Saudi religious police target ‘gay rainbows'

A school in Riyadh before and after its forced makeover. The religious police objected to its use of rainbows.
A school in Riyadh before and after its forced makeover. The religious police objected to its use of rainbows.

Saudi Arabian officials are notoriously hardline when dealing with homosexuality, which is illegal in the country. But recently, the country’s religious police have taken it to a whole new level by cracking down on rainbows. They recently imposed a large fine on a school in Riyadh for a colourful mural featuring a rainbow.

The rainbow is a symbol of the LGBT community and social media around the world was flooded with celebratory rainbow symbols after the United States Supreme Court legalised gay marriage on June 26. Many international supporters of the ruling donned rainbow clothes and hung rainbow flags from buildings. This surge of colourful support annoyed Saudi officials… and the Talaee Al-Noor International School in Riyadh paid the price.

This private international school was handed a hefty fine of 100,000 rials (equivalent to about 25,000 euros) for having repainted its façade with rainbow colours. A school official was also thrown in prison for the rainbow decor.

The news was first reported by a Twitter account of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the official name for the Saudi religious police) on July 17. The tweet also included a photo showing the school’s wall, freshly repainted a sober blue.

“The Commission, the municipality and the emirate removed the symbol and imposed a fine of 100,000 Rials to a ‘foreign school’ which had put the symbol of homosexuals [on its building façade]”.

Dozens of Saudi Twitter users applauded the school’s heavy penalty. Some even denounced other organisations using rainbows.

This social media user, for example, called for a boycott of Claire’s, a Western company that has stores in Saudi Arabia and specialises in jewelry and accessories for teenage and pre-teen girls. The problem? Claire’s sells rainbow-themed accessories.

"The symbol of homosexuals is used by the Claire’s store. Be careful and warn your daughters."

This Twitter user went even further: he denounced members of a mosque in Riyadh who had recently used multicoloured parasols in their celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the end to the holy month of Ramadan.

However, not everyone in Saudi Arabia wants to ban the rainbow. Many internet users also came out against this rainbow witch hunt, calling it absurd.

“People have gone crazy! Don’t they know that rainbows are a natural phenomenon whose existence preceded its use by homosexuals? What is this madness?”

“And there you have it – they’ve discovered the homosexuals’ symbol. And, so, from now on, the rainbow has become sinful”.

Homosexuality is considered a crime by Saudi authorities. During a meeting held by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva on June 27, representatives from Saudi Arabia opposed a proposed resolution for LGBT rights. “Saudi Arabia reaffirms its commitment to human rights and its respect for international conventions, when they are in conformity with Islamic laws,” said the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, on his Twitter account.

“The religious police have never bothered with rainbows before now”

Mohamed Alsaeedi is a human rights activist.

The decision to lash out at this school is ridiculous. I’d say that half of all Saudi schools and pre-schools probably have rainbows painted on their walls somewhere or other. What are they supposed to do? Erase them all?

In any case, it is the first time that the religious police have acted in this way. They never bothered with rainbows before the buzz surrounding the legalisation of gay marriage in the United States.

From what I can see, it seems to be an isolated campaign – there hasn’t been a fresh outbreak of repression of homosexuals in recent weeks.

In fact, in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes easier to be in a homosexual relationship than a heterosexual relationship. The authorities do everything they can to separate men and women, but people of the same sex are free to meet up in public spaces. So homosexuals can meet in the street, in cafes and in shopping centres, as long as they are being discrete. That said, when homosexuals are caught, they run major risks.

In Saudi Arabia, there is no specific law condemning homosexuality. But, in general, people found guilty of homosexual relations face both prison sentences and public lashings.

In November 2014, the tribunal in Dammam, a city in the eastern part of the country, sentenced a man to three years in prison and a fine of 26,000 euros for having committed “immoral acts.” In Medina, another Saudi citizen received a three-year prison sentence and 450 lashes after being found guilty of “promotion of vice and practice of homosexuality”.