The MENA region might appear to be a desperate one on the surface, and truly, it has been burdened with the toughest of laws. However, breakthroughs are happening, the landscape is changing and there are more advocates for positive change across the Arab world. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go.
This article aims to explain the direction we’re moving in, and the strategies that are enabling us to fight for our shared goal to abolish crucial laws and social practices against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual and Intersexed community (LGBTI) across the Arab region.
Understanding the Regional Context
To gain a better understanding of the regional context, we will consider it from three perspectives: legally, socially, and politically. The challenges faced by the community on a daily basis are strongly allied to these three principles. These are the areas that affect the way in which LGBTI is stigmatised on a social level, how much it is persecuted on a legal level, and how much it is used to shift public opinion for political gain. One would think that the issue in the region is simply a matter of legality. Given the many laws, religious or state, which still criminalise LGBTI practices the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity movement (SOGI) needs to fully grasp the repercussions of all three layers on the LGBTI community.
Let’s start with the legal sphere: there are many laws that govern different countries and which differ according to when the law was established and how the country’s law system was built. We can split laws related to LGBTI into four kinds:
- Countries where LGBTI practices are clearly criminalised like Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.
- Countries that are less clear on the definition of LGBTI and consider it ‘An act against the laws of nature.’ Such is the case in Lebanon and Syria.
- Countries that don’t have any laws pertaining to sexual conduct but nevertheless refer to laws that are set to maintain public morality. Such is the case in Egypt and Jordan.
- Countries that apply laws on LGBTI according to their understanding of the Shari’a. Such as KSA and Sudan, where they are sentenced to capital punishment.
The frequency and number of laws passed do not provide clarity on how the law relates to LGBTI communities. For example, Egypt, where the law is based on public morality and doesn’t cover LGBTI per se, is one of the countries where the LGBTI community is most persecuted. Other countries, where it is clearly criminalised, like Tunisia, are the least likely to persecute the community. Therefore it is not legislation that determines the way a society treats the LGBTI community rather it is the extent to which societal norms in different countries impact on an LGBTI individual’s life.
The most documented cases of persecution are not reported by the courts but by individuals. For example, cases recorded in Jordan, are related to tribes and range from acts of violence to total rejection of individuals in their workplace and environment. They have more power than the government in some instances and can sometimes influence the most violent of mobs. There have been instances where an individual has had to be removed from Jordan in order to protect them from their tribe. Even if this person has done nothing illegal in the eyes of the law, society can build a case on its own against LGBTI individuals with total disregard for the individual, government, and the state.
In some instances, society acts violently against civil society and the LGBTI community as a result of political uprising. We witnessed a backlash against civil society and human rights’ activists in general after the Arab spring and in countries where the Arab spring failed. In Egypt, we witnessed a worsening of laws controlling civil society under President el-Sisi’s reign, particularly those related to organising and funding. Laws have bestowed the power to inflict severe punishment on anyone working in human rights to the extent that those engaged in such activity have been accused of treason and compelled society to support the political power that imposed this. The LGBTI community in Egypt was greatly affected by this and most activism had to be shifted online. This was a direct result of the Egyptian government’s enforced closure of a number of international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and their imposition of harsh laws on foreign funding and other practices thereby enforcing greater constraints on civil society and LGBTI activists. In this way the government aligned itself more closely with many of Moubarak’s practices.
Another practice that Sisi has appropriated from Moubarak, is to focus on LGBTI and smaller cases related to the community in order to turn the tide of public opinion against them and use them as a scapegoat; a distraction from other issues facing the country most of which are the current governing body’s responsibilities. A good example of this was when a member of the audience waved the rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert (a group known for their support of the LGBTI community and whose lead singer is known for being openly gay). The event was recorded by the government controlled media and eventually caused an outrage. The group was banned from Egypt, the individuals associated with the event were arrested; which caused further homophobic backlashes across the country. The country’s focus shifted to this, and away from the bigger issues prominent on social media just a month before.
