Islam and Homosexuality
Gay Middle East Web Site: Gay Middle East
More information about Islam & Homosexuality can be found at: www.al-fatiha.org
Other articles of interest can be found at: Al-Fatiha-News
Queer Muslim magazine: Huriyah
20 January 2006 – Reuters
Woman Shocks Saudi World with book ‘The Girls of Riyadh’
by Andrew Hammond
Riyadh – Gay teenagers, predatory lesbians, women drinking alcohol at weddings, husbands with unsavoury sexual demands. With characters like that, “The Girls of Riyadh” is not your run-of-the-mill depiction of life in Muslim Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most restricted and conservative societies.Though technically banned here, Rajaa al-Sanie’s frank and sometimes shocking insight into the closed world of Saudi women is making waves four months after its publication in Beirut.Local press commentators have asked the young Saudi to disown the book for besmirching women in the conservative kingdom and interviewers on Saudi-owned satellite channels have accused her of portraying its men as boorish bores.
But many young people using popular Internet chat rooms have praised Sanie’s debut novel for its honesty. Prominent writers have lauded the work as part of a new trend which, through focussing on the psychology of the individual, suggests that human needs come above the demands of society and religion. ” I never imagined the reactions will lead to a big stir,” said Sanie, who wears the Islamic headscarf. “Men are not used to this sincere and frank dialogue. There is a minority in any society that resists any change — some of them are women.”
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, follows the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam. Women must be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. Mixing of unmarried men and women is forbidden and women are banned from driving. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from “The Girls of Riyadh”. Minefield Of Taboos
The book centres on four women from affluent homes who must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men. Those who fail face rejection and, like many of Saudi Arabia’s moneyed elite, retreat to foreign capitals to lick their wounds in more liberal
surroundings. In one passage, one of the four girls returns from Los Angeles to find that “love in her country is treated like an out-of-place joke that you can have fun with for a while, before it’s removed from circulation by higher authorities”.
One girl allows herself to get close to a Shi’ite, despite urban myths that say members of this minority sect spit on food before offering it to Sunni Muslims. During a meeting in a cafe, the two are hauled off by the notorious Saudi moral police. “Poor Ali, he was a nice guy, to be honest. If only he hadn’t been Shi’ite, she could have loved him,” comments the novel’s narrator. In an early scene, women drink at a society wedding “since it deserved a bottle of Dom Perignon”. In another chapter, an effeminate teenager is beaten
by a father ashamed of his homosexuality.
And when one of the main characters closes her eyes and prepares herself for what is meant to be her first night of wedded bliss, she is shocked to find her husband “doing what she never imagined.” She hits him, and the marriage is over. The text is peppered with references to popular culture, including a song by a Saudi singer which gives the novel its title, as well as verses from the Koran, in what Sanie says is a reflection of the diverse influences on young people.
” Society lives some form of ‘paraphernalia’ and the conflict between traditions and modernity is the cause,” the twenty-something Sanie told Reuters. “The
reason for the double life is the fear of being rejected and stigmatised by society.” A land of stark contradictions, Saudi Arabia is a tribal society, swimming
in oil wealth and a key United States ally that produced 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers behind the September 11 attacks.
Sanie cites as an example the Internet, the latest of a series of modern inventions that have taxed hardline clerics who fear the disintegration of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic social model. Her narrator tells the story of her friends through fictive blog entries that provoke outraged reactions in a national cyber debate — exactly what happened when the novel came out.
“Saudi Arabia has witnessed in just 30 years technological and infrastructural change that took other societies a century or two to achieve,” Sanie said. ” It uses the latest technology, but continues to live with the habits and traditions of the previous century.”
Some Muslims argue that as the site of Islam’s holiest shrines, Saudi Arabia should remain apart from liberal trends elsewhere as a kind of Islamic Utopia where modern technology must be made to fit uncompromising rules of public morality. But many sense a new political climate since King Abdullah, a supporter of cautious reform, ascended the throne last year.
The king has made the promotion of women in society a priority for the country’s economic development but has said any changes will be in line with Islamic principles. Sanie says getting more women into the workplace will be key to social change. Saudi men prefer to marry teachers since their income reflects on the income of the family, she said. “This financial independence empowers Saudi women to express courageously their views in any dialogue.”
Book Review by Khaled Diab
‘Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East’ by Brian Whitaker
Five years after the tide turned against homosexuals in Egypt with the infamous Queen Boat trial, a book delving into the underground and taboo world occupied by gays and lesbians in the Middle East has just been published.
Review by Khaled Diab
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the infamous Queen Boat affair in which dozens of homosexual men were rounded up during a raid on a floating Cairo nightclub popular with gays. Inspired by these events Unspeakable love: gay and lesbian life in the Middle East (http://www.al-bab.com/unspeakablelove/) delves into the underground, taboo-ridden world occupied by gays and lesbians in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.
Brian Whitaker, veteran Middle East correspondent at the liberal UK daily The Guardian, also examines the pervasive culture of denial surrounding the issue, the sometimes grave consequences of not living the lie and the need to view homosexuality in a wider socio-economic and political context.
Although private attitudes can be quite permissive, homosexuality is rarely broached in the public domain. “In the Middle East, homosexuality is possibly the most sensitive and controversial topic anyone can write about (at least if you’re not attacking it), so the thought of doing a whole book on it was pretty scary at first,” Whitaker told me. “It would [have been] better if the book [had come] from an Arab writer but there wasn’t much prospect of that. If it was going to be left to a foreigner to say these uncomfortable things I thought I was at least a foreigner with a reasonable chance of being listened to.”
Queen boats and sinking ships
The Queen Boat trial and subsequent crackdown came as a shock to many open-minded Egyptians, particularly as there is no law specifically criminalising homosexuality in Egypt. But too many have allowed themselves to be morally bullied into silence.
Around the time of the Queen Boat trial, for instance, the Egyptian pound’s ‘controlled floatation’ was threatening to spin out of control, foreign reserves were strained, the stock exchange was in the doldrums, and joblessness was high.
The government is also desperate to beat the Islamists at their own game. “To counter this ascending [Islamist] power, the state resorts to sensational prosecutions, in which the regime steps in to protect Islam from ‘evil apostates’,” argues Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
A peek inside the closet
According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, of the 81 countries outlawing same-sex acts, 36 belong to the Arab League and/or the Islamic Conference Organisation. That also means that the problem is not exclusively a Muslim/Arab one, as 45 countries from other parts of the world also outlaw homosexuality.
Whitaker’s book focuses mainly on three very different countries – Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – to highlight the diversity and complexity of the situation. Egypt does not outlaw homosexuality, but is in the throes of a crackdown. Lebanon does outlaw it, but a more tolerant counterculture is emerging. Saudi Arabia threatens homosexuals with the death penalty, yet has a vibrant underground gay scene.
The book provides insight into the lives of ordinary gays and lesbians in Arab countries and Iran. Ali, a Lebanese teenager, fled his family home after he had been hit with a chair so hard it broke, confined to the house for five days, locked in the boot of a car, and threatened with a gun for wearing his sister’s clothes. “A point made repeatedly by young gay Arabs in\ interviews was that parental ignorance is a large part of the problem,” the book explains.
Gaith, a Syrian fashion designer who fled his family to Beirut, was sent to countless therapists in a bid to ‘cure’ him of his condition. “I went to at least 25 different therapists and they were all really, really bad. Really bad,” he recalled. “They did all sorts of medical tests, like hormones and things, and they always made you masturbate into this little container.”
Laila, an Egyptian lesbian, had a gentler family experience. Her mother once asked her if she “really liked women”, and seemed relatively unperturbed by her daughter’s expressed preference. Laila, herself, has two possible explanations for the generally more relaxed attitude towards lesbians: girls are less important to an Arab family’s social standing and some more cynical parents will secretly be relieved that their daughter’s predilection for her own sex will ensure she doesn’t lose her ‘virginity’ before reaching a marriageable age.
“ Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet,” writes Iman al-Ghafari, a Syrian university professor, in an essay entitled Is there a lesbian identity in the Arab culture?
Reading the painful experiences of all these Arab gays and lesbians I was left wishing that Whitaker had included a positive ‘coming out’ to provide some relief and lessen the sense of despair.
Under the shadow of the gallows
From a legal point of view, Saudi Arabia and Iran – where executions of homosexuals actually occur – are probably the most sexually repressive countries in the Middle East. Iran is particularly willing to follow the letter of the law and has executed numerous men in recent years, including two probable minors in the summer of 2005.
But Saudi homosexuals do not seem to lose much sleep over the prospect of the death penalty. “Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated,” one gay Saudi, rolling his eyes, told OutUK, a gay magazine. “I mean, it’s well known there are several members of the royal family who are gay. No one’s chopping their heads off.”
In fact, scratch beneath the surface in Saudi, and a thriving gay party scene in private homes emerges. “In Saudi Arabia, denial is almost an institution,” Whitaker’s book asserts. “It suits the authorities to deny that homosexual activity exists in the kingdom to any significant extent, and it suits gay Saudis… to assist that denial by keeping a low profile.”
The book warns against the dangers of this “social dualism”, which manifests itself as a “living lie where pretence and hypocrisy take over”.
In strictly segregated Saudi society, in many ways, it is actually easier to be gay than heterosexual. It is an Arab norm for straight men and women to walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm down the street as a sign of good friendship, and hugging and kissing an old friend of the same gender on the cheek is a normal way of expressing affection. Additionally, in Saudi, there are infinitely more opportunities to meet people of your own sex and same-sex social gatherings tend to go unnoticed.
Large segments of the Arabic-language media – following the lead of conservative religious voices – often portray homosexuality, if they do at all, as a repulsive import from a decadent and overly permissive Western culture.
“ Depicting homosexuality as ‘something that foreigners do’ is a familiar practice in cultures where it is considered morally or socially unacceptable,” the book observes. For instance, the celebrated 19th century British diplomat and orientalist Richard Burton came up, in 1885, with what he termed a ‘Sotadic Zone’ where, he claimed, homosexuality was more prevalent than in other parts of the world. The globe’s homo-erogenous zone supposedly covered most of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, stretching all the way to the Punjab and Kashmir.
As with other great orientalist thinkers, many of Burton’s ideas reflected hang-ups closer to home. Despite the imperial haughtiness of his theory, he seemed to be trying to change English homophobia by showing that homosexuality was considered natural in many parts of the world.
However, little changed and, a decade later, Victorian England’s greatest playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde, was forced to mount his famous defence of the ‘love that dares not speak its name’. In front of a packed courthouse, he described the love between an older and younger man as a “deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is beautiful, it is fine… There is nothing unnatural about it.”
Despite his eloquence, he could not convince the court to accept his homosexuality and he was imprisoned for two years with hard labour. It took British society until 1967 before it partially decriminalised homosexual acts in 1967.
People who dismiss homosexuality as little more than an import have obviously not read much classical Arabic or Muslim poetry or literature. Around 1,200 years before the ‘summer of 1968’ sexual revolution, Abu Nawas – the court laureate of the celebrated caliph, Harun al-Rashid – penned hundreds of homoerotic poems.
In fact, Abu Nawas’s homoerotic (muthakkirat) and wine (khamariyyat) poetry was, according to academic sources, in free circulation across the Arab world until the early 20th century when the first censored edition of his verse was published in Cairo in 1932.
The book puts this ‘blame the foreigner syndrome’ down to reverse orientalism: “Today, Arab portrayals of homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon can be attributed, at least in part, to a reversal of old-fashioned western orientalism.”
However, the underlying causes are very different. Whereas 18th and 19th century western orientalism, as Edward Said maintained in his seminal work on the subject, was an intellectual tool that was often, but not exclusively, used to build a better understanding of Europe’s new subject races, while demonising and dehumanising them sufficiently to justify their subjugation.
