My First Step
Humanity and human rights issues are my passion so is calligraphy, specifically Arabic calligraphy, so I got this idea of bringing these two together and introduce them to people in a unique way.
The idea that people have about the Arabic calligraphy is that it’s used to present quotes of prophets, Quranic manuscripts, or flirtatious poetry. My idea was to mix the Arabic calligraphy with new concepts like homosexuality, feminism, and even animals rights. I believe that mixing the Arabic calligraphy with such sensitive topics could make people more interested to view them and learn about them and that’s the whole point.
I got that idea a while before entering college but I had to give up on it shortly after due to the constant judgments I received. Back at that time, people’s opinions used to matter a lot to me and that used to be a big barrier, so I had to give up on my idea.
Two years later, I gave it a second try, so I dedicated enough time to improve my skills. Gradually, I started noticing an improvement and had better ideas in mind to present. And here I’m now, I’ve so many followers by my side who support me by sharing my art or sending me messages full of love.
Dealing with their hatred
The first time I received threats and criticism was back when I shared a full Instagram post about homosexuality. A lot of people blocked me while many others sent me threats using fake or real accounts. Even some people who I knew for years cut the connection with me after checking that post.
My family members follow my account so of course! They had a lot to say after seeing that post. Anyhow, I didn’t stop.
Starting from the day I shared that post, things took another turn and I had to deal with way more hatred than I used to. And after few other posts that support the LGBT+ community, I started receiving threats from several militias.
I won’t stop
Regardless of everything I have been through, I still have the motive to continue this time.
Many people from the LGBT+ community write me long beautiful messages that are full of love to express their happiness and appreciation for having me by their side.
A lot of them feel so forgotten by the ones around them. That’s why I focus on creating my art posts in Arabic while I focus less on the English ones. What I do is a way of telling all of them that homosexuality is part of our Arabic society and not something foreign that we need to be ashamed of.
Several people from the community discuss personal topics that they don’t have anyone to tell about. This feeling of safety that I give them makes them open their hearts to me even without knowing me well or, in some cases, knowing me at all. I’ve become friends with so many great people from different cities, ages, and sexualities and that always gives me the energy to continue.
Changing their minds
Through the art I present, I’ve been able to change people’s minds about homosexuality and that’s another reason why I still have the motive to continue.
In the past, many of my friends refused to talk or listen to someone who talks about homosexuality. Some of them used to use offensive words to describe homosexuals but they have changed a lot from that time. It took me a long time to change their minds about it, but I did it. One conversation after another, my friends accepted the idea, they educated themselves about it, and now they are way better than before.
Actually! Some of them even became allies while others realized they were homosexuals.
Art brings us a few steps forward
I believe that art could help us a lot in this journey of empowering the LGBT+ community and explaining to people, with facts, what homosexuality is.
Our eyes aren’t used to see the rainbow flag! Somehow, a lot of us gets shocked when seeing it in real life or in a photograph or a piece of art. But that shouldn’t be the case anymore because we can make some change by talking more often about homosexuality until one day, talking about it in real life or on social media becomes completely normal. And I think that art could be the easiest way to accomplish that.
I can handle the consequences
We are the first Iraqi generation to fight for LGBT+ rights so that definitely comes with consequences but I’m okay with that. Having my identity revealed by having my real picture on my Instagram account and having my bio mentioning that I’m Muslim isn’t easy neither safe but I have my reasons.
Giving up on these important details means that I’ll somehow lose part of my power. Having my personal information on my account is there to break the fear barrier that other allies and LGBT+ members have. Many of them can be inspired and empowered by what I’m doing and I hope that’ll enable them to start posting and educating others about homosexuality.
I’ve seen many positive changes already even from my straight friends! Many of them share my posts on their accounts and it feels incredible to see that happening.
It’s true that some of them delete what they share a few hours after, probably because of the judgments they receive from their own followers, but still, there’s a positive change happening here even if it’s small like this one.
Never stop fighting
My message to all the Iraqi allies and members of the LGBT+ community is to keep fighting until a positive change happens. Things aren’t easy because, as I mentioned, we’re the first generation to fight for it but together, we can make a better future for ourselves and the next generations.
To check out Saif's art and support him, follow him on Instagram: @saif0_0ali
Why Is School Important?
When we think of school, we shouldn’t be thinking only about subjects like math or history. As important as learning these is, every school should have more to offer to students who spend over a decade there trying to learn how the world works. Schools must contribute to building the personalities of their students and develop their creativity.
