As a lady, the eyes are always on you. Whether you are wearing what is called “Girly Clothes” or not, it’s still a big struggle to walk by a group of people without having them checking you from head to toe. Being too feminine with your talk, walk, act, and clothes could possibly bring you harassment but even more, showing the least femininity could raise more questions in people’s heads.
During my childhood years, I grew up being closer to my brother than any other member of my family. Playing football, spending hours on video games, riding a bicycle, and having short hair were all things that gave me confidence and joy. Little that I knew back then that the need for these things will grow with me as I get older. Things got a little bit more complicated as I became an adult since people have more judgments to make about my outfit or my short hair. Sometimes, I can see them judging me just by looking at their faces. People around me find it hard to accept that a girl is more interested in wearing oversized T-shirts and hoodies than wearing skirts or dresses. As I walk in the street, I notice the looks from people who whisper to each other, “Is this a boy or a girl?” I believe that my sexuality gets questioned by most people who see me and that does not get me mad as much as it gets me worried. Some days, these worries force me to change my outfit or think twice before visiting a certain shop or a café.
Now, that I understand my sexuality better than any time before, I am aware that there is nothing wrong with me. Some days I wake up feeling a strong need to wear a dress and straighten my hair. While on other days, I prefer to wear my oversized hoody or T-shirt and high-five every single friend I see. I admit that being the least feminine always makes me feel more confident and free. Still, that doesn’t take away my right of wearing skirts and dresses. I am no longer confused about my sexuality but rather confused about the way I can express it through my style without putting myself in trouble. It is about learning how to cross the drawn lines without putting myself in serious problems with anyone. .
Your style so as to mine and everyone else’s is chosen according to the social norms that govern the behavior of our Iraqi society. There are certain clothes allowed for guys and another for girls. These limitations come from the belief that keeping our culture alive is achieved by choosing certain clothes and colors to be worn by each gender. I am sure you have noticed that some men avoid wearing pink or red and tend to choose dark colors as a way of expressing their masculinity. Women, on the other side, are expected to embrace their feminine side and express it by having long hair and wearing girly clothes that get them easily distinguished from men. I am here to tell you that there should not be any rules that control what someone can wear. These limitations are not laws of the universe because we are not born with the conviction that pink is for girls and blue is for guys. We learn these rules from our environment which includes our neighborhood, school, family, and even TV and social media.
Having friends and teachers who accept me the way I am and support me helps me feel better about myself. Some of the judgments I receive from people still hurt especially the ones that come from my family members. However, I keep in mind that the real problem is the ideologies that people rely on which make them determine how much respect to give someone base on their dressing style. The other thing that helps me feel better is that I have tried being on both sides. I tried being too girly with my clothes and behavior and I tried being the least girly I could as well. Both ways did not fully stop the irritation or criticism whether that was from my family and some friends or even strangers. That proves my point that no one can escape criticism but what you can do is keep yourself safe by wearing and doing the things that bring you the least pain possible. Keep in mind that not all the Iraqi queers are the same because some are dealing with bigger restrictions and fear than some others. Learn to act based on your own circumstances by putting your life and safety first. Remember not to wear or do anything that can put your life in danger but if you get the chance to express your sexuality through your style do it without any feelings of shyness or shame.
As an Iraqi, you would probably say that you have not heard about this day or you have, but can’t celebrate it in any way. Not at your house with your family, with your friends and girlfriend, or even in the street with strangers. Still, IraQueer works to change things so that Iraq will be safer for the LGBT+ community and Iraqis will be more supportive of the LGBT+ community. Until that day comes, IraQueer wants you to know that you, as a lesbian individual, are strong, valid, and important to us. Be proud of yourself for surviving your days without the support you deserve. Remember that good things happen as we believe they are possible so stay strong and proud of who you are.
On this special day, we want to tell the love stories of lesbian ladies who have been struggling just like you and so many others in different cities of Iraq. Sara, who is a 28-year-old lesbian from Basra, talks about both the love and fear she is experiencing with her girlfriend. She says, “I met my girlfriend two years ago on a dating app." She explains the difficulty of being a woman and a lesbian in a city like Basra. She says, “We do not have the opportunity to express either one of our identities. Because of that, I never thought I would ever meet someone who will know about both of my identities, accept them, and even love me because of them.” Sara mentions that being around her girlfriend gives her peace and joy but at the same, there is always that fear of her family or her girlfriend’s family. That fear if someone catches them kissing or knows that they are more than friends. The fear of them getting killed or never getting the chance to see each other again. As girls in Basra, they are not allowed to spend so much time in the streets or cafes so they tend to visit each other a lot. That is where they get the chance to watch movies or talk about music, poetry, and love.