In my opinion, contemporary reverse orientalism is born out of a Muslim need to resist and withstand western scientific, cultural and economic dominance, as well as military and political hegemony. Some Muslims do this by constructing a false utopian ideal of a moral and cultural purity – which never existed – that will resuscitate Arab and Muslim glory. This bears a striking resemblance to the myth of a ‘pure’ and glorious Christendom that propelled the reconquista of Spain and Portugal, and the subsequent effacing of the multicultural character of Andalusia in the early modern period.
The modern Muslim awe and fear of the West has parallels with the medieval European view of Islam. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the ‘father of modern medicine’ – and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) – whose work on Aristotle reintroduced the Greek philosopher to Europe – occupied a special place in the Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy as ‘virtuous heathens’. Meanwhile, the prophet Mohamed and his cousin and son-in-law Ali dwelt, near Satan, in the eighth of the nine circles of hell. This highlights the respect and envy Europe, on the cusp of its Islamic-fuelled renaissance, held for Muslim science and technology, and the contempt it held for the religion itself.
The power of dogma
One major barrier to a broader acceptance of homosexuality is dogma. Whitaker’s book tackles the theological arguments in detail. He explores the thorny issue of whether Islam actually forbids gay love or whether social attitudes are the problem.
Sunni and shi’ite Islam’s five main mathaheb (schools of law) have widely divergent opinions on the legal treatment of homosexual acts. In addition, most Muslim countries do not rely exclusively on Islamic jurisprudence but draw on numerous secular sources in their body of law. More liberal Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt base much of their legal system on French law and the Belgian constitution served as a model for several Arab states. One negative example is the British introduction of anti-sodomy laws in what is now Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
Like some of their Christian and Jewish counterparts, certain Muslim scholars tend to focus on certain types of sexual acts, and not sexual orientation per se, frowning upon ‘sodomy’, since they regard it as a waste of sexual energy because it cannot end in procreation. Nevertheless, Islam has, since its inception, recognised the recreational side of sex. For instance, a woman is allowed to seek a divorce from her husband, if he does not satisfy her sexually. And medieval Muslim sex manuals described an array of inventive positions.
Many Islamic scholars who claim that the Quran forbids homosexuality refer to the story of the prophet Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, ‘sodomy’ – or ‘Lutiya’, as we call it in Arabic – is a huge misnomer, since God, according to the Old Testament, is angry at Sodom’s “pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness”. Likewise, the Quran does not spell out the nature of the crime committed by Lot’s people, save for their corruption and the rejection of the prophet God sent to them.
Even more dubiously, some scholars point to a Hadith (saying of the prophet) of questionable authenticity that men should not imitate women and vice-versa.
One foot out of the closet
‘ Coming out’ is only a partial experience for many Arab gays. One of the cases in the book, Hassan, leads a dual life as good son and gay crusader (or should one say mujahed?). He has kept his homosexuality secret from his wealthy Palestinian family in America for fear of hurting them. He is an active member of Al Fatiha, an organisation for gay and lesbian Muslims. Instead of coming out to his family, the gay campaigner plans to marry a Muslim lesbian from a respectable family when he hits 30.
To me, Hassan’s predicament represented one of the biggest barriers to reform in the Arab world. Even though he lives in a society which – at least legally – tolerates his sexuality, he still keeps one foot in the closet. Although close family ties are important to maintain, I believe that they cannot and should not be allowed to take precedence over everything else. “The sense of duty that Arabs in general feel towards other members of their family is extremely powerful. Gay or lesbian Arabs are no exception to this and often they are willing to put family loyalties before their own sexuality,” the book describes.
But, in my reckoning, family loyalties should cut both ways: a family has a duty to accept its members for who they are. If it can’t, then the individual has a right to distance him or herself from the family unit for everyone’s mutual happiness. But this is anathema to most Arabs – even rebels often leave their rebellion outside the front door. But change, like charity, begins at home. If one dares not try to convince one’s nearest and dearest to accept what she or he is, how can people hope to change the views of the rest of society?
The broader picture
Whitaker cautions against reading his book too narrowly. He regards the question of Arab attitudes towards homosexuality as one that is intimately connected to a plethora of socio-economic and political issues.
“ [Unspeakable love] is not primarily a book about sex,” he told me. “It discusses society, culture, religion, politics, reform and east-west conflicts.”
He, however, holds back – intentionally – from prescribing any concrete action. “The Americans have been busy prescribing agendas for change and look where that got them. It’s a matter for Arabs themselves to decide, according to local conditions.”
One potential model for change is the nascent gay lib movement in Lebanon. Helem (Dream), the Lebanese gay rights group, has aligned itself with other NGOs and reform-minded Lebanese to push for the modernisation of the penal code.
A culture of change
The cultural sector also has an important role to play in bringing the subject out of the closet, and certain trailblazers are already breaking the taboo and challenging prevailing social attitudes. Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian dentist-cum-author who has helped to give the popular Arab novel back its teeth, is one such controversial figure. One of the pivotal characters in his best-selling novel, Umaret Yaqubian (The Yacoubian Building), is a newspaper editor who is gay, Hatem Rashid.
Rashid is as flawed as the other characters in this grim and dour Dostoyevskyesque epic, and al-Aswany does make a couple of questionable sweeping generalisations about gays, but the refined, intelligent and capable journalist is treated sympathetically and portrayed as a normal human being.
“ I believe homosexuals in Egypt were always tolerated – probably not in the same way as in the west – but now I think this has changed,” Aswany noted in an interview with The Guardian. “I tried to portray the gay character as a human being, not as a particular case. That is something new.”
A big-budget film adaptation of The Yacoubian Building premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is due for general release soon.
At the end of the day, gay pride cannot be separated from the general struggle for human dignity. Ignorant attitudes are likely to prevail as long as poor education and illiteracy are still fairly rampant. Recognition of homosexuality in the Arab world is unlikely to come before a general acceptance of sexuality. In societies where the mainstream is sidelined by the system, respect of minorities is hardly likely to thrive.
August 17, 2006 – 365Gay.com
Saudis Reportedly Arrest 20 At ‘Gay Wedding‘
London – Saudi police are reported to have arrested 20 men at what officials say was a “gay wedding” in the town of Jizan. The arrests were reported in the Al Watan newspaper. International human rights groups are attempting to confirm the report. According to Al Watan 400 men were attending the event – some dressed as women.
Police detained 250 people, later releasing all but 20 of them the paper reports. It also says that some of those arrested were using the drug khat. Getting precise information out of Saudi Arabia is often a difficult procedure and accusations of homosexuality are frequently used to round up opponents of the government. Shari’a law, as interpreted and enforced in Saudi Arabia, allows sentences ranging from imprisonment and flogging to death for “deviant sexual behavior.”
In the past several years there have been a number of reported mass arrests at “gay weddings” in various parts of the country, but little official information has been released on the outcomes of trials. In April, 2005, 35 men were sentenced by a Saudi court to be flogged after they attended what has been described as a “gay wedding”. (story) Whether the sentence was ever carried out is unknown. A month earlier a gay couple was beaded in a public execution in the northern town of Arar, near the Iraq border.
The pair had been convicted of killing a blackmailer. If they had been exposed as gay they could have been executed anyway. In 2004 Saudi police raided another event described as a gay wedding party for two African men from Chad at a hotel in the holy city of Medina. About 50 people were arrested.
27, 2006 – Houston
Chronicle and the Associated Press
Saudi Arabia more open about AIDS
by Donna Abu-Nasr Associated Press , Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
The 35-year-old mother of six flinched when asked if she has told her children that she and her husband were diagnosed with AIDS four months ago. She never will, she said. “Can you imagine what their reaction will be? We’ll be treated like pariahs,” said Umm Muhammad, a Jiddah resident who declined to use her full name to protect her privacy. Saudi Arabia’s government has become more open about AIDS in recent years, publishing statistics about the number of infected Saudis, providing them with free medical care and urging compassion.
But in this deeply conservative kingdom, social stigma is still attached to the disease _ which most people link, correctly or not, to acts forbidden by their religion and sometimes punishable by death: premarital or gay sex and adultery. That complicates the job of health workers and activists who advocate spreading awareness about protective measures. How, they ask, can an activist educate people about safe sex in a culture that demands men and women abstain from premarital sex?
The dilemma is that many Saudis, mostly men, do have sex before marriage as well as extramarital affairs _ especially on trips to other countries, activists say. Some contract HIV and infect their wives. According to Health Ministry statistics, 78 percent of HIV/AIDS cases in the kingdom are a result of sexual contact.
“If we were to say ‘Use condoms’ to everybody, it’s like giving them carte blanche to go out and have sex,” said Rami al-Harithi, a 30-year-old activist who contracted HIV during a blood transfusion at age 8. Al-Harithi, from the holy city of Mecca, is one of the first Saudi HIV-positive patients to come out in the open and says people are sympathetic because of the way he got the disease.
He says he will speak frankly at a seminar or male high school students this week to mark World AIDS Day. “I will tell them, ‘You should abstain from sex. But if you travel and cannot hold yourself, there’s something called a condom that you should use,'” said al-Harithi. “I’m sure some people will be upset at this kind of language, but I don’t care,” he added. “My aim is to protect people.”
Many Saudis disagree with al-Harithi, saying recommendations for safe sex among married couples, such as one posted on the Health Ministry Web site, are as far as activists or the government should go. The site says: “There are simple and effective ways to protect against the disease and the most important one, which is more important than any vaccine that may one day be discovered, is clinging to moral, social and religious values that ban dangerous sexual conduct and that limit sex to marriage.”
Of 10,120 people who have tested HIV positive in the kingdom since the first case was identified here in 1984, 2,316 were Saudis, according to figures released by the Health Ministry in August, the Arab News reported. That figure is up from 7,804 in 2005, the newspaper quoted Tarek Madani, adviser to the health minister and consultant for contagious diseases, as saying. Almost 80 percent of AIDS cases in the kingdom are age 15-49, and 6.4
percent are children, the report said.
The government sponsors public awareness campaigns, such as one this week to mark World AIDS Day on Friday, that include lectures, 500,000 phone text messages, billboards and other activities. The government also treats Saudi AIDS patients for free, at a cost of $2,700 a month. Expatriates are sent home after an initial treatment. A few AIDS societies also are being set up and awaiting government permits, including Al-Husna
A member, Laila Taha al-Dulaymi, said the group plans financial help for AIDS patients and their families and to tackle issues like joblessness, as AIDS patients are often fired once their employers learn they are HIV-positive.
That is a problem that Jiddah resident Jibril Ahmed, a 31-year-old guard, faced in 2004 when he told his boss he had AIDS. Ahmed learned he had the disease after his pregnant wife died in the seventh onth of pregnancy. Tests determined she, the dead fetus and Ahmed were all HIV-positive. Ahmed assumes he became infected eight years ago, but he would not say how. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said.
Ahmed said relatives at first worried about catching the disease and would not touch dishes or cutlery he used. But now, they have come to terms with it. His daughters, 8 and 14 years old, do not have HIV. They know he is sick but don’t know the details. “I hope they will eventually understand I didn’t mean for this to happen,” said Ahmed. Umm Muhammad contracted the disease from her husband, she says.
“At first, I was very upset and yelled at my husband and asked how the disease has penetrated our home,” she said. “But I’m certain he hasn’t done anything bad. That’s why I’m still with him and I support him.” But she draws the line when it comes to telling her family. “When my 12-year-old daughter asked me recently what AIDS is, I changed the subject,” said Umm Muhammad. “It’s hard for me to tell her, even though I know exactly what it is.”
