Bahrain has a history of what the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association calls “state sponsored homophobia.”
Over the past decade, Bahrain’s parliament has issued several calls for “gay tests” and “studies” to “root out homosexuality.” Historically, these initiatives target the country’s sizable migrant worker population, which accounts for nearly 75 percent of the nation’s workforce. Migrant workers endure extreme human rights violations at the hands of abusive employers, while state media routinely describe them as deviant, hyper-sexual, and, by implication, a persistent threat to Bahraini life.
Recently, migrant workers are not the only ones facing (unfounded) sexual demonization in Bahrain. In the nearly four years since the country’s democratic uprising began in 2011, government supporters have used accusations of queer sexuality to delegitimize Bahraini human rights activists and political opposition leaders. Like the attacks levied against Bahrain’s migrant populations, those aimed at the opposition are always tied to the notion that “they” are unfit for Bahraini life.
Critics of Bahraini activists often combine homophobic slurs with more traditional accusations of violence. Quite often, the words “gay,” “terrorist,” and “Molotov” appear together in the Bahraini Twittersphere.
Twitter users have deployed the word “gay,” for instance, to denounce internationally renowned human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab, president and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Some allege that Rajab is “obsessed with rape;” others spin into tizzies over which derogatory term they should use to describe him. When Russia’s LGBTQ rights violations exploded onto the international news scene in 2011, Rajab’s critics remarked that gay Russian protesters were likely “friends of Nabeel” (evidently intended as an insult, rather than as a testament to his history of solidarity with international activists.).
Twitter commentators regularly speculate about Rajab’s sexual relationships with other international human rights advocates, particularly those who have been outspoken in their critique of the Bahraini regime. One asked if “on the occasion of gay pride” day, Rajab “had enough in jail,” ostensibly referencing the systematic sexual abuse found in Bahrain prisons.
— بِشِـــر بن خليفة (@BisherAlKhalifa) February 13, 2012
— Yasbm (@yasbm) November 8, 2011
Political opposition leaders have received the same sort of crude, homophobic, and even transphobic attacks. Photoshopped images feature Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Bahrain’s largest opposition party, al Wefaq, dressed in drag sporting a pink tutu and sash that reads “Ms. Iran.” Others reckon that Salman’s Twitter handle, @wefaqGS, stands for “Wefaq Gay Salman” rather than the actual name, “Wefaq General Secretary.” The @WatchBahrain cartoon series, which levels vitriol against prominent Bahraini opposition and international rights activists, labels the group “Al Wefag.”
— Loves Bahrain (@JulesALK) September 8, 2012
Of course, as compared to arrest, arbitrary detention, torture, and threats against their families, crude homophobic comments from Twitter trolls with a few hundred followers are not worth the time it takes activists to read them. Prominent Bahraini opposition leaders and human rights defenders are right to ignore the half-baked insults, but tweets like these are more than semantic slights, and the linkages between homophobia, xenophobia, and autocratic rule merit a closer look.
These tweets serve to both insult and stigmatize the opposition with “gayness,” actively working to erode the credibility and respectability of their targets. The question, then, is not whether or not Nabeel Rajab, Ali Salman, and other such leaders are “gay” or “straight,” as those terms are variably defined. The question is how homophobia is deployed in order to place opposition leaders on the extreme fringes of Bahraini society and depict their work for civil rights as deviant and foreign to Bahrain.
First They Came for the Migrants
While consensual same-sex intercourse is actually legal in Bahrain and has been so since the 1970s, cross-dressing and “enticing” others to participate in same-sex activities are both grounds for imprisonment. Private establishments with allegedly gay or gender-queer customers can be labeled ‘immoral’ and shut down.
Many in Bahrain reject the notion of homosexuality as a naturally occurring thing, and largely view the phenomenon as external to traditional Bahraini values. Local slang for “gay” is much more than a marker of sexual orientation, actual or perceived. It is an insulting, derogatory term, used as a general expletive.
In Bahrain, migrant workers have felt the impact of these attitudes from the state and citizens alike. In 2008, members of the country’s parliament began calling for the “rooting” and “stamping” out of homosexuality in the kingdom, a campaign largely directed at foreign laborers from South East Asian countries. MPs urged the Interior Ministry to stop granting residency permits to “foreign homosexuals,” to deport gay expats (using as yet unannounced means of detecting “gayness”), and to punish Bahraini children seen to exhibit “signs” of homosexuality.
