Is a gay rights movement possible in the Arab world?

Author, professor Kamal Al-Solaylee speaks to the audience on Oct. 1, 2014 at Ryerson on gay rights in the Arab world. The lecture was part of a series hosed by the International Issues Discussion.

Author, professor Kamal Al-Solaylee speaks to the audience on Oct. 1, 2014 at Ryerson on gay rights in the Arab world. The lecture was part of a series hosed by the International Issues Discussion.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes isn’t a book that should be placed on the top panel of your shelf where it gathers dust and grime. And Kamal Al-Solaylee, the author of the book, isn’t a man whose words should be ignored.

Al-Solaylee, an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, is an openly gay Arab from a conservative Muslim family who grew up in Yemen before moving Egypt. He was at Ryerson Wednesday evening to speak at the International Issues Discussion (IID) series. Organized by the school’s history department, Al-Solaylee’s talk is titled “Is a Gay rights movement possible in the Arab World?”

Al-Solaylee and other Arab gay men fear the consequences of accepting their homosexuality in the Middle East. It can get you criminally charged and sentenced to death or lashes. In his book, Al-Solaylee writes: “As a man, I knew I’d probably fare better than my sisters in Yemen’s male-dominated society. It’s a privilege to be a man there, period. But not a gay man.”

The West is considered a tolerant and an open-minded society, where same-sex marriages are recognized and Pride Week is celebrated. The people living in such societies often advocate for the suppressed individuals in intolerant societies, but is a gay rights movement actually possible in the Middle East, or will it remain an ambition written about in magazines, heard at lectures or noted by clandestine bloggers from the Arab world?

Perceptions of homosexuality in the Middle East are formed by cultural and religious beliefs. Any cultural changes in the region are directly or indirectly associated with deep-rooted Islamic values. As Al-Solaylee said, even though the Arab culture predates the religion, Islam takes precedence in reasoning, and in the case of homosexuality, it labels it a sin. However, not all scholars agree upon the same interpretation.

Since the Qur’an, the holy book in Islam, is written in metaphorical terms, it makes it difficult to interpret it in one particular way. This also gives way to exploitation of the words for the benefits of individuals in society. In Islam, there’s a term called ijtihad. Literally, it means independent reasoning.  So, your religious values and beliefs should reflect the time and place you live in, using you own judgment.

The fundamentalist Sharia Law, on the other hand, takes the Islamic civilization back 1,500 years. Unfortunately, a lot of the Arab world bases its criminal code on Sharia Law. That includes cutting the hands of thieves and declaring death to a gay person.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the country has an Islamic moral police force called the mutaween. They are responsible for monitoring behaviour in public that is considered inappropriate, promiscuous or sinful. A woman seen in public with a man can get arrested just for being with a man who doesn’t classify as a mahram, a word used to describe the male a woman can remain unveiled with — her husband, father, brother, uncle, etc.

It’s difficult to comprehend how a gay rights movement can rise in an area that refuses to grant women the right to uncover their hair.

Regimes that are based on Islamic principles carry the notion that homosexuality is a Western concept — perhaps a trend or an obsession that can be cured. The Arab society does not acknowledge that being gay isn’t a choice, nor is it an illness that needs “reorientation therapy.”

The family plays a vital role in the Arab community. Out of fear of being shamed in the community and in the eyes of God, families pressure their gay relatives to remain closeted.

The political climate affects the movement from rising. Certain areas of the region continue to suffer from economic and governmental instability. This becomes an excuse to put the rights of the LGBT community on the back-burner while the majority of the population fights for civil and democratic rights.

However, the Arab gay community still thrives in the Middle East — albeit underground. Members of the gay community are able to access websites and gay magazines like the Advocate through proxy servers. Applications like Grinder make it easier for gay individuals to meet other gay individuals. The application however, features a warning to be careful when organizing a meeting because undercover police officers use it to crackdown on the gay community.

Some Arabs are hopeful that change will eventually come to the Middle East. An organization in Beirut facilitates the emigration and asylum-seeking for gay people that may be prosecuted.  They also hold protests on small scales. Lebanon is also home to Helem, the first LGBT advocacy group in the Arab region. There are other small organizations that advocate for gay rights but they recognize the backlash they will face in the region. Unless there’s a spontaneous and perhaps a miraculous uprising of the gay rights movement, chances are pretty slim that people from the LGBT community in the Middle East will ever receive their rights.

Hold on to your rainbow-coloured beads, Pride Week isn’t coming to the Arab world just yet.

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