Iraq's LGBTQ+ community celebrates Pride Month discreetly

Pride celebrations in the Middle East is met by state and communal hostility [Getty Images]
4 min read
22 June, 2021
Pride Month: The New Arab speaks with prominent Iraqi LGBTQ+ activists about their struggles and their hopes.

While many countries have recognised LGBTQ+ rights by law, the Iraqi community still lives in fear and continue to be deprived of the right to express their sexuality in public.

On June 28, throughout the world, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community comes together, pouring into their respective streets for a celebration of pride for the month. The celebration is to honour the Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York in 1970, where the first pride march took place. In Iraq, such a gathering remains illegal and some of the LGBTQ+ community celebrate pride month online, while others celebrate in seclusion, in small groups, or in unidentified places.

For Zhiar Ali, an LGBTQ+ rights activist based in Sulaymaniyah, he found out that a social media campaign was the least he could do to celebrate his pride. “We had an online campaign, posting pictures and texts that helped to spread awareness about the rainbow community.”

Ali runs a nonprofit organisation named Yeksani, which strives to establish social freedom and rights for sexual minorities in the region. The name means "equality" in Kurdish, a subtle hint of the organisation's mission.

He added: “Due to high stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in Iraq, it is not possible to do a visible and public pride parade. There could be threats of murder. Hate crimes and cyberbullying are very common in this day and age,” said Ali.

LGBTQ+ Rights int he Middle East

Amir Ashour, founder and executive director of IraQueer, said: “We have not been able to celebrate it [pride] inside Iraq because sadly, Iraqis are still fighting for their lives. We are unable to express who we are in any way without risking discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, or even death.”

According to Ashour, LGBTQ+ Iraqis have been the target of violence and killings for the last two decades. Killings have been documented since 2006. In particularly violent years, like 2017, more than 200 killings were documented. Family members and government-affiliated groups have been the biggest perpetrators of these crimes, and to date, not one person has been held to account for assaulting or/and killing an LGBTQ+ person.

“For the past three years, we've been focusing on the right to life for LGBTQ+ people. We have submitted multiple reports to the UN, made statements at the Human Rights Council, and we have successfully pushed the Iraqi government to recognise the right to life for all Iraqis regardless of sexual orientation, a statement that has never been made by the government,” added Ashour.

He went on to say that he has engaged with government officials both publicly and privately. Sadly, the majority of those that he spoke with have been hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community, and often mislead the public by misrepresenting facts about Iraqi laws.

According to an IraQueer study, violations against the LGBTQ+ community (2015 to 2019) were done by: the government (22 percent), family (27 percent), The Islamic State group (10 percent), armed groups or militia (31 percent), and others (10 percent).

In the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, The New Arab met Haider Abdulla (not his real name for security concerns). The 23-year-old said: “I live in a city where tribal power is stronger than the government, I cannot express my gender or sexual orientation in any way. If my family realised that I am gay, they would kill me, under the honour killing principle. 

“While watching the pride celebrations around the world I wish I could join them but it's impossible – my passport is not strong enough to grant me a visa for Europe to express myself and enjoy these exceptional moments with the ones I love. I hope we will make it there one day,” Abdullah added.

“As Iraqis, regardless of our sexual orientation and gender, we are all deprived of fundamental rights and our basic demands for life; no freedom, no jobs, no services, we live such a miserable life,” he continues. "We took to the streets in massive protests to demand our basic rights, but the authorities responded with violence and lethal forces, so what will they do for us if the queer community protests to get their rights?”

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Some LGBTQ+ people have taken the opportunity to seek safe refuge outside Iraq.

Ahmed Yousuf, 29-years-old, originally from Basra, but now lives in Canada told The New Arab: “Whenever I see a pride outside Iraq, all I feel is a deep sadness for all the LGBTQ+ in my country for not being able to have the right to live safely.”

Due to his gender expression, Yousuf has faced lots of life-threatening practices, social stigma, and acceptance challenges. “I even lost a job at a very big oil company in the Basra province,” he added.

“We hope that one day we can live our lives authentically and safely, but until then, our priority is just to survive,” Ashour said.

Azhar Al-Rubaie is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. His writing focuses on a variety of issues, including politics, health, society, wars, and human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AzherRubaie