May 2007 – The Atlantic Monthly
The kingdom in the closet
by Nadya Labi
Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why it is “easier to be gay than straight” in a society where everyone, homosexual and otherwise, lives in the closet by Nadya Labi Yasser, a 26-year-old artist, was taking me on an impromptu tour of his hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a sweltering September afternoon. The air conditioner of his dusty Honda battled the heat, prayer beads dangled from the rearview mirror, and the smell of the cigarette he’d just smoked wafted toward me as he stopped to show me a barbershop that his friends frequent. Officially, men in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to wear their hair long or to display jewelry — such vanities are usually deemed to violate an Islamic instruction that the sexes must not be too similar in appearance. But Yasser wears a silver necklace, a silver bracelet, and a sparkly red stud in his left ear, and his hair is shaggy. Yasser is homosexual, or so we would describe him in the West, and the barbershop we visited caters to gay men. Business is brisk.
Leaving the barbershop, we drove onto Tahlia Street, a broad avenue framed by palm trees, then went past a succession of sleek malls and slowed in front of a glass-and-steel shopping center. Men congregated outside and in nearby cafés. Whereas most such establishments have a family section, two of this area’s cafés allow only men; not surprisingly, they are popular among men who prefer one another’s company. Yasser gestured to a parking lot across from the shopping center, explaining that after midnight it would be “full of men picking up men.” These days, he said, “you see gay people everywhere.” Yasser turned onto a side street, then braked suddenly. “Oh shit, it’s a checkpoint,” he said, inclining his head toward some traffic cops in brown uniforms. “Do you have your ID?” he asked me. He wasn’t worried about the gay-themed nature of his tour — he didn’t want to be caught alone with a woman. I rummaged through my purse, realizing that I’d left my passport in the hotel for safekeeping. Yasser looked behind him to see if he could reverse the car, but had no choice except to proceed.
To his relief, the cops nodded us through. “God, they freaked me out,” Yasser said. As he resumed his narration, I recalled something he had told me earlier. “It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here,” he had said. “If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have a date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.” Notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam, and as the birthplace of most of the 9/11 hijackers, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that claims sharia, or Islamic law, as its sole legal code. The list of prohibitions is long: It’s haram — forbidden — to smoke, drink, go to discos, or mix with an unrelated person of the opposite gender. The rules are enforced by the mutawwa’in, religious authorities employed by the government’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The kingdom is dominated by mosques and malls, which the mutawwa’in patrol in leather sandals and shortened versions of the thawb, the traditional ankle-length white robe that many Saudis wear. Some mutawwa’in even bear marks of their devotion on their faces; they bow to God so adamantly that pressing their foreheads against the ground leaves a visible dent. The mutawwa’in prod shoppers to say their devotions when the shops close for prayer, several times daily. If they catch a boy and a girl on a date, they might haul the couple to the police station. They make sure that single men steer clear of the malls, which are family-only zones for the most part, unless they are with a female relative. Though the power of the mutawwa’in has been curtailed recently, their presence still inspires fear.
In Saudi Arabia, sodomy is punishable by death. Though that penalty is seldom applied, just this February a man in the Mecca region was executed for having sex with a boy, among other crimes. (For this reason, the names of most people in this story have been changed.) Ask many Saudis about homosexuality, and they’ll wince with repugnance. “I disapprove,” Rania, a 32-year-old human-resources manager, told me firmly. “Women weren’t meant to be with women, and men aren’t supposed to be with men.” This legal and public condemnation notwithstanding, the kingdom leaves considerable space for homosexual behavior. As long as gays and lesbians maintain a public front of obeisance to Wahhabist norms, they are left to do what they want in private. Vibrant communities of men who enjoy sex with other men can be found in cosmopolitan cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. They meet in schools, in cafés, in the streets, and on the Internet. “You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any time of the day,” said Radwan, a 42-year-old gay Saudi American who grew up in various Western cities and now lives in Jeddah. “They’re quite shameless about it.” Talal, a Syrian who moved to Riyadh in 2000, calls the Saudi capital a “gay heaven.” This is surprising enough. But what seems more startling, at least from a Western perspective, is that some of the men having sex with other men don’t consider themselves gay. For many Saudis, the fact that a man has sex with another man has little to do with “gayness.” The act may fulfill a desire or a need, but it doesn’t constitute an identity. Nor does it strip a man of his masculinity, as long as he is in the “top,” or active, role. This attitude gives Saudi men who engage in homosexual behavior a degree of freedom. But as a more Westernized notion of gayness — a notion that stresses orientation over acts — takes hold in the country, will this delicate balance survive?
They will seduce you
When Yasser hit puberty, he grew attracted to his male cousins. Like many gay and lesbian teenagers everywhere, he felt isolated. “I used to have the feeling that I was the queerest in the country,” he recalled. “But then I went to high school and discovered there are others like me. Then I find out, it’s a whole society.” This society thrives just below the surface. During the afternoon, traffic cops patrol outside girls’ schools as classes end, in part to keep boys away. But they exert little control over what goes on inside. A few years ago, a Jeddah- based newspaper ran a story on lesbianism in high schools, reporting that girls were having sex in the bathrooms. Yasmin, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh who’d had a brief sexual relationship with a girlfriend (and was the only Saudi woman who’d had a lesbian relationship who was willing to speak with me for this story), told me that one of the department buildings at her college is known as a lesbian enclave.
The building has large bathroom stalls, which provide privacy, and walls covered with graffiti offering romantic and religious advice; tips include “she doesn’t really love you no matter what she tells you” and “before you engage in anything with [her] remember: God is watching you.” In Saudi Arabia, “It’s easier to be a lesbian [than a heterosexual]. There’s an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism,” Yasmin said, adding that the number of men in the kingdom who turn to gay sex is even greater. “They’re not really homosexual,” she said. “They’re like cell mates in prison.” This analogy came up again and again during my conversations. As Radwan, the Saudi American, put it, “Some Saudi [men] can’t have sex with women, so they have sex with guys. When the sexes are so strictly segregated” — men are allowed little contact with women outside their families, in order to protect women’s purity — “how do they have a chance to have sex with a woman and not get into trouble?” Tariq, a 24-year-old in the travel industry, explains that many “tops” are simply hard up for sex, looking to break their abstinence in whatever way they can.
Francis, a 34-year-old beauty queen from the Philippines (in 2003 he won a gay beauty pageant held in a private house in Jeddah by a group of Filipinos), reported that he’s had sex with Saudi men whose wives were pregnant or menstruating; when those circumstances changed, most of the men stopped calling. “If they can’t use their wives,” Francis said, “they have this option with gays.” Gay courting in the kingdom is often overt — in fact, the preferred mode is cruising. “When I was new here, I was worried when six or seven cars would follow me as I walked down the street,” Jamie, a 31-year-old Filipino florist living in Jeddah, told me. “Especially if you’re pretty like me, they won’t stop chasing you.” John Bradley, the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005), says that most male Western expatriates here, gay or not, have been propositioned by Saudi men driving by “at any time of the day or night, quite openly and usually very, very persistently.” Many gay expatriates say they feel more at home in the kingdom than in their native lands. Jason, a South African educator who has lived in Jeddah since 2002, notes that although South Africa allows gay marriage, “it’s as though there are more gays here.” For Talal, Riyadh became an escape. When he was 17 and living in Damascus, his father walked in on him having sex with a male friend. He hit Talal and grounded him for two months, letting him out of the house only after he swore he was no longer attracted to men. Talal’s pale face flushed crimson as he recalled his shame at disappointing his family. Eager to escape the weight of their expectations, he took a job in Riyadh. When he announced that he would be moving, his father responded, “You know all Saudis like boys, and you are white. Take care.” Talal was pleased to find a measure of truth in his father’s warning — his fair skin made him a hit among the locals.
Marcos, a 41-year-old from the Philippines, was arrested in 1996 for attending a party featuring a drag show. He spent nine months in prison, where he got 200 lashes, before being deported. Still, he opted to return; he loves his work in fashion, which pays decently, and the social opportunities are an added bonus. “Guys romp around and parade in front of you,” he told me. “They will seduce you. It’s up to you how many you want, every day.” One evening in Jeddah after a sandstorm, I sat in the glass rotunda of a café on Tahlia Street. I’d spent many nights there, interviewing men who were too nervous about being caught with a woman to invite me to their apartments. In a country with no cinemas or clubs or bars, the family sections of cafés and restaurants are popular dating haunts, and during my time in Saudi Arabia, I saw many heterosexual couples talking quietly together, while the girl’s cover — her girlfriends — sat nearby. On this occasion, I was accompanied by Misfir, 34, who was showing me how to navigate Paltalk, a Web site similar to the one where he met his boyfriend three and a half years ago. Misfir told me that “bottoms” — men willing to be penetrated — are in short supply, and he advised me that if I wanted to generate responses to my postings, I should come up with a screen name that hinted at such willingness. We settled on “jedbut,” and I logged on to the “Gulf Arab Love” chat room, introducing myself as a bottom.
Within minutes, I had more admirers than I could handle. They dispensed with small talk, asking for my “ASL” age, size, and location without preamble. “Jeddah_bythesea” cited his private dimensions and sent electronic “nudges” when I was slow to respond. “Jedbuilt” pressed me to continue the conversation by phone, but I was distracted by the flirty attentions of “jed-to-heart.” However, jed-to-heart’s tone changed when I revealed I was a journalist:
Jed-To-Heart: I lie
jedbut: who do you lie to?
Jed-To-Heart: I lie in my work
Jed-To-Heart: with my family
Jed-To-Heart: but I’m gay
Jed-To-Heart: I can’t say I’m gay
jedbut: is that hard? to lie? do you tell people you like women?
Jed-To-Heart: that why I lie
jedbut: what do you think your family will do if they find out?
jedbut: are you married?
Jed-To-Heart: ohhhhhhhhhhhhh I think I will kill myselif
He went on to write that he kept his sexual preference a secret from just about everyone, including his wife of five years.
Back in Gulf Arab Love the next day, I encountered “Anajedtop,” who said he liked both men and women; he too was married. I told him I was a journalist, and we chatted for a bit. I asked him if we could meet. He was hesitant, but he seemed curious to find out whether I was for real. We arranged to get together that evening at the Starbucks on Tahlia Street. I waited for him in the family section, which opens out onto the mall and is surrounded by a screen of plants. A mall guard patrolled just outside. At first, Anajedtop avoided my eyes, directing his comments to my male interpreter. “I went in [the chat room] to get an idea of the bad people in those rooms so that God will keep me away from those kinds of things,” he said, his leg jiggling nervously. He abandoned this weak cover story as our conversation progressed. He claimed to prefer women, though he admitted that few women frequent the Gulf Arab Love chat room. In the absence of women, he said, he’d “go with” a guy. “I go in and put up an offer,” he said. “I set the tone. I’m in control.” To be in control, for Anajedtop, meant to be on top. “It’s not in my nature to be a bottom,” he said. I asked him whether he was gay, and he responded, “No! A gay is against the norm. Anybody can be a top, but only a gay can be a bottom.” He added, “The worst thing is to be a bottom.”
The call to prayer sounded over a loudspeaker, and his leg began shaking more insistently; he put a hand on his knee in a futile attempt to still it. The guard hovered. “I’m worried the mutawwa’in might come,” Anajedtop said, and rushed off to catch the evening prayer.
What is ‘gay’?
In The History of Sexuality, a multivolume work published in the 1970s and ’80s, Michel Foucault proposed his famous thesis that Western academic, medical, and political discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries had produced the idea of the homosexual as a deviant type: In Western society, homosexuality changed from being a behavior (what you do) to an identity (who you are). In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that — an act, not an orientation. That is not to say that Middle Eastern men who had sex with other men were freely tolerated. But they were not automatically labeled deviant. The taxonomy revolved around the roles of top and bottom, with little stigma attaching to the top.
