For decades and due to the cultural taboos that have been ruling the Iraqi society, the roles that Iraqi women and girls could play in the society have been extremely limited. Compared to men and boys, Iraqi women and girls aren’t offered equal opportunities that assist them to achieve independence or support their families.
After the war of 2003, plenty of changes happened in the country that opened the door for women to participate in the labor force. Women’s help was needed as a lot of men were killed either during the war of 2003 or later in 2014 as ISIS emerged and captured several Iraqi cities.
Women have adapted to work both indoor and outdoor, yet they haven’t been close to being equal to men in payments and rights. The society specified certain fields to be majorly reserved by women including teaching or nursery which created a gap that got filled by men
Until this day, we still can notice the absence of women in certain fields including politics, management, and technology.
Globally, women and girls with special needs are likely to face a higher level of discrimination and Iraq is no exception to this. With the presence of social restrictions that Iraqi women and girls face in general, the ones with disabilities have more obstacles to overcome.
That’s why our Iraqi society needs female activists who can empower other women to reshape the society’s models in a way that allows them all to gain more power over their lives.
Aya al-Qaisi, who is an Iraqi TV presenter and an activist, is our honored guest for today to talk about her passion and bravery that inspired her to follow her dream. While Aya suffered from cancer in an early age of her life, she grew up to become an active member in the Iraqi society that encourages other women to take the lead for their lives and make positive changes.
Can you give us an introduction about yourself and your work?
I am Aya al-Qaisi, and I am originally from Baghdad. I studied English Literature at the University. Now, I work as a TV presenter for UTV, which is a well know Iraqi TV channel.
Tell us your story with cancer. What are the important lessons you learned from that painful experience?
My story with cancer started from a young age. I was only six years old when I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in my right leg and that led to amputating my leg and receiving radiation therapy. The best way to describe it is to say that it was an innocent experience as I was a kid back when it happened. What I can say is that it was a phase filled with a lot of doubt.
Tell us your story with journalism and media. When did your passion grow for them and how did it lead you to work in the field?
Although my journey began only two years ago, my passion for the media field started back in high school years. I spent a year searching and acquiring knowledge about the field and later I got the chance to work for a social media platform and from thereon I transferred to a TV station.
During these years of working in the media field, have you experienced any discrimination due to being a woman or due to having a prosthetic leg?
I indeed faced obstacles due to a couple of reasons, the first reason was due to my young age as I entered the media field when I was only 21 years old. The second reason was due to being a woman with special needs working in this field on the Iraqi screen. My continuous hard work and insistence both helped me hold out and work even harder and harder for it.
Aside from the society’s acceptance, how would you describe your family’ reaction to the work you do?
My family’s reaction was quite tense back when I started working in the field, but now I can say that it became the opposite.
Based on your experience, how do you think the entrance of Iraqi women in the field of journalism and media can make a positive impact in the Iraqi society?
Having women participating in all fields and entering the labor market can make a huge difference since women, in general, own their special mentality, thoughts, and perspectives about certain things. The field of journalism and media particularly requires them to be well-educated and distinctive so that they become successful presenters.
What’s your message to all the brave Iraqi activists like yourself?
My message to them is to show resilience and to always challenge themselves, their society, and even their families to reach success because any woman or girl can be the reason why another one changes for the better.
16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that starts off on the 25th of November until the 10th of December. During this yearly campaign, multiple activities take place around the world to raise awareness among people on how to end Gender-Based Violence.
As an NGO that supports equality, IraQueer stands with all the feminists out there who fight daily to break the cycle of silence. The point is to clarify that harm, in all of its shapes and forms whether it was physical, psychological, or sexual, is not allowed to be practiced, regardless of the gender identity and/or sexual orientation of the person. Even though 16 days of activism against Gender-Based Violence is observed globally, queer people are often excluded from the picture. Gender-Based Violence is not just violence against women, but it is any violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The importance of this yearly campaign is manifested in supporting our community to destroy the harmful social norms that chain its members and constrain their behaviors.
