LGBTQIA+ activism in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries: between repression and determination

28.11.2020

Divine-Léna TCHUISSEU

According to Western media, to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender1]Someone whose gender expresion and/or identity differs from traditional expecations based on the gender they were assigned at birth., queer3]Someone whose sexuality or gender identity differs from heterosexuality or cisgender., intersex2]Someone born with sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical definition of « male » nor « female »., or to be part of any other category found under the umbrella term LGBTQIA+ in one of the MENA region countries is an extraordinary occurrence. The region is every so often depicted as a black hole in which any hope for LGBTQIA+ people is lost. This can be attributed to several reasons, in particular the overwhelming presence of ultra-conservative governments which instrumentalise the region to carry out their political agendas. Nonetheless, to limit ourselves to this perspective would mean to ignore a variety of organisations acting in favour of  change despite the repressive context. The latter associations actively fight for the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people and against their isolation. They seek to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish discriminatory legislation. This article looks at this movement’s growth, on the work it has accomplished and on the important struggles led by these activists, making LGBTQIA+ rights the cornerstone of their action in this region.

A movement present well before the 2010s

Contrary to popular belief, the region already counted a large number of LGBTQIA+ activists before the 2011 revolutions. In Turkey for instance, given the political crisis that shook the country in the 1970s and the intensification of violence that followed, it was only at the end of the 1980s that activists of the community began to organise themselves. The first movements of resistance originated in Beyoglu and Istiklal Street4]This is one of the most famous streets of Istanbul, also known as « Grande Rue de Péra », it is located in the Beyoglu district., the two main meeting points for LGBTQIA+ people. The first protest was the 1987 hunger strike driven by 37 gay and trans people protesting against police violence and harassment towards LGBTQIA+ people.

In Palestine, the alQaws and Aswat organisations marked the beginnings of the movement in the country. The former was officially created in 2007 even though its work had been taking place since the end of 2001. It fought to defend LGBTQIA+ people against social injustice. The former is a feminist association created in 2003 whose actions are mainly focused on giving value to and developing LGBTQIA+ women’s potential.

During the protests in 2003 against the war in Iraq, the rainbow flag was raised for the first time. This was at the initiative of HELEM, a Lebanese organisation created in 2004 and which leads the same fight for the protection of Lebanese LGBTQIA+ people. This protection would mainly be achieved through the abolition of article 534 of the Lebanese penal code (the organisation’s primary objective), which states that “All sexual intercourses contradicting to nature are punished from 3 months up to 1 year, additionally to a penalty between 200 and 1,000,000 Lebanese Liras.”

In Algeria, the association Abu Nawas5]Abu Nawas was a great Arab-Persian poet, he was also gay. His genius and his knowledge was in no way diminished by his homosexuality and his relationship with Khalif Haroun Er-Rachid’s son., founded in 2007, created the Ten-Ten, a national LGBTQIA+ day, which is celebrated every year on October 10th. On this day, at 8pm, a candle must be lit and a photo posted on Facebook as a sign of solidarity and tolerance towards all people of the community. The primary aim of the organisation is to decriminalise homosexuality in Algeria, seeking the abolition of article 333 and 338 of the Algerian penal code which still considers homosexuality a crime punishable by imprisonment and accompanied by a fine.

The Arab Spring and its consequences on the LGBTQIA+ movement in the MENA region.

The wave of national protests that occurred in Arab countries of the region at the start of the 2010s, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, brought unprecedented change to the movement. Here, we seek to clarify the ambiguity created by these protests. On the one hand, the latter were liberating and promising for the community. LGBTQIA+ people joined the rest of the population in the protest against the lack of public and individual liberty, and claimed, among other things, better living standards, better democratic representation, the respect of their rights and liberties, and the end of corruption. This collective drive shattered fear and gave hope, courage and encouraged freedom of speech for many inhabitants of the region, in particular members of the LGBTQIA+ community of which many, for the first time, took part in acts of activism and mobilisation through the creation of associations.

 

In addition to the hope that authoritarian regimes would collapse, many hoped to see their situation change. Many remember this period as a crucial turning point in their self-acceptance and the acceptance of their sexual orientation; this represented a period of liberation. It should be noted that the Arab spring was characterised by the importance of social media as well as information and communication technology in general. It is in this context that we can partially explain the unprecedented proliferation of structures, websites and writings providing information on LGBTQIA+ people in the region.

 

On the other hand, however, this context also enabled the increase of violence and harassment towards homosexuals who ended up being the ones left behind by the revolution. The winds of freedom will ultimately not blow for LGBTQIA+ people. On the contrary, the new governments in place only allowed for the intensification of homophobia as they remained hostile to the community’s claims, the latter not being considered deserving of genuine human rights. Thus, the slogan “Liberty, justice, dignity, equality” that was once shouted by protestors during the 2011 revolution turned into delusions as the LGBTQIA+ community faced hostility and discrimination from fellow revolutionaries.

