Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

An Uphill Battle: Equal Rights for LGBTQ+ in MENA

Members of the Lebanese LGBT community wave rainbow flags as they sail along the famous Raoucheh (Pigeon Rock) landmark in the capital Beirut. Marwan TAHTAH / AFP

Dana Hourany

June is Pride Month, a month dedicated to honoring LGBTQ+ people all around the world.

The events commemorate the Stonewall rebellion in New York Municipal in June 1969, when city police stormed the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. The ensuing riots influenced the present LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Pride has expanded into street parades, concerts, festivals, and cultural events, studded with rainbow flags and parades, it is largely celebrated in the West.

However, festivities are kept under wraps throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where homosexuality is either criminalized or stigmatized by society.

Activists and bloggers claim that the COVID 19 outbreak, as well as financial crises across several MENA countries made the LGBTQ+ community especially vulnerable to discrimination, intimidation, and violence.

“We’re a very resilient group,” Dima, a 29-year-old queer activist, who uses he/they pronouns, told Fanack. “Not because we want to be, but because our oppressors made us this way.”

Being queer in MENA

The MENA region is home to some of the world’s most restrictive legislation for LGBTQ+ people, including the death sentence in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Gaza, on the other hand, all have distinct laws that punish persons for gay or “unnatural” sexual practices.

Some of these laws are the result of mandates from former colonial powers such as the French and the British, who brought these criminal codes to the area; only Bahrain and Oman have abolished these punishments. Nations that have maintained the prohibitions did so either because of religious reasons or a desire to combat what some leaders see as the West’s “ravaging moral decay.”

The lockdowns

Dima, a Syrian immigrant who relocated to the UAE at a young age, said that Covid-19 lockdowns harmed their friends since the group depended largely on frequent encounters for moral, emotional, and occasionally financial support.

“Constantly considering our future actions were both difficult and exhausting. You feel quite alone in your struggle, whether it’s about money or mental health, since you’re continuously discriminated against and your resources are limited,” Dima told Fanack.

Fighting many battles

 The activist had previously been subjected to years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their father before deciding to go to Dubai to start a new life.

When the pandemic struck, however, the labor market became increasingly hostile to LGBTQ+ people, they say.

“I lost two jobs during the pandemic and was always at risk of getting deported for lack of a work visa,” they said.

When money was tight, businesses would fire LGBTQ+ staff first or “those who were most likely not to fit in,” according to Dima. As a consequence, many people were afraid of being deported or being homeless.

Another component lost to the pandemic, according to the activist, was their safe spaces. They argue that having guests at their and their friends’ homes in Gulf countries was better than going out in public. There were no queer-friendly cafés, pubs, or restaurants available. People were left alone, with no help from family or friends, while lockdowns enforced limitations and social distancing measures.

“The rising financial struggles made transgender women, in particular, the most at risk of being taken advantage of,” Dima said. “In the Middle East transgender women have a hard time finding a job, so many of them have had to resort to sex work to make ends meet.”

In Syria, LGBTQ+ experiences have yet to be updated and well-documented due to societal, religious, and political concerns that would put gay people’s lives in jeopardy if they were to be made public. Dima admits that homophobia in Syria is common, manifesting in violent crimes that go unpunished.

Similarly in Iraq, the queer community suffers from harrowing acts of discrimination that range from arbitrary arrests to extreme forms of physical and verbal abuse.

Digital danger

 During the Covid-19 lockdowns, many members of the community took to social media to find solace and support. However, according to a Human Rights Watch report, the online sphere made LGBTQ+ individuals easy targets for digital bullies and government crackdowns.

Rania Amdaoui, a Tunisian protestor who took part in the 2021 demonstrations, had her photo posted on Facebook by police officials who tagged it with insulting remarks. The police also made her contact information public.

People and politicians have sent Amdaoui death threats and violent texts. She was then detained for yelling at police officers who refused to file a criminal complaint.

In the same vein, Yemeni activist, Mohammad al-Bokari found himself having to travel on foot from Yemen to Saudi Arabia upon receiving death threats for his online activism in 2019. Shortly after settling in Riyadh as an undocumented migrant, he was arrested for posting a video expressing his support for the LGBTQ+ community and was sentenced to 10 months in jail for “promoting homosexuality” online.

In April 2020, an “outing” campaign went viral on Moroccan social media platforms, in which people created fake dating app profiles to disclose the identity of LGBTQ+ persons and expose them to their families.

In Egypt, a Human Rights Watch report revealed that authorities used digital platforms to target and prosecute LGBTQ+ persons. Detainees confirmed that the police had downloaded pornographic material onto their phones to justify their imprisonment.

Qadeera, an Iraqi queer blogger who now lives in Turkey, told Fanack that while the nation was reasonably secure for the LGBT community, there were still sporadic acts of homophobia. In 2021, riot police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to interrupt Istanbul’s annual pride march, which had been banned for seven years.

Furthermore, the blogger adds that because of strong visa requirements in Turkey, Middle Eastern transgender women who failed to maintain a consistent source of income throughout the pandemic were deported back to their countries of origin.

While living in Jordan, Qadeera claims that LGBT people may be seen in specified public places, but that people made it known that they disapproved of their presence by using abusive language and publicly condemning them.

In Iraq, Qadeera saw that the situation was more covert, with people meeting in secret locations for fear of being discovered by the authorities.

Whilst some reports have presented Israel as the main sanctuary for LGBTQ+ activity, Middle Eastern experts contend that Israel resorts to pinkwashing to create binaries of sexually liberated Israeli “gays” versus oppressed Arab “gays.” This has allowed Israel to market itself as more civilized than what it purports as the “backwards, homophobic Middle East.”

The patriarchal poison

Due to the continual sexualization of the female form, regardless of sexual orientation, males appearing feminine were more targeted by homophobes than females presenting masculine, according to Dima.

However, according to Qadeera, queer women usually have a harder time integrating into society because they are continuously confronted with rigid preconceptions of gender norms.

With the growth of online queer forums during the pandemic and increased awareness efforts that initiate talks about LGBTQ+ concerns, both Dima and Qadeera think that the region has shown indications of improvement.

Dima were able to flee the UAE and reside in Canada after filing an LGBTQ+ refugee claim. They continue to engage in digital activism. Both activists believe that the younger LGBTQ+ generation in the Middle East and North Africa will further the movement in their own right.

“When you leave the Middle East, the trauma doesn’t go away. Because our struggle is a shared one, I encourage everyone to reach out to the community and learn about their possibilities, because our lives are a perpetual battle for liberty, and we should never give up,” Dima said.

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