As students feel the need to form an opinion about hundreds of things around them in a short time, they tend to mirror what their classmates or teachers do or support as that gives them a sense of belonging.
Sadly, Iraq isn’t the place that offers the best education. Our school books rarely include subjects that challenge student’s brains or encourage them to be different and unique.
Our educational system is memorization based which teaches students to search for someone else’s opinion- like a teacher, or a parent, or even a stranger to guide them on how to feel about something. And that teaches students one thing! Which is that almost nothing of what they say is valid unless it gets approved by others.
And here is where we need to see some change. We need books and teachers that empower students to build better future for themselves regardless of the limitations that get enforced by society.
Where Do Students Learn About Their Sexuality?
Topics such as sexual and gender diversity are never discussed inside any Iraqi classroom. Even science books, that are supposed to discuss valuable facts on how diverse and exciting our universe is, avoid talking about such subjects claiming that they ruin student’s brains.
From the other side, Iraqi parents aren’t the best option when trying to discuss the subject of sexuality.
With parents not discussing this topic at home and the absence of proper guidance from the schools side, students often form that fear of asking and learning about their sexuality, sex, protection, and relationships in general.
They grow to think that there’s one way to live this life and it’s the way that their society chooses for them. Their roles get determined based on their genders and their sexuality are never questioned. Even if they had luck finding out who they really are, they will barely find a chance to express it.
The internet might be the best option to them to figure out things! But is it a safe option?
Do Iraqi Teachers Encourage Their Students To Use Their Brains?
Our system doesn’t encourage its teachers to improve their teaching over time. A large percentage of teachers start teaching in their early twenties and retire by their early sixties with almost the same equipment, the same teaching strategies, and the same mentalities. Some might even find it offensive to learn from young students who come to them with challenging questions.
“You memorize this question and its answer as they are, you go to the exam and write exactly the same. Then if you like, you can just forget about it all. Just make sure to keep the information in your head until the exam is over.” That’s what one of my math teachers used to tell me.
All we can say is that majority of them stick to one fixed teaching method that goes on and on for years and years.
If we want our future to be brighter than our present and past, we must understand that teachers require training and guidance as much as their students. Teachers have a lot to learn including how to accept their students who are different.
Does Iraq Offer Teachers Who Instigates Violence & Hatred?
Benjamin is a biromantic, bigender, asexual Iraqi guys who is 18 years old. Ben talks about his negative experience that happened back in 2018 by saying, “Like any normal school student, I was attending my physics class when I noticed that my teacher kept giving me weird looks. I immediately knew that he didn’t like me as he kept bothering me with his hurtful words during the first and second lectures.
By the third lecture, the teacher started asking the class a very racist questions that had nothing to do with the subject he was supposed to be teaching. Then he asked me about Lot, feminism, and makeup.
The teacher spent all the third lecture talking about how people like me must be burned or thrown from high buildings. His words were full of hatred and at the end he threatened to dismiss me from his class. He actually tried to do that but luckily my father came to the school and solved the problem after a long fight.
That teacher never stopped hating me. Also, the bullying and the harassment that was coming from many students around me never stopped.
To be fair, some students were by my side but there were others who expressed their hatred by accusing of receiving money for sex. Actually, one of the students offered me money to have sex with him.
As someone who has been through such an experience and understands the difficulty of it, I advise teachers to use the power they are given in order to end hatred and support anyone who is like me. I believe their support can make such a great impact on our society.”
What Are We Celebrating Today?
Today, January 24th, marks the International Day of Education which is celebrated to acknowledge the important role of education and the impact it has on people’s lives. Today we mention how well-planned strategies of teaching can make the work of all the Iraqi NGOs that are fighting to end sexism, violence, homophobia, and discrimination easier.
It’s a good time to let our teachers everywhere in Iraq know that what they encourage their students to accept or reject can have an impact on everybody’s lives sooner or later including theirs.
One teacher can change a whole class by choosing an effective teaching method that encourages them to question everything around them and to believe that one idea in the head of any of them can be the answer to a question that no one is yet able to answer.
To all the Iraq teachers out there who empower their students, who give them hope, and who give them space to figure out themselves, IraQueer sends you the best wishes. Happy International Day of Education.
