Last month, Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band known to satirize homophobic attitudes of the Middle East in their songs, had a concert at The American University in Cairo. During the performance, one of the fans raised a rainbow flag. The lead singer of the band, Hamed Sinno, who is openly gay, expressed his admiration for the gesture, saying that this required a lot of courage.
Before you even ask why this is important to mention, you should know that, sadly, where I come from, this small act is considered an achievement for freedom of expression!
According to a survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2013, 95% of Egyptians believe that homosexuality can’t exist and shouldn’t be accepted in society, while other 5% think that homosexuals should be imprisoned. 78% of Turkish people, 80% in Lebanon, 93% in Palestine, 94% in Tunisia, and 97% in Jordan believe the same as Egyptians.
Coming out in a society that believes this sexual orientation is an unnatural perversion is very hard to deal with. It takes a lot of courage to accept yourself, and it takes even more courage to admit your orientation to somebody, knowing that you may lose your family, your friends, and your job, that you may be forced to go to therapy and you may even get arrested.
In 2001, more than 55 men were arrested in a nightclub boat named “Queen Boat.” Most of them faced the charges of “obscene behavior” while two of them faced the charges of “contempt of religion.” These men were tortured, beaten, and electroshocked for 22 hours a day in prison while waiting for their trial. They were also subjected to invasive examinations in order to find out if they had had anal intercourse.
A week ago, a member of the Egyptian parliament, Hussein Gheita, filed a complaint to against the ministers of foreign affairs and higher education because of an article published by a student-run magazine, The AUC Times. Under the title of “To Be Gay in the Lands of Fear,” the article tackled the fears and the hardships of being homosexual in Egypt.The main message behind the article was to tell people that there is a huge distinction between defending a human being’s right to be different, and embracing this difference. According to Mr. Hussein, the article encouraged “debauchery” and “destroying societal morals,” saying that “homosexuality cannot be tackled as a normal issue.”
After increasing attacks on homosexuals in Egypt, the online dating app, Grindr, started to warn users in Egypt against giving out their personal information as the app was being used to track and arrest LGBT+ people in the country. A message appeared on the app saying “Egypt is arresting LGBT people, and police may be posing on social media to entrap you, please be careful about arranging meetings with people you don’t know, and be careful about posting anything that might reveal your identity.” The app has also announced that it is going to take preventative measurements against countries (including Egypt and Saudi Arabia) that have “a history of violence against gay community,” to keep its users safe by hiding their personal information.
In Lebanon in 2013, the Lebanese mayor shut down a nightclub named “Ghost” for being LGBT-friendly without a legal notice. Many club-goers were arrested and forced to take off their clothes in the municipal headquarters, then they were photographed naked.
In Saudi Arabia, last year a school was fined around 26,000 dollars and the head of the school was arrested because of rainbow paintings on its building, which were covered later with blue paint. Last Month, a man was arrested for flying a rainbow flag on the top of his house without knowing that the flag is an LGBT+ symbol.
Although people in the Middle East claim that homosexuality, isn’t acceptable because it’s against their culture or religion, I think there is more to it. I mean we’ve got pornographic sites among the list of the top visited websites here in the Middle East, and we’ve got the second highest rate of sexual harassment too! So I believe it’s about homosexuality threatening the image of “male domination” in society. After all, people are more tolerant with lesbianism than they are with gay men. For Instance, in Gaza Strip, Kuwait, and Pakistan, female same-sex relations are legal, while male same-sex relations are not.
In Egypt, there is no specific law that criminalizes gay sex, but in most cases homosexual people can be accused of “debauchery” under Article 9 of Law 10/1961. In Saudi Arabia, the penalty for same-sex relations for married men, and Non-Muslims is death by stoning, while the penalty for unmarried men is 100 blows of the whip and banishment for a year. Also in Iran, Qatar, and Yemen the penalty of homosexuality can be death. In Syria, and Oman the penalty is up to 3 years in prison, while in Lebanon the penalty is up to 1 year in prison. In Kuwait the penalty can go up to 7 years in prison, in Gaza up to 10 years, and in the United Arab Emirates up to 14 years.
It may still be very early to talk about a sexual revolution, when people are unwilling to accept one. Fortunately, there are some voices that are trying to enhance knowledge and better the situation.
Founded in 2008 in Lebanon, Jasad Magazine is cultural magazine in Arabic specialized in the body, arts, science, literature, and the taboos that surround sexuality in the Arab world – all of this is represented by their logo, a broken handcuff. The magazine works on representing the symbols, hopes and cultural frames that are related to the body in the Arab world.
Although homosexuality is still illegal in Lebanon, Helem Organization, (which means “dream” in Arabic) is a gay rights organization that has made remarkable efforts in increasing awareness about LGBTQ issues in Lebanon for more than 10 years. It was established in 2004 after Queen Boat incident in Egypt.
Ahwaa, which means “Passion” in Arabic, is a bilingual platform that provides support for the LGBTQ community in the Middle East. People can easily come to the website with questions, challenges, concerns, and advices and can also share their experiences and stories with each other. The website is trying to provide as much privacy and security as possible so that the users can feel safe while using it.
It’s not going to be easy to achieve complete freedom anytime soon. The road is difficult, but we’ve got to fight till the end. All we can do now is to increase awareness, education and support as much as we can.
Featured Image for representation only.