Another instance of how discrimination against the LGBTI community can be used for political ends takes us to Algeria, where preventive measures were taken to silence civil society and avoid another Arab spring. One of these measures was to try to discredit members of the opposition by outing them as gay. This worked in favour of the government’s media campaign, rallying the masses against the opposition.
State of the Movement in the MENA Region
Despite the many obstacles the LGBTI community has had to face, and continues to face, in the region the movement against discrimination and criminalisation of LGBTI individuals is growing. In fact, until 2009, ‘Helem’ of Lebanon, was the only LGBTI organisation publically operating in the Arab region. The role that Helem could play on a regional level was the subject of debate, but being small and mostly run on a voluntary basis, Helem chose not to be overwhelmed by regional projects and focus on the already complicated national context. Following consultation with regional activists, it was clear that one of the ways to move forward was to create a learning platform to produce knowledge exchange on gender and sexuality, in a region where non-pejorative words to describe LGBTI people were only introduced in 2004.
The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) based in Beirut and established in 2009, spearheaded by former Helem activists, with the aim of supporting the movement for LGBTI rights and protections across MENA. AFE broadened participation in LGBTI rights by investing heavily in grassroots civil society and building the capacity of nascent activists, groups and organisations, through knowledge exchange, research and protection.
Since 2009, and especially in the last four years, the MENA region has witnessed an outburst of activism and social entrepreneurship initiatives primarily fuelled by a general discontent with the prevailing political turmoil and social inequalities it has highlighted. From social movements in Cairo campaigning against sexual harassment to demonstrations in Beirut against domestic violence, from Syrian gay refugees under exploitation, to Sudan’s growing opposition to female genital mutilation practices, and the widening awareness in North Africa to vulnerable groups regarding HIV/AIDS and sexual health, it is safe to say that on the whole the MENA region is at a crossroads in relation to questions of gender and sexuality.
The situation is far from the same in other Arab countries and can be broken down into four different categories:
- Countries where the community is completely invisible with no form of organisations: Saudi Arabia, Mauritania
- Countries where the community is visible but there are no organisations or associations: Kuwait, UAE
- Countries with secret LGBTI groups who are not yet visible enough to create a social movement (Sudan, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt)
- Countries with publically operating LGBTI groups (Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco)
However, this situation is far from stable, the political instability in the MENA region can radically change the shape of LGBTI activism in a country, hence the importance of regional structures that offer contingency plans and logistical support; enabling activists to continue working in the region even in the face of threats.
Currently, we have more than seventeen organisations operating in MENA and this number continues to grow. Most of the achievements on the LGBTI front in the MENA region were made possible because of this growing movement and the unshakable belief of key people across the region that things can change.
These seventeen plus organisations employ a number of strategies to empower the community to speak out in their quest to fight against discrimination and criminalisation.
The decision to seek greater media coverage is not a unanimous one in the community, who are split between supporters of visibility as a way to demystify homosexuality by giving a face to the LGBTI community, and those who fear a backlash.
An example of how important it is to be visible was when, in 2006 and 2007, an avalanche of national and international media invaded the centre of Helem. While media attention from outlets such as, CNN, BBC, Arte and other international and regional TV stations were centred on Helem the community was protected against detention. Needless to say the police knew that the arrest of Helem members would not go unnoticed. Activists in Jordan are also using visibility as a strategy by creating alternative media platforms such as my kali.
In July 2006, Israel invaded part of southern Lebanon, which forced many from the south to seek refuge in the parks of Beirut. One of these parks was the ‘sanayeh’ garden, right next to Helem office. In light of the political situation, Helem suspended its activities and offered its office as a crisis management space. Twenty NGOs were operating from Helem for a month, the urgency of the situation forced people to overcome their differences and work together. During this month sexual orientation did not matter, there was an emergency situation and the humanitarian crisis needed to be managed. By the end of the war, Helem’s allies and supporters had grown considerably, a great lesson for everybody in terms of intersectionality.
