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Comment: False hope – LGBT rights in the Middle East

Omar Hassan March 30, 2009
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Execution, public humiliation and imprisonment have long plagued the lives of the LGBT community in the Middle Eastern world. It is a well-known fact that “LGBT individuals are at a constant struggle,” notes the Imaan secretariat (an organisation dedicated to the wellbeing of gay Muslims, based in Britain). “[They] must [fight] for the right to be LGBT…[and] for the freedom to love somebody of the same sex,” he argues further.

Brian Whitaker, of the Guardian, who authored the book ‘Unspeakable Love’, notes that the subject of homosexuality is as unmentionable in the Middle East as it was in the UK 60 years ago.

This tension can be attributed largely to Islamic conservatism. In 2006, it was reported that radical Islamic militias were attacking homosexuals in Iraq; and it was only a year later that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that there were “no homosexuals in Iran”.

“Ironically, Ahmadinedjad’s remarks and the laughter from his audience probably did a lot to bring [the issue] out in the open’, Whitaker told us. Indeed, soon after, filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian released a documentary entitled ‘Be Like Others’. The film revealed that the government had been paying for homosexual men to have sex-change operations. Arguably, this was the Iranian administration’s humane ultimatum to the death sentence, which is bestowed on any two men who wish to engage in a homosexual relationship.

At the time of the film’s release, the filmmaker stated that it was easy to find her subjects, noting that gender reassignment surgery is a “public phenomenon [even] encouraged by the Islamic clerics”.
These instances do not begin to explain the extent of the pressures that one faces for being gay in this part of the world.

Even at a basic level, one can argue that Arabic language in itself does not accommodate a neutral definition of the term ‘homosexual’. The most inoffensive branding for an LGBT man for instance is ‘Luti’ or ‘Shaz’, which roughly translate to mean ‘pervert’ or ‘deviant’. How then, is anyone who identifies as part of this minority group going to be able to stand up to such political, social and linguistic barriers?

Human rights activists the world over had hoped that a UN joint statement released last December would help alleviate the situation. Signed by over 60 countries, the assertion called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the protection of various other LGBT human rights, including the protection against discrimination.

However, according to human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, it is important to note that this is not a resolution.

“It has no force on international law. [Still], it is an important symbolic benchmark, being the first time that the UN General Assembly has ever heard such a statement,” he said.
As expected, the statement was opposed by Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. “They will ignore it…[and it will] have little moderating effect on their abuse of LGBT citizens”, argues Tatchell.

Undeniably, Middle Eastern politicians and religious figures are prone to use arguments relating to cultural rights and relativism, claiming that the West (and its allies) have no authority to infringe on any nation’s legal system, regardless of whether the matter concerns the seemingly universal human rights to life, freedom and personal liberty.

Indeed, one can make an example out of the public reaction to the Queen Boat raid, which took place in Cairo nearly eight years ago. At the time, the relatively liberal Egyptian government enforced a crackdown on an unofficial floating gay nightclub, which was moored on the Nile. The raids subsequently lead to 52 arrests, with many of the victims claiming to be arbitrarily detained whilst simply passing by the docks. The men involved were publicly humiliated (whilst in court, they were placed in cages) with their faces splashed across the covers of newspapers.

Although there is no law in Egypt that explicitly bans homosexual practice, the accused men were charged on the grounds of ‘debauchery’. In the end, over twenty of those arrested faced sentences which ranged between three to five years in prison. Many of those who were released returned home to find that they had lost their jobs and were rejected by their families.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist and journalist who was working at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) at the time, protested against these injustices. He argued that the administration was using the raid as a means to sidetrack public focus from the impending recession, its Western alliances (which are unpopular with the public) and to quell the tensions growing in the Islamic Brotherhood (who are of increasing importance in the Egyptian political arena).

Soon after speaking out, Bahgat was removed from his position at the EOHR. The EOHR’s secretary-general, Hafez Abu Saada told the press at the time: “Personally, I don’t like the subject of homosexuality, and I don’t want to defend them.” He also went on to explain that sexual preference was not a human right.

At the same time, the Egyptian government went so far as to arrest individuals who used online chat rooms and social networking websites as a means for sourcing homosexual relationships.Futhermore, reports were circulating that government officials were masquerading as potential suitors in order to set gay men up for arrest. Scott Long of Human Rights Watch has spoken previously about this matter, asserting that when governments crack down on homosexual gathering places, whether real or online, they do it for political rather than purely moral reasons. “They are saying to their people that they are defending what is authentic, what is Islamic,” he said.

In turn, the politicians, journalists and even the human rights activists of the Middle Eastern world are arguing back at egalitarian impositions that beg for the equal rights of the LGBT community.

Considering the sensitivity of the issue and the rise of anti-Islamic attitude in the West, it is very easy for Islamic states to claim that announcements (such as the UN statement) are imperial infringements by the secular West on the Islamic world. Accordingly, it is evident that the UN’s efforts will reap only meagre benefits for the distressed LGBT community in the Middle East.

How then do we begin to envisage change in the region for this vulnerable community? On an individual basis, many Middle Easterners seeking an escape believe that Western states should implement more liberal asylum policies towards LGBT groups.

However, if we are going to be realistic about safeguarding the rights of these communities than we need a new strategy. The West must use political leverage to bring LGBT rights up on the international agenda as, undeniably, many of the biggest gay rights’ abuses committed in the Middle East are by Western allies.
Undoubtedly, this will require significant effort, especially considering that many of the Arabs and Muslims who live in the diaspora also occupy negative attitudes towards homosexuals. Still, the beliefs of an increasingly blindsided religious majority should not take precedence over anyone’s basic humanity.

According to Tatchell, what is most likely to change is the self-organisation of LGBT people in Muslim states, as has happened in Lebanon, through the work of the LGBT group, Helem.

“Some…changes might also come through HIV prevention work, where governments will have to reluctantly recognise the LGBT communities in order to combat the HIV pandemic,” he added.
Whitaker argues further that “it is becoming more difficult to keep a lid on discussion of homosexuality in the Middle East”.

“Western debates about gay priests, films like Brokeback Mountain, and even George Michael’s arrest [coupled with the use of the internet] are all heightening gay awareness” in the region, he says.

However until these governments recognise that gay rights are of importance, it should be the obligation of the international community to take a holistic approach to ensuring the protection of this vulnerable LGBT population. Only then, will the new UN statement be able to ensure that our universal human rights are protected.

Omar is a writer and freelance journalist. He has also been involved with a range of TV production companies and currently has a film project in development. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he has lived in the U.S.A and Saudi Arabia and currently resides in the United Kingdom.

Related topics: Asia

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