I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:
What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted. Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.
FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal. It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal
aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”
So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.
SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.
Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)
In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.
THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”
What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?
Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.
The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)
This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”
Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me
During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.
Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.
HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.
By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.
FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….
For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that
In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.
I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?
The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before – the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East. His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:
Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.
Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!
Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason. Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender? Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?
FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging.
The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.
Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!
The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport. Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.
This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.
I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.
Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.
Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the
Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.