For this year’s campaign, IraQueer shed light on the lifesaving work that some Iraqi feminists conduct to protect human rights and gender equality. In this guest interview, IraQueer shares the voice of Shokhan Hama Rashid, a Kurdish Iraqi activist who works for WOLA organization, to talk about her experience and share her advice:
Can you give us an introduction about yourself?
I am Shokhan Hama Rasheed Ahmed. I am consultant lawyer and I have been working for years as a lawyer and a trainer in gender issues and women’s right advocacy.
How long have you been working for Gender-Based Violence (GBV)?
I have been working for GBV cases for 15 years now and I have multiple international and regional certificates in training, case management and international law.
What inspired you to become an activist?
Inequality, injustice, women’s rights violation and lack of awareness in society were all reasons that drove me to become an activist.
Who are the people you help? Are they women only? Do they include LGBT+?
We can say it’s a combination of all since I work to help women, marginalized groups and those with special needs.
Are things improving or becoming worse? Do you have hope?
Unfortunately, things are becoming worse every day. But this does not stop us from being hopeful. We will continue our work until we make change.
Have you received any threats or experienced danger due to your work? If yes, tell us about it.
Of course. We face threats on a daily basis, whether face to face, on the phone or through messages. I have been threatened in front of the judge numerous times for helping women and we have also received death threats.
What is your message to all Iraqi activists?
My message to Iraqi activists is to continue advocating for all marginalized groups, spread awareness and protect women. I ask them not to let any obstacle hinder them as a large number of people need our help.
Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is observed annually on the 20th of November, is an opportunity to memorialize the transgender individuals who were murdered by transphobic people. The Transgender Day of Remembrance first happened in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor the memory of Rita Hester who was murdered in 1998. Since that time, transgender people celebrate the day around the world to remember all their victims. Iraq is one of the countries that do not provide any form of support to the LBGT+ community in general. A report that was compiled by IraQueer includes information about the danger that surrounds the Iraqi trans community. Iraq is one of the countries that do not legalize hormone treatments or gender confirmation surgeries which puts the ones who decide to do them in a lot of danger. If the individuals decide to have the surgery outside of Iraq, they will likely face troubles to obtain legal documents that reflect their gender identity. This blog shares one of the most tragic stories about a brave transgender woman named Wurood.
❝My story is extremely sad because all these years I have been tortured and used by many people. I slept on the streets and in the parks back when I did not have a place to stay in, I ate from the garbage cans to stay alive, I was exploited by my relatives both sexually and physically, and I had to have sex with some people in order to get some food or money. I said no sometimes and I had to say yes some other times to keep myself alive and sheltered. Although I am in my home country, I am always scared of people around me because they see me and others like me as guilty and odd people who do not deserve to exist. People give themselves the right to hurt us the way they like, they want to cut our heads off, burn us, and torture us to death. I am an orphan from both sides and my two sisters, who encouraged several people from my tribe to kill me, abandoned me. Based on the tribe’s norms, killing me is considered honor killing which means they have complete freedom to choose the way to kill me without being punished for it. Since I was ten years old, my mother and father used to constantly torture me in different ways. I remember my mother used to throttle me and put a hot spoon or knife on my skin to burn it. If my father was still alive, I would have been dead by now because he would think I bring shame to him and all the family by being myself. Although I got raped and tortured multiple times by different people, I still accept myself this way and I believe that I don’t have any mental issues.
