“People used to be able to be part of a relatively safe, underground scene, but the US invasion in 2003 and the fact that there is no true leadership in Iraq puts all Iraqis in great danger – especially those belonging to the LGBTIQ+ community.”
The Middle East is a region known for its complex history and political turbulence. Warfare and hostility have engulfed this part of the world for (arguably) most of our lifetimes. More specifically, the recent political struggles of Iraq have introduced even more disorder, instability and destruction – something that serves only to perpetuate these aforementioned understandings. While this conflict has brought disharmony to a great number of Iraq’s inhabitants, it is within the country’s LGBTIQ+ community that a particularly unique struggle has unfolded.
As a nation whose traditional norms and religious values surround an extremely strict, anti-homosexual sentiment, homophobia appears to be deeply rooted into Iraq’s societal core. Iraq’s queer community have been subject to years of oppression, creating an environment that leaves many in constant fear of their lives. These conditions are not new, nor are they an age-old myth. They continue to persist into the present day. The experience of being an LGBTIQ+ person in Iraq is one that is predominantly dominated by feelings of fear, trepidation and alienation from society around them as they battle to hide the truth behind their sexuality or gender identity.
But one man is fighting to change all of this. Amir Ashour is the founding member of IraQueer, an organisation now ten months old. 25-year-old Amir is a native Iraqi who works remotely from Sweden as a One Young World ambassador and speaker. He tells IPF about how the US invasion had a strong impact on the lives of LGBTIQ+ people living in Iraq – and how it created more dangerous conditions for the community. He explained: “People used to be able to be part of a relatively safe, underground scene, but the US invasion in 2003 and the fact that there is no true leadership in Iraq puts all Iraqis in great danger – especially those belonging to the LGBTIQ+ community.”
“Armed militias have targeted the queer community in systematic and organised annual killing campaigns every year since 2006. The Iraqi government is also playing a vital role in promoting hate and violence against the LGBTIQ+ community.”
And that is just the beginning of the struggles Iraq’s LGBTIQ+ community are forced to endure. The growth of the Islamic State in the region means that Iraq’s queer community now face an entirely new range of challenges; challenges that are more sinister and life threatening than ever before.
With a political system already displaced as a result of US intervention, Amir spoke of how the Islamic State gave the Iraqi government a reason to “overlook” the LGBTIQ+ situation in the country and the plight that the community is facing.
“More space has been provided to other local armed groups who wish to target the queer community and the Iraqi government are now using the excuse of ‘fighting terrorism’ as a means of violating the human rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, shown through the latest periodic report submitted by the government that now clearly states that homosexual acts are illegal.”
In response to the hostility towards LGBTIQ+ people, IraQueer was set up by Amir as the first of its kind in providing sanctuary, counselling and support to those who fall victim to these harsh circumstances. The charity’s activity in the area has already begun to create a sense of hope and security for many who used to believe that none would ever come.
Amir explained that IraQueer started with the simple concept of publishing personal stories of real people who chose to highlight the violations they faced as a member of the LGBTIQ+ community in Iraq. They then went on to write a shadow report to the United Nations, highlighting the Iraqi government’s violations of human rights towards the country’s homosexual people. Support for the organisation is growing every day and the presence of such a group in the country has already reached an incredible new milestone for the people of Iraq.
“A number of gay people have directly told us that they are simply happy that they are being represented and have people to talk to. This is compared to eleven months ago when they thought they were the only gay people in the country. And those people they did know were gay could not be trusted easily due to the fact that everyone is hiding in fear that they could be exposed and lose everything they have.”
Amir explained that IraQueer had now become a group that was openly talking about gay rights and advocating for them, allowing the country’s LGBTIQ+ population to feel like they could relate to others who were in the same position as them and allow them to feel like part of a community. This puts the simple acts of “discussion” and “advocacy” at the centre of the IraQueer mission.
However, Amir explained that their work was not exactly the safest kind to be doing in Iraq. He notes that talking publically about the queer community could bring a death sentence and in instances where they were able to get away with it, discussing these issues was far from the social norm in Iraq. He said that people preferred to focus on human rights issues concerning other minorities or groups, making the gay community in Iraq feel further isolated and distanced from society.
“The idea of human rights for the LGBTIQ+ community goes against almost everything people know in Iraq. But for us, growing up in an environment where a lot of people are working on human rights for children, women, displaced people, disabled people and other groups made us feel like we’re the only group whose existence isn’t recognised by anybody. If we don’t talk about our own rights, then who will?”
So what needs to be done? Amir stressed that Iraq’s gay community needs urgent protection from the government. However, he said that in order for that to happen they first needed support and protection from the international community. He said that they needed to be able to raise awareness about sexuality and gender identity without the risk of being thrown into jail and that only the international community could help make this a reality. He urged people across the world to talk about their work and tell their friends, family, and co-workers in the hope that the message of solidarity would eventually reach the Iraqi government.
With all of this insight, it seems most important to wonder: Where will IraQueer go from here?
These are still very early times for the organisation, and there is still much work to be done. However, by continuing efforts to spread word of their mission and create more awareness, IraQueer might soon become visible on the international spectrum in ways that could bring significant levels of positive change for the LGBTIQ+ people in Iraq.
Amir explained that IraQueer are now finalising the process of becoming an officially recognised organisation, after which they hope to start providing training for different groups on sexuality and gender identity. The ambitious young man said that they would continue to explore ways to increase safety and protection for LGBTIQ+ people in the country, as well as for those LGBTIQ+ Iraqis who are seeking asylum in other parts of the world. At the core of the organisation, they hope to continue raising awareness on an international scale.
“Our main focus will be to raise the issue on the international area and push governments, UN agencies and other influential bodies to put pressure on the Iraqi government and put a stop to the killings and death threats the queer community is facing on a daily basis in the country.”