Karma, a young Syrian woman who chose not to disclose her real name, was forced to leave her country and relocate to the United Arab Emirates. She was subjected to much psychological pressure and was threatened to be married-off without her consent. Her family kept her detained at home, forced her into “therapy”, cutting her off from all her friends.
She had come out to her family as homosexual. She says she has not been able to resort to Syrian authorities, because the law too criminalizes homosexuality and deems it punishable with imprisonment.
Karma decided to flee to the UAE, and is now hoping to relocate with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an asylee in another country. She is still waiting for the approval decision so that she can finally escape her limbo.
Nevertheless, Karma is not holding back. Today, she speaks of her experience on social media networks, and in some social circles. Discussions around sexuality in the Arab world continue to formulate, reaching new platforms and ears, despite the grave obstacles.
This is partly due to the diverse modes of representation available; making it possible for dissidents to protect their anonymity. These means of communication have shattered the silence around the reality and rights of LGBTQ communities. Politically, they have been part of the 2011 revolt, though not necessarily as a recognized bloc, but as individuals.
Socially, networking platforms have helped normalize the conversation around LGBTQ rights to a certain extent. The red lines around gender and sexuality are being slowly challenged- starting from the little margin made available in the virtual world.
In Syria, a group of a 104 members launched an organized campaign called "Love Wins" in 2016, demanding rights for different groups; including homosexuals, women, and religious minorities.
The campaign was launched after a dispute on social media websites, specifically Facebook. At the time, there was a Syrian page under the name "MTV Syria", which had over half a million followers.
It was a virtual page that published pictures, news, and entertaining videos, to support Syrians of all talents.
The page administrators decided to launch an unexpected attack on Syrian homosexuals- asking them to leave the page immediately, using derogatory slurs, and threatening to report them to authorities.
Some LGBTQ users tried to communicate with the page administrators aplenty of times but they were repeatedly blocked.
Later, Facebook removed the offending posts for “hate speech” based on the network’s community regulations. LGBTQ users waged an online campaign to report the page for abuse and hate speech. Eventually, the reports led to the removal of the entire page. It was from this encounter that individuals came together and decided to form a group that would later launch a series of actions.
The administrators of the removed page quickly launched an alternative page, only to be contacted again by their LGBTQ followers who, once again, got blocked. The latter decided to create a page of their own, with a name similar to that of the page, but coupled with the words "Love Wins.” Their campaign would later be known as "MTV Syria – Love Wins."
Following this incident, a new group was born, made of 104 individuals, of all genders and sexual orientations and regardless of their religious and ideological affiliations. Their goal is to fight for human rights in Syria and the region, but more specifically for the rights of minorities, and to support any homosexuals or queers facing persecution.
Fady (who prefers not to use his full name) is a human rights activist and one of the founders of "Love Wins". He currently resides in the United Kingdom and runs the group from there, acting as liaison with international human rights organizations, while the rest of his team operates in secret from different cities in Syria.
He says that many people in the Arab world find homosexuality to be a sickness or some kind of sexual deviance, even though it is only a natural form of sexual orientation among all species on the planet.
Fady says their mission is to be the voice for anyone facing discrimination and physical or verbal abuse in the Arab world.
In Syria, as in the rest of the Arab world, homosexuals live a life of dangers and discrimination imposed by society, customs, traditions, and laws that criminalize homosexuality with imprisonment, or even execution in some countries, as Fady explains.
He adds that, as activists based outside Syria, they are seeking to communicate and coordinate with Arab and international human rights organizations to offer homosexuals in Syria with any possible form of help and support. They try to provide them with protection or asylum, while running campaigns that highlight their plight in countries across the region.
"You Are Not Alone" was the first campaign initiated by the group. Its message was to show solidarity with all LGBTQ folks, calling on them to come forward and communicate better.
The campaign's message to gay people is that they have friends everywhere, and that they have a right to live in freedom and peace. The campaigners have high hopes to one day gain their full rights.
A Secret Life
Apollo, a pseudonym for a young gay man, says his sex life is limited to social media websites because of what he described as the “wide-spread homophobia in Syria.”
Apollo confirms that he had no bad experiences worth mentioning; mainly because he has not yet come out. The social restrictions are suffocating him, and locking him up in a closet from which he cannot escape.
Although some of his friends suspect his sexual orientation, he does everything he can to deny what people consider a crime.
As for Eman, a lesbian in her twenties, she managed to come out of the closet, unlike Apollo, and told those close to her, including her family, about her sexual orientation.
They asked her to keep quiet about the subject, fearing society's eyes and tongues. However, Eman says she did not follow her family's advice. She had her sexual adventures and experiments, most of which were unsuccessful. She says she feels comfortable and reconciled with her identity, and that she is not afraid of society.
Syrian law criminalizes homosexuality and considers it to be a form of sexual deviance, as stipulated in Article 520, which finds homosexuality to be “against natural order,” and deems it punishable by up to three years of imprisonment.
In 2003, Syria and most Arab countries voted for the postponement of a draft resolution on human rights and sexual orientation, proposed by the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights. The vote was 24 to17.
The draft resolution states that human rights violations across the world have been committed against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation, adding that human rights and fundamental freedoms were an acquired right of all mankind and that the universal nature of those rights and freedoms was unquestionable. The resolution called upon all states to promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation.
Given that Syria and most Arab countries rely mainly on Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Islamic law (Sharia) as main sources for legislation, it makes the task of de-criminalizing homosexuality even more difficult in the foreseeable future.