Iraq. Queer. It’s not until you see the words next to each other that you realise: they want to meet. The Q – ending one word, starting the other off – connects them, turns them into a compound noun. IraQueer.
But there are more than linguistic reasons for the two to meet. Iraq is home to 35 million people: many among them, like in any country, do not identify as straight or fit into society’s heteronormativity. Iraq is their home, and should be their safe place too. Yet, it’s not. People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer or intersex are facing targeted threats, oppression and killings – in addition to the hardships shared among all Iraqis who have lived through sanctions, war and today’s conflict.
Militias have been running killing campaigns in Iraq at least since 2006 – that’s how long back we have managed to find evidence.
Since a few months back, there’s a new space for the queer community. IraQueer, a website in Kurdish, Arabic and English launched in March, is the online result of a long period of offline community work. The founder, Amir Ashour, worked for several years with rights-based trainings and community support in Iraq: first with women’s organisations, then most recently with sex workers and victims of trafficking and honour crimes. He no longer lives in the country – the work he did eventually made it too unsafe. But moving also made an occasion for him to launch IraQueer.
“It started when I worked with a brilliant partner organisation in Iraq on feminist issues and the rights of women. The work we did was really important, but it also had me realise the need for specific work for the LGBTIQ+ community. It’s not an easy thing to work with, because the security situation is so bad. People get detained and killed, and cannot trust each other.”
The government, says Amir Ashour, cannot target people publicly – they depend on international donors who have LGBTIQ+ rights on their agenda. But they are still involved, indirectly. Openly, it’s the militias, different locally based groups who follow religious leaders and the fatwas they issue, that are behind many of the assaults.
“The recent killings we’ve seen by ISIS and other groups, it’s not something that suddenly appeared in the past two years. Militias have been running killing campaigns in Iraq at least since 2006 – that’s how long back we have managed to find evidence. Some of the militias have even openly announced their partnership with the government, which gives them enough space to do whatever they want.”
This idea of ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am straight’ can never fully describe us as human beings … everyone is as natural and normal as anyone else.
There were at least two targeted campaigns during the past year only, in July 2014 and January 2015. The number of deaths during this year’s killings is not yet known, says Amir Ashour, but in July last year at least 35 people were killed. In 2012, around 200. And these are only the figures that are reported – no one knows the real numbers.
“They attack people who don’t fit into their idea of what a standard man is. It can be people wearing skinny jeans or a purple hat. Almost each time there’s such a killing, we know that the person is gay. The emo killings in 2011 and 2012 also – essentially it was about killing queer people but the militias didn’t have the term ‘gay’ so they called them worshippers of the devil.”
Amir Ashour continues to describe how the militias work: they release a list of names that one day hangs on a wall in Baghdad. If your name is on that list, either you ‘change’ or your family is asked to take care of it – or you will be killed. The campaigns differ from each other: one time they use gas bottles to slash people’s heads, another time bricks. Or, people get thrown off of buildings, which is not a new thing in Iraq, says Amir Ashour.
“Back then it wasn’t as media-sexy as now when ISIS is doing it. And they were probably not aware of social media’s impact or had the skills. What’s surprising though is the lack of interest of other media, both Iraqi and international. We have been documenting what’s happened and released reports, but there has been almost no reactions.”
In that sense, IraQueer can play an important role. Even though the impact of a community-based platform cannot match that of large media outlets, it can still be a space to share information, knowledge and support. The purpose, says Amir Ashour, is both to raise awareness and connect the community.
“It’s a place for people to share their own stories, both successes and violations that they face. Stories written by people themselves. We translate them – whatever language you write in, we translate into Arabic, Kurdish and English. There’s a blog with both analysis and commentary, and there’s a section with facts and information. What is homosexuality, what does international human rights law say and how can Iraqi laws be used to protect people. There’s a law for instance saying that people’s homes are private and cannot be entered without permission – still, this is where almost all killings are happening.”
IraQueer also has a section on norms and attitudes, and how they get shaped by mainstream ideas in society. There’s an image of a mosque embraced by the rays of the rainbow; another with the Christian cross against a mosaic of different colours. 14 people are involved in IraQueer as of now – 11 of them live in Iraq, three in other countries. It’s the first time in Iraqi queer history, at least publicly, that people come together like this. For Amir Ashour and the others, there’s a sense that what they do – regardless the ongoing repression against the community – can have a decisive impact on people’s lives.
There’s a law for instance saying that people’s homes are private and cannot be entered without permission – still, this is where almost all killings are happening.
“It may sound cliché but when you wake up in the morning and have one thing on your mind, you know that what you do is important. I had been working with this for a while and had access to a lot of resources. With that comes responsibility. So far, what we’ve seen is giving me a lot of hope. The fact that people are talking and getting together. It’s 2015 now, it’s not the age of borders any more. We are not separate, we are all one community – whether people want it or not, they are connected. Everyone has a responsibility to talk about violations when they happen, be it in Iraq or elsewhere.”
The idea to bring information and ideas which have had little or no space so far in Iraqi public debate is only part of IraQueer’s pursuit. The platform doesn’t want to change one mindset for another, but start a dialogue. Amir Ashour says that his job with different exposed communities in Iraq, and trainings relating to sexuality and gender, helped him think clearer – and realise that identity is not something that can be easily confined, or even understood.
“For example, this idea of ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am straight’ can never fully describe us as human beings. Some like tall people, others like short people. This idea of ‘coming out’, that’s a consequence of the norm saying that people are straight. But everyone is as natural and normal as anyone else. So why treat some people’s sexuality as different, something they must ‘come out’ with.”
In the end, says Amir Ashour, it’s about human rights. You can work with the rights of children without being a kid, or women’s rights without being a cis-woman. It’s called human rights because it’s rights for everyone.
He ends with reading a letter from one of the members in Iraq, the author of a story that was shared on IraQueer’s blog. She writes: “the sun does not shine where I am nor does the moon rise, for we lack freedom and love is forbidden”. Then, in her message to Amir Ashour, she says that telling that story changed her life – she had never been so frank to anyone, including herself.