Due to being a transgender person, not being able to find a job is one of my many struggles. I have not worked and it is quite hard for me to build connections and friendships with people. Some people that I get to meet give up on me at some stage while others curse and say a lot of bad words to me the moment they know I am transgender. I still remember how bad my aunt treated me back when I used to live with her. She forced me to cook and clean and do whatever she wanted otherwise I would not get food for that day. I was treated as a slave and at the end, she told me that if I do not sell my kidneys to a doctor she already agreed with, she would kick me out of her house. I said no at first, but that meant I will go back to being homeless. That is why I visited the doctor my aunt told me about and she handed me a paper to sign to give up on multiple parts of my body for twelve million for each. I could not sign it because if I did I would die so I went back to my aunt’s house and literally contacted every NGO that fights for human rights and LGBT+ rights to ask for help. Luckily, a person who I consider to be my guardian angel helped me. Although I am in a safe place now, I can’t feel safe being in Iraq, and I feel like a prisoner who wants to run away. I want to go to a place where I can be myself and say what I have been keeping inside for years. I would not mind even if I leave just for one year and die after that because I really want to take a break from this pain.
Despite all the hatred and judgments that transgender people experience, I believe that they should be able to decide who they are. A person is responsible for his or her sexuality and gender identity and should not give the power to someone else to control or decide that because at the end, each one of us is responsible for ourselves. On this special day, I would like to send my message to all the transgender people and all the LGBT+ community to ask them to trust that God and the universe will give them power to survive with their pure and beautiful souls. There will come a day when they will live peacefully and get the life they dreamed of away from murder and violence. Do not be sad because soon you will find happiness since there are many NGOs that want to protect you. Love yourselves, love each other, and try to protect each other and survive together. Do not commit suicide or hurt yourselves, do not steal or hurt anybody. You are not the bad people others think you are and I wish you all peace and happiness. You, transgender people are the ones with the purest hearts so stay strong and you will see your enemies falling someday while you find happiness and peace.
Art is a tool of communication that does not rely on words. Rather, art represents ideas in meaningful ways that stick in people’s heads for a long time and makes them question certain ideas. Miss Bakhan who is a member of Art15 tells us about this initiative and the ideas that are focused on.
What is Art15 and what are the most important details people should know about the art it presents?
The Art15 Project is a social initiative that aims to bring people together by sharing experiences of marginalized communities through art. The initiative is established to defy stereotypes and cultural norms, to create an inclusive space for diversity and expression. The platform tackles issues about women’s rights, LGBT+ community, and personal freedoms that are taboo in our communities. A group of young artists comes together to create art material as a form of educational content to promote acceptance and co-existence.
When was Art15 founded?
Early 2020, officially started working on March 2020.
What is the purpose of the art represented by Art15?
The purpose of using design and art is engaging with people through visual content, in our days, people do not often like to read long paragraphs but tend to stop at visually appealing posts. It is also a way to bring up critical issues to the surface and up for discussion in an artistic way. We have so many talented and unheard artists in our communities, this is the platform that brings them together to design and advocate creatively for causes they believe in. .
Who creates the art of Art15?
Artists from the local community draw and design the content.
What is the message that Art15 mostly focuses on delivering?
The main focus is spreading awareness around these critical issues. I believe now is the time where the discussion about culturally unaccepted subjects should happen. Our youth aspire more knowledge, they learn to be more accepting of diversity hence a good time to bring change about. The Art15 Project aims to provide a platform where the LGBT+ community and other minorities gain a sense of safety and freedom to express themselves without the fear of being discriminated against. Also, increasing the visibility for the LGBT+ community in Iraq through a social media platform that will hopefully lead to starting the dialogue among the LGBT+ community and allies to discuss the current situation, needs, and future plans.
Tell us about the society’s reaction. Has the platform been receiving criticism or support?
The platform is rather new, we have been receiving support from allies, but we expect different reactions as well.
How do you think art changes the way society looks at the LGBT+ community?
We promote love and acceptance, what other way is there to get there without a touch of art? I think the idea came from a personal experience where I was touched by a piece of art more than workshops and long articles I have read. Creative design, paintings, films, and theater project reality and connect us without words. These stories have been experienced and are told through the art pieces; I think this is a way for a queer artist to express themselves in a daring way without fearing consequences. At the same time, a way to reach society without challenging them with unfamiliar subjects.
