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MENA, the Middle Eastern & North African region: LGBTI Community-Building in an Ever-hostile Environment

Yahia Zaidi: Pan-Africa ILGA Board Member\n

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

7th August 2013 16:24

Alessia Valenza


This region covers the territory South of the Mediterranean Sea, West of the Persian Gulf, East of the Atlantic Ocean and North of the Sahara desert. In the past it has been part of the Ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Mauritanian and Numidian civilizations and empires. Since the seventh century, the Arab Muslim civilization has dominated the region and has strongly impregnated many other local cultures and languages, including those of the Tamazight (Berbers), Copts, Nubians, Kurds, Assyrians, Aramaics, Somalis and Afars. The 22 modern-day countries which make up the region (excluding Israel) are all members of the Arab League.

The MENA region is covered by two ILGA regions: Asia and Africa. ILGA welcomed six new organisations from the region at its last world conference in Stockholm in December 2012. Today there are 9 MENA members in ILGA’s Africa region (7 from the Maghreb and 2 from the Nile valley, but none from the Horn of Africa) and 5 MENA members in ILGA’s Asia region (4 from the Levant and one from the Gulf).

The main characteristic of MENA region today is its youth. Young people are in a quest for freedom and self-expression, after centuries of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial dictatorships. The “Arab Spring” revolution in Tunisia in 2012 rapidly spread to Egypt, Libya and Syria. There were also uprisings at the same time in Bahrain and Yemen but they were suppressed by government forces before they could effect any significant changes. Since the Arab Spring, there has been frequent violence and suffering in all of these countries.

Religions, religions, religions

Although the population of the MENA region is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, there are Shia Muslim , Christian and Jewish minorities, particularly in Lebanon, a small country whose population includes followers of no less than 18 branches of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Syria, Iraq and Jordan also have sizeable religious minorities.

Many of the countries of the MENA region have legal systems based on sharia (Islamic) law, and many of their constitutions explicitly designate Islam as the state religion, even though non-Sunni-Muslim minorities account for up to 40% of their populations. The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been going on for centuries in the region, most obviously today in Iraq and Syria. The Shia are the religious minority most discriminated against in the region: for example many are denied entry to Egypt and, despite forming the majority of the population of the island state of Bahrain, they are subject to an oppressive minority Sunni Muslim regime. Sadly, violent homophobia seems to be the only issue that unites all the majority and minority religions in the MENA region.

“It was only attempted rape…”

All the religions in the MENA region encourage a patriarchy where women are oppressed and treated as second-class citizens, requiring the permission of their husbands, fathers or brothers to engage in the most basic day-to-day activities. The preservation of their virginity, evidenced by their hymens, preserves their personal honour and that of their male relatives, regardless of the behaviour of these men.

When a 10-year-old girl called Wiam was attacked and disfigured with a sickle in 2013, the Moroccan daily newspaper Al-Massae reassured its readers: “it was only attempted rape, the girl is still a virgin”.( ) A year before, on 10 March 2012, a 16-year-old girl called Amina Fillali committed suicide after being forced by her family to marry the man who had raped her, as encouraged by Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code. Once again, women’s rights are undermined by the status and privileges given to men by legislation.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government assumed power in Egypt, sexual harassment and abuse of women, and rape have increased dramatically. Hania Moheeb and Yasmine Al-Borhamy were among the first courageous victims to speak publicly about their experiences of being gang-raped during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Their testimonies were widely reported and a new collective called OpAntiSH has been formed in Cairo to fight against sexual harassment and assaults and to directly intervene to prevent assaults by mobs.

Female Genital Mutilation (“FGM”) is another severe issue facing women in the MENA region, particularly in Egypt, Sudan and Yemen. Its fundamental aims are to destroy female sexual pleasure and to control female sexuality.

The Gulf States remains the most backward part of the region in terms of women’s rights. In the Gulf region ( ), Kuwaiti women are considered to be the most emancipated, following changes in the law in May 2005 allowing them to vote and to stand as candidates in parliamentary and local elections. In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, nor to hold passports or identity cards without the consent of their fathers, husbands or brothers. In a surprise move in January 2013, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed 30 women to the previously all-male consultative “Shura” Council which has 150 members. In May 2013, the first ever campaign against domestic violence was held in Saudi Arabia.

