'We are human and we have rights': LGBT activists speak out across the Middle East
Hajar is one of the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] activists from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa who are defying state-sponsored repression and social stigma by sharing their stories to help others in the same situation claim their rights.
"At the beginning I was at war with myself, trying to change myself," Hajar, who lives in Morocco, continues.
"Apparently, I could be cured, so I looked into it – how could I 'cure' myself. It was always the same answer: I should get married and have a child.
"But this backfired, of course. In reality, it's not a choice, I cannot change. The only option is to come to terms with yourself and embrace yourself."
Hajar's story is part of a new report from Human Rights Watch and a video series by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms, in which scores of activists from 16 Arabic-speaking countries across the Middle East and North Africa have come together to talk about their journeys of self-acceptance and how they built their movements.
|Religious figures, the government, your parents - they all want to have a say in what you do between your legs... I want to tell you it's none of their business and that your body, your desires, and your ideas are yours alone
"We don't want the image of just being victims anymore," says Zoheir, a gay activist from Algeria. "We want to speak about the reality, about violence, but also to show what is positive."
The 75-page report, Audacity in Adversity: LGBT Activism in the Middle East and North Africa and the video series, No Longer Alone, aims to confront myths and counteract the isolation many LGBT people in the region endure, offering messages of support and encouragement.
"Religious figures, the government, your parents – they all want to have a say in what you do between your legs," says Rima, a bisexual woman from Lebanon."I want to tell you it's none of their business and that your body, your desires, and your ideas are yours alone. If they don't like what you are, they are wrong."
The activists are encouraging young LGBT people to stand up for themselves while also claiming their rights.
"I am a human like everyone else, and I have rights," says Ahmed, a gay man from Libya. "I will defend those rights."
Rejection and obstacles
The 'legal' context
- In Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, laws explicitly prohibit same-sex acts, with language that is gender-neutral or explicitly includes both women and men.
- Mauritania’s laws also criminalise same-sex conduct for both sexes; sex between adult Muslim men is subject to a sentence of "death by public stoning", while sex between women carries a lesser sentence.
- Kuwait, Sudan, and Dubai prohibit consensual sex between men.
The activists are speaking out due to the significant obstacles LGBT people face in the region. This includes criminalisation of same-sex conduct and gender non-conformity, arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, lack of recognition of transgender people, violence, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, family rejection and social stigma.
"I had a Salafi upbringing and my beliefs were completely in contradiction with my attraction to women," says Dalia from Egypt. She moved to Saudi Arabia with her family and has lived there most of her life.
"I had many friends who cut off all contact with me. Even if they didn't want to, when their families sensed something strange about me, especially when I became public about my homosexuality, there was no way for them to continue to be my friends," she adds.
Norma from Lebanon can relate to the social stigma. "I never felt like I fit in the society I was born in. Ever since I was little, there were restrictions and rules. Why are you so feminine, why do you laugh so loud? Why do you only play with girls and Barbies?
"When I discovered and announced my gender identity, there was not much acceptance. There was rejection. You want to be trans? What will you do with your beard, your big shoulders, your big fingers?" Norma recalls.
"I developed thick skin because of all the things I heard and went through. We all have rights. We all have responsibilities. We all eat, drink, sleep and work. What may be different is my gender orientation, who I prefer to sleep with and what I prefer to wear."
'Raped and thrown out of cars'
The report found severe, pervasive human rights violations that affect LGBT people in the region, ranging from extrajudicial killings to mass arrests to censorship of pro-LGBT speech.
"I felt like I was the only one, the only gay person in the world," says Khalid from Jordan.
"There were no references, even the TV shows were censored. The only thing we used to hear about at the time was arrests in Egypt. Or of people getting killed in Iraq, imprisoned in Syria and publicly hanged in Iran. I used to think it was forbidden and wrong and no one should know."
Homosexuality is not officially outlawed in Egypt, but discrimination is common. Gay men are frequently arrested and typically charged with debauchery, immorality or blasphemy.
|When I discovered and announced my gender identity, there was not much acceptance. There was rejection. You want to be trans? What will you do with your beard, your big shoulders, your big fingers?
Late last year, an Egyptian lawmaker submitted a draft law that would see homosexuals and their "supporters" sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
Riyad Abdel Sattar handed the bill to the parliamentary speaker, calling for homosexuals to be jailed for up to five years and people who defend them for up to three years. It added that people found guilty of "calling for the acceptance of homosexuality" – even if not gay themselves – and journalists covering "gay events" could be jailed for up to three years.
Bahrain has also used vague "morality" and "decency" provisions to harass and detain people suspected of being LGBT. According to one media report, 127 people were arrested at an alleged "gay party" in 2011, some dressed in drag, despite there being no law that clearly punishes being gay or dressing in clothing more usually associated with another gender.
In 2016, police arrested 30 people at a private party at a swimming pool, accused them of being "the third sex", and charged them with public indecency.
Qatar, in addition to banning sex outside marriage for Muslims, provides penalties for any male, Muslim or not, who "instigates" or "entices" another male to commit an act of "immorality".
|Read also: Tunisia rocks taboo on LGBTQ+ rights
HRW also found that gay men and transgender women have been tortured or ill-treated at the hands of police officers and other members of security forces in the region.
In Lebanon, some spoke about being beaten with electric cables and raped with iron rods, while in Iraq they were hung upside down from hooks in ceilings. In Egypt, police "took off their belts and put them around the necks" of gay men and transgender women and "made them walk like dogs". In Kuwait, police raped and threw their victims out of moving cars into the streets.
LGBT people throughout the region also face the threat of violence from everyday citizens. In Morocco people perceived to be gay or transgender have been subjected to mob violence. In Kuwait, men sexually assault transgender women with impunity.
"Repression will not turn gay people straight – it will only perpetuate fear and abuse," says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
|In Lebanon, some spoke about being beaten with electric cables and raped with iron rods... In Kuwait, police raped and threw their victims out of moving cars into the streets
Small, positive steps
Human Rights Watch and AFE anticipate that the videos and the report will embolden LGBT people throughout the region to affirm themselves.
"My way of thinking changed with time. I refused to be ashamed," Khalid says.
Dalia adds: "My father was against me in every way but he transformed from hateful, to accepting and tolerant. He accepted me as his daughter and loved me unconditionally. That was in itself a miracle."
They also hope to reach out to organisations that can provide people with additional support. But small, positive steps are being taken by activists to help each other in the future.
In Oman, an activist described how he and his friends organise "parties for gay guys to meet and network in a safe space". In Jordan, a number of activists are using theatre and other arts to raise awareness about sexual orientation and gender identity among LGBT communities themselves and in some cases, the general public.
"It's hard when you are young," says Hamed Sinno, the openly gay lead singer of the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila.
The group have always been vocal and supportive of LGBT communities, and were quick to denounce Egyptian authorities for their crackdown on homosexuals, after a LGBT rainbow flag was raised during the group's concert in Cairo last year.
"It stays hard, but it gets easier," Hamed added.
You can read the full report by Human Rights Watch here
Sheeffah Shiraz is the Features Editor at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter: @SheeWrites