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Gay and trans Iraqis plagued by threats, violence - and now the law

Iraq's vulnerable LGBTQ+ community gripped by fear as Iraq criminalises same-sex relations
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn a poster depicting an LGBTQ+ flag during a protest in Karbala on 29 June 2023, denouncing the burning of the Quran in Sweden (AFP)

Karrar, a 23-year-old unemployed gay Iraqi living in Babylon, finds himself paralysed by fear. The Iraqi government recently criminalised homosexuality and transgender identities, pushing the already-vulnerable LGBTQ+ community further into an unknown fate.

As anti-LGBTQ+ measures take effect, Karrar* is now contemplating relocation or seeking asylum, feeling the urgency to escape his own home.

"The intensity of hatred directed at the LGBTQ+ community still shocks me. People here seem to perceive us as a plague, worthy of violent eradication,” he told Middle East Eye.

Even before the new measures were enacted, violence and threats against LGBTQ+ people pervaded Iraq. Still, Karrar said he was still able to maintain some semblance of privacy, something he feels he can no longer do.

"For my digital safety, I have adopted a low profile, avoiding dating apps and new acquaintances. I also adhere to social norms in my appearance and presentation," he said.

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Late last month, the Iraqi parliament, despite international pressure, quietly passed several amendments to the anti-prostitution law that could see LGBTQ+ people imprisoned for up to 15 years for same-sex activity.

'People here seem to perceive us as a plague, worthy of violent eradication'

- Karrar, gay Iraqi

Under the new law, gender-affirming surgeries, a vital step for many transgender individuals, are now punishable by three years in prison for both the patient and the medical professional involved. 

The first draft of the amended law included the death penalty, but the clause did not make it to the voting floor due to wide rejection by many figures, local and international NGOs, observers and even MPs. 

An Iraqi lawmaker told MEE, on condition of anonymity, that he and other parliamentarians had exerted pressure for the "harsh sentence" to be removed from all recent amendments.

Notably, the law also criminalises individuals deemed to be behaving in an "effeminate manner", with a sentence of one to three years in prison, further blurring the lines of acceptable expression.

'I fear for my life'

Human rights organisations have swiftly condemned the legislation, highlighting its blatant disregard for fundamental human rights and the devastating impact it will have on the LGBTQ+ community. The law not only criminalises individuals for their identities but also paves the way for further discrimination and potential violence.

The situation for LGBTQ+ individuals in Iraq was already dangerous, marked by societal rejection and a constant threat of violence. The tragic case of Doski Azad, a transgender woman murdered by her own brother two years ago, serves as a chilling reminder of the deadly dangers faced by the marginalised group.

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Hayden*, a 22-year-old Najaf-based queer, said that although the threat against the community has long been prevalent, they still found the move by the parliament to be "shocking", considering the potential international repercussions.

"With this new law, the authorities seem to be pulling off a media stunt to gain popularity, especially since people here are emotionally influenced by laws tied to religion and social customs. Now, I fear for my life even more due to this strict law," said Hayden, whose pronouns are they/them.

"I do not know how I will continue living without being at risk simply because I am queer."

Hayden said they have taken a number of precautions to protect themselves online. They monitor their followers online, have unfollowed queer people on social media and deleted any posts that hint at their sexual orientation.

"This is to avoid being targeted by militias that have been killing us even before this law. However, this law now provides legal cover for further violence against us," Hayden said.

"If I feel that danger is getting closer to my life, I will consider travelling to a neighbouring country that does not require a difficult visa process to ensure my safety."

The amendments to the anti-prostitution law will not be applied in the Kurdistan Region unless the Kurdish parliament votes to approve them, Dana Dara, the Kurdish parliament"s legal adviser told Rudaw, an Erbil-based media outlet.

The Kurdish legislature operates independently and thus has the authority to accept or reject laws passed by the Iraqi parliament.

