Brian Whitaker has done a variety of jobs at the Guardian including, most recently, seven years as Middle East editor. He is currently an editor on the paper’s Comment is Free website. He is the author of “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” (Saqi, 2006) and “What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East” (Saqi, 2009).
More than seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still a dangerous place for many of its citizens – and none more so than men who are gay or considered not “manly” enough.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch said:
“Murders are committed with impunity, admonitory in intent, with corpses dumped in garbage or hung as warnings on the street. The killers invade the privacy of homes, abducting sons or brothers, leaving their mutilated bodies in the neighbourhood the next day.
“They interrogate and brutalise men to extract names of other people suspected of homosexual conduct. They specialise in grotesque and appalling tortures: several doctors told Human Rights Watch about men executed by injecting glue up their anuses. Their bodies have appeared by the dozens in hospitals and morgues.”1
Exactly how many have been killed at the hands of death squads is impossible to say, but the total probably runs to hundreds. The campaign is thought to have begun in Baghdad, centred especially in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s stronghold, but it later spread to Kirkuk, Najaf and Basra. The most trivial details of appearance, such as the length of a man’s hair or the fit of his clothes, can determine whether he lives or dies, Human Rights Watch added.
Emergency shelters, set up by the London-based Iraqi LGBT group for those under threat, have also faced attack. Several people helping to run them have been killed;2 last June, one of the “safe houses” – in Karbala – was raided by Iraqi police and its occupants taken away.3
A small number of gay men have escaped to the West and been granted asylum, but the US and British governments which “liberated” Iraq in 2003 have so far done little more than express concern about the situation.4 Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch, nobody has been arrested inside Iraq for any of the attacks.
For all their moustachioed macho-ness, the Ba’athists who ruled Iraq continuously from 1968 to 2003 were not unduly troubled by homosexuality. The 1969 penal code made no mention of same-sex acts between consenting adults (though it did criminalise loitering a public place “with indecent intent”)5 and Baghdad, at least in the later years, developed a flourishing underground gay scene – including a popular disco at the Palestine Hotel.
If the Ba’athist regime had other things to worry about, public attitudes were somewhat different. Men and boys who were thought to be gay could suffer taunts and insults, and some reportedly became victims of “honour” killings.
Haider Jaber recalled how, during his schooldays in Iraq under Saddam, other children would hit him or throw stones. “They would gather round and call me ‘gay boy’, ‘woman’ or ask me to suck their penis,” he said. “Sometimes, I would have to wait in school until everyone else had gone for my parents to collect me, or I would take very long routes home to avoid them.”
The taboos surrounding homosexuality, if not the law itself, meant that gay men were sometimes blackmailed into becoming regime informers or providing income on the side for corrupt police officers.
While studying at university in Baghdad, Haider was arrested with his boyfriend when police caught them kissing in a car.
“We were pulled out of the car and the policemen were very aggressive,” he said. “One of them slapped me on my cheeks very hard and I started crying. They dragged me into the police car … I was begging them and telling them I had done nothing wrong. They said: ‘son of a bitch, we will fuck your mother and sister in front of you’, ‘we’ll put the pistol in your ass if you keep moaning’, and a lot of other things.
“They drove towards the police station but did not actually get into the building. We were driven a bit away from the police station and then taken out of the cars. It came about that they basically wanted money. They said we should pay them so that they would leave us alone. They asked for about $1,000 dollars in the beginning. I was only a student and we said we could not afford it. They agreed at last on $400.”6
There are suggestions that during the last three years of his rule, under the threat of invasion, Saddam Hussein adopted a tougher stance against homosexuality in order to win support from religious elements. It has been reported that in 2001 the penal code was amended to criminalise homosexual acts and that a decree by the Revolutionary Command Council introduced the death penalty for them (along with prostitution, incest and rape).7 However, the Iraqi LGBT organisation says a search of the official archives has found no confirmation of this.
Today, homosexual acts in private are still technically legal in Iraq, though the criminal code outlaws “immodest acts” in public. The law also protects people from public insults – which would appear to include suggesting that someone is gay, even if it happens to be true. At the same time, though, the 2005 constitution has a number of exclusions where the general rights and freedoms that it grants do not apply in situations where violations of “public morals” are involved.
