Skip to main content

Arab LGBT activists gaining support against repression, say rights groups

Rights groups say LGBT advocates in Middle East and North Africa are 'are defying state-sponsored repression and social stigma'
'We don’t want the image anymore of just being victims,' Algerian gay activist says (AFP)

Arab LGBT activists "are defying state-sponsored repression and social stigma" despite legal hurdles, Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality have said.

HRW released a report on the challenges and the progress of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in the Middle East on Monday. It was accompanied with video of testimonies by Arab LGBT activists about their experiences and "journeys of self-acceptance".

"We don’t want the image anymore of just being victims," Zoheir, a gay activist from Algeria, says in the video. "We want to speak about reality, speak about violence, but also to [show what is] positive."

The report shed light on laws criminalising homosexuality across the Middle East and the efforts to change them.

For example, in Lebanon, article 534 of the penal code bans "unnatural" sexual acts. The law is often used to prosecute LGBT individuals. Still, several judges have recently refused to apply the law to consensual same-sex acts.

According to the report, Lebanon and Tunisia have abandoned "forced anal examinations" for men suspected of being gay, "after pressure from local and international activists as well as treaty bodies".

"Most of the Arab states inherited strict laws against homosexuality from the French or British colonial systems of justice," the report says.

In other countries, like Saudi Arabia, Islamic law prohibits same-sex acts.

In Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Mauritania and the Gaza Strip in Palestine, laws explicitly prohibit same sex acts of both genders, while in Kuwait, Sudan, and the UAE's Dubai, sexual acts between men - categorised as "sodomy" - are banned.

Similarly to Lebanon, Syria and the UAE's Abu Dhabi have laws against "unnatural" sex that are often interpreted to encompass same-sex acts.

Qatar has a blanket ban on sex outside marriage for Muslims, with specific prohibitions on enticing "sodomy".

Such laws pose threats to advocates in the region who are forced to work underground in many countries, the report said.

Egypt arrested 18 people for "debauchery" after a gay pride flag was raised at a concert for Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila in Cairo (screengrab)
"Progress in LGBT civil society’s alliance-building work means that in Morocco in 2015, 56 lawyers turned up in court to support a transgender woman who had been the victim of a brutal mob attack," HRW said.

"It means that in Tunisia, LGBT organisations have been able to build a coalition of 37 organisations, including many feminist groups, that have united in support of equality for women and LGBT people."

The report also notes efforts by Iraq and Morocco to address violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

'It's not impossible'

Genwa Samhat, the executive director of Lebanese LGBT advocacy group Helem, which is not involved in the report, said the county's social attitudes on homosexuality were softening.

"It's not easy, but it's not impossible," she said of the fight for the rights of LGBT individuals.

Samhat told Middle East Eye in a phone interview from Beirut that people are moving from addressing homosexuality in a "violent, aggressive language" to a more "questioning language."

One positive sign, she said, is that media outlets have stopped using the term "shath" (abnormal) to describe gays and lesibians.

"Shath is no longer acceptable," she said.

But discrimination is still prevalent in housing, employment, health care and social services, especially against people who are visibly gay or transexual, Samhat added.

About article 534, she said the struggle is ongoing despite recent rulings. Previous courts' decisions did not set legal precedents binding other judges to follow them.

"The bad news is that the judges issuing such rulings were indirectly punished by being transferred to deter future judges from acquitting suspects."

The HRW report said the increase in activism has been coupled with setbacks.

Don't try to stop us from denouncing Israel's pinkwashing
Nada Elia
Read More »

The rights group accused the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, of embracing the "persecution of gays and trans people as a political strategy".

It added that the Egyptian government is leading a severe crackdown on LGBT people, including "scores of arrests, forced anal examinations and a formal media blackout on pro-LGBT speech."

Egypt arrested 18 people for "debauchery" after a gay pride flag was raised at a concert for Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila in Cairo.

The band's lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay.

"It’s hard when you are young... but it gets easier," Sinno says in the HRW and AFE video.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.