Will the ‘Arab Spring’ result in a more inclusive and tolerant region for LGBT people?

Guest blog from Gay Middle East.

Arab lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) suffered like all citizens of the Arab countries from many decades of oppression by despotic rulers, whether they be “secular” or religious monarchies.  Is the Arab spring about to change this? Is it time for LGBT Arabs to come out of the closet and demand rights?

It is obviously impossible to generalise about a region as geographically and culturally diverse as the Middle East, so it is helpful to first consider Syria as a case study of LGBT rights in the region. 

Life for sexual minorities in Syria has always been constrained problematic. Legally, you can be arrested and given a minimum sentence of three years for “carnal relations against the order of nature”, under article 520 of the 1949 penal code.  Other articles which cover “obscene behaviour” and holding “obscene parties” can also be used against individuals or groups. Socially you can face losing your job, ostracisation and even murder by relations trying to protect your family’s “honour”.   As LGBT people are vulnerable to being outed, with serious legal and social consequences, you are an easy target for blackmail, harassment and coercion for information by both the authorities and the public.

In practice it is difficult to live as a couple (although not impossible depending on many circumstances), if you are found out by your neighbours, friends or family, facing all the risks discussed above. Furthermore, there is familial pressure to get married and the ever present threat of insulting your family’s honour by not doing so.  Even in Syria, Shari’a law is applied to some degree to family relations, making it even harder for women to have freedom as they need permission from their legal custodian (their father or husband) even to travel.  

Medically, in Syria as well as across most Arab countries, homosexuality is seen as a disease which can be “treated” with a combination of psychotherapy and hormonal treatment.   People seeking help from the official medical/social services may find themselves forced to undergo such “treatments” which can lead to severe depression and even suicide. 

Until recently, if you avoided attracting the interests of authorities and were not out(ed) you could, within many constraints, enjoy meeting people discretely or at various unofficial spots, such as cafés, parks, etc.  Of course there is also the internet which enables interaction, meeting and dissemination of information, although the authorities are increasingly clamping down on this too.  

The story of Sami, a young professional in Damascus, is illustrating in this context. In the last five years, he has been organising online and offline support, for example creating informal groups, to help LGBT people in Syria. This has enabled LGBT people there to talk about safer sex, relationships, faith and feeling pride in oneself.  Given official attitudes towards homosexuality, it should come as no surprise that there is almost no official information in terms of HIV/Safer sex awareness directly educating LGBT people.  Hence informal networks like Sami’s are an essential life-line for LGBT people throughout the Arab world.

He has also been helping people who found themselves arrested or harassed in due to their sexuality, often advising them to keep a low profile or negotiate with the authorities.  He has also been very careful not to be political and thus run the risk of the authorities’ wrath.  Of course, people always lived in fear of the consequences of being outed but harassment by the authorities was slowly decreasing, and therefore the fear was easing somewhat.

However, this began to change in 2010. As Sami wrote on Gay Middle East: “this fear …  grew to a panic in 2010 after a vicious campaign by the authorities against LGBT people, arresting and beating many. Years of fearing the law and the society can be witnessed in the LGBT people illiteracy of the laws and possibilities. Driven by their fear and guilt complex, they have always managed to be as LGBT-Rights-illiterate as they can be. Most of them do not know that a free country means more rights to everyone. As many Syrians, LGBT people think that the alternatives are limited, and they are in fear of Islamists.” 

This situation is mirrored with much regional variation throughout the Arab world LGBT people in countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania even face the threat (although exercised on seldom occasions) of being lashed and in some rarer cases put to death.  

There is often a complex interplay between various groups promoting particular Islamic religious beliefs, colonial heritage and the monarchies which ensures that “homosexuality” remains an ever present political football.  Even countries ruled by secular (either dictatorial/monarchic) despots (which are those who are experiencing most of the uprising) often manipulate homophobic laws and practices to appease conservative religious and social groups in order to maintain their grip on power. 

Increasingly, many countries in the Arab world are using their CID, and/or religious police (for example in Saudi Arabia) to entrap LGBT people on the Internet. Even in countries where homosexuality is not directly outlawed, like Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt, other laws can and are brought into play to discriminate and harass LGBT people. The social situation is to some degree similar across the Arab world. Only in Lebanon is there an official NGO that does LGBT advocacy work. Other informal but well developed support and organisations exist in Jordan (such as myKali), Morocco, Algeria, and Palestine.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Sami has joined, like many in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere, a movement to call for change and reform to the corrupt regime that oppresses the vast majority of its citizens, abandoning his cautious political tight roping.   So what does he think of the prospects in Syria? 

He is not optimistic: “ … in the immediate future, we will suffer more no matter what happens. If Assad remained in power, he will try to reassure Islamists who think LGBT people must be killed, (Assad has started doing that by issuing an order to start ‘Al-Sham Higher Institute of Islamic Studies and Research’). If Assad’s regime collapsed, the country will be unstable for an unknown period, people’s hatred towards homosexuals, which is a social issue more than a religious one, might put all LGBT people in danger.”

His concerns are well grounded. There are no guarantees for improvement in the wake of the demise of such despots. While Ben-Ali’s regime of terror and corruption collapsed in Tunisia, and its security apparatus has vanished, new forces have been quick to step in.  The Islamist En Nahdha Party is becoming a major force, as well as various groups of citizens calling for the protection of “traditional values” that link or align themselves with demands to reform the “state”.  In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to usurp the revolt instigated by the youth and urban population by using populist and often homophobic messages.

For Gay Middle East, NGOs, the British FCO and local activist networks and individuals, this is a critical time. We must closely observe and report the transformations in the wake of the Arab Spring and its impact on LGBT citizens of the Arab world.  The FCO’s important country reports would thus benefit from careful reporting combined with grassroots work.  This will enable a wider understanding of the complex situation on the ground and what is needed to help LGBT Arab citizens in their struggle for a more inclusive society. They must no longer be an oppressed and invisible voice.

The views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or the British Government. 

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