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Persecution and Liberation of Gays in The Middle East

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On June 26, 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 of the United States. This was a pivotal point in history for the LGBT community nation-wide. Unfortunately, in other corners of the world same sex couples face much more opposition than illegality of the union of marriage. The climate in Saudi Arabia is the most conservative of the Middle Eastern countries, this is because they are the only one that adheres to Sharia, or Islamic law, as its only legal code. According to Islamic code it is considered haram, or prohibited, to interact with someone of the opposite gender that isn’t within your family (Labi, 2007). In fact, this ruling in the west put Saudi religious police on high alert and they fined a private school in the capital of Riyadh 100,000 riyals (26,000 USD) for painting a portion of their buildings exterior in a rainbow pattern. Ironically, it seems as if it’s easier to be gay than straight in a country where integration of people of the same sex is illegal. Gender separation encourages homosocial interactions behavior and allows for kissing, hugging and a touch on the knee to be socially accepted. According to the former leader of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee in Egypt, “There’s nothing wrong with same-sex kissing so long as there is no temptation” (Whitaker, 2016). Unfortunately, it is only getting increasingly dangerous to be gay in the middle east. In June of 2016, two eighteen-year-old men in Egypt were jailed on a count of ‘debauchery’ because they were surveilled on gay dating apps (Wirtschafter, 2016). Although danger is ever-present for LGBT youth in the middle east along with the regressive attitudes of society and politicians, there is activism and progression counteracting it as well as places within the middle east that serve as a safe space.

There is rich religious and political history behind the social and political position on sexual identity in various countries in the Middle East. To think critically about the modern view of homosexuality in the middle east, we must dissect their past. British colonizers enacted the ‘Indian Penal Code’ in 1861 which included territories of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, parts of Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. In addition, the British imposed the British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance No. 74 in 1936 which penalized sexual acts between men with up to 10 years in prison (Ghoshal, 2018). Over half of the 70 countries that criminalize homosexual acts were former British colonies. France introduced similar laws around the same time. French colonizers imposed laws against same-sex relations in countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. After these countries gained independence, only Jordan and Bahrain eliminated these penalties. In addition, the uprising of Islamic fundamentalism correlated to the increased activism in Europe and the US surrounding gay rights. With a connection between gay-rights and the West was made, politicians in the middle east exploited homophobic feelings for political gain (A. L. , 2015). These factors combined with Sharia Law have essentially cornered gays in the middle east into choosing between hiding, or worse, death. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been the main focal point of Western media outlets surrounding information about the Middle East. This is for good reason, however, there is a bigger take-away in analyzing these groups and politicians and why this uprising is occurring. In individual countries such as Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Oman Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia and Syria, punishment for homosexuality is imprisonment. In other countries, such as Egypt, there may be no specific law in place but older laws may be used to support persecution. Many of these laws and punishments of homosexuality are derived from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, although specific punishments were never outlined in the Qur’an. “Following the Orlando massacre-perpetrated by a man from an Afghan family background- it has been noted that all the countries where the death penalty for sodomy still applies justify it on the basis of Islamic law” (Whitaker, 2016). Saudi Arabia and Mauritania with perhaps the most aggressive adherence to their interpretation of Sharia law, men who engage in homosexual acts can be stoned to death (Bearak/Cameron, 2016). We know as a collective, regardless of which religion people may follow, that separation of religion and politics is a slow and steady race towards the finish line of equality. The interpretations of religious texts are often revisited with new interpretations along with social reform and time, which is something any religious fundamentalist would prefer to dismiss. Needless to say, the root of homophobia in these cultures does not directly stem from Islam, but rather the people that interpret it.

On September 22, 2017, political outraged was sparked by a concert goer flying a rainbow flag. This led to a crackdown by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that included arrests, forced anal exams and a media blackout of pro LGBT content (Ghoshal, 2018). The response by Egyptian media is often propaganda, telling its audience that homosexuality coincides with prostitution, terrorism and debauchery. It may seem that these archaic laws that have been in place for centuries would be near impossible to reform, but this doesn’t stop activists in the region to persist. In most countries, LGBT organizations hesitate to even register, they instead work underground or registering without the mentioning of their mission. Laws regulating non-governmental organizations exist in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates make it essentially impossible for organizations working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity to legally register. On the other hand, since the 2011 Islamic uprising of countries such as Egypt and Libya a political vacuum was created that ultimately stimulated the momentum of LGBT individuals to participate in activism and leftthem with a plan of action for building alliances and mobilization. Dalia Abdel Hameed, a member of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, describes this revolution, “The revolution created a different imaginary and ways of advocating rights and articulating causes that was never conceivable before 2011. Specifically on gender and sexuality, there is a paradigm shift, a change in the way young people think about gender and sexuality, related to the sexual violence in Tahrir and the activism around it”. A gay Egyptian activist stated, “The Arab Spring? It produced me. I was involved in LGBT groups since 2008, but they were always afraid to do much. From 2011, when Mubarak was ousted, it was like there was nothing called a mountain, there was nothing that could not be destroyed” (Ghoshal, 2018). In many cases, the activism began small and the resistance is still growing in numbers. As each countries laws and ambition to persecute differ, the path to forming alliances can vary. For example, in Oman, one activist would organize small gatherings and parties disguised as networking events so that attendees could meet in a safe space and have information to contact others for help in the future. In Kuwait, a transgender activist trained LGBT people on digital security out of people’s homes (Video, Human rights watch). A tactic used by many LGBT organizations to conceal their true objective is to have a vague reason for gathering by advertising ‘personal rights’ or HIV prevention and sexual health. This can avoid the social stigma of these groups as well as government restrictions (Whitaker, 2016). The media has had a far-reaching positive impact on the development of gay and trans rights in the Middle East. The use of social media, specifically, can prove to aid activism in specific instances in an informal way, whereas before resistance may not have been more difficult and life-threatening.

In December of 2014, an Egyptian Television crew instigated a sting operation to ‘expose the cause of AIDS’ within the country. Men were dragged half-naked in the middle of the night into police vehicles and filmed, led by presenter Mona Iraqi. In this journalism flop, the channel was connecting the investigation to World AIDS Day. Although this display of prejudice was another notch in the rise of tension in Egypt, it was met with online backlash. Hossom Bahgat, an Egyptian journalist and founder of The Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights said in response to an online photo of Iraqi filming, “Your picture will spread for years to come with every article, investigation or book on the collapse of Egyptian media ethics” (Kingsley, 2014). In April of 2016, authorities in Amman, Jordan cancelled a concert by popular Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila that fronted by openly gay singer Hamed Sinno. 24 hours later the police rescinded the cancellation, although it was too late to reorganize the concert (Whitaker, 2016). In a strikingly obscure example, even Ricky Martin’s engagement to his Syrian boyfriend, the language surrounding the topic in the middle east was neutral. Nazeeha Saeed, Outright International’s Arab media coordinator goes on to say “… I think the reason is that foreign musicians and artists give more leeway in society- and so the reporting also becomes more acceptable” (Jessica Stern, 2017). This can make seem like these situations show no sign of progress, but its in the echoing of the outcomes that prevail. Social media is a worldwide platform to broadcast the injustices, as well as the responses to them from the community. There is no avenue for government to hide their people, and their voices will be heard.

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