Iraqi LGBTQ+ community loses safe space

 Supporters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces burn a rainbow flag during a protest in Tahrir Square in Baghdad
Popular Mobilisation Forces supporters burn a rainbow flag in Baghdad: conservative Iraqi politicians have often described LGBTQ+ rights as being 'imported' from the decadent West (image: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/dpa/picture alliance)

It was always double-edged, but in Iraq, social media was often a comparatively safe place where the local queer community could meet. Recent amendments to Iraqi law are changing all that

By Cathrin Schaer

Social media has always been one of the only places where members of the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq could meet and be more open about their sexual identity.

"Before Instagram, members of the community created fake Facebook accounts and joined secret groups to get to know one another," said Khalid, a 22-year-old student in the central Iraqi province of Babylon. He couldn't give his full name, because doing so would expose him to danger. "Then with Instagram's 'close friends' story feature [launched in 2018], it became even easier for people to connect, and even to find love."

The country's conservative culture means most queer locals have always hidden their sexuality. Surveys of attitudes toward homosexuality in Middle Eastern countries indicate that usually less than 10% of local populations "approve" of homosexuality.

"Social media has been the main platform of expression of any kind here, especially for those who do not have their own spaces," explained Ayaz Shalal Kado, executive director of the Iraqi human rights organisation IraQueer. "That includes vulnerable groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people and others. Social media was a way for these people to express themselves, connect and create communities."

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While social media and digital platforms have offered an opportunity, they have also posed a danger, Human Rights Watch said earlier this year as it launched the campaign Secure Our Socials. Working with local rights groups, Human Rights Watch reported how digital activity was being used by authoritarian states against individuals suspected of being queer.

Dangers of digital life

This danger is now likely to increase for the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq. Despite generally negative attitudes toward same-sex relationships, Iraq – unlike most other countries in the Middle East – never had a law explicitly criminalising them. Instead, Iraqi officials used more vague anti-obscenity laws to punish and harass members of the LGBTQ+ community.

But in late April, the Iraqi government amended a pre-existing law on prostitution. The new amendments ban any sort of homosexuality or transsexuality, punishing these with up to 15 years in prison. Anybody seen to "promote" homosexuality could be fined up to 15 million Iraqi dinars (€10,5050) or sentenced to jail for up to seven years.

This comes after the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission, which regulates local media, issued rules in August 2023 mandating that media in Iraq may no longer use the term "homosexuality" and should instead replace it with the phrase "sexual deviance". Media may also not talk about "gender".

Activists from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community in Lebanon shout slogans as they march calling on the government for more rights in the country
Many Middle Eastern countries have a queer scene, but unlike in Lebanon (pictured) it mostly remains hidden (image: Hassan Ammar/AP/picture alliance)

According to local media outlet Rudaw, Iraqi lawmakers insisted they needed the amendments "to preserve the entity of Iraqi society from moral degeneration," as the amendment text read.

"The truth is, this new law is not new at all," Babylon-based student Khalid complained. "We've always lived in fear and hiding." It's just that now there's even more thing to worry about, he said.

Iraq comes under international criticism

The amendments were widely criticised by international rights organisations and Iraq's foreign allies. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said the law contradicts a number of human rights treaties ratified by Iraq. The U.S. State Department argued the new rules could be used to "further hamper free speech and personal expression and inhibit the operations of [non-governmental organisations] across Iraq".

Iraqi NGOs are still working out exactly how to respond. One Iraqi rights organisation, Gala for LGBTQ, posted advice on its Instagram page that included telling users to make their accounts private, unfollowing openly queer accounts and deleting digital material that could be seen as LGBTQ+-friendly.

"If you are in Iraq, it is better not to talk or publish about the LGBTQ+ community and leave this to people who are outside Iraq," the organisation suggested.

"There are many ways to fight back and that's what the community is working on currently," said Kado of IraQueer. "Safety and security are the highest priority. But we will not give up. That is not an option."

Kado does worry that the online presence of Iraq's LGBTQ+ community is about to be reduced or even disappear altogether, as locals realise the dangers of using social media. But, he added, there are even larger ramifications around freedom of expression in Iraq.

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Wide-ranging impact on rights groups

"Banning words like 'homosexual' or 'gender' is a huge step backwards – and not just for queer people," he said. "It's intersectional. It doesn't just affect my organisation, but also all feminist organisations, all those who work for women's rights, and those who focus on gender and bodily rights in general."

There have also been other cases of social media becoming dangerous in Iraq.

The same weekend Iraqi authorities passed the new LGBTQ+ rules, a popular Iraqi influencer, Ghufran Mahdi Sawadi, known online as Um Fahad, was murdered by an unknown assailant outside her home, most likely because of her online persona.

"Every young person has the right to entertainment and to share content on their Snapchat account," said Sawadi's brother Amir. "This is their personal life."

Over the past year, two other Iraqis who were well known on social media – a transgender person known as Simsim and Noor Alsaffar, who posted videos of himself in women's clothing – have also been murdered.

"History shows us that when one group is targeted, another vulnerable group is bound to be next," said Kado. "Once you allow perpetrators [of human rights abuses] to take a step without accountability, they will take more steps. At some point it will be too late to stop them." 

Cathrin Schaer & Azhar al-Rubaie

© Deutsche Welle 2024