Khawla says that she had to go through a painful divorce experience before she got the chance to understand her sexuality and who she really is. She says, “After six years of being married to my cousin, I got divorced. Arranged marriages are very common in Karbala where I am from. A 30 year old girl who is not married is not acceptable. In families like mine, girls are supposed to get married at a certain age, perform their marital duties, give birth to babies, raise their children, stay at home, and be good wives.” After her divorce, Khawla isolated herself from her family and everyone else. That was the time when she started questioning her sexuality and realized that she was not straight. When she met her neighbor, she immediately feel in love with her. They both had feelings for each other so they kept meeting and talking about their lives and sharing personal details. Their families did not suspect anything because their mothers were friends and the visits between the two families were so easy to happen. Khawla did not have the courage to express her feelings at first but as they got closer she decided to take that step. “One day, we were laying on her bed, listening to Shireen’s song “Enkatabli Omr”, our hands started touching. We were talking about love, then we had our first kiss. It was the first time in my life that I feel afraid and safe at the same time. Since then, we have been together.”
These two stories are an example of hundreds of other similar stories. As a lesbian girl, keep in mind that you are not fighting alone and that things could get better someday. As long as you have the choice to decide, never let others decide for you and keep in mind that it is absolutely fine to be lost for a while. Be hopeful that a better phase might come as you get to a point where you are sure about your sexuality and identity. Last but not least, remember that being a lesbian is not a deterrent for finding love. There are a lot of lesbians around you who are too afraid to show it. Just look closely around you and you might find your love and second half. On this day, IraQueer wants you to know that you are heard and seen. So never hesitate to contact us if you ever felt the need for an advice or support.
The Iraqi queers seem to face pressure and stress from multiple sides. It’s not only about their fear of people’s reaction or judgment about their sexuality. Queer individuals in Iraq, just like the rest of Iraqis, share the same daily stressful life. Lack of jobs, political problems, and war are all reasons that cause anxiety and kills the hope in their hearts. The Iraqi queers are forced to adapt to this environment in addition to the need to adapt to the people’s mentality that rejects them. Queer people, just like everyone else, need someone to listen to them or advise them but that isn’t available to the majority of them. That lack of support leads to depression that can push some of them to suicide.
My first person to interview is Lizu who is a 19-year-old lesbian girl. Lizu says, “My suicidal thoughts don’t come from me rejecting being queer, rather it comes from the rejection I face from the society. It’s me against the society, religion, and culture.” Lizu explains that her pressure comes almost from every direction. Her family, relatives, society, and religion, all put pressure on her in addition to the fear of the unknown and the fear of someone knowing about her sexuality which can put her in many troubles. The good news is Lizu has beaten her suicidal thoughts by reading about the subject and building healthy habits like having a consistent routine of sleep and eating time. Other than that, she says that her friends are providing her with a lot of support that keeps her going.
Ayman, who is a 22-year-old gay man, tells me that his suicidal thoughts have come from the time when he was religious because religion says that queer people shall burn in hell. Other than the pressure Ayman got from religion, the fear of his parents knowing about his sexuality and the fear of the unknown put tremendous pressure on him. Thanks to his best friends, he has beaten his suicidal thoughts and is currently having a more peaceful mindset. He says that having someone to talk to helps a lot in reducing the stress and calming the person and that is what he advises everyone to try to have.
Eithan, who is a 29-year-old gay man, tells me his story of fighting his suicidal thoughts. He says, “My suicidal thoughts started a short time after my colleagues found an evidence about my sexuality when I was around 22 years old. They deliberately isolated me from the rest of the students and told everyone not to have any contact with me whatsoever, even my best friends who have always trusted me, had to stay away from me to protect themselves and their reputation. Also, every time I face homophobia from my family, friends, co-workers, or read about it on social media, I feel like an alien, a being that doesn't have a place in this world and has no right to exist in it, back when I was 22-23 I received help from a psychiatrist and it helped me through the worst of my suicidal episodes, I still I get them, yet to a less extent.” He tells me that his suicidal thoughts come back as he faces pressure from his family, friends, or relatives and then go away for a while. The support he gets from his gay friends and his hope of having a better tomorrow are the reasons that keep him going. He says that providing a guidance counselor or a suicide hotline service that is open 24/7 would highly help to prevent self-murder among queer individuals.
Ahmed is a 25-year-old gay man who was 16 years old when he realized that he was gay. Only then he knew how little support is provided to him and other queer people. Ahmed’s fear of the society, his relatives, and the religious people around him have been causing him daily stress. For that, his suicidal thoughts aren’t completely gone, rather they come and go. He tells me that getting support whether from a family member, friends, or NGOs would offer so much help to the Iraqi queers and help to reduce the number of suicide in the country.
