In the Arab countries, homosexuality is viewed with disapproval by both society and the law.
In Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Mauritania, sodomy is punishable by death – though no executions have been reported during the last decade. In Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia and Syria the penalty is imprisonment – up to 10 years in the case of Bahrain. In countries which have no specific law against homosexuality, gay people may be prosecuted under other laws. In Egypt, for example, an old law against "debauchery" is often used.
These laws have a catastrophic effect on the lives of people who are unlucky enough to get caught but, despite occasional crackdowns, the authorities do not, on the whole, actively seek out gay people to arrest them. Some of the most brutal Arab regimes (Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under the Assads, for example) showed little interest in persecuting gay people – probably because they were more concerned with political threats to their rule.
Crackdowns can occur when regimes feel a need to demonstrate "moral" or religious credentials but large numbers of arrests also risk undermining the official fiction that homosexuality is largely a western phenomenon and doesn't exist to any great extent in the Arab countries.
When arrests do occur they often involve groups of men at parties (sometimes described as gay "weddings") and occasionally at hammams (bath houses). Individuals or couples accused of having unlawful sex may be arrested for a variety of reasons, including some which initially are unrelated to homosexuality. There are also reported cases where people suspected of being gay have been arrested by police seeking to elicit bribes or turn the suspects into informers.
In practice, laws against homosexuality don't serve as much of a deterrent and for the vast majority of Arabs who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender the attitudes of society are a much bigger problem.
In general, Arab society places a high value on conformity and expressions of individuality are frowned upon; there is a strong emphasis on upholding social "norms" and keeping up appearances – in public if not necessarily in private.
Arab society also remains very patriarchal, with strongly defined roles for men and women. Gay men, especially those who show feminine traits, may thus be regarded as challenging the social order. In general, there is less awareness of lesbian activity – probably because in a male-orientated society men don't pay it much attention or don't regard it as very significant. "Traditional" ideas about gender roles cause particular problems for transgender people, especially in the Gulf states where segregation of the sexes is more strictly enforced (see separate section).
The pressure to marry is much greater in the Arab countries than in most western countries. Not being married is often equated with social disaster and once young people have completed their studies organising their marriage becomes a priority for the family. The more traditional kinds of family take on the task of finding them a partner; arranged marriages are still very common.
For those who are not attracted to the opposite sex, this presents a major problem. Some manage to postpone the issue by prolonging their studies and/or going abroad. Some give in to the pressure and accept a marriage for which they are ill-suited. A few of the more fortunate ones find a gay or lesbian partner of the opposite sex and enter a pretend marriage. Some bite the bullet and decide to come out.
How families respond to a coming-out depends on several factors, including social class and their level of education. In the more extreme cases, coming out results in the person being ostracised by their family or even physically attacked. A less harsh reaction is to seek a "cure" – either through religion or, in better-off families – through expensive but futile psychiatric treatment.
For a more detailed picture of the situation in individual countries see the archive of articles and news reports.
Organised activism for gay rights began to develop in the Middle East in the early 2000s. In 2002 a group of Palestinian women formed Aswat ("Voices") which was later joined by another Palestinian group, al-Qaws ("The Rainbow). Both of those are based in Israel but have connections in the Palestinian territories.
Around 2004 a group of Lebanese activists established Helem – the first LGBT organisation to function openly in an Arab country. "Helem", which means "dream" in Arabic, is an acronym forhimaya lubnaniya lil mithliyin ("Lebanese protection for gay people").
These are not the only activist groups. Others have sprung up in various places – often disappearing again fairly quickly. There are also Arab LGBT websites and blogs which, again, tend to come and go. My Kali, a Jordanian magazine which aims "to address homophobia and transphobia and empower the youth to defy mainstream gender binaries in the Arab world" has been published regularly since 2007.
