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“Tests of shame! Till when?” Campaign by the Tunisian group Damj

Join the campaign to end forced anal tests in Tunisia. You can start by posting a message of support, or even re-posting this article, on Twitter or Facebook. Paste in the hashtag #لا_لفحوصات_العار (No test of shame!), or  #لا_للفصل_230 (No to Article 230!); or use the hashtags #TestdelaHonte and #Tunisie.

On September 6, police summoned a young Tunisian man, 22 or 23, in the coastal city of Sousse. One of his friends had been murdered; the man numbered among the contacts on the victim’s phone. Someone in the young man’s circles told me:

A friend of mine was there in the police station to be with him in case he needed any thing. This friend told me that the arrested young man was being beaten as he was interrogated.  Also, he had no legal representation at all. I was told that the police checked Facebook conversation with the murdered man and based on them they charged him with homosexuality. The[y] could not find any links with the murder so they decided to charge him based on the anti-sodomy law in Tunisia.

The young man later told AFP, through the attorney he’d finally been able to reach, that “I do not understand why I have been sentenced … or why I was detained for six days without being allowed to contact my lawyer … I want to get out and resume normal life. I don’t know what I’ll do with my studies and my work. I do not want to be rejected by society,”

Unfortunately, these abuses on arrest are standard practice in Tunisia; the law allows police to hold defendants for up to six days, without access to lawyers, before a judge or prosecutor sees them.  A United Nations expert condemned this in May as “counter to the right to a fair hearing, the right to defence and the right to have access to legal counsel … The excessive length of police custody combined with the fact that a suspect does not have access to a lawyer may create the circumstances for ill-treatment.” On September 11, he was sent to a prosecutor, and four days after that to a judge, who ordered an “anal inspection” — a forensic anal examination, inflicted without his consent. The examination found him “used’; on September 22, the judge sentenced him to one year in prison, under Article 230 of the Penal Code, which punishes “sodomy” with up to a three-year sentence.

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“What are the tests of shame? It is an anal test performed by the forensic doctor on the order of the judicial police. It is practiced on ‘presumed gays’ to verify their sexual orientation.” Poster by Damj.

The story stirred up a storm in Tunisia because it exposes two ongoing scandals. One is the persisting criminalization of private,consensual sexual acts. The other, deeply connected, is the state’s invasion of the body, an incursion of which the anal tests are an extreme but indicative form. As Yamina Thabet, president of the Association Tunisienne de soutien des minorités (Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, ATSM), declared on Twitter, the case sent a citizen to prison “based on a liberticide law and using abusive evidence.”

Damj, a Tunisian NGO fighting to decriminalize homosexual conduct, swiftly launched a campaign to educate the public about the “tests of shame” — which its president, Baabu Badr, described as “a surrealist practice in today’s Tunisia.” The leftist party Al Massar declared the tests “inhumane and unacceptable” and the trial “a danger to the democratic processes of the Second Republic.” ATSM said the exams “recall the practices of the Inquisition.” Wahid Ferhichi, president of the Association pour la défense des libertés individuelles (Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties) complained that “The consent of the accused should be required for this type of test but in fact, the suspect is put under pressure. His refusal is held against him as a presumption of guilt. But the law stipulates the presumption of innocence, and not the opposite.” And Médecins contre la dictature (Doctors Against Dictatorship) called the exams “a blatant attack on physical integrity which falls under the framework of physical torture.” It said they violate Article 23 of Tunisia’s progressive new constitution, which holds that “The state protects human dignity and physical integrity, and prohibits mental and physical torture.”

Un-homosexuel-condamne-en-Tunisie_article_landscape_pm_v8

“Is it possible to refuse an anal test? From a legal perspective: It is possible to refuse an anal test at the time you are confronted with the forensic doctor. The reality is quite otherwise. The victims often ‘consent’ to the test from fear of torture, because of their young age, or because they don’t know their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Poster by Damj.

Unquestionably the exams are torture. They prove nothing and have no medical basis, though their obsessed practitioners try to believe they do. Their only real function is to resemble rape, to hammer home the victim’s helpless abjection before pitiless power. (The fact that, in Muslim countries, prisoners are often told to assume the posture of prayer as the exam is inflicted only lends a blasphemous twist to the humiliation.)

I’ve studied these tests for more than ten years; the article I wrote on them for the Journal of Health and Human Rights is still pretty much the only historical analysis of them around. They grew from the theories of a 19th-century French forensic doctor, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu. Tardieu studied both prostitutes and “pederasts” through the peculiar lens of a pornographic imagination. He believed that vice left physical evidence on the body — that through these stigmata, doctors and police could detect the adepts of perversion, however cunningly they concealed themselves in urban anonymity and confusion. The “pederast” carried six unmistakable marks: “excessive development of the buttocks; funnel-shaped deformation of the anus; relaxation of the sphincter; the effacement of the folds, the crests, and the wattles at the circumference of the anus; extreme dilation of the anal orifice; and ulcerations, hemorrhoids, fistules.`” Among these the conical anus was “the unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty.” Tardieu launched generations of forensic pseudoexperts on an idiotic quest to detect suspect anuses shaped like trumpets, pyramids, or calla lilies. I first read Tardieu in my room in Cairo back in 2003, like a dirty novel, in a copy downloaded from the digitized collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I shuddered in disbelief that doctors could credit this kind of fantasy; except by that time I’d already talked to the doctors who performed the exams in Egypt, and I knew.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Tardieu’s ideas were discredited in much of the West by the twentieth century — partly on pure scientific grounds, partly because, as the ideal of universal citizenship became an essential prop of government, the idea that certain bodies were palpably, legibly deviant or illegal stopped being a tenable approach to politics or crime. (Two facts can be said to symbolize the qualified victory of that universal ideal, one well-known and one almost forgotten. On the one hand, the slow triumph of women’s suffrage meant that sexual difference cased to be a comprehensive legal disqualification from the public sphere; on the other, the British feminist campaign against forced medical testing of suspected prostitutes — so-called “specular rape” — asserted that the state couldn’t use medicine to winnow respectable from “fallen” women in that public world.) Of course, the belief that some bodies were scientifically identifiable as dangerous never wholly went away. It was intrinsic to fascism. It’s implicit in contemporary American penology, where to be young and black is to have a prison sentence written on your forehead.