The average number of female members in the national parliaments of the MENA region is 11.7%, but this is changing. For example, while only 7% of the members of the Algerian parliament elected in 2007 were women, at the 2013 general election, 145 women were elected, representing 31% of the 462 members.


A depressing mix of conservative religious teaching, tradition, social order and ignorance has made any discussion of sexuality completely taboo in the MENA region. Only a few individuals have dared to talk about it with their families or community elders. Sex is strictly regulated under the sacred bond of marriage. For example, in April 2013, the Algerian police arrested many young girls who were walking in the street accompanied by boys in Algiers and Constantine and forced them to undergo virginity tests in hospital ( ).

Control of female sexuality revolves around the hymen. In some parts of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the bride’s deflowering on her wedding night is proudly celebrated: the blood from her hymen is wiped onto a white cloth which is then exhibited to the wedding’s guests, showing that her family’s honour is intact. Brides whose hymens are found to be already broken on their wedding nights bring dishonour on their families and annulments or divorce follow.

The general mood of hysteria surrounding sexuality in Saudi Arabia was evidenced by the story widely reported in the media in April 2013 about the deportation by Saudi police of three male citizens of the United Arab Emirates. They were arrested at the Jenadrivah Heritage and Culture Festival in Riyadh for being “too handsome” and thus a threat to the honour and virginity of local women.

A direct result of the lack of any discussion of sexuality and of any sex education in schools is the frustration of young people in the MENA region, where they make up over 70% of the total population. This frustration feeds high levels of sexual harassment, rape, paedophilia, FGM and the forced marriage of pre-pubescent girls (for example in Yemen).

Gender separation is enforced, making it almost impossible for boys to have sexual relationships with women before marriage. The rising age at which people are getting married in the MENA region means that many of them find alternatives to “normal” sex that will preserve women’s hymens, the most popular of which is heterosexual (and homosexual) anal sex.

In this context, being feminist is as political and courageous as being an LGBTI activist. Inspired by Tunisian women who started to organize in the late sixties, feminist organisations are well-consolidated in Algeria, Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria where they inspire the LGBTI struggle together with other human and legal rights organizations.

Community-Building in an Ever-hostile Environment

If we examine the history and literature of the MENA region, homosexuality has been present and illustrated for centuries. Examples include the Epic of Gilgamesh (around 1700 BC) in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the homoerotic poems of Abu Nawas and stories and paintings by many other artists. Documentary evidence suggests that, in the past, homosexuality was often more socially accepted than it is nowadays, when most inhabitants of the MENA region consider it a sin and an abomination.

Homosexuality has never been criminalised in only a few of the MENA region’s countries (i.e. Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan and Palestine), and it still incurs the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Southern Somalia. In a further 11 countries, mostly former British and French colonies, it can lead to lengthy imprisonment. In Arabic, the most common words used to describe homosexuals are “shodoud” (“pervert”) and “lewath” (“sodomy” which always refers to “deviant” or “unnatural”), and so it is no surprise that most Arabic media still depict same-sex relationships very negatively. Homosexuality is largely seen as a threat to heterosexuality, to defined roles for men and women (“binarism”) and to social order in general, because it challenges the restriction of sex to procreation and emphasises the pleasurable and satisfaction-giving aspects of sex, rather than its purely reproductive function.

The MENA region is a minefield for human-rights activists. Where does one start? More or less all basic human rights are breached regularly in almost all the MENA region countries! The struggle of LGBTIQ people in the region is unique in that it faces multiple sources of repression. The struggle is not limited to gaining recognition for sexual minorities but to gaining the right to exist and to have basic human rights recognised and protected. As activists, we are struggling against occupation, racism, sexism and harassment, and for freedom of expression, freedom of association and basic human rights as individuals.

