For Hossein Alizadeh, finding people willing to share their stories was the most difficult part of documenting the precarious existence that LGBT Iraqis face.
Alizadeh is regional program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which released two reports on LGBT life in Iraq on Nov 19.
Alizadeh says fear of identifying themselves, even anonymously, as part of the LGBT spectrum, is profound and widespread for LGBT Iraqis. To do so is tantamount to courting further persecution, even death. In one attempt to secure interviews, Alizadeh says, more than 70 people were contacted. Only 15 were willing to tell their stories.
“A lot of people were telling us that you cannot talk about LGBT issues in Iraq,” he says. “Even if you yourself are not self-identified as queer, when you talk about these issues, the society treats you as a stranger and an outsider. They try to cut you off, because they don’t want to talk about it.”
The two reports, “We’re Here: Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuse” and “When Coming Out Is a Death Sentence,” were compiled by IGLHRC in collaboration with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Madre, a New York-based women’s rights organization.
In “We’re Here,” the stories of Farrah, Leyla, Mahmud, Ali and Saad — a transgender woman, a lesbian and three gay men — read like epic sagas, each one a pillar-to-post existence fraught with uncertainty, betrayal and peril, punctuated by short-lived periods of calm. Threads of similarity run through their individual experiences: family life is not a guaranteed haven, and while individual relatives provide some solace and security, they are also targets of society’s pervasive violence, or put under pressure by various political forces, or casualties in the US/Al-Qaeda war.
Alizadeh notes that family members, fearful of losing honour, would disown relatives seen as queer or might even take the ultimate step of killing them. Then there are other relatives who prove to be no less threatening than the religious, legal and military forces that are ranged against those who are seen to be different, socially unacceptable and deemed threats to society’s moral fabric.
There is blackmail that thrives upon the threat of exposure and sexual abuse by neighbours, police and an array of militias who act with impunity because there is essentially no institutional recourse for the violated.
In the midst of the chaos, the five interviewees experience brief moments of sexual contentment, even love, that suddenly end because of a lover’s murder or even deceit that precipitates their inevitable flight in search of another sanctuary.
“I found that our society does not provide a place for real relationships that last a lifetime,” says Leyla, who identifies as a lesbian and is from the southern Iraqi city of Basra. She recalls one relationship with a high school friend with whom she was afraid to have sex for fear of family or community retaliation. In the end, Leyla’s family found out and confronted her girlfriend’s family, who murdered her.
Leyla herself escaped death at the hands of the Shia Mahdi army that kidnapped and tortured her, two other lesbians and an unspecified number of gay men, one of whom was murdered in front of her. “After a week . . . they released us, making us sign a paper stating that we would not have sex that is unapproved by Islam.” She is living for the day she can leave the country to start a new life with her new girlfriend.
“The individuals who self-identified as LGBT, they wanted to talk to us because they felt that it can make a difference for other people,” Alizadeh says. “Iraq is such a devastated country and there is so much violence going on that most people either don’t know about the plight of LGBT people or it’s just not a top priority for them.
“Even the headlines, you see how many car bombs went off in Iraq and all the beheadings by ISIS,” he says. “You see all of those things, and the silent suffering of thousands of people takes a backseat.”
“When Coming Out Is a Death Sentence” points to the Islamic State’s website, where a section on law reads, “The Sharia ruling is to punish sodomy by death, whether or not the person is unblemished. Every person for whom sodomy is proven, whether actively or passively, shall be executed for an offense against God.”
Moreover, since declaring a caliphate in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has chosen to emphasize its own interpretation of certain pronouncements, or ahadith, made by the Prophet Mohammed about what is considered appropriate behaviour and wear for men and women.
Still, one of the things the reports highlight is that the plight of LGBT Iraqis started well before the emergence of ISIS. Prior to the rise and spread of renegade militias, the Iraqi government did not protect LGBT citizens and refused to collect statistics on hate crimes against them.
International aid and human rights workers who support the community in Iraq repeatedly told IGLHRC and Madre that explaining terms like sexual orientation and gender identity to government officials and society as a whole has been a formidable task. “They see it as a form of sexual perversion that was imported by the West, especially the United States, after the 2003 invasion,” Alizadeh notes.
Under Saddam Hussein, very few people had access to the internet, and freedom of expression and assembly was under heavy stricture. “Really there wasn’t any social appearance that led people to think someone is gay or lesbian or transgender,” Alizadeh says.
With a powerful central government in place, security forces were visible everywhere but weren’t particularly interested in people who are gay or lesbian “as long as you weren’t making waves,” he says. While there were instances of individual shakedowns for blackmail purposes, systematic violence against LGBT people was not a prominent feature of the Hussein regime.
“We have to keep in mind that Saddam Hussein was secular in nature, so the religious discourse that is being used by the militias to go after LGBT people was not part of his language, even as there was nothing called human rights for LGBT people,” Alizadeh explains. Under the Hussein regime, people charged with sodomy did not benefit from the yearly amnesty issued to prisoners.
The US invasion created a vacuum of power in a very dictatorial environment and opened up space for discussion about LGBT identities, the formation of groups and frequenting of cruising areas, he says.
“People started to talk about things they weren’t allowed to talk about, and then people started dressing in a way they weren’t allowed to dress, and so that also created social resentment and social backlash. In a country where you didn’t have very strong central authority, the vigilantes start taking charge and started going after individuals who were perceived to be gay or transgender or lesbian.”
The current Iraqi government has been trying to wash its hands of the issue and is now primarily focused on the ISIS threat, Alizadeh notes. “They are nowhere to be found when it comes to LGBT issues.”
Compounding the danger is the religious narrative that considers homosexuality a sin. “So you always have the backlash from the religious militias,” Alizadeh says, pointing to the years 2009, 2012 and this summer as periods of “pogroms.” In May, the Brigades of Wrath (Saraya al-Ghadhab), the military wing of the League of the Righteous, a Shia Islamist group, publicized a list of 24 “wanted” people, 23 of whom were accused of homosexuality, while one was deemed a criminal for having long hair, one report states.
In June, the league also allegedly attacked a group of four, including two teenaged boys, who were killed and beheaded, according to witnesses.
In 2012, local activists raised the alarm about attacks on people described as emo, a term referring to people who dress in tight-fitting clothes, wear makeup, cut their hair in “unconventional” ways and listen to alternative music, a trend that was labelled satanic, un-Islamic and a danger to Iraqi society. Gay men were targeted in these attacks because of how they look, Alizadeh says, with the government adding fuel to the fire by condemning emos and conflating them with homosexuality.
“The situation in Iraq is like this: you have to do everything at your own risk,” he says. “The government will say there is no ban on homosexuality, which is true, so there is no restriction, but it doesn’t mean you’re protected either,” he points out. “There are very brave people in Iraq that constantly try to push back and resist and open up some space, and then the next day the extremists try to limit them further. It’s a social struggle that’s happening here.
“But again, this is not a normal society where you are faced with restrictions and resistance, and then you can go to the court and try and settle things,” Alizadeh says. “At that point, the government ceases to exist, and you’re on your own.”