In the streets of Baghdad, people have been anonymously putting up posters and banners supporting LGBT rights since the beginning of June. Their presence in the city has caught the attention of social media. It’s a daring campaign – and a risky one in a country where gay people are regularly victims of violence.
One photo circulating on social media shows the iconic rainbow flag with a map of Iraq on it draped underneath the statue of Abou Nawas, a famous Arab poet of the 9th century – known as a libertine and for openly expressing his own homosexuality in his poetry.
The same flag was also found hung on a chainlink fence in Baghdad. “Even murders cannot stop life’s march”, it reads.
"Difference is the foundation of life" is the message on these posters displayed underneath a bridge in Baghdad.
"In Iraqi media, LGBT people are usually presented as deviants"
Iraqueer is an NGO based in Sweden that works to promote the rights of Iraqi LGBT people. They told FRANCE 24 that they had begun this publicity campaign in cooperation with a local NGO in Baghdad. Amir Ashour is the president of the organisation.
This is the second year in a row that we’ve led this poster campaign about LGBT rights. The NGO that we work with on this prefers to remain anonymous. If they openly admitted to being behind the campaign, there’s a risk that they would lose support for their other projects from the state and other bodies.
The goal of this campaign is to say to the LGBT community in Iraq: “You are not alone. We have not forgotten you.”
The media rarely report on violence committed against LGBT people, and certainly never come out and condemn it. We did an investigation where we counted 220 killings of LGBT people across the country – and that’s just in 2017. When a TV show talks about LGBT people, it’s usually only to present them as sexual deviants. They invite pseudo-experts who explain that these people have an illness that needs to be cured, and that they represent a danger to children.
The police also target them. We have videos that show police officers humiliating and raping transsexuals. We attribute this surge in violence against the LGBT community to the total passivity of the state and a rise in armed groups who are able to act with impunity.
In January 2017, the group Asa’eb Ahl Al-Haq [a Shiite Islamist military movement, which is one of the main groups in the military coalition Hachd al-Chaabi, formed in June 2014 to fight against the Islamic State group] published a list of 100 people accused of homosexuality, who were threatened with death. Since then, some have been killed, others have fled the country, and a large number of them are now missing.
Homosexuals have been targeted in several waves of murders since the second Iraq war in 2003 and the increase in armed militias in the country.
In 2012, 56 young Iraqis who dressed in “emo” style were murdered, most of them in Baghdad, for looking androgynous.
In 2017, the body of actor and art student Karar Noshi was found in a street in Baghdad. He had been murdered with a knife. He had often been mocked on social media for his androgynous look.
In August 2016, the Shiite religious leader and politician Moqtada al-Sadr publicly called on his supporters to stop violence against homosexuals, a move praised by several human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch. But despite his efforts, “It didn’t really help to improve the image of homosexuals, which is still very negative,” says Amir Ashour.
"Being discreet is the best way to protect yourself"
In Baghdad, it is very difficult for an NGO to openly defend the rights of homosexuals because of the risk of violent reprisals. Omar Al-Alouani is the president of the NGO Haq and one of the few activists to have shared photos of the LGBT campaign. However, he says he’s against the initiative.
I shared the photos in a Facebook group for human rights activists. I accompanied the photos with a simple question: ‘Is society ready?’ I didn’t say anything further because it could be problematic for me.
My organisation doesn’t work specifically on LGBT themes. But we try to help them if they come to us asking for help. A few weeks ago, a homosexual man came to us asking for help because he had been harassed and beaten up by people in the street. We offered him psychological support, and gave him advice on how to dress, how to wear his hair, etc. We have to ask these people to be as discreet as possible – it’s for their own safety.
"We are worried that the campaign will actually reawaken hate”
We believe being discreet is the best way to protect yourself. That’s why we don’t agree with this poster campaign. We’re worried, in fact, that it’s going to reawaken hate against the LGBT community, and actually cause violent reprisals, attacks, or even murders.
Hate against the LGBT community is so entrenched that people accused of being homosexual can even be murdered by their own family or their own tribe, particularly in more rural regions.
To raise awareness about the situation of the LGBT community in Iraq, Iraqueer produces reports for NGOs and the United Nations Human Rights Council. It also dispenses health and safety advice to LGBT people, as Amir Ashour explains:
We advise them to have strong passwords on their phone, their email account, and their different social media accounts. We tell them to only use gay dating apps like Grindr if they are absolutely sure of the identity of the person they’re talking with. Armed groups have used these apps in the past to ambush homosexuals – and then to murder them.