When the US
Supreme Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage last year, the White House
welcomed it with rainbow-coloured lights and many people celebrated by adding a
rainbow tint to their Facebook profile.
authorities in Saudi Arabia, though, this was cause for alarm rather than
celebration, alerting them to a previously unnoticed peril in their midst. The
first casualty was the privately run Talaee Al-Noor school in Riyadh which
happened to have a rooftop parapet painted with rainbow stripes. According to
the kingdom’s religious police, the school was fined 100,000 riyals ($26,650)
for displaying “the emblem of the homosexuals” on its building, one of its
administrators was jailed and the offending parapet was swiftly repainted to
match a blue rainbow-free sky.
The case of
the gaily painted school shows how progress in one part of the world can have
adverse effects elsewhere and serves as a reminder that there are places where
the connection between rainbows and LGBT rights is either new or yet to be
Afghanistan, only a few years ago, there was a craze for decorating cars with
rainbow stickers – which Chinese factories were only too happy to supply. It
wasn’t until the Afghan Pajhwok news agency explained how they might be
misinterpreted that the craze came to a sudden halt.
Look on the
internet and you will also find copies of the “Rainbow Qur’an” for sale – an unconsciously
gay edition of the holy book with tinted pages of every hue and recommended on
one website as “an ideal gift for Muslims”.
are two sides to this cross-cultural misunderstanding. Western visitors to
Egypt are often struck by the sight of men – even soldiers in uniform – holding
hands in the street. In Lebanon, you’ll find straight men who spend hours
preening themselves and, in Afghanistan, warriors who wear eye makeup.
mean what you might think it means, but it’s also less surprising than it might
seem. Gender segregation, which goes to extreme lengths in the more
conservative Muslim countries, encourages homosocial behaviour, creating a
situation where men are often more comfortable in the presence of other men and
where placing a hand on another man’s knee is a sign of friendship, not an
invitation to sex. They hug and kiss a lot too – and according to a former head
of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee in Egypt, there’s nothing wrong with same-sex
kissing so long as there is “no chance for any temptation”.
society is still, by and large, strongly patriarchal. Patriarchy, by its
nature, extols masculinity. There’s no sin in appreciating male beauty, either.
In the Qur’anic vision of Paradise, there are not only 72 female virgins in
attendance but handsome young men who serve an endless supply of non-alcoholic
same-sex relationships don’t always stop at the platonic level. Historically,
Muslim societies have often acknowledged this – tolerating it to some extent
even if they disapproved.
In the 19th
and early 20th centuries, men who had been persecuted for their sexuality in
Europe often sought refuge in Morocco and, long before same-sex marriage was
dreamed of in the west, male-on-male partnerships were recognised – and marked
with a ceremony – in the remote Egyptian oasis of Siwa.
Muslim countries, whole towns have become the butt of jokes about the supposed
homosexuality of their inhabitants. Idlib in Syria is one of them; Qazvin in
Iran is another. An old joke in Afghanistan is that birds fly over Kandahar
with one wing held under their tail – as a precaution.
level, though, it’s no joking matter. In Iran today, lavat (sodomy) is a
capital offence and people are frequently executed for it. In Saudi Arabia,
Sudan, Yemen and Mauritania, sodomy is also punishable by death – though no
executions have been reported for at least a decade.
Arab countries, the penalty in Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya,
Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia and Syria is imprisonment – up to 10
years in the case of Bahrain. In those that have no specific law against
homosexuality, gay people may still be prosecuted under other laws. In Egypt,
for example, an old law against “debauchery” is often used.
