'We are here': The LGBT activists on the frontline of Iraq's revolution

'We are here': The LGBT activists on the frontline of Iraq's revolution
LGBT Iraqis are fighting for their rights on the frontline of the country's protest movement.
7 min read
27 March, 2020
The injured hand of an Iraqi protester painted with rainbow colours. [Azhar Al-Rubaie]
Since 1 October, protesters have poured onto the streets of the Iraqi capital Baghdad and other southern provinces to demand fundamental changes to the political system.  

LGBT activists are a key part of this movement and have played a prominent role in protest zones, with many of them medics, cameramen and activists seeking basic rights. 

While these protesters say they will keep demonstrating alongside their brothers and sisters, they do not want to display their sexual orientation for fear of violence from the state security forces and various religious-affiliated militias.  

If targeted by the latter, their lives could be in danger.

Read more: Baghdad's four decades of conflict and strife  

While interviewing various LGBT protesters at Baghdad's Tahrir Square The New Arab had to observe a great deal of caution in order to protect the interviewees' safety.  

Among them is 25-year old Jafaar Al-Qarahghuli, a Baghdad-based activist who joined the protests taking place at Tahrir Square in early October, when the so-called Tishreen Revolution began.  

"We do not carry logos or special flags or anything indicating our identities to avoid being an easy target for armed groups," he told The New Arab. "We attend the protests in high numbers to show that we are part of this, as part of the community".  

LGBT activists are a key part of Iraq's protest movement and have played a prominent role, with many of them medics, cameramen and activists seeking basic rights

"It is just so hard to uncover my sexual orientation, but yes, why I am here is to prove myself and a first step for future attempts to demand our private rights just like any country in the world," he added. 

"Justice is all that we are looking for". 

'We are Here'  

LGBT protesters who spoke to The New Arab said that a photo they took which showed their hands painted with the colours of the rainbow was a message to the government to say 'we are here'. 

"Before we demand our individual rights, we are here to demand the right for all Iraqis. Thus we are here to demonstrate, chant over the corrupted government, and civil rights for all. We will not back down until our demands are met," Al-Qarahghuli said. 

"The government, militias, community, and the constitution, all of them are against us," he added. "The demonstrations enabled people to demand their rights, and break off the taboos, like women who filled the streets after they were prevented from going out of the house".

Hayder Mundher sits at Tahrir Beach. [Azhar Al-Rubaie]

Earlier this year, an LGBT Arabic page launched a campaign on Facebook under the name 'One of you'. 

"We launched this campaign in order to let people in the Arab world know that LGBTQ people are a part of their communities. The campaign involved taking a picture in a public place and writing the phrase 'one of you' while showing the colours of the rainbow," someone involved with the LGBT Arabic team, who requested anonymity, told TNA

The Iraqi LGBT community was among the first to participate in the campaign, despite the violence they face on a daily basis since joining the protests.

Read more: The loneliness of being queer and Muslim  

"All we want is for our homeland to do what all great countries do, guarantee civil rights, freedoms, and for us all to have a decent life," someone involved with the campaign said.  

"In Iraq, we silently suffer brutal repression by society, government, and militias. There are no clear laws criminalising homosexuality in Iraq, but yet the LGBTQ community face exclusion and rights suppression at every turn throughout. Here, provisions and social customs are used to justify the murder of LGBTQ people, excusing it as something 'honourable'". 

'You will be killed' 

"Being gay in Iraq means that you are at greatly more risk from attacks than other people," said 25-year-old Baghdad-based photographer Hayder Mundher.  

"I am here protesting, wanting a change to the government and to receive the fundamental rights that I am owed. We are not just protesting but also carrying out different social activities and cultural activities to increase the movement".

Tahrir Square is the place for all people to demand their rights. Today in secret, tomorrow in public. Freedom can be achieved step by step, it is just a matter of time

In January, while participating in anti-government protests, security forces fired teargas directly where Mundher was standing as he was photographing clashes at Jamhuriya Bridge. 

The impact maimed two of his fingers, but he says he won't let it prevent him from continuing to document the fight for Iraqi rights. 

