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This Is How Extremely Dangerous It Is To Be Queer In The Middle-East

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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!

How Is It Like to Be Different in a Middle Eastern Country?

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.

Homophobic Legalizations

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.

Do We Need a Sexual Revolution?

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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