Human rights, sexuality and gender in the Middle East

by on December 14, 2009  •  In Culture

I'm a big fan of Scott Long, the lgbt rights division director at Human Rights Watch. Following is an excerpt of an interview he did with Rex Wockner. This portion focuses on the Middle East; the full interview is here.

The stuff we saw in Iraq, the killing campaign this year, is a very extreme version of what we’ve seen in other places in the Middle East, which is, you suddenly get basically a moral panic around the issue of homosexuality where a lot of other social anxieties about, you know, westernization, social change, change in gender roles, masculinity, they all get wrapped up into one issue and somebody’s scapegoated, someone is targeted. The Queen Boat arrests in Egypt were very much like that, in that all of these fears about rock music and Satanism and heavy metal and effeminate men and long hair suddenly got transmuted into the issue of homosexuality. And we’ve seen kind of smaller eruptions like that in places from Morocco to Turkey over the last few years. It is very complex because it is connected to the reality of very swift social change that people find unsettling, in many cases terrifying. It’s connected to the reality of westernization and of very swift and unsettling economic changes as well. I mean, the anxieties behind it are real.

The scapegoat is fictional, but the people who suffer are also real, and I think, you know, what we need across the Middle East is not just LGBT movements who are capable of responding to this—that will take a long time—but we need a stronger commitment from mainstream human rights organizations to fight moral panics and to stand up for the human rights even of the most marginalized, stigmatized people in the community….

In both Iraq and Uganda, I think the fears and the violence of the response—the kind of legal violence that’s being proposed in Uganda and the really literal violence in Iraq—are certainly enabled by a long history of violence and social collapse. You know, Uganda has gone through 25 or 30 years of civil war. You can stand in Kampala and it looks like a beautiful, placid, just lovely place, and then you remember what’s happened to many of the people walking by you on the street in the last two decades, and you remember the civil war that’s still raging in the north, and you realize how much fear there is underneath the surface. And I think the Museveni government has been actually very clever at focusing all of people’s anxieties on homosexuality as kind of the universal target and the universal scapegoat.

In Iraq, it’s quite true that homosexuals were never particularly targeted under the Saddam regime. He had other enemies. But to the other enemies, he was absolutely brutal. … The sanctions, and then the just-total U.S.-induced collapse of security after the invasion, have created an environment where everybody lives in anticipation of violence and where everybody feels that being ready to be violent yourself is the only safeguard. And the militias, the Mahdi Army, are the product of that—they’re a bunch of young men who see no future for themselves and whose only social role that they can imagine for themselves if they don’t have jobs, they don’t have stable family structures, they don’t have stable lives, the only role they can imagine for themselves is enforcing some imaginary version of morality. So I think the circumstances are somewhat special, but, you know, these very deep-rooted fears about sexuality, sexual difference, gender—I really think the issue of, you know, what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are at the core of much of this homophobic violence as much as people’s kind of fantasies about what other folks are doing in bed.

These fears are not just limited to Iraq and Uganda; you see them everywhere. I mean, the trans folks who get beaten up on the streets of New York are facing the same kinds of fears in a different version. It’s just that you have certain social situations which allow them complete sway….


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