have a catastrophic effect on the lives of people who are unlucky enough to get
caught but, despite occasional crackdowns, the authorities don’t, on the whole,
actively seek out gay people to arrest them. Statistics are scarce but the number
of arrests is undoubtedly lower than it was during the British wave of
homophobia in the 1950s. In England in 1952, there were 670 prosecutions for
sodomy, 3,087 for attempted sodomy or indecent assault, and 1,686 for gross
with such laws, even if not vigorously enforced, is that they signal official
disapproval of homosexuality and, coupled with the fulminations of religious
scholars, legitimise discrimination by individuals at an everyday level and may
also provide an excuse for action by vigilantes. Years before Isis began
throwing allegedly gay men off the top of buildings, other groups in Iraq were
attacking “un-manly” men – sometimes killing them slowly by injecting glue into
for the comparatively small number of prosecutions is the official fiction that
gay people don’t exist to any great extent in Muslim countries; homosexuality
is regarded primarily as a western phenomenon and large numbers of arrests
would call that into question. Some of the most brutal Arab regimes (Iraq under
Saddam Hussein and Syria under the Assads, for example) also showed little
interest in attacking gay people – probably because they had other things to
however, periods of moral panic and times when it suits a government to blame
the country’s ills on those least able to defend themselves. This is what the
Sisi regime has been doing in Egypt recently – and its targeting of sexual
minorities is documented in detail by rights activist Scott Long on his blog.
Gay people are not the only ones, though. The regime is also working on plans
to “eradicate” atheism.
the Arab countries often involve groups of men at parties (sometimes described
as gay “weddings”) and occasionally at hammams (bathhouses). Individuals or
couples accused of having unlawful sex may be arrested for a variety of
reasons, including some which initially are unrelated to homosexuality. There
are also reported cases where people suspected of being gay have been arrested
by police seeking to elicit bribes or turn the suspects into informers. For
those caught, the effect on their lives is catastrophic but the law is not much
of a deterrent and for those who are discreet about their sexuality the risk of
arrest is small.
vast majority who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender the attitudes of
family and society are a much bigger problem.
issue that affects all gay people – everywhere – at some point in their lives
is coming out. For Muslims this can be an especially difficult decision. The
pressure to marry is much greater in Muslim countries than in most western
countries. Remaining single is usually equated with social disaster and once
young people have completed their studies, organising their marriage becomes a
priority for the family. The more traditional kinds of family take on the task
of finding them a partner; arranged marriages are still very common.
who are not attracted to the opposite sex, this presents a major problem. Some
manage to postpone the issue by prolonging their studies and/or going abroad.
Some give in to the pressure and accept a marriage for which they are
ill-suited. A few of the more fortunate ones find a gay or lesbian partner of
the opposite sex and enter a pretend marriage. Some bite the bullet and decide
to come out.
families respond to a coming out depends on several factors, including social
class and their level of education. In the more extreme cases, coming out
results in the person being ostracised by their family or even physically
attacked. A less harsh reaction is to seek a “cure” – either through religion
or, in better-off families – through expensive but futile psychiatric
It on Islam? Not So Fast
the Orlando massacre – perpetrated by a man from an Afghan family background –
it has been noted that all the countries where the death penalty for sodomy
still applies justify it on the basis of Islamic law. But to blame this
entirely on Islam is an oversimplification. In Egypt and Lebanon –
predominantly Muslim countries with a large Christian population – attitudes
towards homosexuality among Christians are not very different from those among
clear that the prophet Muhammad never specified a punishment for homosexuality;
it wasn’t until some years after his death that Muslims began discussing what a
suitable punishment might be.
condemnations of homosexuality, like those in Christianity, are based mainly on
the story about God’s punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah which is recounted in
the Qur’an as well as the Old Testament. In essence, the biblical and Qur’anic
versions are very similar.
difference is that over the last 60 years or so many Christians have taken a
fresh look at the story and concluded that it’s about attempted male rape and
the ill-treatment of strangers rather than consensual sex between males. So
far, though, there have been only a few Muslims willing to reappraise it.
point here is that while the words of scripture are fixed and unchangeable they
are always subject to human interpretation, and interpretations may vary
according to time, place and social conditions. This, of course, is something
that fundamentalists, whether Muslim or Christian, prefer to deny.
