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2023 Was a Bad Year for LGBTQ+ Rights in the MENA Region, and 2024 Is Set to Be Even Worse

State-coordinated attacks on LGBTQ+ rights across the region, through the courts, legislation, and outright intimidation, continue to escalate this year.

In April 2024, the Iraqi Parliament passed amendments to an existing law targeting sex work, broadening its scope to include the criminalization of homosexual acts, with penalties including 10 to 15 years imprisonment. Under the legislation, transgender individuals will face criminal charges with potential sentences of one to three years. This move in Iraq exemplifies a recent trend across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where laws and policies increasingly target the LGBTQ+ community. 

Over the past decade, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has surged in the MENA region. While numerous countries actively criminalize and discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals, either directly through sodomy laws or indirectly through morality laws, there has been an escalating prevalence of negative societal attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community in 2023 and now, 2024.

Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has gained traction in both traditional and digital media, with religious, political, and social leaders consistently portraying LGBTQ+ identities as a foreign Western ideology seeking to corrupt the region’s youth. Consequently, a survey across seven MENA countries, conducted by Arab Barometer between 2018 and 2019, asking “Is homosexuality an acceptable practice?” saw a range of affirmative answers between just 5 percent and 26 percent. Algeria had the highest affirmative response.

In 2023, these negative social attitudes and discourses manifested in new laws and policies further infringing on the fundamental human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals in the region

In 2023, these negative social attitudes and discourses manifested in new laws and policies further infringing on the fundamental human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals in the region. This reflected a continuation of the previous year, with the Algerian government banning items and products associated with LGBTQ+ symbolism, especially those incorporating rainbow colors, in January. The Ministry of Commerce issued a directive to prohibit rainbow-colored products and confiscated toys, school supplies, and over 4,000 copies of the rainbow-colored Quran. This took place alongside a new campaign titled “Protect your family: Be aware of products bearing colors and symbols contrary to our moral and Islamic values.” In June, Yemen’s Houthi Ministry of Industry and Trade introduced a similar campaign, confiscating and destroying products carrying “homosexual and Zionist symbols” and investigating the suppliers who imported such items.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon and Morocco, the respective education ministries have come under significant public pressure following claims that school textbooks contain materials that promote “homosexual behaviors among the public.” In Morocco, a French-language book depicting a child with two mothers triggered widespread public outrage with many blaming the Ministry of Education. Consequently, the ministry confiscated the books and launched extensive investigations to determine how they entered Moroccan markets. In June, before this incident, the ministry issued a memo instructing educational institutions to exercise caution when introducing foreign materials, as some may not respect Moroccan social and moral values. During the same month, in Lebanon, the Ministry of Education initiated an audit of all foreign educational materials to ensure that none promoted homosexuality, after a book containing such content was found.

Gender as a battleground

A broader strategy has emerged, presenting the term “gender” as a symbol of Western LGBTQ+ ideologies. Authorities in the MENA region already routinely disregard the usage of the word “gender,” even when translating the phrase “gender equality,” opting instead to coin the phrase “equality between the two sexes.” This reflects an intent to confine gender strictly within the heteronormative biological binary of female and male, excluding understandings of genders as a fluid concept existing across a spectrum.

In August, Iraq’s National Communications and Media Commission issued a directive to media outlets banning several terms, including “gender identity,” “gender,” and “same-sex relations,” in an effort to “preserve” Iraqi social values from “foreign terminology.” Media outlets were instructed to use the term “sexual deviation” when referring to same-sex relations. In October, Libya’s Dar Al-Ifta, the country’s Islamic authority, issued a fatwa calling for a ban on the usage of the term ‘gender’ citing its associations with homosexuality, abortion, and adultery, and deeming it incompatible with Islamic teachings. 

This relentless campaign against the term gender underscores how conservative actors in the MENA region perceive threats to their authority. They view feminism and LGBTQ+ individuals as foreign influences that can be silenced. By labeling these communities as outsiders, portraying their existence and advocacy as incompatible with local or religious culture and values, they incite further violence against them. This strategy serves to suppress any movements that challenge the traditional structures in the region.

