Is same-sex marriage a big deal for Australia's Arabs?

Is same-sex marriage a big deal for Australia's Arabs?
Comment: Australians are debating same-sex marriage, but for many gay Arabs in the West, finding acceptance in their own religious community already presents a major challenge, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
13 Sep, 2017
The results of the vote on marriage equality will be announced on 15 November [AFP]
This week, Australians take part in a postal vote on same-sex marriage. It's a debate that has been bandied about for years - a political hot potato with fierce public debate between those voting "yes" to same-sex marriage, and those who maintain a resounding "no". 

We're not talking about same-sex unions, or even same-sex parents, because there are already plenty of those. This is a vote on marriage, in all of its sanctity, the "purity" of which many seek to preserve.

The $122 million postal ballot should force the issue for our nation's leaders, though it's not certain it will legally guarantee the outcome for which the majority voted.

That we need a vote says a great deal about the nation's psyche. The lack of self-determination for same-sex couples in marriage is reflective of where we sit on a scale of conservatism - that is, we're not as "enlightened" in the West as we think.

Religion is at the heart of many of these debates, with people arguing that enabling same-sex unions will affect their freedoms. They worry, for example, that churches or other religious institutions will be forced to marry same-sex couples, despite it being against their beliefs. These people are worried about the collapse of their status quo; a fear evident in many societies undergoing cultural change. 

As one woman told me, you are never really 'out' if you're Arab

There's no evidence to suggest that this would be the case, of course. A deeper consideration untangles this further - how do everyday people outside of these religious institutions deal with these state-sanctified unions? As Australian journalist David Marr explained, what many fear is the "slippery slope" of where it may all lead; can a baker refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, for example?

At a time when it's harder to believe things quietly, people are afraid of what they are allowed to believe.

Still, western countries including Australia, pride themselves on being progressive. Yet, even as other regions of the world, including the Arab world, are derided as backward or too conservative, even as the lauded The Handmaid's Tale suggested gruesomely that punishing someone for being gay is the stuff of dystopian saga, many people in the West still consider being gay a threat to society.

I am not gay, and I don't pretend to speak on anyone's behalf. But when I set out to document the lives of Arab women, an important story was that of sexuality, and by extension, shame and sexual confusion.

Arab women have struggled with the demands of a culture that demands they maintain modesty and virginity until marriage, only to become a siren in the bedroom. This is a confusing message, one that becomes even more complicated for gay Arab women, given the challenges they face.

Is there more freedom to be gay in the West than in the Arab world? Yes and no, according to the women I spoke to. For them, social media has opened up the possibility of connecting with people in the same situation, but as one woman told me, you are never really "out" if you're Arab.

Now, as I read daily stories of the panic that discussions on same-sex marriages creates, I think of the discussions I had with women who are either gay or helping people who are gay - both here in Australia and in the Middle East.

Read more: Everyone should have the right to express their love - except in the Middle East

I spoke to one of my interviewees again while writing this piece - just what does this postal vote mean if you're gay and from an ethnic minority? She loves that the battle is being played out, she told me, but the result is unlikely to change anything for her. She has no desire to get married if her family isn't there to share in the event.

Just what does this postal vote mean if you're gay and from an ethnic minority?

The reality for many Arabs is that the battle lies in having freedom to be gay, but also having the support of their family and wider community. Progress is good in the long run, but for many, a more persistent battle is raging: Acceptance by the Arab community with which they identify, including their religious institutions - be it the church, mosque or other.

Most of the religious "no" voices in the media come from conservative Christians, but Muslims have recently come under the microscope for their "silence". Speaking on current affairs panel show The Drum, Ali Kadri, a spokesman for the Islamic Council of Queensland and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, suggested that fear of isolating left-wingers who support Muslims facing discrimination is keeping many silent.

Actually, Muslims are not silent. Their input may not be as widely broadcast as that of the Christian majority, and it's important to note too, that the Muslim community's view is of course, not unanimous.

While I've witnessed some Muslims awkwardly tip-toe around their beliefs for fear of offending, advising in elastic terms that it's OK to vote based on what they believe (a "no" vote), others are more at ease in declaring their opinions.

For many Arabs, the battle lies in having freedom to be gay, but also having the support of their family and wider community

Take, for instance, Muslims for Marriage Equality, whose sentiment is shared by advocacy group Muslims for Progressive Values. But elsewhere, Muslim leaders have offered more conservative positions, with the Council of Imams in Queensland and the National Imams' Council declaring that marriage is only permissible between a man and a woman.

The issue here is not pressuring religious institutions into overturning their beliefs, but rather, encouraging a realistic approach to their communities - accepting that some people will identify as queer while remaining true to religious practice. 

Melissa, my interviewee, lamented the lack of normalisation in the Arab community. She had hoped to put together a video featuring gay Arabs, speaking in Arabic, to disrupt the fantasy that they don't exist, but wasn't confident that people would feel safe speaking on camera.

It's not merely antagonism from our parents' generations that worries her, it's the judgement from younger generations that presents a deeper issue. But, she concluded, same-sex marriage is good for everyone, and will be voting "yes".

We will all be watching to see how the majority votes, and most importantly, what happens next. 

*names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.