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair, 1934

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1934

However, Tardieu’s specific delusions about sex and the body are largely dead in the Europe from which they sprang. They survive, instead, in the countries Europe colonized. In addition to the Middle East, where they run rampant, they’ve been documented across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a reason. The promise of universal citizenship wasn’t valid in all locations. It was fine for the West, but in the subject territories, the colonial powers practiced divide and rule. Their authority was made through measuring and classifying bodies — by race, ethnicity, sex, health, height, malleability, morality, cleanliness. The law against “sodomy” in Tunisia dates back to a 1913 criminal code the French authorities imposed; homosexual acts had been legal in metropolitan France since the Revolution, but in the Maghreb the penalty was resurrected — to segregate immoral elements in the population with a view to purification and control. Public health was another great fixation of colonial authorities, British and French alike. (It was one of the few areas where Victorian British intellectuals were willing to take French tutelage.) Through its emerging discourses, they aspired to disinfect indigenous physical filth with the aseptic, separating order of reason. Exported extensively on French and British warships to the warmer climates of the world, Tardieu’s theories about lily-shaped assholes found room to flower; they gave colonial governments the snug belief they could actually measure native perversions with a ruler — and could subject those bodies to scientific domination. The illusions that powered the colonial state became the post-colonial state’s inheritance. Governments still cling to the strategy of division, the distrust of universality, the corporeal ambitions of authority, and the myths that underpinned them. Under precarious, authoritarian regimes struggling to manage and moralize unruly, prolific populations, Tardieu lives.

“Excessive development of the buttocks”: Saartjie Baartman, a captive Khoikhoi woman exhibited in London and Paris from 1810-1815 as a lesson in physical decadence and comparative anatomy, in a contemporary French print

Tunisia was, of course, where the Arab Spring began. It’s still the one state that’s stayed, however haltingly, a democratic course while the others lapsed into civil war or the Ice Age. Lisa Hajjar argues that a “torture trail” ran through the 2011 revolutions: people came together in revolt partly because they shared a loathing, cutting across classes and identities, for regimes that secured their rule by brutalizing and destroying bodies. Resisting state power over the individual body was a key flashpoint in many countries: in Egypt, for instance, the “We Are All Khaled Said” movement roused people in transformative solidarity with a single middle-class youth tortured and murdered by police. Tunisia was at the heart of this. Its revolution ignited when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, put his body literally on the line against the state by burning himself to death, to protest police violence and bureaucratic indifference. The question of corporeal resistance, freedom in the bone, has remained central in Tunisia since. It underlies the controversy over society and state’s collusion in enforcing women’s virginity before marriage — the splendid film National Hymen makes clear how this isn’t just a question of “individual freedom” in the abstract, but of the nation’s claim to illegitimate rights over the body. It’s not surprising that progressive activists in Tunisia should understand the forced anal exams — an assertion of the state’s power over every carnal crevice of your person — as a crucial battle in this elemental war.

It’s sad and telling that the young man’s ordeal began with the police searching through Facebook messages — that technologically modern method of rooting out private evidence. In his misery, two forms of surveillance met. Like Tardieu’s theories, Facebook claims it can make social networks legible. The fear that haunted Tardieu was people copulating secretly, flouting class and status, outside society’s panoptical scrutiny, promiscuous and unrecorded. As I wrote in 2004:

To Tardieu, “habitual pederasty,” a tendency outwardly often undetectable, had infiltrated all social classes. His aim was to help justice “pursue and extirpate, if possible, this shameful vice.” His obstacles were the slippery masquerades in which a protean pederasty hid. He warned of “habitual pederasty among married men, among fathers of families.” The treacherous skill by which pederasty concealed its public marks lent urgency to the “precise and certain declaration of the signs which can make pederasts recognizable” – pinning down the tendency’s spoor upon the skin itself.

That’s what, in a very different register, Facebook promises: to reveal selves and networks. It will render your desires and connections visible, to your friends but also — the fine print of the bargain — to companies hunting customers, and to governments tracking crime.

The cops start with trailing you in the cyber placidity of Facebook. But there’s an Anusbook they want to study, too, and it’s violent, not virtual. Surveillance begins by intercepting words; it ends by invading bodies. The state monitors messages at first, but only the better to torture their makers. Knowledge is the means, but the goal is pain. Social media make up a dull, expository prologue. The intricate exposed agony of your wounded body is what the police really long to read.

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Also, bend over. That thumb is waiting.

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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