Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Human Rights Watch Report Documents Violence Against Gay Men in Iraq

The Human Rights Watch has issued a report on the murder and torture of gay men in Iraq. Within this report are graphic descriptions of horrific violence. To sum it up, for at least the past 5 years several militias have been "exterminating" men who have sex with other men, men who are believed to have sex with other men, or men who are insufficiently "masculine." The state, according to the report, has perpetuated this violence by prosecuting and abusing men suspected of engaging in sex with other men.

I'd like to highlight several aspects of this report.

First, the report explains the gender-based violence by referring to sociologist Stanley Cohen's theory positing that during times of change and uncertainty, societies tend to undergo periods of moral panic. People create scapegoats on which to blame societal stressors. Having developed these scapegoats, the dominant group divides society in to two groups, those who belong, and those who do not.

In Iraq's case, the root cause of social ills is perceived as a masculinity crisis that is evidenced by the existence of gay and/or "effeminate" men. From the report:

"Friday sermons at Shi'ite mosques, particularly those associated with al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, began condemning an intractable 'effeminacy' among men in early 2009....Almost every week they include something on this in their sermons now. The panic and the killing focus as much on how one looks and dresses-whether or not men seem 'masculine' enough-as on imputations about what ones does in bed. Moreover, in a country plunged into poverty over the last twenty years, resentments around class intertwine with rigid requirements about gender. Many people stressed to us that decadence-not just femininity but an aura of possessions or privilege-is one of the stereotypes about the 'third sex.'"

Sadly, here we see two characteristics that humans have used throughout history to construct deviant outgroups and, then, to justify the extermination of them. One, we see a dominant group taking notice of human difference- namely, of "effeminacy" in men- and marking it with a badge of inferiority and incredible danger. Two, the dominant group then creates a stereotype that members of this dangers group are powerful and/or wealthy. In times of turmoil, this leads to resentment among the masses, who have it hard.

As seen in Iraq and elsewhere, the idea that a deviant Other has the power to destroy society is used to justify the oppression and extermination of the Other.

Secondly, I would like to see more of an exploration as to the role that religion has played in the violence perpetuated against gay and "effeminate" men. I think that whenever religion is involved in perpetuating violence and injustice it becomes a severe impediment to stopping that violence and injustice. To some extent, the situation in Iraq is an extreme exaggeration of anti-gay sentiments here in the US. Statements regarding "traditional values" and notions of Real Masculinity reverberate indistinguishably between our so-called Christian Nation and the Cradle of Islam.

If efforts to combat these gender-based killings in Iraq are undertaken, I have no doubt that the religionists in Iraq would cry religious persecution. That's just how fundamentalists roll. They invoke their own "persecution" to justify their continued persecution of others. As one man interviewed explained, "the killing operations are not crimes since they fall under the jurisdiction of a religious fatwa." Murdering fags is just their "religion." How dare anyone insist they stop and, in the process, commit religious persecution.

That being said, I don't know enough about Islam to know whether it actually does justify the murder of gay men. My point here is that, just like how people in the US use Christianity to justify their oppression of LGBT people, some in Iraq are using Islam to justify violence against non-gender-conforming men.

Lastly, I have much compassion for the plight of gay and "non-masculine" men in Iraq; and accordingly, I think the root causes of this gender-based violence need to be explored. I think that a large part of the mistreatment of these men is the instability brought about by the US invasion of Iraq. The BBC ran a report recently documenting how gay Iraqis fared better under Saddam Hussein prior to the US invasion. That being said, I also think the instability is compounded by misogyny, deeply-ingrained sexism, and the subordinate status of women. Much homophobia and violence directed at gay and "effeminate" men is, at its core, based on the conflation of these nonconforming men with women. And, as the authors of the report note, "Fear of 'feminized' men reveals only hatred of women."

Thus, I do not think one can separate the treatment of women from the treatment of gay/"effeminate" men. Addressing violence directed at one of these groups must also address violence directed at the other. Unfortunately, most NGOs working in Iraq have only focused on "political patterns of attacks on men." And, while this report acknowledges that violence against women is "a serious crisis in Iraq" that "state authorities have ignored," I find it ironic that this report has given us another report that, well, focuses on men. As for women who might fall in love with and have relationships with women, I have no doubt that they exist in Iraq. Yet, as the report notes, due to "pressures to marry and conform," these women are made doubly invisible.

In any event, I'm *sure* anti-gay organizations, bloggers, and individuals in the US will condemn these anti-gay killings right away.

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