“‘Sexuality’ is distinguished not between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ but between taking pleasure and submitting to someone (being used for pleasure),” the sociologist Stephen O. Murray explains in the 1997 compilation Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. Being a bottom was shameful because it meant playing a woman’s role. A bottom was not locked into his inferior status, however; he could, and was expected to, leave the role behind as he grew older. “There may be a man, and he likes boys. The Saudis just look at this as, ‘He doesn’t like football,’” Dave, a gay American teacher who first moved to Saudi Arabia in 1978, told me. “It’s assumed that he is, as it were, the dominant partner, playing the man’s role, and there is no shame attached to it.” Nor is the dominant partner considered gay. However much this may seem like sophistry, it is in keeping with a long-standing Muslim tradition of accommodating homosexual impulses, if not homosexual identity. In 19th-century Iran, a young beardless adolescent was considered an object of beauty — desired by men — who would grow naturally into an older bearded man who desired youthful males.
There, as in much of the Islamic world, sexual practices were “not considered fixed into lifelong patterns of sexual orientation,” as Afsaneh Najmabadi demonstrates in her 2005 book, Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. A man was expected to marry, and as long as he fulfilled his procreative obligations, the community didn’t probe his extracurricular activities. A magazine editor in Jeddah told me that many boys in Mecca, where he grew up, have sexual relations with men, but they don’t see themselves as gay. Abubaker Bagader, a human-rights activist based in Jeddah, explained that homosexuality can be viewed as a phase. “Homosexuality is considered something one might pass by,” he said. “It’s to be understood as a stage of life, particularly at youth.” This view of sexual behavior, in combination with the strict segregation of the sexes, serves to foster homosexual acts, shifting the stigma onto bottoms and allowing older men to excuse their younger behavior — their time as bottoms — as mere youthful transgressions.
In Islamic Homosexualities, the anthropologist Will Roscoe shows that this “status-differentiated pattern” — whereby it’s OK to be a top but not a bottom — has its roots in Greco-Roman culture, and he emphasizes that the top-bottom power dynamic is commonly expressed in relations between older men and younger boys. Yasmin, the student who told me about the lesbian enclave at her college, said that her 16-year-old brother, along with many boys his age, has been targeted by his male elders as a sexual object. “It’s the land of sand and sodomites,” she said. “The older men take advantage of the little boys.” Dave, the American educator, puts it this way: “Let’s say there’s a group of men sitting around in a café. If a smooth-faced boy walks by, they all stop and make approving comments. They’re just noting, ‘That’s a hot little number.’”
The People of Lot
Yet a paradox exists at the heart of Saudi conceptions of gay sex and sexual identity: Despite their seemingly flexible view of sexuality, most of the Saudis I interviewed, including those men who identify themselves as gay, consider sodomy a grave sin. During Ramadan, my Jeddah tour guide, Yasser, abstains from sex. His sense of propriety is widely shared: Few gay parties occur in the country during the holy month. Faith is a “huge confusion” for gay Muslims, Yasser and others told me. “My religion says it’s forbidden, and to practice this kind of activity, you’ll end up in hell,” he explains. But Yasser places hope in God’s merciful nature. “God forgives you if, from the inside, you are very pure,” he said. “If you have guilt all the time while you’re doing this stuff, maybe God might forgive you. If you practice something forbidden and keep it quiet, God might forgive you.”
Zahar, a 41-year-old Saudi who has traveled widely throughout the world, urged me not to write about Islam and homosexuality; to do so, he said, is to cut off debate, because “it’s always the religion that holds people back.” He added, “The original points of Islam can never be changed.” Years ago, Zahar went to the library to ascertain just what those points are. What he found surprised him. “Strange enough, there is no certain condemnation for that [homosexual] act in Islam. On the other hand, to have illegal sex between a man and a woman, there are very clear rules and sub-rules.” Indeed, the Koran does not contain rules about homosexuality, says Everett K. Rowson, a professor at New York University who is working on a book about homosexuality in medieval Islamic society. “The only passages that deal with the subject unambiguously appear in the passages dealing with Lot.”
The story of Lot is rendered in the Koran much as it is in the Old Testament. The men of Lot’s town lust after male angels under his protection, and he begs them to have sex with his virgin daughters instead: Do ye commit lewdness / such as no people / in creation (ever) committed / before you? For ye practice your lusts / on men in preference / to women: ye are indeed / a people transgressing beyond / bounds.
The men refuse to heed him and are punished by a shower of brimstone. Their defiance survives linguistically: In Arabic, the “top” sodomite is luti, meaning “of [the people of] Lot.” This surely suggests that sodomy is considered sinful, but the Koran’s treatment of the practice contrasts with its discussions of zina — sexual relations between a man and a woman who are not married to each other. Zina is explicitly condemned: Nor come nigh to adultery: / for it is a shameful (deed) / and an evil, opening to the road / (to other evils).
The punishment for it is later spelled out: 100 lashes for each party. The Koran does not offer such direct guidance on what to do about sodomy. Many Islamic scholars analogize the act to zina to determine a punishment, and some go so far as to say the two sins are the same. Two other key verses deal with sexual transgression.
The first instructs: If any of your women / are guilty of lewdness, / take the evidence of four / (reliable) witnesses from amongst / you/ against them; and if they testify, / confine [the women] to houses until / death do claim them, / or God ordain them / some (other) way. But what is this “lewdness”? Is it zina or lesbianism? It is hard to say. The second verse is also ambiguous: If two men among you / are guilty of lewdness, / punish them both. / If they repent and amend, / leave them alone … In Arabic, the masculine “dual pronoun” can refer to two men or to a man and a woman. So again — sodomy, or zina? For many centuries, Rowson says, these verses were widely thought to pertain to zina, but since the early 20th century, they have been largely assumed to proscribe homosexual behavior. He and most other scholars in the field believe that at about that time, Middle Eastern attitudes toward homosexuality fundamentally shifted. Though same-sex practices were considered taboo, and shameful for the bottom, same-sex desire had long been understood as a natural inclination.
For example, Abu Nuwas — a famous eighth-century poet from Baghdad — and his literary successors devoted much ink to the charms of attractive boys. At the turn of the century, Islamic society began to express revulsion at the concept of homosexuality, even if it was confined only to lustful thoughts, and this distaste became more pronounced with the influx of Western media. “Many attitudes with regard to sexual morality that are thought to be identical to Islam owe a lot more to Queen Victoria” than to the Koran, Rowson told me. “People don’t know — or they try to keep it under the carpet — that 200 years ago, highly respected religious scholars in the Middle East were writing poems about beautiful boys.” Even Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab — the 18th-century religious scholar who founded Wahhabism — seems to draw a distinction between homosexual desires and homosexual acts, according to Natana DeLong-Bas, the author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (2004). The closest Abd al-Wahhab came to touching upon the topic of homosexuality was in a description of an effeminate man who is interested in other men at a wedding banquet. His tone here is tolerant rather than condemnatory; as long as the man controls his urges, no one in the community has the right to police him.
Religious scholars have turned to the hadith — the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad — to supplement the Koran’s scant teachings about sodomy and decide on a punishment. There are six canonical collections of hadith, the earliest recorded two centuries after Muhammad’s death. The two most authoritative collections, Rowson says, don’t mention sodomy. In the remaining four, the most important citation reads: “Those whom you find performing the act of the people of Lot, kill both the active and the passive partner.” Though some legal schools reject this hadith as unreliable, most scholars of Hanbalism, the school of legal thought that underpins the official law of the Saudi kingdom, accept it. It may have provided the authority for the execution this February. (Judges will go out of their way to avoid finding that an act of sodomy has occurred, however.)
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
The gay men I interviewed in Jeddah and Riyadh laughed when I asked them if they worried about being executed. Although they do fear the mutawwa’in to some degree, they believe the House of Saud isn’t interested in a widespread hunt of homosexuals. For one thing, such an effort might expose members of the royal family to awkward scrutiny. “If they wanted to arrest all the gay people in Saudi Arabia,” Misfir, my chat-room guide, told me — repeating what he says was a police officer’s comment — “they’d have to put a fence around the whole country.” In addition, the power of the mutawwa’in is limited by the Koran, which frowns upon those who intrude on the privacy of others in order to catch them in sinful acts. The mandate of the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is specifically to regulate behavior in the public realm. What occurs behind closed doors is between a believer and God.
This seems to be the way of the kingdom: essentially, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Private misbehavior is fine, as long as public decorum is observed. Cinemas are forbidden, but people watch pirated DVDs. Drinking is illegal, but alcohol flows at parties. Women wrap their bodies and faces in layers of black, but pornography flourishes. Gay men thrive in this atmosphere. “We really have a very comfortable life,” said Zahar, the Saudi who asked me not to write about homosexuality and Islam. “The only thing is the outward showing. I can be flamboyant in my house, but not outside.” This strikes many Saudis as a reasonable accommodation. Court records in Saudi Arabia are generally closed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the mutawwa’in are most likely to punish men who are overtly effeminate those whose public behavior advertises a gayness that others keep private.
Filipinos, who have little influence and less familiarity with the demands of a double life, seem to be especially vulnerable. When I asked Jamie, the Filipino who says he gets followed down the street by Saudi men, whether he was gay, he answered, with a high giggle, “Obviously!” But he has paid a price for his flamboyant manner. He used to wear his thick black hair down to his shoulders, concealing it with a baseball cap in public, until recently, when he ran into a man in a shortened thawb at a coffee shop. The mutawwa asked for his work permit. Even though he produced one, Jamie was shoved into an SUV and driven to a police station. Are you gay?” a police officer asked after pulling off Jamie’s cap and seeing his long hair. “Of course not,” Jamie said. He challenged the cop to find a violation, and the officer confirmed the mutawwa’s report that Jamie was wearing makeup, dressing like a woman, and flirting. After spending a night in jail, Jamie was taken to mutawwa’in headquarters in Jeddah, and a mutawwa interrogated him again. When he tried to defend himself, the mutawwa asked him to walk, and Jamie strode across the room in what he considered a manly fashion. He was eventually allowed to call his boss, who secured his release. Jamie cut his hair — not out of fear, he says, but because he didn’t want to bother his boss a second time.
Jamie laughed as he told me of his attempts at dissimulation; though the stakes can be high, efforts to stamp out homosexuality here often do seem farcical. The mutawwa’in get to play the heavies, the government goes through the motions, and the perps play innocent — Me? Gay? Few people in the kingdom, other than the mutawwa’in, seem to take the process seriously. When the mutawwa’in busted the party that led to Marcos’s deportation, they separated the “showgirls” wearing drag from the rest of the partygoers, and then asked everyone but the drag queens to line up against the wall for the dawn prayer. At the first of the three ensuing trials, Marcos and the 23 other Filipinos who’d been detained were confronted with the evidence from the party: plastic bags full of makeup, shoes, wigs, and pictures of the defendants dressed like women. When the Filipinos were returned to their cells, they began arguing about who had looked the hottest in the photos. And even after his punishment and deportation, Marcos was unfazed; when he returned to Jeddah, it was under the same name.
The threat of a crackdown always looms, however. In March 2005, the police crashed what they identified as a “gay wedding” in a rented hall near Jeddah; according to some sources, the gathering was only a birthday party. (Similar busts have occurred in
Riyadh.) Most of the party goers were reportedly released without having to do jail time, but the arrests rattled the gay community; at the time of my visit, party organizers were sticking to more-intimate gatherings and monitoring guest lists closely.
The Closeted Kingdom
To be gay in Saudi Arabia is to live a contradiction — to have license without rights, and to enjoy broad tolerance without the most minimal acceptance. The closet is not a choice; it is a rule of survival. When I asked Tariq, the 24-year-old in the travel industry, whether his parents suspected he was gay, he responded, “Maybe they feel it, but they have not come up to me and asked me. They don’t want to open the door.” Stephen Murray, the sociologist, has called this sort of denial “the will not to know” — a phrase that perfectly captures Saudi society’s defiant resolve to look the other way. Acknowledging homosexuality would harden a potentially mutable behavior into an identity that contradicts the teachings of Islam, to the extent that Islam deals with the subject.
