Iraq is considering the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people – and you can thank the British for that

A defaced LGBTQ+ mural in Iraq
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A law amendment in Iraq has proposed capital punishment for homosexual relationships. Campaigners have called it a “dangerous” escalation in the country where people already face frequent attacks and discrimination. However, life for queer Iraqis hasn’t always been this way. As with so many stains on worldwide human rights, the worsening homophobia and transphobia in Iraq can be traced back to the British empire.

Iraq: debating the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people

The amendment to a 1988 anti-prostitution law passed a first reading in parliament last week. It would enable courts to issue “the death penalty or life imprisonment” sentences for “homosexual relations”. This is according to a document seen by Agence France-Press (AFP). The amendment would also set a minimum seven-year prison term for “promoting homosexuality”.

Currently, no existing laws explicitly punish homosexual relations. However, the state has prosecuted LGBTQ+ people for sodomy, or under vague morality and anti-prostitution clauses in Iraq’s penal code. This also comes at a time when the state and the media are also cracking-down on open discussion about LGBTQ+ issues.

The national media and communications commission is considering banning Iraq-based publications from using the term “homosexuality”. Instead, it would advise media outlets to use the derogatory term “sexual deviance”. It also wants to ban the term “gender”.

‘Abnormal social phenomena’, apparently

The law change appears to have broad support in the Islamist-majority assembly. Saud al-Saadi is member of Shiite Muslim party Huquq, the political wing of the powerful Iran-aligned Hezbollah Brigades and part of the ruling coalition. He said the amendment was “still under discussion and subject to exchanges of viewpoints”. Saadi said a second reading had yet to be scheduled, and argued that parliament aims to “fill a legal vacuum”.

Lawmaker Sharif Suleiman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party said the proposed legislation reflects:

our moral and human values and our fights against abnormal social phenomena… We need deterrent laws.

Read on...

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‘My life will end’

A 2022 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and non-governmental organisation IraQueer found that people often target LGBTQ+ Iraqis with “kidnappings, rapes, torture and murders”. The state fails to punish the perpetrators. LGBTQ+ rights researcher at HRW Rasha Younes called the new proposed legislation as a “dangerous step”. She told AFP:

That means that Iraqi individuals’ life and constant fear of being hunted down and killed by armed groups with impunity is now going to translate into the law itself.

The Iraqi government (is) using the rights of LGBT people to distract the public from its lack of delivery.

The surge in anti-LGBTQ sentiment has stoked further fear among members of the community. Iraqi gay man Abdallah told AFP:

The situation has become too complicated because we are not protected by the authorities. If someone finds out that I’m gay and has a problem with me, they can send my name or photo to armed groups. My life will end.

It is likely Iraqi politicians will pass the law – and it can be directly linked back to Britain’s colonial influence.

Colonialism: bringing homophobia to Iraq and the Middle East

Historically, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East were not as homophobic as they are today. Rather, the Ottoman empire – part of which would later become present-day Iraq – was relatively permissive of homosexuality, particularly if it was kept out of the public eye.

Then, as History wrote:

Britain seized Iraq from Ottoman Turkey during World War I and was granted a mandate by the League of Nations to govern the nation in 1920. A Hashemite monarchy was organized under British protection in 1921, and on October 3, 1932, the kingdom of Iraq was granted independence.

But the damage was already done. The Economist explained that:

In 1885 the British government introduced new penal codes that punished all homosexual behaviour. Of the more than 70 countries that criminalise homosexual acts today, over half are former British colonies. France introduced similar laws around the same time. After independence, only Jordan and Bahrain did away with such penalties.

Britain forced its anti-LGBTQ+ laws onto Iraq (as it did most of its colonies). Negative societal attitudes and state criminalisation have remained ever since.

Now, it’s LGBTQ+ Iraqis feeling the full effects of the legacy of British colonialism.

Featured image via BBC World Service – YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. As a trans woman and a socialist, I am unconvinced by this piece, and of the many that preceded it elsewhere that place the blame for widespread anti-LGBT+ attitudes and legislation in the Global South solely at the door of former colonisers. Strangely, those former colonisers have, slowly, reluctantly and because of pressure by activists, taken enormous strides to roll back such domestic laws in the last half-century. Iraq became independent many years before that, yet apparently it is the UK that is responsible for new legislation targeting LGBT+ people. That will not wash. Whether it is Islam to blame (as is Evangelical Protestantism in the USA, Hinduism in India, et al) is unclear, but I cannot see the link between a long-departed coloniser and this legislation.

      Britain has a far more recent responsibility for general immiseration in Iraq, and its chief perpetrator was awarded a knighthood and the Most Noble Order of the Garter for his crimes.

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