There’s this confusion that surrounds the concept of asexuality which makes people say a lot of wrong judgments. Asexuals don’t lack the confidence to have sex, it’s also not that they haven’t yet found the love of their lives. And being asexual definitely doesn’t affect how sensitive or emotional those individuals could be. Every single asexual has a unique personality and life choices that aren’t less valuable than anyone else’s.
Let us begin by explaining what asexuality actually is. Asexuality or also named “ace”, is having a low or no sex drive meaning a person is capable of having sex, masturbating, and even getting married or becoming a parent. The whole idea is that asexuals don’t feel a strong need –sometimes no need at all, to do all or any of these things compared to other people who come from different sexual orientations.
Most importantly, Asexuality isn’t limited to one fixed definition because it is a long spectrum. That means we can’t put all asexuals in one group and expect them to behave the same and express their sexuality in the exact same way. Some choose to be in relationships while others prefer to build strong friendships that offer them a great amount of love.
A common misunderstanding about asexuality could be to classify asexuals as gay or straight based on the gender of the person who they build a strong bond with. Asexuals are neither gay nor straight. Meaning they are capable of building romantic bonds with people from the same sex or the opposite sex and YES that still doesn’t make them gay or straight.
When it comes to asexuality, there are two orientations which are the romantic orientation and the sexual orientation and each of these two has several identities falling under it.
Asexuals aren’t necessarily spending their lives without any partners or dying alone. They have feelings and emotional needs that they choose to fulfill the way they find convenient. When it comes to the romantic orientation, asexuals could be classified as either homoromantic or heteroromantic. Homoromanticism is when an asexual person builds a romantic bond with someone from the same gender while heteroromanticism is when an asexual person builds a romantic bond with someone from the opposite gender.
Baghdad, Mohammed, and Bassam are three Iraqi asexuals who come from different backgrounds to explain how each defines asexuality:
“I remember that when my boyfriend leaned in to kiss me for the first time, the kiss didn’t give me any good feelings. Actually, I was feeling uncomfortable”
Baghdad, who is an Iraqi asexual girl talks about her experience. She says, “I was 22 back when I was in relationship with a guy that I thought I was in love with. As the time for the first kiss came, the kiss didn’t give me any good feelings and that made curious but I didn’t make any assumptions.
I didn’t mind building close connections with people, it wasn’t like I hated being surrounded by people but the problem was that as someone got physically too close to me to get a hug or a kiss, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I had and still have the same feelings whether the person was a male or a female and as these feelings never left, I started questioning my sexuality.
As an asexual, I get a lot of these comments that tell that I just didn’t get my kiss from the right guy, or that I will change my mind as I find the right person, or that I am just not ready for it as things will change in the future.
I am not sure if things will change that much in the future, even if they do and I decide to be in a sexual relationship with someone that won’t take my right to call myself asexual. At the end, this is who I am even if others keep questioning it.
Sadly, most of the judgments and negative comments I hear about my sexuality come from my family members since they don’t seem to accept the idea. Lucky me, I am living away from them and that means there are way less arguments I have to go through about this subject.
With less pressure from my family side and constant support from one of my relatives, I am doing okay. I am giving myself time and not rushing it by looking for new relationships. Maybe, by taking it easy, I will figure out more things about myself that I am currently unaware of.
And although my sexuality gets questioned a lot as I previously mentioned, I still think that the Iraqi community accepts me and other asexuals much better compared to others from the LGBT+ community. It doesn’t seem right but the way the Iraqi society thinks about it is that no sex is better than having sex with someone of the same sex or gender. Unfortunately, our society thinks about relationships only from the sexual point of view. Not much importance is given to the romantic side and to the intimacy. Our society still doesn’t focus on what a partner can offer me to make me feel better from the inside without thinking about sex and any sexual intercourse.”
“I just hate how the majority of people think that asexuals can’t be sensitive or emotional”
Mohammed’s story began when he got introduced to the concept of asexuality two years ago as he found an Arabic page that discusses it. “Before finding that page, I used to call myself a sexless as that was the only common concept in the Iraqi society.
It’s hard to say that there was one specific experience that made me question and determine my sexuality so it’s wiser to say that I learned about it after several experiences that lasted for years. The most notable would be the time when I had the change to have sex with a person. Although I was charmed by the beauty of their body, that wasn’t enough to make me want sex. To me, I believe that relationships and connections are all about true love and true passion and that made me realize I was different from many others since my teenage years.