A policy of official denial but tacit acceptance leaves space for change, the possibility that gay men will abandon their sinful ways. Amjad, a gay Palestinian I met in Riyadh, holds out hope that he’ll be “cured” of homosexuality, that when his wife receives her papers to join him in Saudi Arabia, he’ll be able to break off his relationship with his boyfriend. “God knows what I have in my heart,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best I can, obeying the religion. I’m fasting, I’m praying, I’m giving zakat [charity]. All the things that God has asked us to do, if I have the ability, I will do it.” Amjad cited a parable about two men living in the same house. The upstairs man was devout and had spent his life praying to God. The downstairs man went to parties, drank, and committed zina. One night, the upstairs man had the urge to try what the downstairs man was doing. At the same moment, the downstairs man decided to see what his neighbor was up to. “They died at the stairs,” Amjad said. “The one going down went to hell. The one going up went to heaven.” For Amjad to accept a fixed identity as a gay man would be to forgo the possibility of ever going upstairs.
But as the Western conception of sexual identity has filtered into the kingdom via television and the Internet, it has begun to blur the Saudi view of sexual behavior as distinct from sexual identity. For example, although Yasser is open to the possibility that he will in time grow attracted to women, he considers himself gay. He says that his countrymen are starting to see homosexual behavior as a marker of identity: “Now that people watch TV all the time, they know what gay people look like and what they do,” he explains. “They know if your favorite artist is Madonna and you listen to a lot of music, that means you are gay.” The Jeddah-based magazine editor sees a similar trend. “The whole issue used to be whether that guy was a [top] or a bottom,” he told me. “Now people are getting more into the concept of homosexual and straight.”
But new recognition of this distinction has not brought with it acceptance of homosexuality: Saudis may be tuning in to Oprah, but her tell-all ethic has yet to catch on. Radwan, the Saudi American, came out to his parents only after spending time in the United States and the experience was so bad that he’s gone back into the closet. His father, a Saudi, threatened to kill himself, then decided that he couldn’t (because suicide is haram), then contemplated killing Radwan instead. “In the end,” Radwan told me, “I said, ‘I’m not gay anymore. I’m straight.’” Most of his gay peers choose to remain silent within their families. Yasser says that if his mother ever found out he’s gay, she would treat him as if he were sick and take him to psychologists to try to find a cure.
Zahar, at 41, has managed the unusual feat of staving off marriage without revealing himself to be gay. Marriage would devastate him, he says, and exposure of his homosexuality would devastate his family. So Zahar has employed an elaborate series of stratagems: a fake girlfriend, a fake engagement to a sympathetic cousin, the breaking off of the engagement. As he put it, “I schemed, and I planned. I don’t like to con people, but I had to do that for my family.” In the West, we would expect such subterfuge to exact a high psychological cost. But a closet doesn’t feel as lonely when so many others, gay and straight, are in it, too. A double life is the essence of life in the kingdom — everyone has to keep private any deviance from official norms. The expectation that Zahar would maintain a public front at odds with his private self is no greater than the expectations facing his straight peers. Dave, the gay American I met, recalled his surprise when his boyfriend of five years got married, and then asked him to go to the newlyweds’ apartment to “make the bed up the way you make it up,” for the benefit of the bride. “Saudis will get stressed about things that wouldn’t cause us to blink,” Dave said. “But having to live a double life, that’s just a normal thing.”
Most of the gay men I interviewed said that gay rights are beside the point. They view the downsides of life in Saudi Arabia — having to cut your hair, or hide your jewelry, or even spend time in prison for going to a party — as minor aggravations. “When I see a gay parade [in trips to the West], it’s too much of a masquerade for attention,” Zahar said. “You don’t need that. Women’s rights, gay rights why? Get your rights without being too loud.” Embracing gay identity, generally viewed in the West as the path to fuller rights, could backfire in Saudi Arabia. The idea of being gay, as opposed to simply acting on sexual urges, may bring with it a deeper sense of shame. “When I first came here, people didn’t seem to have guilt. They were sort of ‘I’ll worry about that on Judgment Day,’” Dave said. “Now, with the Internet and Arabia TV, they have some guilt.” The magazine editor in Jeddah says that when he visits his neighbors these days, they look back at their past sexual encounters with other men regretfully, thinking, “What the hell were we doing? It’s disgusting.”
When Radwan arrived in Jeddah, in 1987, after seeing the gay-rights movement in the United States firsthand, he wanted more than the tacit right to quietly do what he chose. “Invisibility gives you the cover to be gay,” he said. “But the bad part of invisibility is that it’s hard to build a public identity and get people to admit there is such a community and then to give you some rights.” He tried to rally the community and encourage basic rights like the right not to be imprisoned. But the locals took him aside and warned him to keep his mouth shut. They told him, “You’ve got everything a gay person could ever want.
July 20, 2007 – MSNBC
The Saudi ‘Sex & and the City’?
Rajaa Alsanea knew she was in for trouble when she published her novel about affluent young Arab women—what she didn’t foresee was how much support she would receive.
by Christina Gillham, Newsweek
July 20, 2007 – When Rajaa Alsanea’s “The Girls of Riyadh” hit bookstores in the Middle East in 2005, it caused a furor. Referred to by some as a “Sex and the City” for Saudi Arabia, the book delved into the social, romantic—and sometimes sex—lives of its four female characters. Published first in Lebanon—and published in the United States this month—the book almost immediately made its way to Saudi Arabia, where it was denounced by religious conservatives as immoral and hailed by reformists as a much-needed condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive society. Alsanea, 24 years old at the time, was propelled to stardom, making appearances on TV, receiving supportive phone calls from the royal family and an endorsement from no less a figure than the king’s labor minister and close adviser, Ghazi al-Gosaibi.
“The Girls of Riyadh” explores the lives of four young women—Lamees, Sadeem, Gamrah and Michelle. Their stories are told by a narrator in a series of postings on an Internet chat room. The women, like their creator, are upper-class Sunni Muslims whose lives revolve around various romantic entanglements, shopping, school and struggling against their society’s strict moral code. Alsanea wrote the book while in college, where she studied dentistry. Now living in Chicago, she is doing her residency in endodontics (root canal) and studying for her master’s degree in oral sciences. She spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Christina Gillham.
NEWSWEEK: How did you go from dentistry to writing a novel?
Rajaa Alsanea: I knew that I was going to write a novel one day and I was just trying to choose the right time to start it. I started college but at the same time I knew I was so ready to start my novel, so I said, I’ll just do both of them at the same time. The triggering point was when I went to college. It was the first time that I met Shiite girls, for instance, it was the first time I saw girls being told what to do or when to marry. It was just different from what I had experienced for 18 years. So I thought it would be wonderful to describe the Saudi families and the way they deal with their daughters and how each family has its own limits for their daughters.
Your family didn’t have such restrictions?
No. Aside from the morals and the Islamic teachings, I didn’t have any restrictions. I was brought up by a liberal family. They didn’t force me to wear the hijab [the headscarf worn by Muslim woman]. I started wearing it two years ago by personal choice because I wanted to do it for God.
Was this typical of your friends growing up, to have this kind of liberal upbringing?
I would say that it’s more typical in families who have been exposed to culture outside or Saudi families whose children studied abroad, for instance. Those children usually go to college in the States, and when they come back they kind of change the family traditions. Nowadays the Saudi government is sending a lot of students to study outside Saudi. It’s very helpful. So when [these students] go back, they don’t deal with women the same way, they don’t use their male dominance as they used to, how they used to see their fathers and their grandfathers treat women.
So the Saudi government is supportive of its citizens going abroad to open their minds?
Yes. The government wants people to be exposed to other cultures. But the people who were raised in a very traditional way do not want to change. People are afraid of change, and the policy of the government is not to force any change on people. Saudi Arabia was a conservative country for such a long time; it will remain a conservative country until the people sort out their differences. Maybe that’s why novels are such a big deal in Saudi Arabia now. They’re trying to start this dialogue.
One Saudi reformist religious scholar said that if your book had come out even four years ago, you could have been sent to jail.
I think after King Abdullah became king [things changed]. He is very supportive of females. We describe him as a father and a very kind man. He’s a very logical man. He’s willing to change. We’re not a multiethnic society. We are old and trace our ancestors to certain tribes. There is a foundation to Saudi society. You cannot force change in Saudi society. It has to happen on its own.
Wasn’t your book banned?
No. To have any book sold in Saudi, you have to give it to the Ministry of Information for approval. I didn’t think I would get it—everyone told me that it’s a very controversial book and the Saudi government has never supported selling something like this. But when people started talking about the book, when newspapers were discussing it, when people all around Saudi photocopied the book or got an e-book from the Internet, or downloaded it on their cell phones a few months after it was published in Lebanon, I felt it was common sense to get the government’s permission. And I got it. I felt the government wanted to give me a hint that they’re not against this kind of book, they’re not against change, they’re just trying to protect the people from something that they would not want to read.
Why do you think the book caused such a stir?
A lot of people wanted somebody to start a change. And a lot of people are not willing to take that step themselves, but they’re willing to give you all the support if you’re willing to take the risk. But it’s damaging to do something like that in Saudi. A lot of people were trying to spread rumors about me, talking about me in a bad way. Religious imams in mosques said I was doing things that weren’t Islamic.
How did you react when you heard conservatives say you weren’t being a good Muslim?
I thought I would be more angry, but the way I saw the people fighting for me made it all better … the way I saw how people hugged my mom and congratulated her for giving me support, and how they say they’re proud of me. They know that I am a good Muslim. They understood that I was not trying to advocate the things I was talking about. I was trying to say we need more rights, and we need to decide our own lives for ourselves, instead of having our families decide for us.
The book focuses a lot on love, especially on what you call “premarital love,” as opposed to love that comes after marriage, like in arranged marriages. And the narrator definitely believes that premarital love is the better way to go. Do you think that’s how a lot of young Saudi women feel?
No. I can’t base anything on statistics, but when I sit with girls and we talk about these things, they think that the way Saudi society is built, it doesn’t give you rights as a lover, but it gives you all the privileges when you’re a fiancée or a wife. Females don’t get any rights at the end of a relationship and that’s why females don’t think that falling in love in Saudi is a good idea.
You’ve said that you weren’t trying to deliver a message with your book, but you must have hoped to influence some kind of change in your society.
I wanted to influence some kind of change, but I wanted to do it in the right way. There are a lot of people who want change in Saudi Arabia but they’re not succeeding because they’re not going through the right channels, or they’re not doing it gradually. They’re just screaming, “We went this change and we want it now.” I had to think a lot about the appropriate way to have this change happen.
Some have criticized the book because its characters are rich and spoiled and not an accurate representation of Saudi women. How do you respond to that?
It’s true these girls are from the middle upper class, but if you think about it, you’ll find that even though they’re more liberal and have more rights than the lower classes, they still have their decisions made for them. So it’s basically the same for all classes in Saudi because the traditions are the same.
What do you hope Western readers learn from your book?
I hope for a start they would just get an idea about how different the culture is in Saudi, yet that people in Saudi Arabia want the same things that people everywhere want—girls in Saudi want to live normally; they want to have the basic standards that everybody has. I want people to have a broader image of Saudi Arabia besides being a land of terrorism and the land where men beat up their wives, or where women cannot work or drive. These are intelligent girls who are just trying to live like any other girls anywhere.
5th October 2007 – PinkNews
Sentenced to 7,000 lashes for sodomy in Saudi Arabia
by PinkNews.co.uk writer
Two men have been publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes. The men, who have not been identified, received an unspecified number of lashes in the south-western city of Al-Bahah on Tuesday evening, according to a report from the Al-Okaz daily. The men will remain in prison until the rest of their punishment can be completed. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is illegal under sharia, or Islamic Law.
The maximum sentence it carries is the death penalty and this is most commonly performed by public beheading. Gay rights are not recognised in the kingdom and the publication of any material promoting them is banned for its “un-Islamic” themes. With strict laws restricting unmarried opposite-sex couples, however, and public displays of affection accepted between men, some Westerners have suggested that sharia encourages homosexuality.
Last April, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced two Saudis, one Yemeni and a Jordanian to two years in jail and 2,000 lashes after a police raid on an alleged gay party. Iran has been condemned for carrying out the death penalty on men found guilty of having gay sex.
22nd October 2007 – PinkNews
Gay activists picket Saudi embassy
by Tony Grew
Students and members of OutRage! took to the streets of London last week to protest about the treatment of gays in Saudi Arabia. Fifty people picketed the Saudi embassy after it was reported that two men had been sentenced to 7,000 lashes for “sodomy.” The London protest, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT campaign and supported by OutRage!, came eleven days ahead of the state visit to the UK of the Saudi head of state King Abdullah bin Abdul Azaz al Saud.
Members of LGBT Labour also attended the event.
NUS protest organiser Scott Cuthbertson called on others to protest the “continued criminalisation, imprisonment, torture and murder of LGBT people in Saudi Arabia.” The protesters handed in a letter of protest to the Saudi Ambassador, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, calling on his government to respect the human rights of its own LGBT citizens. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell criticised the excessive punishment reportedly handed down on 2nd October to two young men in the Saudi Arabian city of Al-Bahah, and the wider record of the Saudi regime.
“7,000 lashes is a form of torture, calculated to cause maximum, prolonged suffering,” he said. “So many lashes can be fatal, depending on how many are delivered at any one time. As well as flogging and executing gay people, the Saudi leaders are guilty of detention without trial, torture and the public beheading women who have sex outside of marriage. The Saudis import migrant workers to do menial tasks. They are treated like de facto slaves, frequently abused and with few rights. The media is heavily censored. Trade unions, political parties and non-Muslim religions are banned. The country is a theocratic police state. The British and US governments support the despotic, corrupt Saudi regime. Labour sells the Saudi leaders arms and honours them with state visits. It refuses asylum to gay Saudis who flee persecution and seek refuge in the UK,” he said.
King Abdullah bin Abdul Azaz al Saud’s state visit begins on 30th October
November 30, 2007 – New York Times
Saudi Rape Case Spurs Calls for Reform
by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Jidda, Saudi Arabia – The case of a 20-year-old woman who was sentenced to be lashed after pressing charges against seven men who raped her and a male companion has provoked a rare and angry public debate in Saudi Arabia, leading to renewed calls for reform of the Saudi judicial system. The woman, known here only as “the Qatif girl, ” was initially subjected to 90 lashes for being alone with a man to whom she was not married. Her outspoken human rights lawyer appealed the sentence and brought down the wrath of the court, which doubled the woman’s sentence and stripped her lawyer of his license to practice.
The case is now being appealed to the Kingdom’s highest court. Human rights activists and legal observers said the treatment of the woman from Qatif, the man who was raped with her, and her lawyer, call into question the consistency of Saudi justice and make a mockery of the court system’s commitment to openness and fairness. The Saudi system still operates without a codified legal system and uses a strict Wahabi interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, to hand down verdicts. Like all institutions in Saudi Arabia, the court system is subject to the absolute authority of the monarchy.
“The system has to be transformed from top to bottom,” said Ali Alyami, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. “Judges in Saudi Arabia have no more power than the princes want them to have.” Saudi officials have faced a firestorm of embarrassing international publicity. American presidential candidates decried the sentence on the campaign trail. During the Annapolis summit meeting, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, faced a barrage of questions about the kingdom’s handling of the case. “What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people,” he told reporters.
But the prince also said the judiciary would review the case.
The rape took place a year and a half ago in the town of Qatif, a small Shi’ite waterfront town in the Eastern Province, center of the Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Judges in Qatif provoked outrage in many quarters in the Kingdom — and vociferous criticism from the United States — when they increased the sentence against the rape victim on appeal in mid-November. In the weeks since the new sentence was announced, government authorities have ordered the rape victim’s lawyer, a well-known human rights activist named Abdulrahman Al-Lahem, to stop talking to the news media, and have also put gag orders on the victim and her husband.
The Saudi Ministry of Justice and two prominent Saudi judges have lashed out against the victim, suggesting that she was engaged in immoral behavior at the time of the assault. The Justice Ministry published two statements on its Web site on Nov. 20 and 24, 2007, alleging that the rape victim had confessed to engaging in illicit acts and was undressed in a car prior to the rape. Mr. Lahem, the woman’s lawyer, denied these accusations and said that neither she or her male friend had ever confessed to any such acts. The lawyer is now suing the Saudi Ministry of Information and Culture for having distributed the Justice Ministry’s statements to the news media through the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
“The Saudi Ministry of Justice should immediately stop publishing statements aimed at damaging the reputation of a young Saudi rape victim who spoke out publicly about her ordeal and her efforts to find justice,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Nov. 29. The ministry released its statements after the doubling of the rape victim’s punishment by a Qatif court on Nov. 14 for having been illegally alone with an unrelated male just before the rape happened, from 90 lashes to 200 lashes and six months in jail. But the ministry stopped short of accusing the rape victim of adultery, or “zina” in Arabic, which could carry the death penalty, with the man that she met in his car on the night of the rape in 2006. Mr. Al-Lahem has complained that the judges in the case appear to base their conclusions about the events on the night of the rape on testimony of the seven rapists, who have been sentenced to five to seven years in jail.
Under Islamic law, two people can be accused of adultery only if they are caught in the actual act of penetration by four male witnesses of good character.
“The Ministry of Justice’s response to criticism of its unjust verdict has been appalling,” said Farida Deif, a researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “First, they attempted to silence this young woman, and now they’re trying to demonize her in the eyes of the Saudi public.” A Saudi judge, Ibrahim bin Salih Al-Khudairi of the Riyadh Appeals Court, said in an interview published in Okaz newspaper on Nov. 27 that if he were a judge in the Qatif court that he would have sentenced her, her male companion and the seven rapists to death and that they should be lucky that they did not get the death penalty. The woman from Qatif met with an Associated Press reporter in November, before the court ordered her and her lawyer to stop talking to reporters. She has trouble sleeping, her hands tremble, and she described the sentence against her as a “big shock,” The Associated Press reported.
The Human Rights Watch researcher, Ms. Deif interviewed the woman from Qatif in December 2006. The testimony she gathered directly contradicts the narrative of events being put forward by Saudi justice officials. In her testimony to the human rights group, the woman said she had given a photo of herself to a high school classmate. Years later, when she was 19 and engaged to another man, she asked for the photo back. She agreed to meet him in his car in downtown Qatif. Another car blocked their path when they were 15 minutes from her house, she said.
“Two people got out of their car and stood on either side of our car. The man on my side had a knife,” she said. “I screamed.” She and her companion were taken to an isolated building in the working-class Awwamiyah neighborhood of Al-Qatif where they were both raped repeatedly by seven men over several hours. The Qatif girl said that she was photographed during the rape by one of the men using his cell phone camera. The photos were later entered as evidence in the trial, but the judges refused to consider them. The husband of Qatif girl, who also refuses to be identified publicly, found out about his wife’s rape only four months after it happened when the rapists were bragging about it in Qatif. He has not divorced her, which he could under Saudi law, instead choosing to help her fight her case in Saudi courts.
But he, too, has found the Saudi legal system reluctant to help a woman that it considers to be responsible for her own fate because of what it views as her fatal flaw of having gone out alone with an unrelated male. Although she and her husband are technically married under Islamic law, they are still not living together because they have not had their wedding party yet. A high school student when the rape occurred, Qatif girl has now stopped her studies. Qatif is a small town, and the identities of the rape victims are known locally.
Mr. Lahem has had trouble handling the Qatif girl’s case from the beginning. He got into several arguments with the three judges who originally handled the trial, and has since had his license suspended for “disrespecting” the court after he supposedly raised his voice in court. He faces a disciplinary hearing before a committee of the Ministry of Justice in Riyadh on Dec. 5. Neither he nor the husband of the victim have been given a copy of the verdict despite repeated requests for it, which has delayed the filing of the appeal. Yet a copy of it was apparently leaked to a conservative Saudi Web site called Alsaha (www.alsaha.com), according to Human Rights Watch. Several Saudi human rights groups said that they were looking into various aspects of the case, but most are too afraid to get involved while the case is still in the courts.
Mr. Lahem said that he initially did not want to make waves about the Qatif girl’s case but that the doubling of her punishment in November forced him to go public. He said that he had hoped to keep things quiet and then apply for a royal pardon from King Abdullah, who has pardoned jailed convicted human rights activists in the past.
Mr. Alyami believes that this will still happen in the case of the Qatif girl. “The international condemnation of this arbitrary and barbaric decision will force the king to pardon the woman or drastically reduce her prison sentence,” he said. “There will be no flogging.” But Bander Alnogaithan, a Saudi who finished Harvard Law School, and lives in Boston, said he was sure her increased punishment would be overturned by a higher court because of a series of errors committed by the lower courts. Judges violated a basic tenet of Islamic law which prevents harming anyone who files an appeal, an error that Mr. Alnogaithan said reflected the poor quality of the religious judges.
“We can’t blame the judges for not knowing the law, as they are picked from Shariah colleges where they mainly focus on general Islamic legal thought and history and don’t study ‘manmade’ laws,” he said.
17 December 2007 – truthout.org
Saudi King Pardons Rape Victim
by Abdullah Shihri, The Associated Press
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – A gang-rape victim who was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her was pardoned by the Saudi king after the case sparked rare criticism from the United States, the kingdom’s top ally. Outrage over the sentence prompted unusually strong comments from President Bush, who said that if the same thing had happened to one of his daughters, he would be “angry” at a government that didn’t protect the victim. The White House called the sentence “outrageous.” In past weeks, Saudi officials have bristled at the criticism of what they consider an internal affair – but also appeared wary of hurting their image in the United States.
Bush’s National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the White House thinks Saudi King Abdullah “made the right decision” by pardoning the woman. With the pardon, King Abdullah appeared to be aiming at relieving the pressure from the United States without being seen to criticize Saudi Arabia’s conservative legal system, a stronghold of powerful clerics adhering to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheik said the pardon reported by Saudi media Monday does not mean the king doubted the country’s judges, but that he was acting in the “interests of the people.”
“The king always looks into alleviating the suffering of the citizens when he becomes sure that these verdicts will leave psychological effects on the convicted people, though he is convinced and sure that the verdicts were fair,” al-Sheik said, according to the Al-Jazirah newspaper. Certainly, we’re pleased that that action occurred,” State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. “I think everyone was rather astonished by the initial verdict and I hope this puts this case to rest. We’re glad that this particular case has been dealt with and that the king has taken the actions that he has.”
The victim – known only as the “Girl of Qatif” after her hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia – was in a car with a man in 2006 when they were attacked and raped by seven men. She was initially sentenced in November 2006 to several months in prison and 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man with whom she was neither related nor married, a violation of the kingdom’s strict segregation of the sexes. The woman, who was 19 at the time of the rape, has said she met the man to retrieve a picture of herself from him because she had recently married.
The seven men who were convicted of raping both the girl and the man were initially sentenced to jail terms from 10 months to five years. Their sentences were increased to between two and nine years after the appeal. The case sparked increased international outcry recently after the court more than doubled the sentence last month to 200 lashes and six months prison in response to her appeal. Joining the U.S. criticism, Canada called the ruling barbaric. Earlier this month, Bush expressed his anger over the sentencing. “My first thoughts were these,” Bush said. “What happens if this happens to my daughter? How would I react? And I would have been – I’d of been very emotional, of course. I’d have been angry at those who committed the crime. And I’d be angry at a state that didn’t support the victim.”
