We are HERE, we’re QUEER we’re ARAB get used to it! The gay rights movement in the Arab world in the light of the Arab spring, by Adam Moss

June 05, 2014 0 Comments

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, setting off a wave of protests in the region eventually termed the Arab Spring, it’s unlikely he had any idea his act would allow a small opening for a myriad of human rights issues to come to the forefront. One of these issues has been LGBT rights.
In the early days of the Arab spring, after the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, many had high hopes (perhaps wishful thinking) that the Arab world was in the midst of something similar to the revolutions of Eastern Europe during the early 1990s, which resulted in western-leaning secular liberal democracies. Four years later, this hope has yet to come to fruition[1].  
Within and outside the Middle East the issues of LGBT rights have always been contentious, clashing with both societal norms and religious dogmas in many countries. In the Middle East this is heightened by the importance placed on the family unit within society in conjunction with religion. Furthermore, it is currently a popular view within the Arab world that homosexuality not only is the sin beyond all sins; many equate the gay rights movement with colonialism and western imperialism[2].
Despite tremendous society pressure, however, the LGBT movements and LGBT issues have finally made their way into public debate within Arab society. Whether it is positive or negative, the LGBT issue has made its debut within mainstream media, through news reports and articles on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, LBC and MURR news, as well as in international media such as CNN, BBC and France24.

Social media has also played a role in advancing the movement’s public visibility. Post Arab spring there has been an explosion of Arab LGBT related accounts and pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and personal blogs, which are tailor-made specifically for each country or cover the Middle East as a whole. This has allowed for networking between activists and members of the LGBT community, crossing local and social barriers. One of the most interesting Facebook pages is ”Gay Middle East Identities”, which allows its 10,000-plus members to not only view current news about LGBT issues in the Middle East, but to dive deep into medieval and even pre-Islamic LGBT history[3].

Additionally, there have been a variety of online gay magazines and print editions that have debuted in recent years, including Mawaleh in Syria, Ehna in Egypt, Gayday in Tunisia, Aswat in Morocco, Barra in Lebanon and My.Kali in Jordan[4]. These magazines bring for the first time modern LGBT-related issues and topics written in Arabic.

Moving offline, there are many human rights groups in the Arab world that are sympathetic to the gay rights issue. Currently, however, there are only two gay right groups - HELEM in Lebanon and Al Qaws in Palestine - which have broken through the glass ceiling and made small but important strides for the movement[5].

To get further insight into where the gay rights movement stands and where it is headed, I spoke with a human rights advocate, freelance editor and journalist and former editor of the Gay Middle East website. For purpose of this article, he wishes remain anonymous.

Given your history as a leading activist for gay rights in the Middle East, how would you describe the gay rights movement in the area before the Arab spring? When did it start?
The gay rights movement in the Arab world really started to come into fruition or take hold in the early 2000’s with the inception of HELEM in Lebanon. In reality though, there have been discussions for years about gay rights, going all the way back to the 1970s. However, it was very difficult to mobilize, due to the fact that in many countries it was and still is illegal to be a homosexual. Most of these meetings or discussions took place in a clandestine nature.The movement really grew together with the growth of the Internet. It allowed for a place or an area where people and group could discuss, network and mobilize without the eyes of the public or the government. This mostly took the form of blogs, and journals.

Do you believe it has changed after the Arab spring?
There is really not a before or after. The spring neither enabled nor disabled the LGBT rights movement. The Arab spring was about basic rights; you cannot start pushing for LGBT rights before basic rights are met. On the sidelines of the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia it was discussed, but even secular left organizations did not and do not want to touch the issue yet.
Within the LGBT community there is hope that secular liberal democracies will rise one day. However, there is also fear of the rise of political Islam taking over. There is debate within the community if the status quo is better or if the revolution has improved the situation for the LGBT communities.

How big of a roll do you think social media has played?
As I stated before, the growth of the LGBT movement came with the growth of the Internet. However, in regards to the Arab spring, there were many LGBT bloggers that declared that they were part of the Arab spring or supported the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and even Morocco. However, there is a mutual strategy of supporting the spring but not pushing or not touching the gay rights issue as of yet. Basically it is a sit-and-wait strategy. Being active in the revolution but keeping a low profile on the LGBT issues.

What about all the online gay magazines that I have seen, what is their role?
Ah the magazines, yes, many have opened up over the past few years. My Kile in Jordan is the most successful. There is also GayDay in Tunisia, and Barra in Lebanon. They are mostly used as an outlet of fun for the gay community. I would not say they are used for social mobility or the gay movement itself, but they are also a part of it. The magazines mostly have fun stories discussing lifestyle, fashion, etc.  
After the revolution, the GayDay magazine in Tunisia opened up, and ironically enough the new Human rights minister of Tunisia came out against the magazine, calling it immoral and stating that LGBT rights are not a part of the revolution. However, this backfired because it brought a lot of attention to the magazine and it has now become more popular than ever.

