Breaking the silence on LGBTQ rights in the Middle East and North Africa

“This is huge,” remarked Dalia al-Farghal, shortly after opening the first ever panel on LGBTQ rights in the history of the Harvard Arab Conference. Her observation was met with resounding applause, the first of many moving collective acknowledgments of the panel’s significance.

A brief survey of legislation against LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region makes the urgency of these discussions  clear. All forms of homosexual acts remain illegal in ten MENA countries, and death continues to be the severest penalty in at least five of those countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. In pursuing these prosecutions, law enforcement agencies frequently breach internationally recognised rights to privacy in order to procure ‘incriminating’ evidence against individuals.

For Dalia al-Farghal, who co-founded Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ in 2014, there is a pressing need for a panel like this one. Since October, the Egyptian government has been carrying out a crackdown on LGBTQ rights groups and activists. Farghal described the recent wave of arrests as the “worst” in the nation’s history.

This fall, more than 60 people were arrested in Egypt following a September concert by the popular Lebanese alternative rock band, Mashrou’ Leila. During the concert, several audience members displayed the rainbow flag, an international symbol of the movement for LGBTQ rights. Since then, bars have been shut down and numerous arrests made, most for alleged contravention of the country’s ‘debauchery’ law, which is often used to prosecute those suspected of having committed homosexual acts.

Although the stipulated penalty for this crime is a maximum of a three year sentence, al-Farghal told of members of the LGBTQ community receiving sentences as long as 17 years.

Al-Farghal argued that scrapping, or at least narrowing the scope of this ‘debauchery’ law, is central to the broader advancement of LGBTQ rights in Egypt. She described how much of the law’s power derives from its peculiar status as “more a statement, than a law,” which widens the scope of its applicability.

Senda ben Jbara, who works for Mawjoudin, an LGBTQ rights organization based in Tunis, highlighted similar legislative hurdles. One of the stated aims of Mawjoudin is the repeal of Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code, which criminalizes “sodomy” between consenting adults and punishes it with prison sentences of three years. Although this legislation originated in the early twentieth-century – a form of the law first came into force in 1913 – individuals are still being convicted under it in post-Arab Uprisings Tunisia. In late 2016, two men were arrested in Sousse. They were forced to undergo anal examinations and to confess to having committed acts of “sodomy.” In March of this year, both men were sentenced to eight months in prison.

According to ben Jbara, the new constitution is “far from what it seems” when it comes to the protection of civil liberties for LGBTQ people. Her observations suggest that international praise for Tunisia’s democratic transition has masked areas where human rights protections need improvement. An example of this oversight is the absence of an established Constitutional Court that would provide legislative oversight for the 2014 Tunisian Constitution “[leaves] a critical gap in the country’s system of democratic checks and balances,” according to Democracy Reporting International.

Beyond this, ben Jbara noted a poor history of government commitment to specifically combatting discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. For example, in 2016 the Tunisian government moved to suspend the activity of Shams, an LGBTQ support organization, after claiming that it had “not completed its legal registration and thus lacked the legal status to pursue its work.” Human Rights Watch branded the “harassment” of Shams a “clear violation of international human rights standards.”

In September 2015, Salah ben Aissa, a Tunisian justice minister, was dismissed by then Prime Minister of Tunisia Habib Essid, after publicly questioning the legitimacy of Article 230, saying that “nothing can justify infringement of private life.” Ben Aissa’s comments came in media interviews responding to the sentencing of a 22-year-old student to a one-year prison sentence for violating Article 230. A forced anal examination was used as justification for his conviction. In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch argues that such examinations can “rise to the level of torture.” The governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon are among the eight countries known to have used forced anal examinations on those suspected of homosexual acts between 2011 and 2015.

Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College, outlined the work of LGBTQ organisations in Palestine. He argued that enormous progress could be made on LGBTQ issues by increasing visibility. He described how, from a Palestinian perspective, advocacy efforts are hindered by “Israeli pinkwashing.”

“Often,” Atshan said, “you are put in a position where you have to make a choice between [the Israeli government] outing you to your family, or you have to work with them as an informant.” A broader strategy, he went on to suggest, is enacted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which seeks to highlight the Israeli government’s own protections of LGBTQ citizens as a means of delegitimizing Arab states and their social policies. This creates what Atshan describes as a “black and white, dichotomous situation” in which Palestinians are made out to be “savages.”

Tarek Zeidan, an activist from Lebanon and founder of the LGBTQ group Helem, addressed the systemic issues that form the basis of LGBTQ discrimination. On the question of enforcement of anti-LGBTQ laws, for example, Zeidan reminded the audience that it was not “those with privilege” that are usually arrested, but “Syrian refugees, sex workers, and drug users.” According to Zeidan, it is “class, not sexuality” that determines whether you are punished for your LGBTQ identity in the Middle East and North Africa.

Zeidan described how the barriers to talking openly about sex and sexuality in Arab societies underly the anti-LGBTQ sentiment. For the entire population of the MENA region, these barriers have serious public health implications. For example, the spread of misinformation about HIV/AIDS feeds back into the discrimination against LGBTQ people. The panelists agreed that foreign donations to fund HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs are often pocketed by government officials.

While there is clearly so much more work to be done to protect and promote the rights and dignity of LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East and North Africa, the panelists struck a hopeful tone. One way to affect immediate change? “Confront us about LGBTQ issues,” said Zeidan. “The Arab World needs disruption.”

– James Chater, JMEPP Staff Writer

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