LGBT Iraqis’ search for safe havens fraught with danger

Iraq FlagOn Dec 20, 2014 Daily Xtra reported: ‘If you look different, you become an instant target’: Hossein Alizadeh

Even as LGBT Iraqis experience pervasive discrimination and threats to their lives from militias, the police and civilian society — including their own families — the prospect of finding safe havens within the country or seeking asylum abroad is also fraught with risk and danger.

Thousands of Iraqis find themselves the targets of persecution. Those who stand out because their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity defy cultural norms find themselves the focus of suspicion at in-country checkpoints, when they try to move to different cities, or marginalized in the general refugee population and in some host countries if they manage to get out of Iraq.

“The gay men who are more effeminate or trans individuals are more at risk because they are easy to spot and therefore easily targeted,” says Hossein Alizadeh, regional program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which released two reports on LGBT life in Iraq in November. “If you look different or [authorities] feel you are crossdressing, you become an instant target, and a very eligible victim, so to speak,” he says, noting that checkpoint police are known to gang rape people before letting them move on.

Meanwhile, militias are often a source of organized campaigns of violence in a number of Iraqi cities. “Often what they do is they go after a couple of individuals who are known in the community to be gay; they start torturing them and beating them up and forcing them to give up the names of other friends or go through their phones and pick up the contact information and then go after them as well,” Alizadeh says.

The militias mete out their persecution in cyclical fashion, with the violence dying down for a period of time, which prompts people to resume their lives with a tenuous semblance of normalcy until the next wave of hostility starts. “That gives you a sense of false hope, because human tendency is to meet up with other people and to have a normal life; as soon as things settle, you hope now you can come out. Well, maybe and maybe not,” Alizadeh says.

Given the perilous environment, it is dangerous for LGBT Iraqis to try to form activist groups or even meet for social gatherings. And while people take to the internet to seek relationships and build community, there is still a risk of harassment and blackmail, he adds.

Alizadeh notes that while gay men will take chances on finding dates online or hanging out, women’s ability to engage in such activities is often circumscribed by their financial dependence on their fathers or male relatives. “If you are forced into a marriage at a young age, how can you possibly explore that side of your sexuality?” Alizadeh asks.

Women can also face the threat of honour killings if their behaviour falls outside the dictates of society. Alizadeh says the government admits that it can account for only a small percentage of honour crimes committed. He wonders how many lesbians fall victim to such acts, considering the dearth of information about a phenomenon that is so common.

Conteinued at Daily Xtra.

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