How do Middle Eastern gay rights groups and movements deal with/fight religious objections?
This is where gay rights organizations in the Middle East differ from western gay rights organizations. LGBT organizations and movements in the Middle East are very cautious not to touch religion, unlike western LGBT organizations. To take on religion would be detrimental to the cause. LGBT organizations preform a delicate balancing act in regards to religion. LGBT organizations take on a secular agenda or an ethic agenda rather than a religious one.
However, you cannot generalize each country or movement, within each country religion has a different role and this derives in part from their culture and colonialism. For example, the British set up a monarchy system in the Gulf States that is tied in with religion. If one were to take on religion, they’re in a way taking on the government, which as you know would bring unwanted attention.
In the Levant and North Africa it is a little different because you had the British or French civil code as a basis for laws that are placed against homosexuality under mandate system.
Lebanon, whom was under the French Mandate, is the only secular democracy in the Arab world. However there too, religion takes a big role defining the rights one has within society. Nevertheless, HELEM and the LGBT movement have been able to make small but important changes through the courts to better the lives of homosexuals i.e.: stopping anal interrogations by the police, having the Psychological society remove homosexuality as a mental disease (the only Arab country to do so), and recently a judge ruled that homosexuality is not considered unnatural and therefore it is not illegal.However, even in Lebanon they do not take on religion at this stage, it is too taboo of a subject. There are many other rights that need to come first before religion. It is an unspoken agreement not to touch religion, but to try to change it from within.

What do you mean by ‘change religion from within’?
LGBT rights groups try to point out or argue that being homophobic or attacking homosexuals is against Islam. That homosexuality is compatible to Islam or Christianity. Again, they really do not try to touch religion too much. In the West there are gay Muslim associations, but as of now not in the Middle East.

Do you believe that the Arab spring changed the situation for the better or for the worse?
The Arab spring in some form or another has been hijacked by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, due to their support of Islamic groups or dictators that benefit them. LGBT bloggers in Jordan support the King over the Arab spring due to this fact. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been pushing their ideology with oil money, and what is ironic is that both of these countries are western allies. Remember that the protests in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia were not about political Islam, and this is what Qatar has been pushing throughout the region. Many are afraid of Qatar.  There is a feeling of disappointment within the LGBT community, not just in regards to the revolutions, but also disappointment with the West. The West preaches about human rights and basic rights and supports the Arab spring, but when it comes down to it, the West really does not care about human rights and especially gay rights; for example, look at Saudi Arabia.  The more religious elements take over, the harder it is for the movement to make strides. The mood in the begging was euphoric and now the mood has changed to caution. It is too early to say when will the Arab spring end, so as of right now we cannot answer if it was for the better or for the worse for the gay rights movement.

How do you see the future of the gay rights movement in the Middle East?
Currently at the moment, I am quite pessimistic in the short run, but in the long run I have hope. Once people feel they have power or have a voice, this is the start, the start of a real revolution and change. You can’t put it back in the bag; people now feel they can make a change.
Bringing down Mubarak and Ben Ali was really something; this is people power. The LGBT community is part of this people power. They cannot be discounted; they are now part of public discourse.  Change in the Middle East, and especially in regards to human rights, moves at a snail’s pace. The fact today that there is online gay rights activism throughout the Middle East and that in Lebanon HELEM and the gay rights movement have been able to make small strides, is a huge step, huge.  The best bet for LGBT groups is to try to work with the civil society and not against it. We must push for basic rights first and then only afterwards can we push for LGBT rights. Once we have this, I believe that the gay movement will really start to take a hold in the Middle East.

[1] Editorial: Three years on, the heady promises of the Arab Spring have delivered only chaos, crackdown and civil war [Editorial]. (2013, December 20). Independent Voices.
[2] Sofian Merabet, "Creating Queer Space in Beirut" in Sexuality in the Arab World, eds. Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon (Saqi Books, 2006)

[3] Traub, N. (n.d.). In Gay Middle East Identities. Retrieved May 17, 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gay-Middle-East-Identities/399207883518386
[4] Janne Louise Andersen, Pushing for sexual equality in Jordan. Al Jazeera (2014, April 25). Retrieved from http://m.aljazeera.com/story/20143177759136143 (Last accessed: 2014, May 2011)
[5] Helem. Retrieved from http://helem.net (Last accessed: 2014, May 11)


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