The official fiction, Brian Whitaker explains, is that gay people don’t exist in the Middle East. They do – and for many of them, the attitudes of family and society are a much bigger problem than the fear of being persecuted

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.

For the 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 discovered.

In 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”.

But there 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.

Moroccan activists participate in a vigil in Rabat to pay tribute to the victims of the Orlando gay club shooting. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

It doesn’t 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”.

Muslim 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 drinks.

Of course, 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.

In some 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.

At another 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.

Among other 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.

These laws 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 indecency.

The problem 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 the anus.

One reason 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 worry about.

Gay Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, during an informal meeting on the persecution of LGBT people by Isis. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Gay Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, during an informal meeting on the persecution of LGBT people by Isis. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

There are, 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.

Arrests in 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.

For the vast majority who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender the attitudes of family and society are a much bigger problem.

The one 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.

For those 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.

How 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 treatment.

Blaming it on Islam? Not so fast

Following 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 Muslims.

Also, it’s 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.

Muslim 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.

The 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.

The key 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.

Although 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.

“Masculine” 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

How the Middle East views the entire gender spectrum

Traditional 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.

In 2007, 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.

Since there 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.

“Transgender” 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.

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse LGBT rights activists before a Gay Pride parade in central Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Reuters
Riot police use a water cannon to disperse LGBT rights activists before a Gay Pride parade in central Istanbul, Turkey.
Photograph: Reuters

As it 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 binary.

There were 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 sexual misbehaviour.

Eunuchs often acquired influential positions administering wealthy Muslim households. Themukhannathun 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.

A third 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.

Islamic 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.

The 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.

But 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.

The case 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.

The affair 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”.

Basically, 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.

Theologically, 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.

Although at 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.

Also, the 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.

The tireless work of activists

Organised 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.

These are 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.

Relatives of 26 men who were arrested in a televised raid by police looking for gay people at a Cairo public bathhouse celebrate after the court acquitted them. Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP
Relatives of 26 men who were arrested in a televised raid by police looking for gay people at a Cairo public bathhouse celebrate after the court acquitted them.
Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP

Non-governmental 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.

The 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 recently.

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.

Last April, 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.

On the 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.

These, very 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.

An 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.

These are 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.

But one 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.

Article | Brian Whitaker for The Guardian. Brian 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

Image | Participants take part in the 13th Gay Pride in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2015,  Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock