Video: Montreal a human rights ‘hot spot’


Montreal – There are no gays in Yemen.

That’s the Middle Eastern republic’s official position on homosexuality.

But in the event that a person is caught committing a homosexual act in one of Yemen’s southeastern provinces, two kinds of punishment are meted out: flogging and death.

In the face of the country’s profoundly homophobic laws, one Yemeni has chosen not only to live an openly gay life but also to blog about it, among other human rights issues. Ala’a Jarban, 23, is one of 37 people in Montreal this month to receive human rights training at a conference held on the John Abbott College campus.

Jarban came to Montreal after creating an online space where Yemen’s queer community can post about their lives anonymously and ask questions without the fear of being met with violence. His blog also inspires youth to use technology and the Internet to advocate for democratic reform.

“You’re taking a huge risk by being an activist in a place like Yemen,” Jarban told The Gazette. “It’s an extremely conservative country, where being gay is a crime under our constitution. Coming here is a great way to see that other people are facing similar challenges and that there’s a lot we can learn from each other.”

The training course, organized by Montreal-based group Equitas, brings people together from human rights “hot spots” across the globe in hopes of sending them home with tools to keep fighting for their respective causes.

For three weeks, the 37 men and women live in dorms on the West Island campus and take part in about nine hours of courses each day. They follow a curriculum designed by Equitas, but organizers say the majority of the learning that goes on in workshops comes from the participants themselves.

“It really is all about them and what they bring to the table,” said Chris Bradley, a program officer for Equitas, which aims to promote human rights globally through education. “These are courageous people who have experience working in the human rights field in parts of the world where there’s a real need for their work. So they bring a wealth of knowledge here and we just provide them with a framework to share it.”

It’s the 34th year Equitas will be giving the training, which has created a network of 3,500 human rights workers in 60 countries.

Participants come from central Africa, China, Europe and conflict-torn nations including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria. They each have experience struggling to make gains for women’s voting rights, equal access to education, to economic equality and, increasingly, for the recognition of gay and LGBT rights.

“There are parts of Pakistan where we’re making progress for the (LGBT) community but there’s regions where the Taliban has threatened to cut my head off if I tried to do outreach work,” said Shery, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used, for fear of reprisals. “Being a gay man is not easy, you have to act straight and many of the gay people I know marry a woman to hide their sexuality. It’s about hiding who you are or risking discrimination and ridicule.”

Shery, also in his 20s, is actively involved with an organization that lobbies the Pakistani government for a more tolerant attitude toward the LGBT community. Despite death threats and a number of serious hurdles in educating the Islamic republic, the group and its 99 workers have managed to secure access to better health care for gay men and women as well as other major gains for the cause.

Their work reflects the gradual progress of LGBT rights in Pakistan, where a 2012 Supreme Court ruling allowed the country’s transgender population to vote and run for elected office. But with each step forward, there remain serious obstacles for Shery and his colleagues.

Simply using the word “gay” in certain Pakistani circles triggers alarm bells, Shery said.

Shery says he’s faced a great deal of backlash for his work with the queer community, including having his picture circulated online with a caption that demanded people to take action against him for being gay.

“The leaked photo forced me to come out to a lot of my friends and to lie to some of them about my sexuality,” he said. “In some cases I denied it, or just told my friends it was a photo of someone else. It made its way through Facebook and into my home village. It was a hard time.”

Rather than dissuade him, the ordeal seems to have emboldened Shery, who decided to fill out the exhaustive application for Equitas’s training seminar nearly a year ago.

Spots in the seminar aren’t easy to come by as the organization had to turn aside over 700 applications this year alone.

“Some years we get over 1,000 people applying, and it’s a rigorous process,” Bradley said. “They need to prove they’re working on a human rights project, they need at least two letters of reference and we generally know if the letters are coming from legitimate NGOs because we deal with so many groups across the world. The idea is that we don’t want this to end here, we want them to go home and keep working on something concrete.”

Six months after the John Abbott course ends, Equitas evaluates the progress of each participant’s human rights project in their home country. Another recap comes two years from the end of the seminar to ensure the course’s legacy remains intact.

Bradley highlighted the work of Equitas alumni on a women’s voting campaign in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring. Workers trained by the Montreal NGO have banded together in Egypt to ensure women register to vote and participate in their country’s democratic process. Equitas initiatives aiming at getting young people involved in civic affairs are underway in Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Morocco, among other nations.

For Jarban, the journey to Montreal is just another step in a process that began years ago when he was still a teenager.

“When I started blogging about being gay, I did it anonymously and a lot of Yemeni people just thought it was American propaganda,” he said. “But now they know I’m one of them and I’m hoping that it can inspire people to realize that they aren’t alone, that there’s other people in their corner.”

by Christopher Curtis, The Gazette
Source – The Gazette