In many countries, the police prevents public meetings or discourse and so the internet has taken over as the main area for self-expression. Online activism has spread throughout the region, especially in those countries with the most oppressive regimes, such the Gulf states. Many LGBTIQ individuals have started blogs to speak out and to share their experiences and daily lives. Forced to “pass for straight” in public and only able to be gay online, they have to lead double lives. Some have managed to organise themselves unto groups such as Abu Nawas (Algeria), Bedayaa (Egypt/Sudan) and Arab Gay Pride ( ),which unites many bloggers across the MENA region.

Helem, which fights for the protection of LGBT people in Lebanon, started in 1998 as an online group, and developed into an underground group, which applied to be recognised by the Lebanese Interior Ministry in 2004. Aswat in Palestine started as an online mailing list for women in 2002, and evolved just a year later into an association which held regular meetings for members. Aswat celebrated its 10th anniversary under the name of “Nasheeta” (“female activist”) on the International Day Against Homophobia (“IDAHO”) on 17 May 2012.

These associations have inspired and encouraged the formation of other, similar groups and have contributed to positive cultural change by creating Queer words in Arabic. The best examples are “Mithy” (“gay), “Mithya” (“lesbian”), “Motahawel, Motahawela” (“trans men and trans women”), “Mozdawej, Mozdaweja” (“bisexual men and women), “al moyol al jinsy “ (“sexual orientation”), “Thunaeya” “Thunae” (“intersex people”) and “Ahrar al jins” (“queer”), positive term which they are striving to have used by the media. In early May, the Lebanese TV station Jadeed TV reported that Marwan Charbel, the Lebanese Interior Minister, had declared that the government “is against lewat” (“sodomy” and “unnatural”). This led to the minister being wittily nicknamed “Mr So-Natural”.

In the Western MENA region, community-building has been closely linked to HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives. An HIV/AIDS prevention campaign among male prostitutes in Morocco began in the early 1990s. A regional HIV/AIDS prevention campaign brought together 20 gay activists and allies from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon in Casablanca in 2003 and Rabat in 2006. Representatives of mainstream HIV/AIDS prevention organisations such as ALCS (Morocco), APCS (Algeria), ATL (Tunisia), SIDC (Lebanon) and Helem (Lebanon, the only community organisation involved) gathered to identify needs and design programme strategies organised by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Since 2007, UNDP and UNAIDS have used their networks of regional offices to pioneer ground-breaking work: reaching out to religious leaders, judges, police officers, journalists and young people and funding work and research among men who have sex with men in Djibouti, Sudan, Oman, Yemen and Syria, to name but a few.

Many other LGBT groups saw the light in the years that followed and their activities at local, national, regional and international levels were big successes. Since the re-launch of IDAHO in 2005, Helem has organised the “I exist” visibility campaign, which developed in 2012, into the “I vote too, the law must protect me” campaign ( ). Since 2007, ”TenTen” a national LGBTIQ day has been held in Algeria, where supporters are invited to light candles symbolising the end of isolation among the LGBTIQ community. Photos of the TenTen candles were taken in every district of the country and then published in an online album. On TenTen Day in 2012, ( ) the two main campaigning groups in Algeria, Alouen and Abu Nawas collaborated.

The arrest, humiliation and torture of 52 gay men in Cairo during the so-called “Queen Boat affair” on 11 May 2001 is commemorated by a week of activism leading to May 17th, Egyptian Day Against Homophobia ( ) since 2012. The “Love for All” campaign in Morocco is the most recent addition to these visibility campaigns.

An offshoot of Helem Banat, the women-only group Meem attracted much international attention when it published in 2009 Bareed Mistajil (“Express Mail”), a book telling the stories of 41 lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer women, a hidden reality in the region. Meem is the letter “m” in Arabic and is an abbreviation of Majmouaat Mou’azara Lil-mar’a al-Mithliya (“support group for lesbian women”)

Trans-sexuals in the MENA region face double discrimination, not only from the general public but also from within the lesbian and gay communities, which accuse them of presenting a bad image to the outside world. Their visibility also makes them, especially female trans-sexuals, easy targets for rapists. Often, they have been raped by police officers, for example in Kuwait , the only country in the region where transvestism is a criminal offence (article 198 of the Penal code amended in 2007).