Similarly, in 2013, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal called for . An official at Kuwait’s Ministry of Health told a local paper that Gulf authorities planned “stricter measures that will help us detect gays who will be then barred from entering Kuwait or any of the GCC member states.”
In both 2008 and 2013, homophobia was deployed not merely as a means of policing sexuality, but also to stigmatize migrants and determine who might enter and reside in the Gulf. Foreignness was enmeshed with queerness, and queerness seemed to threaten the state’s survival. Allegedly perverse, deviant, hyper-sexualized laborers were cast as a plague on Bahrain’s otherwise clean, moral, healthy state. State officials publically deemed it legitimate to deport, deny visas, and even physical abuse foreigners and citizens who exhibited “signs” of gayness.
At the time, the government-run Gulf Daily News published a letter to the editor which read:
As natural law implies, sexual orientation does not constitute a quality comparable to race, ethnicity, gender or age in respect to non-discrimination.
Unlike these [qualities,] homosexual orientation is an objective disorder and evokes moral concern. Gay rights activists are merely exploiting tolerance in the service of a particular ideology.
Caesar Augustus, a pagan, sought to strengthen Roman society by outlawing adultery and sodomy and by encouraging traditional marriage and procreation. He understood the importance of public morality. Emperor Augustus saw this, but it was too late to overcome the sexual licence of the late Roman Republic. This was the real reason why it collapsed.
I pray that Bahrain does not end up suffering the same fate.
In this system of queerness as national security threat, sets of overlapping binaries emerged: gay/straight, citizen/other, threat/government. Gayness was cast as the polar opposite of the Bahraini regime, and had to be “rooted it out.”
Three years later, after the first round of calls to “stamp out homosexuality,” pro-democracy protests began in Bahrain in February 2011. That same month, the government also conducted a very public raid against LGBTQ individuals in the country
On the night of February 5, 2011, Bahraini police received word that Arabs and Turks from all over the Gulf and Middle East were attending a “gay party” just 10 minutes north of the capital, Manama. Undercover police bought a ticket into and eventually raided the party. They arrested 127 men, many of whom were dressed in drag and from countries far beyond Bahrain. Authorities detained and deported over 100 men who participated in the “” night.
#LULUCARNIVAL: Do You Know What They’re Doing Up There?
Six days later, Bahrainis began to gather in Manama’s now infamous Pearl Square, or “Lulu” roundabout. It was here, at the start of the country’s 2011 uprising, that Bahrain’s efforts to sexualize the opposition took root.
In February and March 2011, thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered with Tahrir-like euphoria in Pearl Square. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in particular, Bahrainis poured into the city center to peacefully demand regime reform. Amid the speeches and poems addressing the political and human rights reforms desired by the Bahraini people, Pearl Square was packed with tents, blankets, and food vendors. Those present at the roundabout describe these days “like coming up for air after a lifetime underwater.”[i]
At 3 am on February 17, 2011, government forces raided the sleeping square, firing teargas and concussion grenades, razing tents, and beating civilians. Five Bahrainis died in Pearl Square that night. Hundreds more were injured, and dozens went missing for months. Days later protestors were allowed to return to the square, but on March 16 Bahraini Defense Forces, riot police, and foreign members of the Peninsula Shield Force evacuated, bulldozed, and set on the camp on fire. Medics, who had attempted to reach the square to treat the hundreds of wounded protestors in February, were arrested, detained, and often tortured. Protests continued for weeks, and in late March the Al Khalifa government declared a state of martial law that lasted three months.
And then the rumors started.
“Do you know what protesters did in the Square? Disgusting.”
“’Lulu Carnival’ they should call it.”
“Human rights?? Please. We know what they were really doing there.”
“Did you hear they found lingerie [when troops raiding the square]?”
“The number of used condoms thrown behind the tents… shows the true intentions of the ‘rights seekers.’”
Mockery ensued, with some government loyalists going to far as to call for violent revenge against the civil rights demonstrators.