The controversy erupted as the United States was trying to ensure Saudi Arabia’s participation in the November Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md. – which the kingdom attended. In the U.S. ahead of the conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was visibly irritated when he was asked about the case by journalists. He said that the storm being raised over it was outrageous, but also promised the sentence would be reviewed. The kingdom’s Justice Ministry has defended the sentence, saying the girl was having an illicit affair with the man.
Al-Sheik said Abdullah was the only official who could issue a pardon, and he did so despite the government’s view that the Saudi legal system was “honest” and “fair.” “The king’s order consolidates and confirms what is known about the Islamic courts,” al-Sheik told Al-Jazirah. “Efficient judges look into different cases and issue their just verdicts and those convicted have the right to appeal.”
Attempts to reach the woman’s lawyer by telephone went unanswered Monday.
June 23, 2008 – PinkNews
Dozens arrested in Saudi “gay” raid
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
Religious police in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have detained more than 20 men after a raid on a property in the coastal town of Qatif. Newspaper Al-Medina reports that quantities of alcohol were seized at a gathering of young men and that many more were initially arrested on homosexuality charges but later released. 21 remain in custody. The state Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was acting on a tip off.
In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is illegal under sharia, or Islamic Law. The maximum sentence it carries is the death penalty and this is most commonly performed by public beheading. Gay rights are not recognised in the kingdom and the publication of any material promoting them is banned for its “un-Islamic” themes. With strict laws restricting unmarried opposite-sex couples, however, and public displays of affection accepted between men, some Westerners have suggested that sharia encourages homosexuality.
In April 2006 a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced two Saudis, one Yemeni and a Jordanian to two years in jail and 2,000 lashes after a police raid on an alleged gay party. In October two men were publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell criticised the excessive punishment. “7,000 lashes is a form of torture, calculated to cause maximum, prolonged suffering,” he said. “So many lashes can be fatal, depending on how many are delivered at any one time. As well as flogging and executing gay people, the Saudi leaders are guilty of detention without trial, torture and the public beheading women who have sex outside of marriage. Trade unions, political parties and non-Muslim religions are banned. The country is a theocratic police state. The British and US governments support the despotic, corrupt Saudi regime.”
July 30, 2008 – PinkNews
55 arrested during raid on “gay party” in Saudi Arabia
by Tony Grew
Police in the Gulf kingdom of Saudi Arabia have launched another raid on a so-called gay party, this time in the coastal Qatif province. Drugs, alcohol were reportedly found at the gathering. TV channel al-Arabiya reports that two young men wearing women’s make up and dancing together were among 55 people arrested by religious police. Last month more than 20 men after a raid on another property in Qatif. Quantities of alcohol were seized at a gathering of young men. Many were initially arrested on homosexuality charges but later released.
The state Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was acting on a tip off. In Saudi Arabia homosexuality is illegal under sharia, or Islamic Law. The maximum sentence it carries is the death penalty and this is most commonly performed by public beheading. Gay rights are not recognised in the kingdom and the publication of any material promoting them is banned for its “un-Islamic” themes. With strict laws restricting unmarried opposite-sex couples, however, and public displays of affection accepted between men, some Westerners have suggested that sharia encourages homosexuality.
In April 2006 a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced two Saudis, one Yemeni and a Jordanian to two years in jail and 2,000 lashes after a police raid on an alleged gay party. In October two men were publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes.
January 5, 2009 – PinkNews
Two executed in Saudi Arabia for male rape
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
Two Saudi men were publicly beheaded on December 26th after being found guilty of rape. The official SPA news agency said Nasser al-Harby and Majid al-Sibeiy had gone into the bedroom where the unnamed victim slept. They beat him, tied him up and raped him.
100 people were executed by Saudi Arabia in 2008. Homosexuality is illegal under sharia, or Islamic Law. The maximum sentence it carries is the death penalty and this is most commonly performed by public beheading; normally a sword is used. Gay rights are not recognised in the kingdom and the publication of any material promoting them is banned for its “un-Islamic” themes. With strict laws restricting unmarried opposite-sex couples, however, and public displays of affection accepted between men, some Westerners have suggested that Saudi culture encourages homosexuality.
In July 55 people were arrested at a “gay party” in Qatif province. Drugs, alcohol were reportedly found at the gathering. In June more than 20 men after a raid on another property in Qatif. Quantities of alcohol were seized at a gathering of young men. Many were initially arrested on homosexuality charges but later released. In October 2007 two men were publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes.
June 16, 2009 – GMA News
72 Filipino men detained in KSA for gay behavior
by Joseph Holandes Ubalde, GMANews.TV
Manila, Philippines – Wearing drag at a private event may be harmless fun in many societies, but 72 Filipino men found out they could suffer imprisonment and lashing in Saudi Arabia for such activities after they were arrested for immorality recently. An article in the Arabic news site www.sabq.org said several “deviants,” a term used by Saudi Arabia’s English-language media to describe people who engage in gay behavior, were rounded up during a concert inside a compound in an eastern Riyadh neighborhood. The report quoted unnamed police officials as saying a “large number of foreign workers” was arrested in the incident, and 72 of them have Philippine citizenship.
Vice Consul Roussel Reyes of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh told GMANews.TV by phone on Tuesday that they are still confirming the identities of the Filipinos and will seek their employers’ help to bail them out. Open display of homosexual behavior is strictly prohibited under Saudi Arabia’s Sharia’h law. In extreme cases, such as when the government feels that homosexuals are challenging state authority, the maximum punishment for the act is public execution. Normally, however, the authorities impose other punishments such as fines, imprisonment, and whipping. Individuals caught wearing even just one article of women’s clothing could face three to six months imprisonment, and suffer between 50 and 100 lashes with a rattan stick.
Reyes said nearly 50 other Filipinos have been arrested and jailed in the past for similar violations. Only sponsors are able to bail out foreign workers who are imprisoned, as long as they provide assurance that the accused would show up in court during trial. In August last year, Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice arrested several Filipinos in a gay party in the country’s eastern province for “lewd behavior” as well as possession of drugs and alcohol. Arrested foreign nationals are often deported after serving their jail sentence.
September 2, 2009 – The WIP
Transsexuals in the Middle East Await the Wave of Change
by Suad Hamada
Bahrain – Hell is what most Arabs think of when the word “transsexual” comes into any conversation since many mistake it with homosexuality, which is a sin in Islam. Most transsexuals prefer to remain anonymous since in some Arab countries they could face jail sentences for dressing or acting like the opposite sex. Many, especially men who feel trapped in the body of a woman, keep their problems hidden to avoid being punished or killed by their families. It is far easier for a woman to have a sex change to become a man than visa-versa. A man who becomes a woman is seen to have dishonored the family.
For 34 years, Bahraini Hussain Rabai felt trapped in a female body. In 2008, the courts officially declared him a man by approving his name change in official documents, from Zainab to Hussain, following sex correction surgery in 2007. Partially blind, Hussain is luckier than most – he was married this year and happy to finally become a man. “I think my wife married me because of my honesty. I told her and her family about my past and my keenness to lead my life as a complete man.”
Transsexuals in Bahrain face the burden of social misconceptions and rejection, but they fare much better than those in Kuwait who face legal sanctions and maltreatment in the prison system. According to the Qatari newspaper Al Raya, the government has allocated two million Kuwaiti dinars to combat homosexuality and transsexuals, especially those demanding the formation of a society to defend their rights. Kuwait also passed a decency law punishing transsexuals and homosexuals to a one-year jail sentence and US$3,500 fine. A group of transsexuals signed a petition to the Kuwaiti Parliament seeking public recognition and cancellation of the law after 12 of them were maltreated in detention. Arrested for wearing female clothes, the prisoners were physically and psychologically abused by guards who shaved their long hair.
In a conservative state such as Saudi Arabia, only sex correction operations are allowed. According to Saudi Daily, around 600 surgeries were conducted from 2001 to 2007, and though these individuals were accepted by the government, they are still being rejected by society and find it difficult to fit in. It might sound tough for transsexuals here, but there is more hope now than ever before of improved rights. With more public awareness through the Internet and newspapers, transsexuals have found a voice and have begun to demand respect and recognition.
Created in 2006 by Salim, a Kuwaiti man who identifies as a woman, the Arabic-language blog Transhelp is just one example of a growing community of support. Since its launch three years ago, the blog has attracted 120,000 members and has had over 200 million hits. Called a “guardian angel” by many of Transhelp’s members, Bahraini lawyer Fawziya Janahi has dedicated her career to helping transsexuals across the Arab world and says she is the first lawyer in the region to specialize in sex change cases.
Janahi became well known in 2005 when she won her first sex change case for a Bahraini transsexual and Hussain Rabai’s case in 2008. She mostly represents clients who want a sex change operation, and who need permission from the court for the surgery. The operations are mainly performed in Thailand and other East Asian countries. In the two cases that she’s won, she also sued the health ministry and passport department to change the official documents of her clients from female to male.
“I ask all my clients to go to psychiatrists to evaluate if their feelings can be corrected [without surgery] or not,” she explains. The young lawyer says that she only takes cases after a full psychiatric evaluation and only after therapy has failed. She has a heavy caseload with clients in Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where she has 50 cases alone.
“Facing criticism isn’t something that I fear – if one of my clients is emotionally a woman trapped in a man’s body or visa-versa and psychiatrists can’t help, then I will.” She also doesn’t worry about religious objections as she feels that if psychiatrists give her the green light to defend their patients, then scholars shouldn’t object.
Conservative Saudi professor and psychologist Dr Tariq Al Habeeb agrees. “Gender isn’t determined only by the genital organs, but how individuals think of themselves.” He says that since religious scholars accept sex correction operations when an individual is born with both genital organs, they should also accept operations for transsexuals who feel trapped in their physical bodies.
“I urge society to open up,” he says. “A man who has felt like a woman since childhood is a woman trapped in the body of a man and urgently needs a sex change operation.”
It took Hussain more than 30 years to convince his family to go on with his surgery and even now not all of his relatives are supportive. With Janahi’s help Hussain won the support of Bahrain’s newspapers to raise funds for his surgery, even though he was unemployed for a full year afterward until the courts recognized him as a man. But his case is simple compared to a friend. “My friend’s agony is harming him – he cannot stay in his body, but he doesn’t have the courage to face the rejection of his family,” Hussain explains.
Yet the wave of change seems like it’s finally coming to the Middle East – just ten years back no one dared debate the rights of transsexuals, let alone acknowledge them publicly. Many transsexuals are not ashamed of their situations and are fighting to be accepted in society by talking to the press or even contacting Human Rights Watch. Many ordinary people have started watching TV programs on the plight of transsexuals, no longer switching the channel fearing punishment from God.
“When I look back to what I went through to become a man,” recalls Hussain, “I remember how I lived with identity crisis all my life.” And this is what keeps Dr Tariq and Fawziya Janahi going despite heavy criticism. “I’m happy to have found my mission in life,” says Janahi. “I’m proud to be called the first Arab and Muslim lawyer to defend transsexuals.”
March 2010 – Brian Whitaker’s Blob
Saudi jailed and flogged for gay video
A 27-year-old Saudi man from Jeddah has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes, a year in jail and a fine of 5,000 riyals ($1,330) after appearing in an amateur gay video (above).
The film, which lasts 2 minutes and 46 seconds, shows him dressed in a police uniform asking to inspect someone’s driving licence and then flirtatiously demanding “physical comfort” after saying the licence is expired. He later opens his shirt and rubs his chest, removes his cap flaunting his long hair and waves a gun suggestively. That’s as far as it goes. Arab News says: “The video quickly spread online and through SMS … Attempts have been made to block the video from being viewed in Saudi Arabia.”