The memoirs of Randa the Trans is a rare example of a book which sheds light on the hardship suffered by transgender women in the region. The book’s author, an Algerian activist, was forced to flee to Lebanon and is now living in Sweden.

The advent of international satellite television channels has been enormously useful in challenging the prevailing mentalities in the region. Programmes broadcast by Lebanese satellite TV stations such as LBCTV, have helped to spread a more positive image of the LGBT community throughout the region and have revolutionised the quality, neutrality and positivity of content of other programmes which talk about LGBTIQ people. Some regional newspapers have published very positive articles, such as the coverage of the 2012 TenTen Day by the Algerian Al-Watan and the Moroccan Hesspress. However, many journalists continue to feed the social myths and received ideas that LGBTIQ people are sick or deviant. The most homophobic newspaper in the region is undoubtedly Al-Jarass in Lebanon.

In 2013, a Tunisian opposition party leader was arrested in the Sheraton Hotel in Tunis ( ) and charged with sodomy, which is outlawed by Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code. Many similar arrests have been made in the region recently. In May 2013, the Casablanca police arrested many individuals and charged them with homosexuality, but the arrests were not reported in the media. On May 4, the Algerian newspaper daily Al-Khabar reported that a court in Oran had sentenced two men to a short term of imprisonment for stating that they were “married” on Facebook. ( ). In a move never seen before in Algeria, a Salafist group then called for their execution.

In 2012, the Lebanese press reported the arrest of 36 men in a cinema in Beirut following earlier reports that the cinema was a venue for gay sexual encounters. The arrested men suffered anal examinations but protests from Helem, Meem and other Human rights organisations led the Lebanese Medical Association to ban this practice thus depriving the Lebanese police of its most humiliating tool against the gay community.

The lack of visibility of LGBTIQ activists and community representatives in the MENA region has encouraged outsiders to act as “saviours” and to talk to the international media on their behalf. Examples include Amna Araf ( ) and the London based Israeli-linked Gay Middle East group ( ). Individual activists, LGBT and human-rights groups from the MENA region endorsed a statement criticizing for its “unwelcome and unsolicited intervention; co-optation of Arab voices; violations of the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and pinkwashing Israel”. Under this term, they resent the practice of depicting Israel as a gay paradise with a positive attitude to LGBTIQ issues, while ignoring the political struggle of the Palestinians. Some LGBTIQ Palestinians seeking asylum in Israel have been blackmailed by the Israeli Secret Service who threatened to out them to their families if they did not cooperate.

However, there is an increasing amount of Queer media in the region, both online and in print, including titles such as Baraa, Mithly, Bekhsoos and Lebanese Media Monitor in Lebanon; LeXo Fanzine in Algeria, Mawaleh in Syria; My Kaly in Jordan; Ashtar and Qadita in Palestine; Aswat in Morocco (not to be confused with the Palestinian gay women group) which launched the “Love for all” campaign and published photos of LGBT slogans in the main Moroccan cities and My Gay Day in Tunisia, which created the “Minister of Human Rights, I too am human!” campaign in response to the declaration by Minister Samir Dilou that the right to be homosexual was not a human right. ( )

The similar social conditions faced by activists across the region has fostered a strong sense of solidarity among individuals and organisations. The bringing together and empowering of LGBTIQ communities in the region is mainly undertaken by two regional organisations, which network with human rights, women’s rights and HIV/AIDS awareness organisations to create alliances. Regional gatherings have been held in each of the last three years which provide opportunities for more than 160 activists in different fields in 17 countries to share their experiences, create new strategies, network and support each other.

I never cease to be amazed by the courage of activists and organisations in the region in continuing their activities in the face of considerable threats, or even by risking their lives, to change hearts and minds in their countries and to create safer societies for individuals with non conforming sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Many of them (including myself) have been, and will be, forced into exile by the threat of violence and torture if they are not willing to remain silent. There is so much more to say about LGBTIQ activism in the region but I do not in any way wish to jeopardize the efforts of my courageous colleagues and their allies.