Where can people find your art or contact you?
We are currently on both Twitter and Instagram, we can be contacted there directly or through the following email: email@example.com
FOLLOW ART15 ON INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER.
It is always interesting to know how a foreigner who fights for liberty and independence views the life of the Iraqi community and the changes that are happening. This time, I interviewed Dr.Lynn Rose who is the Deputy Director of the Center for Gender and Development Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani and a professor in the Social Sciences department. She has been living in Sulaimani for five years and previously lived in multiple cities in the Middle East, Europe, and Mexico. Below, she describe the situation in Iraq, specifically the situation of the LGBT+ community and the lack of support they have been facing for long years.
How long have you been fighting for the rights of the LGBT+ community?
I have been an activist for human rights, including the rights of LGBT+ people, for decades. My activism isn’t the kind that takes me to the streets, though I participated in marches and demonstrations in my younger days. Now, my activism is incorporated in my academic and scholarly work.
What kind of help do you provide for the LGBT+ community as a member of CGDS?
Although CGDS is not an NGO offering services, we support LGBT+ people in several ways. In our workshops, we always present sexuality, along with gender, as a continuum and a range, in which heterosexuality and homosexuality are merely two ends of the continuum, not the only options. Of the short films that we made as part of our EU-funded projects, one, “The Gender Spectrum,” has to do explicitly with gender identity. One of our podcasts for the same project is an interview with a psychologist, demythologizing transgender people. We also work to translate academic material in gender studies, some of which includes discussion of LGBT+ people.
What do most LGBT+ individuals ask CGDS to provide them with?
We don’t get LGBT individuals asking us for anything, since we do not offer services. So the requests we get involve, for example, other organizations or individuals asking us where to refer LGBT+ people. We direct them to organizations that provide services and support.
What do you witness to be the hardest challenge that faces the Iraqi LGBT+ community?
Witnessing pervasive homophobia is very difficult. A lot of LGBT+ individuals face fear of family rejection, which is not just an emotional discomfort, but has social and economic consequences and even life-and-death consequences. In my very limited experience here in Sulaimani, I have come across only a small handful of people who accept their sexuality to the point of being “out.” The rest are worried about bringing shame on their families or again being rejected by them.
Who do you notice to be more violated, queer women or queer men? And why do you think it’s like that?
I really can’t speak to this, because of my place as a foreigner, but I suppose that it is the same situation as it is the world over: lesbians are seen as not really serious, or even as entertainment for the male gaze, thus they are not perceived as much of a threat, for better or worse. Males, as the upholders of patriarchy, are seen to be more threatening when they flout the heterosexual foundation of patriarchy.
Where do you think things are heading regarding LGBT+ rights in Iraq? Is society becoming more supportive?
As a foreigner who is starting their fifth year in Sulaimani, I think that maybe there are positive changes, but it might be only that I am observing things in more detail than I did when I first arrived. I do not have the long-term perspective of someone who has lived here for years.
Do you think it could get worse?
Whether or not things have improved, yes, it could get worse—here and in any part of the world. Whenever there is progress, there is backlash. Moving two steps forward, takes us one step back, but sometimes moving one step forward can take us two (or more) steps back.
What kind of change should be made to make the Iraqi society more supportive?
Perhaps it is my bias, as an educator, but I do firmly believe that education is the most powerful tool. Education can take many forms—it doesn’t have to be classroom education, though that is an important component. One of the most important educational experiences is to hang out with people we fear or loathe. What we usually find is that we are all multidimensional humans.
What’s the best part about your job?
We do the very slow work of trying to change the attitudinal atmosphere through education so that one day individuals might not have such a hard time. The best part of my job, then, is seeing that maybe we have brought about even a small attitudinal change in even one person who would otherwise be totally homophobic. Big structural change happens slowly, and as I mentioned before, often in a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of way.
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 hoodie 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.
Ethan, 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.