The man has not been officially named but he is named on the internet as Ahmad al-Faqih. He was arrested in January and reportedly tried in a closed court. He was charged with impersonating a police officer, committing a “general security” offence and being homosexual. The man who filmed the video was also arrested but his fate has not been reported.
10 June 2010 – Fridae
Saudi Arabia bans employment of gay, lesbian Filipino workers
by News Editor
The Saudi Arabian government has reportedly directed recruitment agencies in Manila, Philippines not to recruit gay and lesbian workers for jobs in the Middle Eastern country. The Philipines-based GMA News on Jun 2 reported that the consular section of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia has sent a memorandum dated May 26 instructing recruitment agencies in Manila to be stricter in screening job applicants bound for the country said to be the top destination for migrant Filipino workers.
“Officials of recruitment agencies who are responsible in conducting interviews of job applicants to Saudi Arabia are strongly advised to screen them thoroughly so that those belonging to the third sex are excluded,” the memo read. It also warned that non-compliant agencies will have their accreditation permanently terminated. It is not known what prompted the memo.
Last June, 67 Filipino men were arrested after they were found cross-dressing and drinking at a private party near the capital city of Riyadh. The men were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment and flogging but were pardoned and released in July the same year. None were charged with homosexual acts, a much more serious charge under Saudi law. GMA News quoted Vice Consul Roussel Reyes of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh as saying that nearly 50 other Filipinos have been arrested and jailed in the past for similar violations. The report added that men caught wearing even just one article of women’s clothing could face three to six months imprisonment, and suffer between 50 and 100 lashes with a rattan stick.
According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, sodomy is illegal and punishable by death by stoning under Saudi-Arabia’s Sharia law. All sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal, including sexual relations between women. Danton Remoto, Chairman Emeritus of Ang Ladlad, a LGBT advocacy group acknowledged that while the Saudi government has the right to implement its own policie, prohibiting the recruitment of gay and lesbian workers is tantamount to discrimination.
In an interview with “24 Oras” news programme, he added that it was not simply a matter of implementing the law but a human rights issue, as the policy would mean fewer job opportunities for Filipinos in the Saudi country. [An estimated 1 million Filipinos currently work in the Muslim nation of some 24 million, 6.36 million of whom are immigrants. An estimated 10 percent of the Philippines’s population, or nearly 8 million people, work overseas.] He further questioned how the Saudi government plans to implement the policy, particularly on determining whether a worker is gay or not. “How will the screening work? Will it based on hair length, or one’s raising of an eyebrow?” he asked wryly.
While the Middle East chapter of migrants’ rights group Migrante International urged Philippine authorities to clarify the new policy, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) has advised Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) to be more careful with their demeanor while in the Kingdom to avoid being arrested. “What happens is wherever we are, if we violate the laws of our host country, offenses will have corresponding sanctions,” said OWWA director for policy and program development Vivian Tornea.
June 13, 2010 – Northern Dispatch Weekly
Pride Network bucks Saudi ban vs. gays
by Claire May Tuazon
Baguio City — “Gay rights are human rights, Lesbian rights are human rights,” voiced the gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgenders. This call is made in relation to the announcement of the Saudi government last month to ban gay and lesbian workers as well as overseas contract workers. The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Manila recently issued a memorandum to all its accredited recruitment agencies on accepting gays and lesbian applicants.
The embassy stated that “officials of recruitment agencies who are responsible in conducting interviews of job applicants to Saudi Arabia are strongly advised to screen them thoroughly so that those homosexuals are exhausted.” Furthermore, the memo stated, “the accreditation of recruitment agencies found to have failed to observe this advisory will be permanently terminated.” Added to this ban is the arrest of 8 gays because of their being gay. They have been arrested without knowing what wrong they did to the Royal government of Saudi Arabia.
The Baguio Pride Network (BPN), an alliance of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders (LGBT) organizations in Baguio City and the province of Benguet explained their stand on this outright discrimination of LGBT migrant workers. “We cannot accept that Saudi Arabia is discriminating against LGBT migrant workers and the LGBT community in general. They are compelling other people to be as bigoted as they are.”
BPN further expressed in their statement. “We assert that we, the LGBTs are productive members of society, as hardworking migrant workers who toil to put food on the table, to provide education for our children as professionals here and abroad. We will not let homophobia stop us from living the lives we choose to live. We are protected by the same rights that protect everybody else. We will not be silent until homophobia is dismantled in all levels and institutions of society here and abroad.”
Moreover, BPN challenged the Philippine government, “to defend and protect our migrant workers whether homosexual or not. We challenge the Philippine government to pressure Saudi government to lift the ban and free the eight 8 gays who are detained because they are homosexuals. We challenge the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) to unite and stand against homophobia and other unfavorable labor policies in other countries. This June 27 we are calling on all gays and lesbians in Baguio to join us and express our unity againts homophobia and discrimination. End Homophobia and Stop discrimination!” BPN concluded.
September 12, 2010 – IndyPosted
Gay Saudi Diplomat Seeks Asylum In US
The Belfast Telegraph has reported that a Saudi diplomat serving in Los Angeles has sought political asylum, stating that his life would be in danger if he were to return to Saudi Arabia. The diplomat,Ali Ahmad Asseri, cited his homosexuality and his close friendship with a Jewish woman as factors which would endanger him if he were to return to Saudi Arabia. In addition to his sexual preference and choice of friends, Mr. Asseri has reportedly criticized the role of militant imams in Saudi life and society.
Asseri, who is the first secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, was questioned by the Department of Homeland Security after his request for asylum.
Although the Saudis might turn a blind eye to discreet transgressions, Asseri’s public airing of his violations oft Saudi morals and political taboos would make it very hard to blend in upon returning to Saudi Arabia. There has been no official comment from Saudi diplomatic circles concerning Asseri’s asylum request.
October 5, 2010 – PinkNews
Gay Saudi prince ‘strangled servant in sexual killing’
by PinkNews.co.uk Staff Writer
A gay Saudi prince has been accused of killing his servant in a London hotel room. Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud, 34, was accused of murdering Bandar Abdulaziz, 32, in a “sexually-motivated” attack last February. The pair had been staying at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone since January 20th as part of an extended holiday. Mr Abdulaziz was found beaten and strangled in bed at the pair’s room on February 15th.
Press Association reports that Mr al Saud admits the killing but denies murder and one count of grievous bodily harm with intent. The jury at the Old Bailey is to decide whether he is guilty of murder or manslaughter. According to the prosecution, the victim’s body displayed injuries consistent with a sexual attack. These included bite marks to the face.
Prosecutor Jonathan Laidlaw QC said: “Theirs was a far more complicated relationship that the defendant was prepared to admit and there was an abusive undertone to it. What is plain is that they did not travel as equals or as friends. Bandar was treated as an aide or servant and there was a far more sinister aspect to the defendant’s treatment of the victim. He would beat Bandar up and the abuse was not confined to physical violence – there was a sexual element to it as well.”
Mr al Saud has maintained that the pair were equals and that he is not gay. However, Mr Laidlaw said there were large amounts of evidence to prove that he was gay, such as evidence from male escorts, internet search histories and evidence from witnesses such as barmen. He said: “The evidence establishes quite conclusively that he is either gay or that he has homosexual tendencies.
“It is clear that his abuse of Bandar was not confined simply to physical beatings. There is clear evidence, over and above the bite marks, that there was also a sexual element to his mistreatment of the victim.” The prosecutor added that there was evidence Mr al Saud had attacked Mr Abdulaziz before, including CCTV footage from a hotel lift. The case continues.
October 15, 2010 – PinkNews
Saudi prince ‘could face death penalty for being gay’
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
A Saudi prince accused of murdering his servant in a London hotel room could face the death penalty at home for being gay, the Old Bailey heard today. Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud, 34, was accused of murdering Bandar Abdulaziz, 32, in a “sexually-motivated” attack last February. The court heard last week that there was “conclusive evidence” that he is gay and two male escorts are alleged to have performed sex acts on him. Mr al Saud denies he is gay and his lawyer, John Kelsey-Fry, says the pair were not in a relationship.
Today, the court heard that Saudi Arabia has strict laws against homosexuality and that Mr al Saud, whose mother is one of King Abdullah’s daughters, could be executed. According to AFP, Bobbie Cheema, prosecuting, said: “Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and carries the death penalty which is still applied in some cases. “The country in which any alleged acts took place would have little bearing on the likelihood of prosecution as the Saudi legal system is based on the sharia law which is considered to be universal.” She added that he could be at risk from his own family and from members of the victim’s family.
Mr Kelsey-Fry said that the law would only apply if his client had been in a gay relationship. Mr Abdulaziz was found beaten and strangled in bed at the pair’s room at the Landmark Hotel on February 15th. Mr al Saud denies murder and one count of grievous bodily harm with intent.
The case continues.
October 20, 2010 – PinkNews
Gay Saudi prince sentenced to life for killing servant
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
A gay Saudi prince has been sentenced to at least 20 years in prison for murdering his servant in a luxury London hotel. Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud beat and strangled Bandar Abdulaziz to death at the Landmark Hotel last February. The Old Bailey heard that the attack had a “sexual” element and that Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, had abused his servant before.
CCTV from a hotel lift showed the prince kicking and hitting Mr Abdulaziz shortly before his death, while the servant was found to have suffered multiple injuries, including bites to his face. Yesterday, jurors found Saud guilty of murder and a second count of grievous bodily harm which related to the attack in the lift. Associated Press reports that Justice David Bean told Saud: “It is very unusual for a prince to be in the dock on a murder charge. No one in this country is above the law.
“It would be wrong for me to sentence you either more severely or more leniently because of your membership of the Saudi royal family.” He added that Mr Abdulaziz, who did not fight back as Saud beat and kicked him to death, was a “vulnerable” individual who had been “exploited” by his master.
Today, it was revealed that Saud tried to hide the fact he was gay from the court. Jonathan Kelsey-Fry QC, the lawyer for Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud, applied for all legal argument relating to his client’s sexual orientation to be heard in a courtroom closed to journalists. Mr Kelsey-Fry said reporting of legal arguments could jeopardise the case and that his client’s sexuality was irrelevant.
The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers successfully appealed, arguing that there was no good reason to exclude the media and that journalists knew not to report legal argument before the end of the trial. Justice Bean said that the gay element of the case should be reported and that the jury should decide the motivation behind Mr Abdulaziz’s murder. Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and the prince could face the death penalty if he returns home, although his status as a royal is likely to offer protection.
8 November 2010 – Gay Middle East
Saudi gay gets 5-year jail, 500 lashes
Saudi Gazette – Jeddah: A 27-year-old Saudi man was sentenced to five years in prison, 500 lashes of the whip, and a SR50,000 fine after appearing in a recent amateur gay video online allegedly taken inside a Jeddah prison. Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Shathri, judge of the District Court in Jeddah, handed down the verdict for crimes including homosexuality, imitating women, and possessing pornographic video clips. The penalty comes after the spread of the video clip on the Internet allegedly sent via Bluetooth from inside the Briman prison, showing the man imitating a woman and turning into an explicit talk about sex. The Prison Administration has, however, denied that the short clip was filmed there.
The man had earlier impersonated a security officer and several verdicts were issued against him – the most prominent of which are homosexuality, imitating women, and possessing pornographic clips that show the man wearing women’s underwear and in compromising poses. A source said, “The District Court sentenced the accused in a homosexuality case that was referred to it by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a) in Jeddah before he was tried for impersonating a security man and behaving shamefully and with conduct violating the Islamic teachings.”
The case started when the Hai’a’s staff arrested the man under charges of practicing homosexuality. He was referred to the Bureau for Investigation and Prosecution, which referred him to the District Court.