"I feel proud to have the courage to be where the protests are. I have never before been this close to a conflict before, to a war scene before. I have never seen blood come out of bodies before," he said. "We are paying the cost of freedom here. Freedom is not free."

Read more: Tunisia's queer festival makes proud comeback  

"Tahrir Square is the place for all people to demand their rights. Today in secret, tomorrow in public. Freedom can be achieved step by step, it is just a matter of time" he added. 

But he says it saddens him that so many Iraqis reject the LGBT community, as all he wants is for the community to be accepted. 

"I am thinking of leaving home to seek a better and safe life," he said. "I have been threatened twice now, both times in October 2018 while I was in Basra to video a short documentary talking about the LGBTQ community." 

The threats came via a dating app. "Along with photos of me, the chatter wrote, 'you will be killed'. It was at this point that I decided to leave Basra."

Karrar Ahmed's profile photo on Facebook with rainbow colors. [Azhar Al-Rubaie]

Ayman Al Uboodi, 21, who is from Iraq but was raised in Australia, told TNA, "I think this was a great achievement in showcasing that LGBTQ Iraqis are participating with their fellow Iraqi brothers during these protests."  

"It negates the constant lie, spread by homophobic Iraqis, that homosexuals (in Iraq) are a small minority with low numbers and thus should not expect the same freedom as others. Would be great to see more of this". 

Earlier in 2020, the Iraqi government submitted a report to the UN connecting sexual orientation and the right to life, highlighting their commitment to holding killers accountable.

Read more: Lebanon must end religious 'hate campaign' against Mashrou' Leila  

According to Article 3, paragraph 12, the report stated that Iraq's constitution has no provisions that discriminate against persons of any specific category on the basis of sexual orientation or gender, and it does not sanction or approve the use of violence of any kind against them. 

Al Uboodi said the report was designed to placate the UN and the international community at a time where the Iraqi government was under threat from millions of civilians demanding a revolution.  

However, now that it has been publicly announced, the government must follow and act upon their report.

I feel proud to have the courage to be where the protests are. I have never before been this close to a conflict before, to a war scene before. We are paying the cost of freedom here. Freedom is not free

"This is a positive development. Now, any LGBTQ person can use this statement to defend themselves in court or to push for further recognition and protection" he added: "I think it is great and amazing that LGBTQ Iraqis are deeply involved. Previously, LGBTQ people were portrayed as party-goers that just indulged in the Western lifestyle and isolated themselves from their local community". 

"That view is slowly shifting with Iraqi society opening up and with these protests showing that LGBTQ Iraqis are just as invested and committed to helping their nation as anyone else". 

Some protesters even updated their Facebook profiles with photos showing their sexual orientation. One of them was Karar Ahmed, a 17-year-old from the conservative city of Najaf. 

"My profile photo represents my identity, despite this I face harassment by people on a daily basis just because I chose to declare my orientation" Ahmed said. "Militia leaders and their TVs incite the community against us and spoil the revolution by spreading inflammatory words, but I do not care what they are doing, I will not hesitate to keep saying that I am here". 

Since 1 October, protesters have poured onto the streets of Iraq. [Getty] 

"Today by putting a photo with rainbow colours on Facebook, tomorrow by announcing it in public. If we do not fight, we will get nothing," he added. 

Amir Ashour, Founder and Executive Director of IraQueer told The New Arab, "We are delighted to see the Iraqi government finally recognizing LGBT+ people's right to life. For more than a decade, killings of LGBT+ Iraqis have been overlooked by the authorities and perpetrators have been let go". 

But he added that the Iraqi government needs to take tangible steps on the ground to ensure that the right of people to life is protected regardless of their religion, sexual orientation or other identity. 

"We at IraQueer are willing to work with the government as we believe it is our duty to criticize them when they do not do enough to uphold human rights. We must support their work when they try to advance human rights and extend them to marginalised groups". 

Azhar Al-Rubaie is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. His writing focuses on a variety of issues, including politics, health, society, wars, and human rights

Follow him on Twitter: @AzherRubaie