Hate is what the majority of the Iraqi queers find themselves surrounded with even when they isolate themselves, they don’t seem to be able to avoid troubles. Queer people are hated because of who they are and that makes the whole problem worse. It’s not a certain word or an action to avoid saying or doing to make things better for themselves and that leads to self-hatred which brings depression. As a queer person you need to keep in mind that life is constantly changing which means that the current stress you are dealing with is eventually going to vanish. Stay strong and remember that if things are bad for your generation, you must work hard to make the next generation more understanding and supportive.
As we all know, everybody faces difficulties finding a job in Iraq due to the economic situation and the tensions that have been hitting the country for many years. In addition to the difficulties that face everybody in general, there are extra difficulties that face queer individuals. Most queer individuals in Iraq tend to hide their sexuality and avoid building close friendships with their colleagues to avoid personal questions that would reveal any information about their sexuality. Queer individuals can get fired or get treated badly by both their boss and their colleagues if they ever tried to be themselves in the workplace. That’s why queers choose the safe solution that insures them a quiet work environment away from judgments and bad jokes. Recently, I interviewed three queer individuals from different cities in the country to see if their workplaces are safe enough to allow them to be themselves or if they are forced to pretend to be someone they aren’t to avoid trouble.
Niyaz, who is a pansexual woman, works in the finance and banking system in Erbil. I ask her if her sexuality caused her difficulties during the job interview or prevented her from getting a job. For that, she says that she hasn’t ever faced such issues simply because she doesn’t display her sexuality and keeps it a secret from everyone in the company she works for. Since everybody in her workplace believes she is straight, she tells me that she isn’t sure how their reaction would be if she ever planned to be herself and talk honestly about her sexuality. She says, “Having a female figure and physicality, I think society won’t care about my sexuality as much as they would if I had a male physicality. Still, I think I won’t be treated the same as now if people in my workplace knew about my sexuality. I might get fired or get treated differently and get avoided by them.” Niyaz says that there is only one person in her workplace who knows about her sexuality. That person is a close friend who treats her and respects her just like the straight people in the company. Other than that, she believes that keeping her sexuality a secret is way safer to her.
Rokher who works and lives in Baghdad tells me his story. He explains that he has faced trouble in his workplace previously as his colleagues and boss bullied him several times. That forced him to isolate himself but it did not stop the trouble. One day, he heard his boss telling one of the workers about him and describing him to her as an effeminate. For that, he decided to resign from his job although it was in a governmental organization and the workplace was good. He says, “Everybody knows how hard it is to get a job in Iraq but feeling that I was weird and not accepted by others made me leave my job.” That bad experience made him more careful about mentioning his sexuality to anyone because talking about that brings him and his family trouble and bad reputation.
Roza, who is a 22 year old lesbian woman from Duhok, tells me about her job. The organization she works for is LGBTQ+ friendly and considerate. For that, she says that there is no chance that her boss would fire her or that her colleagues would avoid her if they knew about her sexuality. Still, she tries not to act boyish or use any LGBTQ+ words and she keeps her sexuality a secret. She clarifies that although her workplace is LGBTQ+ friendly, the environment outside the organization is not, so she prefers to hide her sexuality.
The difficulty that faces queer Iraqis is that they have to hide certain sides of their personalities depending on the place they got to. Until this day, queer Iraqis can’t be themselves fully due to the judgments and hate they face from the majority around them. It is safer for them and their families to keep pretending they are someone else than to get fired from their jobs or get killed. The change is happening slowly and we hope that one day queer individuals will no longer need to hide or wear a mask to please others around them. Until that day comes, IraQueer encourages Iraqi queer individuals to put their safety first and try to avoid any arguments with others that can cause trouble and hurt them or their families.
Today is the bisexuality day that is celebrated in some countries while never mentioned in some others. As known, Iraq isn’t a country that welcomes or supports queer people in general. We, bisexuals, tend to face even more stress trying to accept ourselves and explain our sexuality to people around us. We are considered confused individuals and that we aren’t sure what we want. Constantly, we are asked to decide the gender we prefer to date and told that what we are going through is just a phase.
I am a 24 bisexual woman whom recently joined IraQueer. As a bisexuals myself, I needed years to figure out my sexuality because in the society I live in, normal people must fall in love with the ones from the opposite gender only. If that isn’t the case, then that person is mentally sick. During my childhood and adolescence, the subject of homosexuality in general wasn’t allowed to be discussed. The only time that people would clap for me when talking about this subject was if I made jokes about it. For that, I didn’t ask too many questions, not myself or even others. The first time I had feelings for a girl was during my school years, but I never told her about it or questioned my sexuality. Not long after that I met people my age and older who discussed the subject of homosexuality with me in a civilized manner. With all the support I was given, the image of homosexuality became clearer to me and that gave me the chance to understand myself and love it the way it is.