Muslim societies today can be described as generally homophobic, it’s a mistake
to view homophobia as a self-contained problem: it’s part of a syndrome in
which the rights of individuals are subsumed in the perceived interests of the
community and – often – maintaining an “Islamic” ethos. The result is that
society places a high value on conformity and expressions of individuality are
frowned upon; there is a strong emphasis on upholding social “norms” and
keeping up appearances – in public if not necessarily in private. The
patriarchal system plays a major part in this too, with strongly defined roles
for men and women. Gay men, especially those who show feminine traits, may thus
be regarded as challenging the social order.
men who have sex with other men are a slightly different matter. Although state
law and traditional Islamic law view the penetrator and penetrated in anal sex
as equally culpable, popular opinions of the penetrator tend to be less
hostile: he is still a man, doing what men naturally do, even if it’s not with
a woman. The receptive (or passive) partner, on the other hand, is viewed with
disgust. He is behaving like a woman and it’s assumed that he cannot be doing
it for pleasure, so he must be a prostitute.
lesbian activity goes largely unnoticed – probably because in a male-orientated
society men don’t pay it much attention or don’t regard it as very significant.
Middle East Views the Entire Gender Spectrum
ideas about gender roles cause particular problems for transgender people,
especially in places where segregation of the sexes is more strictly enforced
and cross-dressing is criminalised.
under pressure from Islamist members of parliament, Kuwait amended its penal
code so that anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” could face up to a
year in jail and/or a fine of 1,000 dinars ($3,500). Within a couple of weeks
at least 14 people were thrown into prison for the new offence.
is no mechanism in Kuwaiti law to register a change of sex, even trans-people
who have had surgery are at risk of arrest for cross-dressing.
is a broad term which includes intersex people (whose biological sex is unclear
or was wrongly assigned at birth), those with gender dysphoria (who feel like
“a man trapped in a woman’s body”, or vice versa) and may also include others
who simply get pleasure or satisfaction from cross-dressing.
happens, Islam has case histories in this area which make it accommodating in
some ways, though not in others. Reports from the prophet’s lifetime show he
was familiar with three types of gender diversity beyond the usual male-female
eunuchs (castrated men) and Mukhannathun (effeminate men) to whom the
rules of gender segregation did not apply: they were allowed access to the
women’s quarters, presumably because there was thought to be no likelihood of
often acquired influential positions administering wealthy Muslim households.
The Mukhannathun were less respectable, with a reputation for frivolity
and loucheness, though they seem to have been broadly tolerated during the
earliest years of Islam. They appear not to have been associated with
homosexuality during the prophet’s lifetime, though later they were.
type – the khuntha, who today would be called intersex – proved more complex
theologically. A statement in the Qur’an that God “created everything in pairs”
forms the basis of an Islamic doctrine that everyone is either male of female –
there can be no halfway house. The question this raised was what to do about
children born with ambiguous genitalia since, according to the doctrine, they
could not be sex-neutral.
jurists resolved it by concluding that such children must have an underlying “hidden”
sex which was waiting to be discovered. The issue then was how to discover it,
and the jurists devised elaborate rules for doing so. In that connection, a
remark attributed to the prophet about urine and the differing inheritance
rules for men and women proved especially helpful. He is reported to have said
that inheritance is determined by “the place of urination” (mabal in Arabic).
Thus the 11th-century Hanafi scholar al-Sarakhsi explained that a person who
urinated “from the mabal of men” should be considered male and one who urinated
“from the mabal of women” would be female.
importance of these rulings today is that they provide an Islamic dispensation
for sex reassignment surgery – so long as the purpose of the surgery is to
uncover the person’s “hidden” sex. On that basis, operations have been carried
out in Sunni Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
although the rulings can easily justify surgery in intersex cases, it’s more
difficult to apply them to gender dysphoria. A controversy in Egypt during the
1980s involved a 19-year-old student who had been diagnosed with gender
dysphoria (or “psychological hermaphroditism” as the doctors called it at the
time) and underwent male-to-female reassignment surgery.
became public when Al-Azhar University refused to readmit her either as a male
student or a female student. There were also many who found the concept of
gender dysphoria difficult to grasp and some characterised her as a gay man who
was trying to game the system.
resulted in a fatwa from Muhammad Tantawi, Egypt’s grand mufti, which is still
cited in cases across the region today. In line with Islamic orthodoxy, Tantawi
said surgery was permissible “in order to reveal what was hidden of male or
female organs” but added that surgery was not permissible “at the mere wish to
change sex from woman to man, or vice versa”.
this left the question of surgery for gender dysphoria unresolved, allowing
both supporters and opponents to interpret the fatwa as they chose. In
practice, however, obtaining surgery is not necessarily the biggest hurdle –
those who can afford it often go abroad. Gaining social acceptance and official
recognition of a change of sex subsequently can be more difficult.