Non-governmental organisations working in Arab countries often face government restrictions, and those working for LGBT rights face the additional problem of social stigma. Some groups therefore approach the issue more obliquely, for example by focusing on sexual health and HIV prevention, or campaigning for "personal rights" in general. For similar reasons there has been no attempt so far to hold a Pride parade in an Arab country, though there are usually a few annual activities linked to IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Aside from organised activism, the development of social media has allowed individual Arabs to speak out on LGBT issues – sometimes in quite large numbers. One example of this was the hostile reaction from social media users to a televised police raid on a bath house in Egypt in 2014. Another, in 2016, was the furore over Jordan's banning of a concert by Mashrou' Leila, a popular Lebanese rock band with an openly gay singer.
- Positive terminology
Suggested Arabic equivalents for "gay", "bisexual", etc. (Bint el Nas)
About This Man Called Ali: The Purple Life of an Arab Artist
By Amal Ghandour. A biography of the murdered Syrian-Jordanian artist Ali al-Jabri, from his diaries, his letters, and interviews with people he knew and met. Reviewed in Newsweek, 22 April 2009. Available from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.
By Saleem Haddad. The story of a young gay man coming of age in the Middle East.
The Bride of Amman
By Fadi Zaghmout. A sharp-eyed look at the intersecting lives of four women and one gay man in Jordan. Probably the first Arab novel to explore a marriage between a straight woman and a man who is secretly gay.
The Yacoubian Building
By Alaa Al Aswani. The book portrays the ills of Egypt through the lives of people living in a Cairo apartment block. Its characters include a gay newspaper editor and his lover, a young policeman.
Presence of the Absent Man
By Alia Mamdouh. Short story about lesbian encounter in a street market. Published in a collection of Arab short stories: Under the Naked Sky. Mamdouh's novel, Mothballs – also known in English as Naphtalene – includes a lesbian scene between the narrator’s two aunts.
By Ammar Abdulhamid. Includes a lesbian relationship involving two Syrian women. The book was written in English and has not been published in Arabic.
Women of Sand and Myrrh
By Hanan al-Shayk. Four women struggling against a patriarchal order. One of them embarks on a relationship with another woman while insisting that this is only temporary and her real attraction is towards men.
Ana Hiya Anti
By Elham Mansour. Possibly the only Arabic novel that portrays lesbianism in its own right, rather than in feminist terms as a substitute for unsatisfactory relationships with men. (Not available in English.)
For Bread Alone
Mohamed Choukri’s fictionalised autobiography includes an episode where the impoverished young Moroccan narrator has oral sex in a car with an elderly Spaniard for payment of 50 pesetas. The incident is described in extremely crude terms obviously calculated to disgust.
By Rabih Alameddine. A book full of sex and black humour which cross-cuts between the Lebanese civil war and the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The author is from a Lebanese family but lives in the US and writes in English.
Homosexuality in the early novels of Nageeb Mahfouz
An article by Nabil Matar, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 26 (4), 1994. (Reprints available here.)
Salvation Army (2013)
In Casablanca, a gay teenager tries to build a life within his large family while dealing with his authoritarian mother and older brother. Based on the novel of the same name, by Abdellah Taia.
Films by Youssef Chahine
Egyptian director Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) depicted homosexuality in a positive, matter-of-fact way in several of his films, including An Egyptian Fairy Tale (“Hadduta Misriyya”, 1982) and Alexandria, Why? (“Iskindiriyya Leeh?”, 1978). Other films allude to it indirectly, for example Alexandria Again and Again (“Iskindiriyya Kaman wi Kaman”, 1989).
Unlocking the Arab celluloid closet
An article by Garay Menicucci on homosexuality in Egyptian film. (MERIP, Issue 206).
The Beirut Apartment (2007)
A film project about gay/lesbian life in Lebanon. Scheduled for relase in 2007.
A Jihad for Love (2007)
"Filmed in twelve different countries and in nine languages, A Jihad for Love is the first-ever feature-length documentary to explore the complex global intersections of Islam and homosexuality." See also director's blog and Wikipedia.
Toul Omri ("All My Life", 2008)
For Rami, all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, as long as he keeps to himself. But when his longtime lover leaves him to marry a woman and his best friends drift away, he comes face to face with the harsh realities of life as a gay man in Egypt. Against the backdrop of the choreographed crackdown on gay men and the notorious Queen Boat arrests of 2001, he plunges into a world of loveless friendships and spirals downwards to his ultimate downfall.
