Despite state-sponsored repression and social stigma, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Middle East and North Africa are finding ways to speak out.
Religious figures, the government and parents—they all want to have a say in what you do between your legs. I want to tell them it’s none of their business and that your body, your desires and your ideas are yours alone. If they don’t like what you are, they are wrong.
—Rima, bisexual woman, Lebanon
I am a human like everyone else, and I have rights. I will defend those rights.
—Ahmed, gay man, Libya
People like Ahmed and Rima are not alone. LGBT voices in the Middle East and North Africa are gradually creeping up and speaking out. They are telling their stories, building alliances, networking across borders, developing national and regional movements, and finding creative ways to combat homophobia and trans phobia.
Many governments in the region reject the concepts of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” altogether. Faced with official intransigence, some activists choose to work outside state structures: their activism focuses on community building and attitudinal change. Others have taken on their governments, successfully pushing for incremental change in various forms.
For example, in Lebanon and Tunisia state institutions have accepted calls to end forced anal examinations, after pressure from local and international activists. Iraq has committed to address violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI-based violence). In Lebanon courts have rejected an interpretation of “unnatural offenses” as including same-sex sexual acts (although the relevant court cases have not created binding legal precedent). In Morocco courts have convicted perpetrators of SOGI-based violence.
Even then, LGBT activism survives under severe constraints, in repressive states and conflict zones, in places where activists risk social exclusion, prison sentences, and violence by security forces, armed groups, and even their own families. They use creative approaches in less repressive contexts to gain public support, identify government allies, and mainstream the rights of LGBT people in broader conversations about human rights and gender.
The Human Rights Watch portrays the Middle East and North Africa as a black hole in terms of LGBT rights. Unfortunately, such coverage fails to recognise the agency of LGBT activists from the region, or renders them completely invisible.
“We don’t want the image anymore of just being victims,” Zoheir Djazeiri, an activist from Algeria, told Human Rights Watch. “We want to speak about reality, speak about violence, but also show what is positive.”
Current Positions of
Middle Eastern & North African Countries
Most of these countries inherited their anti-LGBT laws from the British and French as they had been their colonies. However, Jordan and Bahrain have since, done away with these archaic laws in 1951 and 1976 respectively when they passed new criminal codes on gaining independence. Some other countries in the region however, maintained the colonial-era prohibitions, while sometimes modifying the language and sentences.
In other cases, laws against same-sex sexual relations or transgender expression derive from a particular state-sanctioned interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Sharia governs Saudi Arabia and is considered a principal source of law in many other countries of the region.
Criminalization of Same-Sex Conduct:
Almost all Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa region criminalize forms of consensual adult sexual relations which can include sex between unmarried individuals, adultery and same-sex relations. In Bahrain, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, sex outside marriage (zina) is prohibited including between unmarried men and women. This is sometimes done through convoluted language, as in Libya, which describes sex outside marriage as “sexual assault upon a person with that person’s consent.”
In Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and part of Palestine (Gaza), laws explicitly prohibit same-sex acts, with language that is gender-neutral or explicitly includes both women and men.
Mauritania’s laws also criminalise same-sex conduct for both sexes; sex between adult Muslim men is subject to a sentence of “death by public stoning,” while sex between women carries a lesser sentence.
Kuwait, Sudan and part of the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) prohibit consensual sex between men, or sodomy.
Lebanon, Syria and part of the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi) prohibit vaguely defined “unnatural” sex: in Lebanon, “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature,” and in Abu Dhabi, ‘unnatural sex with another person.’ These laws have been used to criminalize same-sex relations.
Qatar, in addition to banning sex outside marriage for Muslims, provides penalties for any male, Muslim or not, who ‘instigates’ or ‘entices’ another male to commit an act of sodomy or immorality. The law does not provide for a penalty for the person who is ‘instigated’ or ‘enticed’.
Iraq and Jordan have no laws that explicitly criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, and their governments have not systematically interpreted other “morality” provisions to criminalize consensual same-sex conduct.
Despite all these draconian and archaic laws, the LGBT community though underground, carefully but bravely soldiers on. We wish that these governments realise their folly and stop abusing basic human rights under the garb of ‘religion’ or ‘morality’.
Prohibitions on Expression of Gender Identity:
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are among the few countries in the world that explicitly criminalize gender non-conformity. Oman joined them in 2018, introducing a retrograde provision in its new penal code that punishes any man who “appears to dress in women’s clothing.”
In Kuwait, a 2007 law criminalises “imitating the opposite sex.” Under this provision, transgender people have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, accompanied by degrading treatment and torture while in police custody. As the law fails to define what “imitating” the opposite sex means, even cisgender people have been arrested under the law.
In the UAE, the federal penal code punishes “any male disguised in a female apparel and enters in this disguise a place reserved for women or where entry is forbidden, at that time, for other than women.” In practice, transgender women have been arrested under this law even in mixed-gender spaces.
In Bahrain, although no law explicitly criminalises transgender identities, media reports refer to cases in which people have been charged with offences such as “indecent behaviour” and “encouraging debauchery” for wearing gender non-conforming clothing. Bahrain’s parliament debated a bill in 2016 and again in 2017 that would criminalize “anyone who looks like the other sex,” but, thankfully, did not pass it.
Compiled by:- Delshad Master