Shia Iran seems to have fewer problems with gender dysphoria than the Sunni
Arab states. There have been repeated claims that Iran now performs more
reassignment operations than any country other than Thailand.
first sight the Iranian approach to transgender might look remarkably liberal,
it does have a darker side. One concern is that people may be pressurised into
operations they do not actually want. There are plenty of trans people who
simply wish to be accepted as they are – without surgery – and the Iranian
system doesn’t really provide for that.
difference between being transgender and gay is not well understood in Iran,
even within the medical profession, and there have been reports of gay men
being pressured into surgery as a way of “regularising” their legal position
and avoiding the risk of execution.
Work Of Activists
activism for gay rights began to develop in the Middle East in the early 2000s.
In 2002 a group of Palestinian women formed Aswat (“Voices”) which was later
joined by another Palestinian group, al-Qaws (“The Rainbow”). Both of those are
based in Israel but have connections in the Palestinian territories. Around
2004 a group of Lebanese activists established Helem – the first LGBT organisation
to function openly in an Arab country.
not the only activist groups. Others have sprung up in various places – often
disappearing again fairly quickly. There are also Arab LGBT websites and blogs
which, again, tend to come and go. My Kali, a Jordanian magazine which aims “to
address homophobia and transphobia and empower the youth to defy mainstream
gender binaries in the Arab world” has been published regularly since 2007.
So far, no
one has attempted to hold a Pride parade in an Arab country, though there have
been parades in the Turkish city of Istanbul since 2003 (not without
opposition). However, there have been activities in Lebanon and elsewhere
linked to IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia,
which is viewed as less likely to arouse hostility.
organisations working in Arab countries often face government restrictions, and
those working for LGBT rights face the additional problem of social stigma.
Some groups therefore approach the issue more obliquely, for example by
focusing on sexual health and HIV prevention, or campaigning for “personal
rights” in general.
development of social media has also created space for a more informal kind of
activism which seems to have proved successful in a couple of instances
One came in
2014 when police and a TV channel collaborated in a raid on a Cairo bathhouse.
Far from winning praise for exposing “the secret behind the spreading of Aids
in Egypt”, the programme’s presenter was resoundingly condemned and later ran
into legal problems.
the authorities in Amman, Jordan, cancelled a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a
popular Lebanese rock band with an openly gay singer, just a few days before it
was due to take place. Such was the outcry on social media that the authorities
rescinded their decision 24 hours later – though too late to reorganise the
concert as originally planned.
religious front, prevailing Islamic views of homosexuality have been challenged
here and there, but not on a scale that is likely to make much difference.
There are a handful of gay-friendly mosques and a few openly gay imams –
including Muhsin Hendricks in South Africa, Daayiee Abdullah in the US, and
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, a French-Algerian imam.
noticeably, are in the diaspora rather than the Muslim heartlands, but the
diaspora is where Islam is forced to confront reality – not in the countries
where it is protected and privileged.
illustration of where this can lead came in Britain in 2007 over the Sexual
Orientation Regulations – a measure mainly intended to prevent businesses from
discriminating against gay people. The Muslim Council of Britain reluctantly
found itself on the same side as LGBT rights advocates in supporting the new
law, since British Muslims are also at risk of discrimination.
all small developments, but 15 years ago none of them were happening. They
haven’t produced tangible results in the sense of persuading governments to
change their laws, and on that score there’s obviously a very long way to go.
thing they have done is make it difficult to claim that LGBT Muslims don’t
exist. They have established a degree of visibility which, though still
limited, is important because visibility is the first step towards achieving
rights and without it there is no hope of doing so.
Brian Whitaker is a former Middle East editor of
the Guardian. He is the author of several books about the region, most recently
Arabs without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East