arabs to refuse any system that clashes with our beliefs and culture, and such rejection should be respected as long as it abides by our national law,” she said.
Ahmad suggests that the motivations behind these recent assaults may be complex, though it could be speculated that they are linked to the government’s practice of targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community as a convenient distraction from other issues – a strategy that is unfortunately all too familiar in the Middle East and North Africa.
“When it comes to standing up and making their voices heard, members of LGBTQ+ communities have been particularly visible in recent history,” Ahmad said. “Using their community as leverage, members of the Muslim Brotherhood sought to gain an advantage over their adversaries in government.”
Musa al-Shadeedi, a writer from Iraq who is currently residing in Jordan, was viciously targeted on social media after the governor of Amman declared a ban on screening and discussing a movie about homosexuality.
Al-Shadeedi was accused of organizing an event at Jadal Cafe and fell victim to a staunch social media attack.
“This was not how it used to be,” Ahmad said. “The government shut down events and places dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community with tight restrictions, worsening the situation in recent years.”
Despite any fear that may have crept in, Ahmad says that the community continues to stand firm and carry on with their cause.
“If they plan to fight using all their weapons, we will do the same,” Ahmad said. “Western governments who are funding homophobic politicians in Jordan should also hold them accountable for their actions.”
Ahmad believes that regional media has failed to provide enough support to the LGBTQ+ in their struggle against oppression. He notes that it is necessary to document any injustices on media platforms so governments are aware that they are not off the hook. Additionally, Ahmad emphasizes that it is essential to consider how the MENA’s community must act as a collective.
“Regardless of any successes achieved by the governments, a new generation of LGBTQ+ people will always exist and fight for their freedom,” Ahmad noted.
A bleak future
Lebanese queer activist and communication specialist for Helem, an LGBTQ+ NGO in Lebanon, Doumit Azzi, told Fanack that attacks against the community are getting worse. He says these attacks will not just affect the LGBTQ+ folks, but also the basic democratic values still left in Lebanon.
“We need to choose what society we want,” Azzi said. “We’re at a dangerous point. Talks of killing LGBTQ+ people are becoming normal.”
He adds that new politicians, especially those against the ruling establishment, need to speak up. This shows the community they’re not alone and that they’re ready for this fight. “If they succeed in attacking LGBTQ+ folks, they won’t stop. They’ll target other groups too.”
Azzi claims the wave of homophobic hate in the MENA has drawn inspiration from the far-right movements in the West. In the US, far-right groups have attacked the LGBTQ+ community, saying they’re influencing kids by introducing LGBTQ+ studies in schools.
“We’re at different stages of the fight. Many in the MENA region think we’re battling school curriculums, but we’re just asking for basic human rights,” he said.
Experts have noted a significant rise in conservative Muslims in the Middle East joining the anti-woke Christian movement in the US. The two groups protest school curriculums introducing subjects on sexuality and gender.
Despite acknowledging that the fight will be tough, Azzi believes the community and its allies have not given their all yet. While he worries about the real-life consequences of online hate, he remains optimistic about overcoming the odds and stopping the opposition from stripping Lebanon – and the MENA at large – from democratic values essential for a healthy society.