Sometimes, I feel the need to find a partner and build a strong relationship with them, but other times, I run away from this need. I would say that I’m 80% against having kids and I know very well that our society pushes everyone into having kids so I don’t think I will be ever encouraged to do otherwise even if I called myself asexual. But I will definitely do what’s best for me rather than what the society wants me to be.”
“Asexuals aren’t psychopaths. Although people say the opposite the whole time, they don’t have any evidence. Almost all of them don’t even know how and when to consider a person a psychopath. I believe that most people just don’t like to support each other, rather they enjoy ruining each other’s lives by bully. At the end, even if I had a mental illness, I wouldn’t ever appreciate it if someone comes and explains me that I’m ill as if they are cursing me”
Bassam, who is another Iraqi asexual man says, “When I was sixteen years old, I realized that I was different from my friends who were my age or only few years older than me. They liked to talk about girls sexually while I didn’t know how to interact in such conversations because the subject wasn’t really appealing to me.
At first, I thought I was just too young to find the subject interesting. A year later, when I was 17, I realized that I was asexual by reading an article about asexuality that I found on a scientific Facebook page. Not a long time after that, I found the asexuality page that was run by Alaa Yasin and Nabeel Alal who introduced me to a group of asexuals on Facebook. And that was the time when things became clearer to me.
Usually, I don’t care how others see me or think of me when they know I’m asexual. Still, when someone asks me about the subject, I try my best to explain the meaning of asexuality clearly so the person doesn’t misunderstand it. And when it comes to my family, they don’t believe there’s such a thing as being asexual so we try not to discuss this subject too often.
As an asexual man, I hear comments like “You aren’t a man” and I believe that others like me hear the same or even uglier comments. Although I’m against reproduction and never planning on having kids, I still wouldn’t let anyone stop me in case I was planning on becoming a father. The society shouldn’t take away my right to do that.
The way I define asexuality would be that it has multiple types meaning there are asexuals who don’t get attracted neither romantically nor sexually to others while there are asexuals who get attracted romantically but not sexually to others meaning they refuse to have sex. There are asexuals who have an extremely low sexual attraction and that is called Grey Asexuality. Also, there are others, like myself, who experience the sexual attraction only when they are in a serious relationship and the love between the couple is too deep.
Asexuality is expressed differently by different asexual individuals. I personally masturbate and I believe that everyone does that. I don’t like being in a relationship because I’m simply not interested. Maybe I just prefer getting myself a dog and living alone in a peaceful and quite place. That’s the way I want to live my life while other asexuals probably have different plans on how to live their lives. I believe that each one of us has the right to choose how to spend this life.
I see that the majority of Iraqis might accept asexuality more than accepting homosexuality and that’s because Iraq is an Islamic country. Iraqis wouldn’t have a problem if you decide not to have sex but their problem is when you decide to have it. And that’s why being gay, for example, is way more rejected than being asexual.
In my opinion, homosexuality and asexuality are two different things that I don’t want to compare, but I think that it all starts with the way kids are raised in this country. Kid’s heads get filled with old religious ideas that create this hatred in their heads for people who decide to live in a different style. That makes some of them hate homosexuals even without knowing what the word “Homosexuality’ means. After all, the problem with our Arabic communities is their lack of knowledge which creates all that hatred and misunderstandings.”
As a reader, tell us your journey of discovering your sexuality. What your biggest challenges were during that time? And most importantly, who helped you during that phase of your life? IraQueer likes to know more about these interesting stories.
Whether you broke your favorite toy or got beaten up badly by other kids in your neighborhood, as a boy, you probably heard someone telling you not to cry. Not because the situation wasn’t worth crying for but simply because boys aren’t allowed to cry. They shouldn’t seem weak otherwise no one would take them seriously. Boys and men are constantly reminded to bury their feelings and handle their physical and emotional pain alone.
Things don’t get any better as you get older, actually, you are more likely to experience extra pressure from the ones around you. “If you want to cry, go hide somewhere first, never cry in front of your partner, family, or friends, they won’t take you seriously if you do that.” This is probably what someone have advised you to do at some point in your life.
Toxic masculinity puts pressure on men which some try to express by being violent or rude to their kids or partners. A study was done by Greater Good Science Center’s faculty director “Dacher Keltner” shows that humans are capable of experiencing not just six different emotions but rather twenty-seven different emotions. And how many of these emotions do you think our men are able to express?