On paper at least, this is better than in most Arab countries: in many of them “unnatural acts” are punished with imprisonment and in four – Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – can be punished by death. But despite occasional crackdowns, Arab regimes do not, on the whole, make a point of seeking out gay men and lesbians in order to punish them. Even in Saudi Arabia, no executions for homosexuality have been reported since 2002, though gay parties have been raided and men have been arrested for ‘behaving like women’. The usual penalties in those cases are a severe flogging and imprisonment.
However, non-Arab Iran – which many Shi’ite Iraqis look to for guidance – takes a tougher line. Lavat (sodomy) carries the death penalty and executions are far from uncommon. The actual number is difficult to confirm, though one estimate puts the total at well over 100 during the three decades since the Islamic revolution.8
The problem in post-Saddam Iraq, though, is that the official legal position counts for less than realities on the ground. The wave of “gay” killings was made possible by the breakdown of state control and the rise of local militias, some of them seeking to enforce their own interpretations of Islamic law. That resulted in people being killed for the most trivial of “sins” – among them barbers who gave customers “un-Islamic” haircuts.9 It reached a peak of absurdity when al-Qa‘eda elements in Iraq sought to impose “gender” segregation of vegetables. Claiming that tomatoes are feminine and cucumbers masculine, they argued that greengrocers should not place them next to each other, and that women should not buy or handle cucumbers.10
One interesting difference between Iran and Iraq is that in Iran there do seem to be some progressive elements in the Green Movement and among lawyers who support gay rights. Last December, a group of homosexual students at Iranian universities even issued a public statement.11 In Iraq, apart from a few individuals, Iraq human rights organisations are totally unsupportive.12
By the time war broke out in 2003, Haider Jaber was working as a doctor in a Baghdad hospital and had struck up a relationship with Ali, who he had met in a clothes shop:
“I used to be seen going to my house with Ali. People then started to approach both of us asking us why were we going home together. They were men from the neighbouring houses and men who used to own shops there.
“At the end of 2003, I was coming back from the hospital and I was stopped by about four or five men, one of whom I knew as he was a neighbour. I tried to walk away but I was grabbed by the collar of my shirt. They asked me about Ali and … said they knew I was having sex with him. I denied it. They said that if they saw this man [Ali] again in that area, they would cut his legs off.
“They told me that I had to change … That I had to be heterosexual. I had to marry a woman. I was told to grow a moustache and beard. I was told not to wear jeans or tight clothes and that I must not grow my hair long and that I should not wear bright colours or shirts with English writings or western style. I must attend the mosque frequently for prayers and lectures to be a good man. They said they had decided not to execute me but to change me.”
A few weeks later, Haider received a threatening letter issued in the name of the Badr militia. It accused him of not changing his ways and said he had been “sentenced” to exile in order to “cleanse” the country – adding that if he failed to leave he would be killed.
A month passed, then four men with red scarves around their heads and faces burst into the house where he had been living and searched it. Haider, fortunately, was working in the hospital at the time but a month later two men turned up at the hospital – apparently with connivance from the hospital’s security guards – to look for him again.
He escaped through an emergency exit to the female doctors’ residence then fled to Jordan and was eventually granted asylum in Britain. In the meantime, four men forced their way into the house where Ali was living and took him away – never to be seen again.
In 2005, a fatwa in Arabic appeared on the website of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric. In answer to a question “What is the judgment for sodomy?” Sistani replied that it is forbidden and that “the people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing”.13
The following year the fatwa was removed after complaints to Sistani’s aides from gay rights activists in Britain.14 How much influence the fatwa had in encouraging attacks is difficult to judge, and it was never given much prominence on the ayatollah’s website. Probably a more important factor was the wave of “moral panic” that swept Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion.
Moral panics tend to occur during periods of deep uncertainty and rapid change. Those who are fearful of the future take refuge in the past and “traditional” values as they imagine them to have been. They also look for scapegoats.
One aspect of this in Iraq, as reflected in newspapers and sermons, was the notion that Iraqi men, under influence from the West, were becoming less “manly”.
