Iraqi gays hunted: A war against effeminacy, during an ‘emasculating occupation’

Human Rights Watch held a press conference yesterday in Beirut to accompany the release of its report on “Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq.” The report entitled “They Want Us Exterminated” details the campaign-- allegedly by the Mahdi army, but also in collusion with ministry of interior security forces and other armed elements—-against Iraqis suspected of homosexual conduct, but also against men deemed effeminate and “unmanly.”
Iraq persecution of gays

BEIRUT, August 18, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) LGBT director, Scott Long, solemnly read excerpts from an Iraqi man’s testimony—detailing how masked gunmen kidnapped his partner of 10 years from his family home. “He was found in the neighborhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out. Since then, I’ve been unable to speak properly,” the man, whose name had been changed to protect him, had told HRW.

In April, HRW researchers traveled to Iraq and interviewed some 50 gay men—either in person or over the telephone and Internet, as well as doctors, hospital workers and officials, who testified to the systematic torture and murder campaign that—according to an Iraqi NGO—has in the last few months killed hundreds of Iraqi men. The killings occurred mostly in the areas of Baghdad controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr's followers, but also in Najaf, Kirkuk and Basra, with men being seized from their homes by masked gunmen, their mutilated bodies later dumped in the garbage or hung in the streets, with homophobic slurs and threats attached to their corpses. “Bodies—castrated, broken, tortured—become billboards, on which punishment is less imposed than inscribed,” the report reads. A doctor also testified that the names of men suspected of homosexual activity had been written on walls in Sadr city. Some of the torture and killing has been filmed and uploaded on the Internet or transmitted virally via cell phones.

According to HRW, men who congregate in cafes and bath houses known to be gay hangouts, or use social networking to meet other men, have been entrapped by militiamen, who then extract confessions as well as the names of other men through torture, and then hunt down their victims’ friends and acquaintances.

Many of the men interviewed by HRW had survived torture, gang rape, death threats and had lost their partners and friends. Nuri, the 21-year old proprietor of a Baghdad “safe house” for men who had been threatened with violence because they were “effeminate," was imprisoned and tortured for 25 days in the Ministry of Interior, as well as gang-raped, only to be released when he paid a bribe with money wired by a London-based Iraqi LGBT group to secure his freedom. Other men had fled their homes after receiving bullets in the mail or text messages and phone calls with threats.

Killings increased and systematic

Many of the men who spoke to HRW said that the ebb in violence during the last two years had allowed gay men greater visibility. A military officer also said that “gay men, especially effeminate ones, started going out to cafes in groups and being obviously gay” since 2006.

“Technology helped spread the panic over ‘effeminate men,’” HRW concludes. Videos of a gay party during the summer of 2008 in Baghdad, where lots of dancing and drag took place, was filmed and subsequently circulated all around Baghdad. This incident in particular may have been especially virulent in their effects.”

Iraqi press and religious figures inciting to violence

According to HRW, the media and sermons in mosques have been inciting violence by warning of a “wave of effeminacy among Iraqi men.” Unmanly men are referred to as “puppies” by shadowy militias like Ahl al Haq (“The people of the truth”), who have claimed responsibility in the media for some of the murders. However, HRW’s research suggests that the Mahdi Army is primarily responsible for the killings, and is conducting a morality campaign in a bid to rehabilitate itself by “appearing as an agent of social cleansing.” The Mahdi army was weakened by a wave of arrests of its members during the US-led surge, and later released.

A Sadrist spokesman said in an interview in May 2009 that the militia was holding ongoing public meetings to “fight the depravity and urge the community to reject” homosexual conduct. He also added that “al-Sadr rejects” violence against homosexuals. Another Sadrist leader, however, ordained that they “must correct the morals of the nation.” Ayatollah Sistani allegedly also published a fatwa on his website in 2005, ruling that sodomy be punished by “the worst kind of death.” The fatwa disappeared in 2006 from his website.

Some newspapers have also implicitly applauded the killing, with one article in Al Sabah warning, “The legacy of inherited beliefs regarding manhood and morality that characterize the Iraqi people must be transmitted. These ideals go against the feminization of boys and the practice of [men] applying makeup, which have spread among many Iraqi youth, eliciting disgust.”

According to the 1969 Iraqi penal code, homosexual activity is not criminalized; rather non-consensual sex – hetero- and homosexual—is forbidden.  But HRW contends that many policemen don’t know the law, wouldn’t enforce it anyway, and have been involved with the beating of “effeminate” men or even colluding with militia violence. They are often also involved with torturing and extorting suspected gay men. HRW emphasized the collusion between the US-trained Iraqi security forces and the militias, as well as the government’s downplaying of the targeted killings and its refusal to investigate both the murder of Iraqis for homosexual conduct and to act against officials in key ministries who have militia ties.

Gender violence, morality campaigns

HRW’s Rasha Moumneh stressed that the hunting of gay or effeminate men should be viewed as part of a trend of gender violence in occupied Iraq. Fear of feminized men, Moumneh said, a result of “moral panic,” is an extension of violence against women, whose “purity” is viewed as the guardianship of tradition, particularly during periods of upheaval, such as the “emasculating occupation” of Iraq by US troops. Gay or effeminate men also were at risk of family violence, the report explained, relating this to the “renascence of tribalism” since the Saddam regime’s crisis years in the 1990s, when western sanctions compelled “much of the population to rely on blood connections for subsistence, patronage, and protection.” This was only exasperated by the 2003 occupation and ensuing sectarian strife.

US obligations unfulfulled

Indeed, HRW concluded, the campaign against “unmanly” men called into question the success of the US-led surge. Scott Long also said that the US maintains a “substantial obligation” for what is happening, and that US forces must effectively train Iraqi troops and cease arbitrary detentions of suspected militiamen, which actively contributes to militia violence. Militiamen were given no assistance after their release from detention, thus encouraging a return to violence. Long also tied the spate of killings to the US’ failure to meet its obligations to Iraqi refugees, having given asylum only to some 20,000 refugees since the 2003 invasion.

LGBT Iraqi refugees are particularly vulnerable, HRW underscored. Even when they manage to flee to neighboring countries they remain in danger and must be provided with rapid resettlement to safe countries.