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Qatar World Cup: Rainbow flags and the Middle East explained

Though not outright banned, the symbol of LGBTQ+ rights and pride has come under increasing hostility
Players from several European nations have abandoned plans to wear rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armbands because of the threat they would be yellow carded (AFP)
Players from several European nations have abandoned plans to wear rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armbands because of the threat they would be yellow carded (AFP)

By day two of the Qatar World Cup, LGBTQ+ rights and the symbolic rainbow flag were front and centre of tournament coverage in western media.

Players from several European nations abandoned plans on Monday to wear rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armbands because of the threat they would be yellow-carded, while reports emerged of fans being turned away from stadiums for sporting the rainbow flag.

Laura McAllister, a former Welsh footballer who played for the national team and is gay, had her rainbow bucket hat removed before Wales’s opening game against the USA on Monday, before smuggling it into the stadium.

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Translation: Fans with items bearing the rainbow symbol experienced difficulties entering the stadium to watch Wales. This was @LauraMcAllister's experience.

An American journalism professor in Doha said a Fifa volunteer called him “disgusting” on the metro for wearing the flag. Another American, also a journalist, was held by security before the game for wearing a T-shirt with the rainbow colours, before being allowed in by an officer.

In April, a senior Qatari security official said that fans might have rainbow flags confiscated to stop them being attacked. "I cannot guarantee the behaviour of the whole people," Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah al-Ansari told the Associated Press. "And I will tell [fans]: ‘Please, no need to really raise that flag at this point.’”

Qatar had promised that it would allow the flags inside stadiums. Fifa and Qatar were reportedly in "urgent talks" after the incidents at the Wales vs USA game.

LGBTQ+ activists, many of whom have boycotted the tournament, feared such treatment. But Qatar is no outlier.

For years, countries across the Middle East, most of which outlaw homosexuality, have used nebulous, loosely worded legislation or bans related to public morality to clamp down on the flying of the rainbow flag.

‘The kites promote homosexuality’

The symbol of LGBTQ+ rights and identity seems to have become an increasingly sensitive issue in recent years across the region, particularly in the Gulf.

In June, Kuwait's foreign ministry summoned the United States embassy's acting charge d'affaires over tweets the embassy published that "support homosexuality".

US officials there had posted a rainbow flag and a message of solidarity from President Joe Biden for Pride month, which read: "All human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear no matter who they are or whom they love.”

Two weeks later, authorities in Syria confiscated hundreds of rainbow-coloured children's kites in the city of Hama because they "promote homosexuality", according to a report published by Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The following day, a Saudi TV channel showed government officials seizing rainbow-coloured toys and clothing from shops in the capital, Riyadh, as part of a crackdown on homosexuality.

"We are giving a tour of the items that contradict the Islamic faith and public morals and promote homosexual colours targeting the younger generation," an official from the commerce ministry said, holding up children’s toys, some of which were blurred out like a seedy drugs bust video.

According to the report, the colours send a "poisoned message" to children.

Hostility to the symbol in the region is not a recent phenomenon. In June 2020, Egyptian LGBTQ+ activist Sarah Hegazi, who was arrested in 2017 after raising a rainbow flag at a concert of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila in Cairo, killed herself in exile in Canada.

In an article published a few years earlier, Hegazi revealed she had been electrocuted and subjected to psychological torture during her three months in jail.

In May 2020, Iraqi political leaders called for the expulsion of diplomats following a decision by a number of foreign embassies in the country to fly the rainbow flag in honour of the International Day Against Homophobia.

And in 2016, a Saudi doctor was arrested by authorities for flying a rainbow pride flag above his home, apparently unaware that it symbolised LGBTQ+ rights.

According to CNN Arabic, the doctor had bought the flag online because his children found the colours "pretty".

Not illegal

Despite the recurring use of the phrase in the suppression of the rainbow flag, "promoting homosexuality" is not explicitly outlawed in any Middle Eastern country.

But, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, vaguely worded laws on "morality" or "indecency" can be used to suppress pro-LGBTQ+ speech.

"These provisions can be particularly insidious because of their vagueness," according to HRW.

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"Egypt is a serial offender [in the region] in terms of systematic use of such provisions against LGBT people," according to HRW.

After the 2017 Mashrou' Leila concert, for example, Egypt used a provision on "incitement to debauchery" from a 1961 law on prostitution to arrest those suspected of flying the rainbow flag.

Others accused of doing the same were charged with "interrupting the provisions of the constitution or laws".

In Algeria and Yemen, people can be charged with a "breach of modesty", whereas in Jordan "expressing a sign incompatible with modesty in a public place" is a crime.

In Qatar, "inducing or seducing a male or a female anyhow to commit illegal or immoral actions” is punishable by up to three years, though the specifics of what this can include are unclear.

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