Emotions like fear, romance, and sadness are harder to be expressed by men than by women which creates a gap between what a man should be like versus what a woman should be like. As a homosexual man, you are likely to experience the same amount of pressure from the ones around you and that could gradually lower your self-confidence and makes it harder for you to deal with your emotions. You feel like you have to adjust yourself based on the people around you. That’s why some men choose loneliness. Being alone could be the safest and most comfortable place to be in.
Toxic masculinity constantly attaches feelings like shame and guilt to the men who can’t manage their emotions. Other than depression and anxiety, suicide could be one of the things that men start thinking about when they understand that in most cases, they will be left alone to deal with their insecurities and difficulties.
Yousif, who’s an Iraqi gay man, says, “Our Iraqi society defines masculinity as the way that a man should behave and appear. Masculinity is defined through mustache, muscles, body hair, anger, and sense of protection. Our society says that a real man should be tough and solid and clearly show that by the way he moves and thinks.”
“If I personally get to define masculinity, I wouldn’t agree with the society’s definition. In my perspective, masculinity is to think and behave rationally whether it’s tough or delicate. It’s the actions of a man towards the greater good in his society no matter what shape he was in. As long as his actions benefit his society.”
Yousif adds that our society forces several restrictions on men by saying that it’s a shame to shed tears and a man isn’t allowed to show his weakness to anyone because that’s not a sign of masculinity. “A man can’t express his feelings to his wife in public because that’s not a thing a man would do! He can’t let her wear anything that might be a little exposed because in his head, his wife is his doll, and controlling what she wears is one way to express his masculinity.”
“If we want to talk about what harm the toxic masculinity brings to homosexual men specifically, then one word can describe it which is “death”. Homosexuality is forbidden by both religion and society. Even transgender and transsexual men aren’t seen from the Iraqi perspective as complete men but rather individuals who lack masculinity.”
“As a gay man, I have built a strong personality that allows me to avoid or stop the men who would think about harassing me or hurting me in any way. And that’s how I can keep myself safe whenever I am in a public space.”
“When it comes to home, I feel welcomed by my family and to me, the place is my comfort zone because I know how tough the outside world is to me and others like me.”
“Masculinity to me means being dependable, caring, trustworthy, and being someone who gives strength to others through hardships, and someone who has feelings. I don’t agree with how our Iraqi society defines masculinity, it just doesn’t make sense to me. To them, masculinity is translated to aggression, dominance, messy and dirty looks.” Jake says.
Jake is a gay man who tells his story of how toxic masculinity affects his life. He says that the continuous pressure from his family to spend most of his time outside the house became a habit at some point. And although he is now living alone, he can’t break this habit as he spends most of his time working outside or hang out with his friends.
“Spreading this wrong idea of masculinity brought us many negativity that gets expressed through aggression against women and domestic violence. Men from the LGBT+ community have to deal with the standards of our society that force them to live and behave in ways that are against their own nature and against what they want to be. These standards generate internalized homophobia and discrimination against “fem” or “soft” boys who sometimes turn to be straight but still get harassed or bullied.”
“I haven’t ever been able to freely express my emotions whether that was around my family, friends, or even strangers. As a kid, I was beaten up in the most terrifying ways you can think of. Whenever I cried or was seen by my dad crying, even when I was asleep, I would get beaten up. This ugly experience created a negative feeling within myself, and now I can only cry or express my feelings alone.”
“As an adult, these restrictions have been holding me back from many things, for example, I can’t use my real voice tone, eat, walk, talk or use my hand gestures the way I want. I can’t comment about most subjects freely and whenever I do, I have to watch out how I express myself.”
Jake believes that both social media and TV have a great impact on society so they should be used to change the definition of masculinity in people’s heads. He says, “If the definition of masculinity gets slowly changed from rough dirty heavily bearded aggressive men to soft caring dependable neutral looking freely dressed ones, then a lot of good things could happen.”
“Also, using examples of non-toxically masculine men from religious references like Joseph the son of Jacob or Jesus Christ could change the defining of masculinity in people’s heads.”
As a reader, how do you think the definition of masculinity could be changed in our society? What do you want our NGOs and the government to focus on doing to bring us a few steps towards a considerate and a caring society?
Lastly, what can you, as an Iraqi citizen, offer to the ones who deal with the pressure of toxic masculinity to make them feel better?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.