Harshest penalties in the world

Ali, a director of Gala Iraq, told MEE: "The Iraqi government's decision marks the culmination of prolonged campaigns of hatred and demonisation targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq over the past two years."

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Gala Iraq is an Iraqi intersectional platform dedicated to members of the LGBTQ+ community in the region in general and Iraq in particular. Following enacting of the law, it published safety measures that LGBTQ+ people can follow to protect themselves physically and legally, including erasing indications of queerness from phones and social media, and keeping emergency money at hand in case they needed to flee.

"This unprecedented parliamentary step in post-Saddam dictatorship Iraq represents the pinnacle of these hate campaigns, culminating in the enactment of an explicit law that directly criminalises LGBTQ+ individuals with some of the harshest penalties in the world," said Ali, who wanted to be identified only by his first name. 

"In fact, requests for assistance and protection had been pouring in even before this law. The situation in Iraq has always been dire for the LGBTQ+ community, who face all forms of violence - murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and more. Since the law's passage, however, the number of people contacting us has skyrocketed."

Fear of being targeted is also being felt among LGBTQ+ Iraqis living abroad, casting a shadow over their long-held dreams of returning home or visiting loved ones.

Bash, an Iraqi artist and LGBTQ+ activist residing in Germany, told MEE: "Returning or even visiting my country for a vacation has become an impossible dream."

Bash fled home to Germany in 2015, seeking the freedom that he is deprived of in his country. 

"Iraqi decision makers follow cross-border orders, mainly from Iran, to enact such laws. It is not new for the government to impose such laws restricting freedoms and violating human rights."

'Returning or even visiting my country for a vacation has become an impossible dream,' says Bash, an Iraqi artist and LGBTQ+ activist based in Berlin (Sebastian Backhaus/MEE)
"Returning or even visiting my country for a vacation has become an impossible dream," says Bash, an Iraqi artist and LGBTQ+ activist based in Berlin (Sebastian Backhaus/MEE)

He points to the period of openness and development that Iraq has been recently witnessing, which clashes with what he calls the regress approach of the law.

"Iraq desperately needs critical decisions that improve people's lives and provide them with a decent standard of living. However, the government insists on neglecting these priorities in favour of enacting laws that restrict freedom," Bash said.

Bash compares his experience in Germany, where he lives safely and exercises his freedom without fear of intrusion and repercussions, to what he had faced in Iraq from harassment and hatred even after his migration. 

'Noose around my neck'

Mary*, a 25-year-old transwoman and writer living in Iraq, said: "As a person who lives in a country where there are at least 70 militias, you cannot specifically predict where the threats are coming from. Now that the law has been enacted, threats will come from everywhere.

'The law has not left me any space to breathe'

- Mary, transwoman and writer

"Last year when I was sitting in a cafe, someone I knew leaned over my head and whispered in my ear: 'Shave your hair, before they [militias] shave it for you'. This makes me feel unsafe even in my own room."

Mary said that following the changes in the law, she has thought of quitting her job writing feature articles focusing on LGBTQ+ rights, despite it being the only profession she's able physically to perform after suffering from domestic abuse that had left her with severe back injury.

"The danger does not lie only in sexual orientation. The source of danger does not assume what your orientation is, but rather makes assumptions based on non-normative sexual behaviour and identity," she said. 

"Based on the law, publishing a song by a gay singer on social media or sharing a scene from a movie of gay people kissing may also be considered promoting homosexuality and put me in prison for seven years."

Mary is now considering leaving Iraq and has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her raise the money she needs to move to France, where she believes she could thrive as a transwoman, a writer, poet and performance artist.

"Continuing to write means that I will be more active, which is what attracts attention to me. Quitting writing and looking for another job will make me visible, which will make me more vulnerable to being non-standard and I will be accused of 'effeminateness'," she said.

"The law has not left me any space to breathe, as it is now tightening the noose around my neck."

*Names have been changed to safeguard identities.

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