The Yacoubian Building (2006)
Film version of the popular novel by Alaa el Aswani.
I Exist: Voices From the Lesbian and Gay Middle Eastern Community in the US (2003)
Documentary exploring the lives of lesbian and gay people from Middle Eastern cultures living in the United States.
Story of a close friendship between two Arab male prostitutes in Tel Aviv.
Yousri Nasrallah’s film features a protagonist who has a gay brother with a lover, and also a drug-addicted lesbian aunt. See Nasrallah's interview with L’Humanité, December 5, 2001 (in French).
Directed by Nouri Bouzid. A sex-with-foreigners tale – in this case gigolos who sell their bodies to tourists of either gender. It is not really a film about homosexuality; its basic theme is cultural schizophrenia among young Arabs torn between east and west, between tradition and modernity.
Man of Ashes (“Rih al-Sadd”, 1986)
Directed by Nouri Bouzid. A sensitive and ground-breaking portrait of young Tunisian men grappling with doubts about their masculinity, but the film is spoiled by blaming their identity crisis on a carpenter who sexually abused them as children.
The Malatili Bath (“Hamam al-Malatili”, 1973)
Directed by Salah Abu Saif. A homeless young man takes shelter in a bath house and meets a gay artist. The film, which is shockingly homoerotic by Egyptian standards, makes a plea for sexual tolerance which does not entirely succeed.
During the last half-century or so, the idea that religion forbids homosexuality has been questioned by large numbers of Christians and Jews. More recently, a similar process has begun in Islam though as yet it has not got very far.
Outside the Middle East, however, there are several openly gay imams and in 2010 a book by Scott Siraj-al Haqq Kugle,Homosexuality in Islam, challenged conventional Islamic teaching on the issue. Kugle argued that there is no indisputable condemnation of homosexuality in the Qur'an and that the Prophet Muhammad never specified any punishment for it. The Qur'an also talks rather cryptically of men who "have no need of women".
Islamic scholars who condemn homosexuality rely heavily on thehadith – sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet – which may or may not be authentic. As far as the Qur'an is concerned, they rely almost entirely on the story of Lut (the biblical Lot, of Sodom and Gomorrah fame). The basic ingredients of this story are the same in both the Bible and the Qur'an. Islamic scholars, almost universally, interpret it as a story about God punishing homosexuality. Christians and Jews held a similar view in the past, though nowadays many interpret the sexual element of the story as referring to male rape rather than consensual sex between people who happen to be of the same gender.
British Muslims and homosexuality: good news or bad?
Survey suggests attitudes are changing, but slowly. al-bab, 15 April 2016
New ISIS execution for “sodomy”: Attention, UN Security Council
Posted on 17 September 2015
New killings: ISIS answers the UN Security Council
25 August 2015
The UN Security Council debates gays and ISIS: Why this is a bad idea
By Scott Long, A Paper Bird, 23 August 2015
Islamic State's war on gays
Human Rights Watch, 8 June 2015
Muslim MPs back gay marriage
al-bab, 8 February 2013
Is there a doctor in the mosque?
The dubious medical advice of Dr Majid Katme, a respected figure in the British Muslim community, is placing lives at risk. Comment Is Free, May 11, 2007
The Muslim Council of Britain has begun to move towards accepting homosexuality, but it's a slow journey. Comment Is Free, May 1, 2007
Cape of Good Hope
Every Thursday evening Muhsin Hendricks gets together with a dozen or so companions to study the Quran. Muhsin is an Islamic scholar but also a very unusual one. He’s gay, and so are the other members of his study circle ... (GT magazine, May 2007.)
Signs of progress
An encouraging comment on my blog yesterday pointed towards a positive change in Muslim attitudes to gay rights. Comment Is Free, March 30, 2007
Sex and taboos in the Islamic world
by Amira El Ahl and Daniel Steinvorth (Spiegel magazine, 20 October 2006)
What's wrong with being gay and Muslim?
The Qur'anic verses usually cited as condemning homosexuality are by no means as clear or unequivocal as people imagine.Comment Is Free, May 5, 2006
Sodom and the Qur'an
By Raza Griffiths (Gay Times magazine, May 2000).