The tenacity of the LGBTQIA+ movement in the face of hostility and repression

Today, despite the existing extreme conditions, activists continue to work tirelessly to find, through ingenious systems, alternatives to their hindered actions. Indeed, on the ground, activists face a variety of difficulties. The ongoing armed conflict6]Especially in Iraq, Syria or Libya. perpetrated by radical islamists increases the violence against LGBTQIA+ people. This context is all the more unjust as these radicalised groups operate with impunity, the regions they occupy being out of any State’s control. The latter, free to establish whichever order they wish, attack, torture, abduct and murder anyone on suspicion of sodomy. Additionally to the threat of armed conflict, activists’ actions are countered by national security forces whose repression hinders activism in public spaces; these forces torture (particularly through the practice of forced anal exams7]These tests have been prohibited by many United Nations agencies, by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights  and by the World Medical Association. They aim to establish proof of homosexuality. Note that thanks to the pressure by local activists (The Legal Agenda and HELEM), the Lebanese medical order finally, in 2012, prohibited what activists had named tests of shame. In Tunisia, a denunciation also took place in 2015, and ended in 2017 with a declaration of the Tunisian medical order condemning such practices. Conversely, in Egypt, these tests remain systematically practiced for any person charged with debauchery.), monitor citizens’ communications and carry out arbitrary arrests. For instance, activist Sara Hegazy8]Traumatised by the torture she suffered, Sara Hegazy committed suicide in June 2020. was arrested in 2017 in Egypt on charges of debauchery9]A piece of legislation was passed in1951 to fight against debauchery. Initially, this legislation aimed at condemning sex work, however, in the 2000s, it became applicable to gay men and transgender women after flying a rainbow flag during a concert of the Lebanese band, Mashrou Leila ; she spent three months in jail, where she was tortured, before going into exile in Canada. Moreover, most of the largest traditional media being State-controlled, activists must resort to other means in order to reach a wider audience to face this censorship

Considering these latter means, activists demonstrate notable reactivity and inventive capacity in order to stay mobilised and pursue their missions. Social media10]Specific to social media is the fact that these platforms allow for communities to gather and create movements of solidarity ; However, they are also ideal for propaganda and inciting hate. It is therefore obvious that social media are not entirely beneficial to activists’ missions as, among other things, they facilitate government spying, harassment, and humiliation. thus emerged as an important tool in the realisation of their efforts. The latest big campaign titled “No longer alone” dates back to 2018 on the Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality’s initiative. It consisted in collecting statements of LGBTQIA+ activists11]These statements came from both anonymous individuals and well-known public figures such as the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa or Hamed Sinno, the singer of the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. from Arab States on their experiences (the discovery of their sexual orientation, the insults they were met with, and the relief of self-acceptance and self-love), and to post them online with the aim of supporting LGBTQIA+ people and educating others.

In Tunisia, the feminist association Chouf Minorities gives a space for LGBTQIA+ women to claim their rights and address the general public through art, theatre, photography, visual and audio-visual art during the Chouftouhonna festival. The latter was first held in 2015 and takes place every year in Tunis. Increasingly, campaigning methods are diversifying, ranging from letter deliveries to peoples’ homes asking them to respect LGBTQIA+ people (this was done in Morocco) to graffities of support in several countries of the region.

The regional and international dimensions of activists’ work

Activists’ determination can be observed, firstly, through the construction of a regional alliance system.12]

We must bear in mind that partnerships with certain human and civil rights defence organisations are often difficult to create as the latter fear sanctions from the State, or do not consider LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights. In Algeria for instance, the first case is applicable as the law prohibits the registration of organisations whose objectives are incompatible with public morals, and provides for sanctions against the members of such organisations.

Within these networks, organisations develop strategies to adopt and mobilise collectively to support LGBTQIA+ people. This was notably the case when, in 2016, in Marrakech, two teenagers were arrested for public display of affection13]Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code provides that any “lewd or unnatural act with a person of the same sex shall be punished by a term of imprisonment of six months to three years and a fine of 200 to 1,000 dirhams” and approximately twenty Middle Eastern and North African organisations signed a joint declaration condemning these arrests; the two women were finally released. The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, created in 2010 and based in Beirut, aligns itself with this logic of cooperation with organisations from every country in the region to reinforce their capacity for action.

The international reach of this movement can be observed through the activism of those exiled and by the multiplication of social media accounts and associations aiming to support LGBTQIA+ people of the region. Also, activists on the ground draw on resources from international organisations. In fact, every four to five years, during the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), countries are submitted to an assessment of their human rights record. Activists thus use the UPR’s results to apply pressure and secure commitments from their governments.

In 2010, through the UPR process, activists were able to secure the Iraqi government’s commitment to take action against extrajudicial executions of people based on their (real or imputed) sexual orientation. In addition, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality and other LGBTQIA+ organisations of the region connected with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), an organ of the African Union in charge of promoting and defending human right in Africa; in 2014, they secured the adoption of Resolution 275 on the Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation of Gender Identity. Furthermore, it is thanks to the UPR that Tunisia, in 2017, formally accepted a recommendation of the Tunisian medical order to put a halt to forced anal exams.

