Behind the veil - lesbian lives in the Middle East

Lesbians in the Middle East lead a dangerous existence. Brian Whitaker explores how, against all odds, they manage to survive. (Article originally published in Diva magazine, July 2006.)

While it’s true that gay men have a tough time in most of the Middle East – recent murders by militias in Iraq and executions in Iran are proof of that – we hear far less about lesbians. In a macho society, where men run the show and women count for little, lesbians are almost invisible. 

Though homosexuality – both male and female – is generally a taboo subject in the Middle East, there is plenty of evidence that all-woman action is more common than people imagine, and much of it takes place under the noses of unsuspecting husbands. 

For married women, lesbian activity can be a safe way of adding spice to their sex life. The typical Arab husband jealously guards his wife from the attentions of other men, but the possibility that she might be having a fling with another woman hardly ever occurs to him. The wife, in turn, has no need to account to her husband for time spent with women. He will be satisfied just to know she is not spending her time with men. 

This invisibility has advantages and disadvantages, according to Laila, an Egyptian lesbian in her twenties. In the big cities of Egypt, two women living together as ‘flatmates’ would not arouse much curiosity, Laila said – though that would depend on their choice of district. Neighbours would first wonder if they were prostitutes and would probably quiz the bawwab, the doorman who watches all comings and goings in Egyptian blocks of flats. 

If satisfied on the prostitution front, neighbours might then imagine other explanations for the girls’ presence, such as quarrels with parents. ‘They would think of anything else but lesbianism,’ Laila said. She recalled how much one lesbian couple in Cairo had been adored by their landlady. ‘I wish all my tenants were like you,’ the landlady told them, suspecting nothing. 

Invisibility also brings isolation and loneliness, though. ‘We cannot find a specific way to meet and talk, not just to have sex,’ said Laila. ‘There are no lesbian organisations in Egypt, either for discussion or support. Heterosexuals and gay men have their pick-up points, but we don’t.’ 

One popular meeting place used to be a public bath – where women would go for hair removal by a traditional method known as halawa – though the authorities have now closed it down. 

As a result, younger women often use the internet to make contact but there is a lot of deception. The ‘lesbians’ supposedly seeking lovers often turn out to be men and Laila has learned to be careful when arranging meetings. She arrives early and stays some distance from the meeting place, keeping an eye on it to see who turns up. 

Work is another difficult area for lesbians in the Middle East. It goes almost without saying that any young woman who is not engaged or married will receive amorous attention from her boss. Giving him the brush-off by declaring a preference for women is a non-starter. ‘We don’t employ lesbians here,’ Laila was informed by one boss shortly before she walked out of her job. She had left several other office jobs for similar reasons. 

Coming out, or being found out, is where the problems really start for many Arab lesbians. 

‘My mother found out when I was fairly young, around 16 or 17, that I was interested in women, and she wasn’t happy about it,’ said Sahar, a lesbian from the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Her mother sent her to a psychiatrist – ‘a very homophobic therapist who suggested all manner of ridiculous things – shock therapy and so on’. 

Sahar thought it best to play along with her mother’s wishes – and ten years later, she still does. ‘I re-closeted myself and started going out with a guy,’ she said. ‘I’m 26 years old now and I shouldn’t have to be doing this but it’s just a matter of convenience, really. My mum doesn’t mind me having gay male friends but she doesn’t like me being with women. I’ve heard and seen much more extreme reactions. At least I wasn’t kicked out of the house.’ 

Violent family reactions are found particularly in the more traditional parts of the region where codes of family ‘honour’ apply and sexual ‘misbehaviour’ is thought to bring shame upon the entire household. This can result in brothers killing a sister if, for example, she becomes pregnant before marriage, in order to uphold the family’s name. At least two Arab lesbians are currently seeking asylum in the west, fearing they will become victims of an ‘honour’ killing if they return home. 

Though lesbian sex in the Middle East is mostly illegal, there is less evidence of official persecution than in the case of gay men. The possibility is still there, though. 

‘Punishment for lesbianism is one hundred lashes for each party,’ the Iranian penal code says. ‘If the act of lesbianism is repeated three times and punishment is enforced each time, [a] death sentence will be issued the fourth time.’ It adds that if two women who are not blood relations ‘stand naked under one cover without necessity’, they will be punished with up to 100 lashes. 

It is not known how many Iranian women have suffered this penalty. While the police in some countries, such as Egypt, have made determined efforts to track down gay men, lesbians seem to be prosecuted mainly if their sexual activity comes to light as a result of other investigations. 

In 2002 Lebanese police raided the home of a lesbian whose mother had filed a complaint accusing her of stealing the mother’s jewellery – and found her with another woman. 

‘According to judicial sources, the women, who were caught (in the act) confessed to having relations for several years and said they wished to be united in matrimony,’ a Beirut newspaper reported. ‘The sources said the two also sought to have a test-tube baby together, and affirmed … that they would join each other once released from jail.’ 
To prevent any further sexual activity while in prison, the public prosecutor gave special instructions to keep them in separate cells. 

In the heavily male-orientated societies of the Middle East, gay men are viewed as a threat because they undermine popular concepts of masculinity. Passive or effeminate men are particularly despised, since ‘behaving like a woman’ is regarded as a betrayal of manhood. 

This may explain why less attention is paid to lesbians, though there are also practical reasons. When police forces are exclusively – or almost exclusively – male, lesbianism is much more difficult to investigate. 

These attitudes are reflected in modern Arabic novels, where gay men are almost always portrayed negatively. Very few novels feature lesbian characters, and those that do are mostly by feminist writers who portray lesbian sex as a reaction to the inadequacies of men or a temporary alternative to straight sex. 

In one such story – Menstruation by the Syrian writer Ammar Abdulhamid – a married woman explains her many lesbian affairs with other married women: ‘It’s because they need a change, you see,’ she says. ‘Many of their men had the chance to fool around before marriage. But these women have only had the opportunity to do so after marriage.’ 

‘Since men usually brag about their affairs, the women decide it’s much safer to fool around with other women. Because even if women talk, and that doesn’t happen a lot in this sort of case, men don’t usually get the opportunity to listen in on such conversations.’ 

The trouble with this, according to Iman al-Ghafari, of Tishreen university in Syria, is that it turns lesbianism into ‘a political choice, a means of escaping relationships as decided and controlled by men,’ and fails to recognise that lesbians can exist in their own right. There is a difference, she says, ‘between lesbian desire that stems from the body and the one that stems from feminist politics’. 

Brian Whitaker is Middle East editor of The Guardian. His book, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, is published by Saqi Books, £14.99. Available from Libertas,