On April 16, 2018, Human Rights Watch released its most recent report on the state of LGBT activism in Arabic-speaking countries—and its findings are not half as disheartening as one might have expected.
“Audacity in Adversity: LGBT Activism in the Middle East and North Africa,” a seventy-five-page document produced in collaboration with the Beirut-based NGO Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, details the struggles individuals in the Muslim world more generally continue to face at all levels—social, legal, and political. It also documents the unexpected progress activists have made in the last decade. From mundane acts of everyday resistance, such as waving a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, to the establishment of shelters for those abandoned by their families after coming out, the report tells a compelling tale of solidarity to complement the narrative of victimhood.
It is true that sexual orientation- and gender identity-related (SOGI) human rights violations in this region, while varying in terms of severity, remain rampant. Egyptian police have, for example, administered notorious forced anal exams to ‘determine’ male homosexuality. In Iraq, where neither same-sex conduct nor ‘immoral’ or ‘unnatural’ sexual acts is criminalized, the pro-government paramilitary group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous), nevertheless, participated in numerous waves of killings targeting gender-nonconforming men between 2012 and 2017, up to and including men who had long hair or who were wearing tight jeans. In the Gulf States, meanwhile, a soft form of discrimination towards gender nonconformity has been practiced. Much like Kuwait’s 2007 law criminalizing “imitation of the opposite sex”, Oman introduced a legal provision this year to punish any man who “appears to dress in women’s clothing.”
While the laws and practices might vary, these and other regional countries are united in an agenda of ‘heterosexualizing and punishing’ gender- and sex-nonconforming individuals. Successfully fighting against this agenda are a number of NGOs and community organizations scattered across the region, some operating covertly and others overtly.
Where vaguely worded laws prohibit freedom of sexual expression under the umbrella of ‘breach of modesty,’ ‘incitement to debauchery’ or simply ‘indecency,’ gay Arabs are finding opportunities for expression in the bilingual Jordanian magazine My.Kali, which has not only survived suppression but is entering its tenth year. Where a Pride parade is impossible because of the risk of violence, LGBT groups have tenaciously sought to ally themselves with other groups advancing human rights causes, as in the case of the Tunisian Collective for Individual Freedoms. These activists have worked quietly but effectively, providing victims of state violence with lawyers and mobilizing public support to protest against inhumane prison conditions affecting LGBT individuals. Also in Tunisia, activists have even managed to establish an LGBT radio station amid thousands of threats.
Alongside the Human Rights Watch report is a video featuring interviews with a range of LGBT-identifying Arabs in the region, all of whom give courage to others in their situation to stand strong and remind them of the steadily improving prospects for coalition-building and freedom for SOGI expression. Amid all their statements, that of Mashrou Leila frontman Hamed Sinno rings most true: “It’s hard when you are young. And it stays hard, but it gets easier.”