Legislating discrimination

Regarding legislation, four countries—Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon—have introduced, discussed in legislatures, or passed new anti-LGBTQ+ laws. 

In Jordan, the Cybercrime Law (17) of 2023 imposes new restrictions on human rights in the digital realm, particularly for LGBTQ+ individuals. Articles 13 and 14 of this law penalize the production, distribution, or consumption of “pornographic content,” an ill-defined term, as well as the creation, promotion, instigation, or support of immorality, with a minimum punishment of six months imprisonment and a fine. These provisions potentially target digital content related to gender and sexuality, as well as individuals who employ online platforms to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Jordan appears to have adopted this tactic from neighboring countries, most notably Egypt, whose 2018 Cybercrime Law has been employed to target LGBTQ+ individuals.

In Iraq, a new amendment to Anti-Sex Work Law (8) of 1988 explicitly criminalizes same-sex relations, hormonal replacement therapy, and transgender individuals. The proposed amendments impose severe punishments such as life sentences and even the death penalty for those involved in “homosexuality.” This term is arbitrarily defined as repeated sexual relations between members of the same sex occurring more than three times. The promotion of “homosexuality” results in seven years imprisonment and a fine. Transgender women are specifically targeted under the term altakhnyuth, roughly translated as the particularly discriminatory term “sissification.” This refers to actions such as wearing feminine clothes, applying makeup, undergoing hormonal replacement therapy, or any other behavior deviating from social and medical standards assigned to their sex. The proposed punishment for it included heavy fines.

Although the amendments were initially withdrawn by the Speaker of the House Mohamed al-Halbousi, Raad Almalki, the member of parliament who introduced them, challenged the validity of al-Halbousi’s actions through the courts. In January 2024, Iraq’s Supreme Court declared the Speaker’s move unconstitutional. This ruling allowed the amendments to be discussed and voted in by a majority in April.

In Kuwait, following the 2022 Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision to overturn Article 198 which criminalized “imitating the opposite sex” and was frequently used to target transgender individuals, lawmakers introduced new legislation closing legal loopholes. The Supreme Court initially overturned the article based on its broad and vague definition which could be used and abused by arresting officers. Consequently, several MPs attempted to tighten the language of the legislation, similar to efforts seen in Iraq. These proposals suggested making being transgender and undergoing hormonal replacement therapy illegal in itself. 

In Lebanon, Article 534, which criminalizes same-sex relations and mainly targets gay men and transgender women, has become a contentious issue between members of the more socially progressive “Change” parliamentary bloc and conservative, sectarian political parties. In July 2023, 12 Change MPs signed a petition proposing an amendment to abolish the article, emphasizing the need for clear and specific laws. However, this move prompted other MPs and political blocs to introduce their versions of explicit criminalization of same-sex relations and promotion of homosexuality. On July 31, a research center affiliated with Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, developed a law proposal regarding the “criminalization of homosexuality.” Later in August, two MPs introduced their amendments explicitly criminalizing consensual same-sex relations and the promotion of homosexuality. It remains unclear whether these attempts are serious or merely political maneuvers to gain moral legitimacy and divert attention from their poor track record managing the country’s economic and political crises. 

Judiciary as enforcer

Apart from law and policy, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments have also risen in the region, with judiciaries across various countries issuing interpretations discriminating against and criminalizing LGBTQ+ individuals.

Transgender individuals are often denied legal gender recognition based on Sharia interpretations, a practice perpetuated by the courts. In April 2023, a Tunisian court denied a trans man’s request for legal gender recognition, citing Sharia and social values. Similarly, in May 2023, a Bahraini court denied a trans man’s request for gender-affirming healthcare and subsequent legal gender recognition. 

Egypt’s judiciary has been particularly tough on the issue. The Supreme Administrative Court established a new legal precedent in July 2023, affirming the validity of the dismissal of a public service employee based on allegations of involvement in homosexuality. The court relied on a small amount of arguably insufficient evidence to dismiss the plaintiff from public employment due to perceived immorality.