In an article for al-Sabah newspaper on “The Feminisation of Young Men: Diagnosis and Treatment”, Sabah Mohsen Kazem wrote:
“Globalisation in fashion and subtitled sitcoms and soap operas have a strong influence on young people, who try to emulate what they see in terms of dress, actions, and fashion.
“However, the religious outlook and moral values traditional to Arab society must reach across generations. … These ideals go against the feminisation of boys and the practice of [men] applying makeup, which have spread among many Iraqi youth, eliciting disgust. They result in an unhealthy society lacking prosperity in terms of its culture, economy, and scientific knowledge, leading to lower levels of education and intellect.”15
Similarly, al-Esbuyia magazine reported: “A wave of feminisation is sweeping Baghdad neighbourhoods, turning young men into women or approximations of women through imitating the opposite.” It spoke of an apparently successful campaign in Sadr City to stop young men from “wearing tight clothes, growing their hair and removing it from their faces”. It added: “Everyone says that there are special squads or groups that kill anyone who uses face whitening creams, and pharmacies have emptied their stocks of female hormones that were plentiful in the past period.”16
Although it was probably the post-war turmoil and uncertainties that brought these concerns to the fore in Iraq, similar attitudes can be found elsewhere in the Arab world – especially the more traditional parts of it. For example, men have been arrested in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for “behaving like women”.
Several factors can be suggested by way of explanation.
One is the general emphasis on behavioural conformity in Arab society. Part of this is about maintaining an appearance of order and discipline, respecting the wishes of elders and superiors, and the avoidance of fitna (or social discord). Diversity, often viewed in the West as a source of cultural richness, tends to be frowned upon. Similarly with assertions of individuality: where westerners see individualism, Arabs often see selfishness. Advising a Muslim mother about the upbringing of her child, the Egyptian-based website IslamOnline warned: “Individualism is totally selfish, seeking one’s own needs first and last. There is no relation to a healthy social grouping and there is no sense of responsibility to others …” In several articles on the same website, individualism was mentioned disparagingly in conjunction with consumerism, capitalism and liberalism.
More specifically related to sexuality, in societies where gender segregation applies it is important not to blur the boundaries. In a much-quoted hadith, the Prophet is said to have cursed men who imitate women and women who imitate men. “Aspects of such imitation include the manner of speaking, walking, dressing, moving, and so on,” according to IslamOnline. This not only appears to rule out cross-dressing but also camp mannerisms by gay men and butch mannerisms by lesbians. Islamic scholars often extend the rule further to include male use of “feminine” adornments such as neck-chains, bracelets and ear-rings.17
Segregation of the sexes, as practised to varying degrees in Muslim societies, is one way of preventing illicit sexual contacts, and the prohibition of cross-dressing should perhaps be viewed in that context: a man who disguises as a woman, or vice versa, is presumed to be up to mischief.
Probably an even more important factor is that femininity in men undermines and subverts conventional Arab views about masculinity, and especially ideas about male superiority. This applies to minor things like “effeminate” hairstyles and mannerisms as well as in the most extreme case of anal intercourse between males – though in popular perceptions, if not in law, it is only the man in the passive (female) role who is regarded as betraying his manhood.
If a man assumes the active role in anal intercourse with another man, his action is not necessarily regarded as shameful or as indicating any particular sexual orientation. He is merely performing the role that men normally perform in intercourse with women. The fact that he does this with a man rather than a woman may even be interpreted as a sign of heightened masculinity, since sex with another man is popularly thought to require greater strength or sexual prowess (indeed, many of the gay men who survived attacks in Iraq say they were raped by their attackers).
Assuming the passive position, on the other hand, is considered demeaning, since in this case the man takes on the role of a woman. The element of “shame”, therefore, rests on an assumption that women are inferior to men. There is also a widespread belief that those assume the “female” role in sex cannot be doing it for pleasure – hence the tendency of the Egyptian police to regard such men as prostitutes.18
In the view of many Arabs, therefore, the significant distinction is not between heterosexual and homosexual but between penetrator and penetrated: men are the penetrators (of women and sometimes other men) while women are the penetrated – in which case the “deviance” of the shaadh is that he behaves as a woman.19
Finally, there is the way that gender-blurring and homosexuality, along with sexual freedoms more generally, have become associated with western values and thus need to be suppressed if they surface in Arab society. For those who believe that the region is under attack – militarily, economically and culturally – this is one aspect of a geopolitical struggle that can be addressed at a local level.
