Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

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.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

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 BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi 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.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

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.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

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?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

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. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

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.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

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.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

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.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Graphic pictures from Iraq’s anti-Emo killing campaign

Two Iraqi friends have sent me graphic photos from Iraqi media of children (at least, they look likely to have been under 18) murdered in the campaign against Emos.

One who wrote me, a young man in Baghdad, writes:

Now they’re using blocks or rocks or hammers in the killing of young people and all kinds of bad people are to be killed on the pretext that we are servants of Satan or Massachin [Christians] —  blood militias run free every day and kill the flower of youth, all of whom are innocent of the charges that tarnish their image. I don’t know what to say because I am afraid and scared and now I am mentally ill because of the fear, and they even control mobile devices now, and external and internal checkpoints [on the surrounding roads and city streets ] are collaborating with the militias for fear of the flight of young people from Iraq or from Baghdad. I appeal to the humanity in you…

Here are two photographs of a corpse, one juxtaposed with the living young man:

The correspondent who sent the following pictures says, “as you can see from the way they are dressed in their pictures, they are not Emo per se. I have been reading reports which indicate anyone who wears a stylish jeans with gel in their hair that represents the west has been identified as an Emo.” (Militias and the Iraqi media used similar markers to identify men who had sex with men back in 2009.) But he adds,  “I have also seen many pictures of young men who have shaved their head and grew their beards just that so they would not be targeted.”

One of the pictures shows the same corpse with a different image of the living boy.

On a different note, I want to add that — though no one has contacted me about this — I should be ashamed if anyone took any remarks I made here about Emos (“strange hair,” “earrings in the wrong places”), in an attempt to impersonate conservative disdain, as serious. I apologize; it’s not kind to let sarcasm, even if directed at the oppressors, spill over to the oppressed.

One thing that strikes me in reading about Emos is how much other adolescents target them for bullying in places where the subculture genuinely has flourished, like the US. (A comment on an earlier post I didn’t let through, from an IP address in Atlanta, Georgia, read: “Hahahah Gay Emos in Iraq? What the fuck is going on ?? Hahhaah emo iraqis i can’t imagine that shit lol .. we should stick dildos up their asses and fucking set them on fire”). Emo style (unlike the comparatively hard-edged cynicism of goth) emphasizes open emotional vulnerability coupled with a certain nervy fearlessness in displaying it.  You can see how, in a society with repressively stratified gender roles like Iraq or high school, this would be a comprehensive recipe for not fitting in.   Boys aren’t supposed to be vulnerable at all; girls would face reprisals from more confidently feminist girls for reveling in their weakness, and from boys for the covert, armored bravery with which they reveal it.  Equally, you can see how, for those who feel at odds with those gender straitjackets, Emo would be a way to find a community, and an Archimedean point from which to start saying “no.” No one should slight the heroism in that.

Iraq is far from the first place to crack down on Emo. In addition to all the school principals who have gone apoplectic, my colleague Brian Whitaker points out that Saudi religious police arrested 10 Emo girls in Dammam in 2010, among other grounds because they were “trying to imitate men.” And in Russia, always reliable for such things, lawmakers in 2008 contemplated a bill to restrict Emo websites and ban Emo coiffures from schools and public buildings. (What headscarves are to the laic French, hairstyles are to religious Muscovy.)

Emo culture’s “negative ideology” may encourage depression, social withdrawal and even suicide, the bill alleges – with young girls being particularly vulnerable. “Of course, there are emo teens who just listen to their music. But our actions are not directed at them but rather at those who also hurt themselves, commit suicide and promote those acts,” bill co-author Igor Ponkin explained to the Moscow Times. Though we are not certain how Ponkin intends to target people who have committed suicide, he certainly seems determined.

There was also angry rhetoric about how the state was losing control of its population: “‘The point of the bill is so that by 2020, Moscow will have someone to rule its government,’ explained Alexander Grishunin, an adviser to bill sponsor Yevgeny Yuryev, apparently without irony.” That, of course, is always part of the point of these panics. They not only reinforce the state’s power, they furnish it a raison d’etre. What better legitimates the repressive side of rule in the hypothesized public’s mind than the defense of custom and the control of deviance? And again and again — as the middle class find that kids, given a little money, will start carving out a dangerous independence — deviance among bourgeois youth turns into repression’s favored object.

The main differences in Iraq are that state urging, or state action, finds a responsive echo among the militias; and that both forces, either dispossessed of or disdaining more delicate methods, prefer the crudity of the gun. The extremity of the solution doesn’t erase the ubiquity of the impulse to repress. The Emos who are dying in Iraq stand up for all of us who, stuck with being different, chose to embrace it. I am ashamed I can do nothing to help, just salute them.