Similarly, in November, Alexandria’s Economic Court interpreted Article 25 of the Cybercrime Law, criminalizing violations of social and family values, as explicitly criminalizing homosexuality without the need to prove engagement in sex work. This interpretation has opened the door for further active criminalization of homosexuality in Egypt where previously the country utilized anti-sex work laws to secure convictions.

As a result of the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ laws, policies, and judicial interpretations in the region, LGBTQ+ individuals and activists face heightened vulnerability and marginalization

As a result of the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ laws, policies, and judicial interpretations in the region, LGBTQ+ individuals and activists face heightened vulnerability and marginalization. Intimidation tactics, such as threats of arrests, demands for the closure of NGO offices, and judicial prosecution of activists, have gained traction. Lebanese activists reported such tactics in 2022. In 2023, LGBTQ+ activists in Jordan experienced an orchestrated attack by the authorities triggering some to flee the country or temporarily halt their activities. Authorities summoned several activists for investigation, froze or closed their bank accounts, and issued bans on organizing.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in July, a local court ordered the closure of the Rasan NGO, the only organization in the area willing to openly support LGBTQ+ rights, “due to its activities related to homosexuality.” Authorities have investigated the organization’s current and former members. 

This is anything but an isolated incident, with reports showing increased arrests and prosecutions of LGBTQ+ individuals across the MENA region. Lebanese authorities, for instance, announced several arrests in January 2023 for “consensual homosexual acts and the spreading of debauchery and indecency.” 

This orchestrated legal campaign has continued in 2024. In January, a lower court in Ibb, Yemen, under Houthi control, sentenced 13 university students to public execution and three others to five years of imprisonment on charges of homosexuality. And in February, the Bahraini parliament deliberated proposed amendments that would explicitly criminalize same-sex relations, as the country’s legal code presently lacks such provisions.

Looking ahead

This year has seen significant challenges for LGBTQ+ rights and individuals in the MENA region. A growing coalition of religious, political, social, and legal leaders is actively working to reinforce the already deeply ingrained anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, through laws and legal judgements. While LGBTQ+ rights have always been under attack in the region, their regression is accelerating, fueled by growing anti-Western sentiments and the perception of LGBTQ+ identities as Western cultural products.

An example of ineffective Western advocacy took place during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where Western approaches to LGBTQ+ rights were perceived as performative attempts to appear morally superior and largely ungenuine. This backfired, as it lacked local contextualization and failed to resonate with the local population, reinforcing anti-LGBTQ+ arguments that LGBTQ+ rights are merely Western cultural products, rather than universal human rights. Amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, and Western support for Israel’s offensive, both conservative and liberal actors in the MENA region have criticized the West for hypocritically failing to uphold the human rights values they promote.

International stakeholders should learn to trust local LGBTQ+ activists and the population as those who are best equipped to determine effective practices in the region

While LGBTQ+ rights are universal, advocacy efforts must be adapted to the region. LGBTQ+ activists in the MENA region have called for a reassessment and restructuring of advocacy strategies, aiming to abandon Western tropes that are in the movement. Instead, they are adopting more context-specific advocacy strategies emphasizing LGBTQ+ rights as fundamental human rights and stand-alone issues, to better combat anti-LGBTQ+ labels relating to Western influence.

International funders and stakeholders should partner as allies, rather than instructors, offering assistance to local groups without imposing advocacy models unsuitable for their regional context. International stakeholders should learn to trust local LGBTQ+ activists and the population as those who are best equipped to determine effective practices in the region. 

Amid this crisis, funding for LGBTQ+ issues in the region remains limited. The MENA region received the least LGBTQ+ funding globally—only $8.7 million allocated annually in 2020—according to the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) which monitors global LGBTQ+ funding. This amounts to the cost of one M1 Abrams tank, of which the United States has sold thousands to MENA countries.

As LGBTQ+ rights continue to face challenges in the region, it is crucial to empower the LGBTQ+ movement with resources and for the movement itself to reassess its working strategies. It should adapt them to the new challenges based on evidence of what works best in their specific contexts, rather than importing flawed Western LGBTQ+ activism models.

Nora Noralla is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on gender and sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa region. She was also the institute’s first Sarah Hegazi Fellow.


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