It is interesting in this regard that some of the most negative accounts of same-sex intercourse in modern Arabic literature (such as Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, and Sun’allah Ibrahim’s Sharaf) involve sex between Arabs and foreigners. In the words of Frédéric Lagrange, “Literature often displaces the shock of the encounter with the west into the arena of sexuality … Domination and submission are symbolised through sexuality, and the effect is described in its pathological dimensions. The Arab man is symbolically or physically abused by the west …”20
While the vigilante killings in Iraq result from a unique set of circumstances, the attitudes that underlie them and provide the rationale are far from unique: they are commonplace in most parts of the Arab world. This is not simply an issue for gay people or human rights activists; it is integral to the question of social and political change. Homosexuality and refusals to conform to traditional notions of Arab-Islamic masculinity present a fundamental challenge to the old authoritarian and patriarchal order and to notions of an east-west “clash of civilisations” binary. That makes the struggle for gay rights in the Middle East more appear daunting than it might otherwise be but also, if it eventually succeeds, hugely rewarding for society as a whole.
2. Peter Tatchell: Iraq’s queer underground railroad, The Guardian, February 25, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/25/iraq-gay-rights
3. “Iraqi police raid gay ‘safe house,’” al-bab.com, June 20, 2010, http://www.al-bab.com/blog/blog1006b.htm#iraqi_police_raid_gay_safe_house
4. Paul Canning, “US and UK failing to take Iraq’s gay pogrom seriously,” The Guardian, June 23, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/23/gay-people-iraq
5. Penal Code, 1969. Paragraph 502, http://law.case.edu/saddamtrial/documents/Iraqi_Penal_Code_1969.pdf
6. Brian Whitaker: Axis of Evil, GT magazine, March 2007, http://www.al-bab.com/arab/articles/text/gt_march2007.htm
7. ‘Iraq: Male homosexuality still a taboo,” IRIN News Agency, February 5, 2006, http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=26110
8. Boroumand Foundation: Omid, the Iran Human Rights Memorial, http://www.iranrights.org/english/memorial-search.php?do_search=Search&charges=1778515990&pagenum=0
9. Robert Worth, “A haircut in Iraq can be the death of the barber,” New York Times, March 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/18/international/middleeast/18barber.html?ex=1268802000&en=898f35fbd97d012c&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland.
10. ‘Al-Qa’eda in Iraq alienated by cucumber laws and brutality.’ Daily Telegraph, August 11, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/2538545/Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq-alienated-by-cucumber-laws-and-brutality.html. Impositions such as this were said to be a major reason for al-Qaeda’s declining support among Iraqi Sunnis.
11. Statement by homosexual students at Iran’s universities, December 6, 2009, http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2009/12/statement-by-homosexual-students-at.html
12. Author’s correspondence with Paul Canning of LGBT Asylum News, http://madikazemi.blogspot.com/
13. “Iraqi cleric wants gays killed in ‘most severe way,’” The Advocate.com, March 16, 2006, http://www.advocate.com/article.aspx?id=34298
14. “Sistani removes ‘death to gays’ fatwa from website,” UK Gay News, May 15, 2006, http://www.ukgaynews.org.uk/Archive/2006may/1501.htm
15. Sabah Mohsen Kazem, “The Feminization of Young Men: Diagnosis and Treatment,” Al-Sabah, May 7, 2009.
16. “The War Between the ‘Puppies’ and the Kidnappers,” Al-Esbuyia, May 10-16, 2009.
17. “Islamic rulings on homosexuality,” Reproduced at http://straightway.sinfree.net/rulings/fatwas4.htm
18. Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love – Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, (London: Saqi Books, 2006) p. 206.
19. Frédéric Lagrange, ‘Male Homosexuality in Modern Arabic Literature’ in Ghoussoub, Mai and Emma Sinclair-Webb. Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East. (London: Saqi Books, 2000) pp 169-198.
20. Lagrange, op cit. p 187.
Pride and prejudice: The targeting of gay men in Iraq by Near East Quarterly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at neareastquarterly.com.