Besides my story, I asked bisexuals from different cities in Iraq about their own experiences to understand how they feel about themselves and the struggles the deal with. Sally who’s a 28 year old bisexual woman from Karbala is one of the people I interviewed. Sally isn’t only bisexual but also a transgender, before changing her gender, she was attracted to both men and women. Things haven’t change after changing her gender since she is still attacked to both genders. She says, “Bisexuality is often forgotten, and as a transgender woman, my sexual orientation is often forgotten too. I don’t have the space to express my identity. Not only in Iraq, in general, every resource I read about transgender women, they never talk about our sexual orientation.”
Farah who’s a 27 year old bisexual woman from Kirkuk explains that she is married to the wrong person. She says, “I like my husband. He is a good man, but he isn’t the love of my life.” She clarifies, “you might think, as a bisexual you also like men, so why aren’t you happy with your husband? I would say, the heart wants what it wants. And my heart belongs to one of my friends who is a girl. It’s not up to me to decide who to love.”
Shivan who’s a 22 year old bisexual man from Erbil, explains to me how hard it’s to be bisexual in Iraq. Shivan says, “Being bisexual is like having two people inside you, sometimes it makes me feel crazy. When I was a kid, I thought I was cursed or there was a demon inside me, so I hated myself. I lost my confidence and I avoided making friends. All that time, I was thinking that I don’t deserve being loved.” Shivan tells me that as he began watching movies and reading stories about other bisexuals, he started understanding himself more. After a while, he began to accept himself but he has kept his sexuality a secret from his family and most of his friends because he doesn’t think that they would show him any support.
Sara who’s a 23 year old bisexual woman from Baghdad explains to me that fear from the society’s judgments pushes her to pretend she’s someone she’s actually not. She clarifies that being both bisexual and a woman puts too much pressure on her because that means she’s not only standing against the society’s culture but also standing against their religious believes. “I don’t feel safe to be in a relationship with a girl, simply because that could bring me so many troubles and I might get killed. For that, I prefer keeping my sexuality a secret.” Is her answer for why she’s not thinking about getting involved in a romantic relationship with any girl?
Aram who is a 24 year old bisexual man from Erbil tells me that people who know about his sexuality tell him that being bisexual allows him to get the best of both worlds meaning he's lucky he can choose to date both males and females which is considered an advantage. He clarifies that being bisexual isn’t an advantage since he lives in a community that doesn’t allow him to date a guy or express himself freely, not even around his girlfriend. He says, “I hear a lot of bad comments about having low self-esteem or not knowing what I want.” Aram’s ex-girlfriend used to ignore the fact that he was bisexual and used to think this was just a phase that he would get over. About his feelings now, he mentions to me that despite the lack of support and loneliness he is going through, he accepts himself and he’s lucky to find himself. He loves himself and for that, he does not need anyone’s approval.
We, bisexuals, keep hoping that things will eventually get better. We hope that one day we will be accepted in our community and that we will get rid of all the daily pressure and stress we deal with just because we are trying to be ourselves. We hope that our community will accept us and love us just like we accept and love ourselves.
Thank you for helping us reach ONE MILLION people
Today, IraQueer celebrates its five year anniversary. During those five years, IraQueer quickly transformed from an online platform to a registered human rights organization that is recognized by the international community, quoted by governments and UN agencies, and most importantly, relied on by thousands of LGBT+ Iraqis.
In the last five years, we have produced information in Iraqi Arabic and Sorani Kurdish that never existed before. We trained more than 100 activists, social workers, and journalists. We spoke at some of the biggest events in the world including the UN’s Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and One Young World. Our work has encouraged other Iraqi organizations to be more intersectional in their approach to human rights and speak up for the rights of underrepresented groups like the LGBT+ community.
Together with our Iraqi and international partners, we have achieved several political wins for LGBT+ Iraqis. Starting with the submission of numerous reports to United Nations mechanisms that resulted in giving Iraq several LGBT+ focused recommendations, and ending with our most recent win of having the Iraqi government recognize the right to life of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation.
While we still have a very long way to go and many other milestones to reach, we want to take this moment to reflect on our progress and to thank all the organizations, government, and individuals who believed in us and supported us throughout the last five years. Thank you for helping us reach more than ONE MILLION people online and offline. Thank you for being generous with your time, resources, and knowledge, and for helping us refine our work and be more effective. We have laid a strong foundation in the last five years because of your support.
Today, all of us at IraQueer are determined to fight harder for human rights of LGBT+ Iraqis. For the coming years, we will be focusing most of our efforts on building an Iraqi human rights movement in which talking about LGBT+ rights is the norm. Together with current and future partners, we will build on the successes of our previous advocacy campaigns and continue to push for the legal and social protection of LGBT+ Iraqis. Our fight will not end until every LGBT+ Iraqi is protected, recognized, and able to live the life they deserve, and for that, we will continue to need your support so we hope you are as determined and excited about the future as we are.