We witnessed a clear role for the LGBTI community during the Arab spring. This was particularly visible in Egypt and Tunisia. The main organisers and spokespeople for many protests back then were LGBTI individuals and this forged a relationship between the LGBTI community and the political cause. In Tunisia, for example, several of the parties that came out of the movement adopted the LGBTI case in their agenda.
In most countries of the Arab world, campaigning for LGBTI rights has, at some stage, proved difficult and nigh on impossible. The public situation made it impossible for activists to operate physically through rallies and communication so the community resorted to work being done underground: work on the documentation of LGBTI cases. This work proved to be invaluable as the documentation of individual cases of LGBTI discrimination, criminalisation, and abuse brought in results on a regional and international scale. The main focus of Egyptian activists in recent years was to produce reports against the government around the LGBTI community: these reports were used to expose the government in UN conventions and regional bodies such as the African commission and to engage these bodies in investing in more support for the LGBTI community.
One of the ways to create a community that interacts with each other and empowers one another is to provide services that respond to their needs. Be it medical, psychosocial, legal, these services empower the community and equip them with the drive to conduct political work, and to preserve the support that this community is providing. In Morocco and Tunisia, the first form of gay activism was born from support groups and initiatives for HIV/AIDS. The movement began because individuals felt they had the support of the whole community and this in turn had fostered a trusting environment between activists and the community enabling the community to play a greater role in lobbying against LGBTI discrimination.
Certain tactics employed by the community have led to a great number of success stories across the region.
There is no doubt that the situation in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut, has improved for LGBTI people. On a legal level, four rulings positively affected the LGBTI community in Lebanon, each ruling built on the previous one and pushed the agenda further towards more extensive rights for the LGBTI community, the first ruling was by Judge Mounir Sleiman in 2009. In his ruling, Sleiman argued,
whereas man is part of nature and one of its elements, and a cell within a cell in it, it cannot be said that any practice of his or any behaviour of his is against nature[….] therefore consensual same-sex relations were not “unnatural,” and therefore shouldn’t be subjected to legal penalty.
In 2014, Judge Naji El Dahdah built on the previous decision in a case against a transgendered woman, adding ‘a person’s gender should not simply be based on their personal status registry document, but also on their outward physical appearance and self-perception.’
In 2015, Judge Janet Hanna of the court of appeal recognised the rights of a person not to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Earlier this year, judge Rabih Maalouf, considered homosexuality to be a personal right and any persecution under Article 534 an invasion of an individual’s privacy.
In 2017, the human rights committee appointed by the president, recommended the abolishment of Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code that criminalises homosexuality. In 2016, following the UPR report of Tunisian activists, Tunisia was actively engaged in the call for a ban on the practice of anal testing.
When a Lesbian couple was arrested in Morocco, all LGBTI organisations across the region released a statement against this act. The ripple effect created by the accumulation of these statements led to the story becoming international news, which eventually put pressure on the government to release the couple.
Although a lot of work has yet to be done in the region, we are on the verge of a breakthrough supported by everlasting hope. We are seeing changes; whether big or small, individual or communal, slowly but surely, in some countries more than others, but change is happening and there is no stopping it. I strongly believe the more we continue in our efforts to stand our ground for what we believe in, more individuals will feel it is possible for them to play a role in the movement. The more individuals feel empowered by the action that some groups are engaged in, the stronger these movements will become. It is a ripple effect, caused by one case, one strong media headline or one NGO that, against the odds, continues to campaign throughout the region and will hopefully create enough noise to overcome the difficulties that the community still faces on legal, societal and political fronts.
 A glossary of words in Arabic was created by helem and aswat in 2004.
 See, Rainey, V. (2014) ‘Landmark ruling rubbishes anti-gay law in Lebanon.’ Available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Mar-05/249261-landmarkruling-rubbishes-anti-gay-lawin-lebanon.ashx Accessed: 15 September 2018.
 See, Safdar, A. (2016) ‘Transgender ruling in Lebanon an ‘empowering’ moment.’ Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/02/transgender-ruling-lebanon-empowering-moment-160206125311413.html Accessed: 15 September 2018.