RT LOL “@Hk66DontTouchMe: I think this Pearl roundabout square #LuLuCarnival must be renamed as soho “sex place””
— Arsalan Zubair (@Arsalan_Z) February 27, 2011
Nearly four years later, stories are still floating around pro-government circles regarding the “disgraceful” events that allegedly took place at the roundabout.
The Pearl Square uprising ushered in rumors that the opposition was sexually perverse, but it was far from the first time Bahraini authorities portrayed their opposition as “threats” to the country. Bahrain has a decades old tradition of presenting political and human rights activists as dangerous and deviant, at times forcing them into exile and stripping them of their citizenship. Hyper-sexuality – gay or otherwise – is the state’s latest pretext for ousting Bahrainis fighting for democracy and equal rights in the country.
Not Bahraini Enough
In 1997, then advocacy director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East (now Deputy Director), Joe Stork, reported:
Bahrain stands apart in the Middle East, and very nearly in the world, in its flagrantly illegal practice of forcibly exiling its own citizens … [some] have been kept outside their country for two decades and longer.
…virtually every period of unrest in Bahrain’s modern history included the forced exile of key figures.
Today, under the increasingly harsh Bahrain Citizenship Law, “the nationality of a person can be revoked if he or she causes harm to state security.” In October 2014, a Bahraini court ordered the deportation of 10 people who had been stripped of their nationality in 2012 (along with 21 others), effectively rendering them stateless.
Homosexuality is working its way into the list of transgressions that can render someone undeserving of the social and legal title “Bahraini.” Government loyalists often proclaim that opposition activists and political leaders “don’t represent me and don’t represent Bahrain.” Occasionally, they finish with a quick note about how such people “represent the gays,” firmly locating “the gays” (and thus, the opposition) in direct contrast with “Bahrain.” In many Twitter attacks, homosexuality is positioned as antithetical to the state itself.
— Maryam G (@Miss_M7) June 17, 2011
I am bahraini and the gay ali salman does not represent me or bahrain — ❤ we love our king ❤ (@ladyreeeeem) June 17, 2011
With such remarks, pro-government Bahrainis manage to distance themselves from both gayness and the opposition, simultaneously declaring their heterosexuality and their allegiance to the regime.
Dear #bahrains Ali Salman is Gay, Nabeel Rajab is Gay.. What a couple! Will their baby be named sayed?
— Bader J (@baderjasim) November 8, 2011
“Sayed” is a name given almost exclusively to Shia children in families believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Mohamed, a tradition sometimes mocked by their Sunni contemporaries. Here, ‘Bader’ achieves an almost impressive trifecta of homophobia, sectarianism, and exclusionary nationalism.
Indeed, “Shia” is attached to derogatory comments about both homosexuality and state security. The phrase “these Shias, the gays” is overheard in coffee shops, homes, and even school yards, while residents in loyalist communities refer to young anti-government protestors – including those who march peacefully – as “Shia terrorists.” In such conversations, gay, opposition, Shia, anti-government, and terrorist become nearly interchangeable, while the government is portrayed as the epicenter of Bahraini morality, security, and tradition.
To decry the opposition is to reify one’s status as a Bahraini citizen. Queer sexualities and anti-government sentiments are collectively defined outside the knowable boundaries of the Bahraini subject. In this new construction, anti-government activists and political leaders are no longer Bahrainis demanding their rights as citizens, nor humans demanding human rights; they are instead deviant ‘gays’ tearing at the fabric of an otherwise morally righteous nation.
Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First in Washington, DC, has worked extensively with Bahraini rights activists. He is also, incidentally, a favorite target of homophobic Twitter speculation about Nabeel Rajab’s love life.
According to Dooley, activists believe that much of abuse comes from “government made accounts,” and the attacks belie a deeply seeded fear of human rights activists in Bahrain:
Bahraini government loyalists seem determined to demonize us, but because they can’t find anything we’ve done that’s violent they resort to schoolyard shouts of GAY. It says much more about the insecurities of the people saying it than it does about their targets. This sort of abuse shows how desperate they are to make peaceful activists look threatening to Bahrain.
[i] Author interviews, Manama, Bahrain, November 2012.