Thus, LGBTQIA+ activism in the MENA region, while it has been present since the 20th century, has taken a much larger dimension since the Arab spring revolts, instilling, rather ambiguously, new hope and courage, but also new preoccupations for the community. Despite a difficult context of struggle aggravated by conservative governments, campaigners have managed to find innovative alternatives to reach their objectives. It is in this way that international and regional cooperation may occur, showing good signs – formally, at least – for change. One of the remaining questions is that of knowing how certain Northern African and Middle Eastern States may use the claims of the LGBTQIA+ community to their advantage in order to create and expand their relations with Western powers.

References   [ + ]

1. Someone whose gender expresion and/or identity differs from traditional expecations based on the gender they were assigned at birth.
2. Someone born with sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical definition of « male » nor « female ».
3. Someone whose sexuality or gender identity differs from heterosexuality or cisgender.
4. This is one of the most famous streets of Istanbul, also known as « Grande Rue de Péra », it is located in the Beyoglu district.
5. Abu Nawas was a great Arab-Persian poet, he was also gay. His genius and his knowledge was in no way diminished by his homosexuality and his relationship with Khalif Haroun Er-Rachid’s son.
6. Especially in Iraq, Syria or Libya.
7. These tests have been prohibited by many United Nations agencies, by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights  and by the World Medical Association. They aim to establish proof of homosexuality. Note that thanks to the pressure by local activists (The Legal Agenda and HELEM), the Lebanese medical order finally, in 2012, prohibited what activists had named tests of shame. In Tunisia, a denunciation also took place in 2015, and ended in 2017 with a declaration of the Tunisian medical order condemning such practices. Conversely, in Egypt, these tests remain systematically practiced for any person charged with debauchery.
8. Traumatised by the torture she suffered, Sara Hegazy committed suicide in June 2020.
9. A piece of legislation was passed in1951 to fight against debauchery. Initially, this legislation aimed at condemning sex work, however, in the 2000s, it became applicable to gay men and transgender women
10. Specific to social media is the fact that these platforms allow for communities to gather and create movements of solidarity ; However, they are also ideal for propaganda and inciting hate. It is therefore obvious that social media are not entirely beneficial to activists’ missions as, among other things, they facilitate government spying, harassment, and humiliation.
11. These statements came from both anonymous individuals and well-known public figures such as the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa or Hamed Sinno, the singer of the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila.
12.

We must bear in mind that partnerships with certain human and civil rights defence organisations are often difficult to create as the latter fear sanctions from the State, or do not consider LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights. In Algeria for instance, the first case is applicable as the law prohibits the registration of organisations whose objectives are incompatible with public morals, and provides for sanctions against the members of such organisations.

13. Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code provides that any “lewd or unnatural act with a person of the same sex shall be punished by a term of imprisonment of six months to three years and a fine of 200 to 1,000 dirhams”

SOURCES 

 

« Une campagne positive pour briser l’isolement des LGBT eu Moyen-Orient », 2018, The Times of Israel, Available at : https://fr.timesofisrael.com/une-campagne-positive-pour-briser-lisolement-des-lgbt-au-moyen-orient/

 

« Ten-Ten : la communauté homosexuelle se fait moins discrète en Algérie », 2018, Sniper Médias, YouTube, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir-WZPiKw0s

 

Rapport 2018 « L’audace face à l’adversité » Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/lgbt_mena0418fr_web.pdf; Available in English at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/04/16/audacity-adversity/lgbt-activism-middle-east-and-north-africa

                                                                                                   

 « Tunisie : Les médecins s’opposent aux tests anaux pour l’homosexualité », 2017, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2017/04/12/tunisie-les-medecins-sopposent-aux-tests-anaux-pour-homosexualite ; Available in English at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/12/tunisia-doctors-oppose-anal-test-homosexuality

 

 « Timeline of Publicized Executions for Alleged Sodomy by the Islamic », 2017, OutRight Action International, Available at: https://www.outrightinternational.org/content/timeline-publicized-executions-alleged-sodomy-islamic-state-militias

 

« Être homophobe n’est pas révolutionnaire » – Les luttes LGBTIQ dans l’orbite du processus révolutionnaire arabe – Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 2017, Toscane Luiza, Available at : http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article40519#nb8

 

 « La CADHP aborde la question de l’orientation et de l’identité sexuelle » Human Rights Watch, 2017, Human Rights Watch, Available in English at : https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/01/african-commission-tackles-sexual-orientation-gender-identity

 

Marrakech : Arrestation de deux filles mineures pour « homosexualité », 2016, Christophe Sidiguitiebe, Telquel.ma Availabel at : https://mobile.telquel.ma/2016/11/01/marrakech-arrestation-de-deux-mineures-pour-homosexualite_1521656

 

« Iraq » 2010, Mariana Winocur Available at :http://arc-international.net/global-advocacy/universal-periodic-review/i/iraq/

 

 

 

To cite this article : Divine-Léna TCHUISSEU, “Activisme LGBTQIA+ dans les pays d’Afrique du Nord et du Moyen-Orient (ANMO) : entre répression et détermination”, 26.11.2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique

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