LGBT rights in the Middle East

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LGBT rights in the Middle East
Middle East (orthographic projection) (Homosexuality) Close-Up.svg
  Same-sex marriage recognized
  Civil unions
  Homosexuality is legal
  Anti-propaganda law
  Unenforced prison
  Prison, unenforced death penalty
  Enforced death penalty
Legal in:Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Bahrain, Iraq, West Bank
Illegal in:Syria, Egypt, Gaza Strip, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people generally have limited or highly restrictive rights in most parts of the Middle East, and are open to hostility in others. Sex between men is illegal in 9 of the 18 countries that make up the region. It is punishable by death in six of these 18 countries. The rights and freedoms of LGBT citizens are strongly influenced by the prevailing cultural traditions and religious mores of people living in the region – particularly Islam.

All same-sex activity is legal in Bahrain, Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the West Bank.

Female same-sex activity is legal in Kuwait; however, the legal status of female same-sex activity is unclear in Egypt.[1] Even though laws against female same-sex activity are less strict, few of these countries recognize legal rights and provisions.

Male same-sex activity is illegal and punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait, Egypt, Oman and Syria. It is also punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In Yemen and Gaza Strip, the punishment might differ between death and imprisonment depending on the act committed.

Several Middle Eastern countries have received strong international criticism for persecuting homosexuality and transgender people by sentencing them to death, life in prison, fines, torture, beatings, vigilante attacks, vigilante executions, honor killings, forced psychiatric treatments, forced anal examinations, forced hormone injections, chemical castration, floggings, and deportation.


Evidence of homosexuality in the Middle East can be traced back at least until the time of Ancient Egypt[2] and Mesopotamia. In ancient Assyria, sex crimes were punished identically whether they were homosexual or heterosexual.[3] An individual faced no punishment for penetrating someone of equal social class, a cult prostitute, or with someone whose gender roles were not considered solidly masculine.[3] In an Akkadian tablet, the Šumma ālu, it states, "If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers".[4][5] However, homosexual relationships with fellow soldiers, slaves, royal attendants, or those where a social better was submissive or penetrated, were treated as bad omens.[6][7] A Middle Assyrian Law Codes dating from 1075 BC has a rather harsh law for homosexuality in the military, which reads: "If a man have intercourse with his brother-in-arms, they shall turn him into a eunuch."[8][9][10]

Around 250 BC, during the Parthian Empire, the Zoroastrian text Vendidad was written. It contains provisions that are part of sexual code promoting procreative sexuality that is interpreted to prohibit same-sex intercourse as sinful. Ancient commentary on this passage suggests that those engaging in sodomy could be killed without permission from a high priest. However, a strong homosexual tradition in Iran is attested to by Greek historians from the 5th century onward, and so the prohibition apparently had little effect on Iranian attitudes or sexual behavior outside the ranks of devout Zoroastrians in rural eastern Iran.[11][12][13][14][15]

Attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their experiences in the Muslim world have been influenced by its religious, legal, social, political, and cultural history.

The Quran narrates the story of the "people of Lot" destroyed by the wrath of God because the men engaged in lustful carnal acts between themselves.[16][17][18][19] Within the Quran, it never states that homosexuality is punishable by death,[20] and modern historians conclude that the Islamic prophet Muhammad never forbade homosexual relationships, although he shared contempt towards them alongside his contemporaries.[21] However, some hadith collections condemn homosexual and transgender acts,[16][22][23][24] prescribing death penalty for both the active and receptive partners who have engaged in male homosexual intercourse.[25]

There is little evidence of homosexual practice in Islamic societies for the first century and a half of the early history of Islam,[25] although male homosexual relationships were known[22] and ridiculed, but not sanctioned, in Arabia.[21]

During the medieval period and the early modern age, Middle Eastern societies saw a flourishing of homo-erotic literature. Shusha Guppy of the Times Higher Education Supplement argued that although it "has long been assumed that the Arab-Islamic societies have always been less tolerant of homosexuality than the West", in "the pre-modern era, Western travelers were amazed to find Islam 'a sex-positive religion' and men openly expressing their love for young boys in words and gestures."[26]

During the Islamic Golden Age, the Abbasid dynasty is known for being relatively liberal regarding homosexuality.[27] This is due to a variety of factors, notably the move towards a more bureaucratic Islamic rule and away from literalist adherence to the scripture.

Many Islamic rulers were known to engage in, or at least tolerate, homosexual activity. For instance, Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid II was said to enjoy "al-talawut", an Arabic word for sex with other men. Abu Nuwas, one of the most prominent Arab poets to extensively produce homoerotic works, did so under the tutelage and protection of Harun al-Rashid. Harun al-Rashid's successor, Al-Amin, rejected women and concubines, preferring eunuchs instead.[28]

Homosexual acts are forbidden in traditional Islamic jurisprudence and are liable to different punishments, including the death penalty,[25] depending on the situation and legal school. However, homosexual relationships were generally tolerated in pre-modern Islamic societies,[21][22][25][29] and historical records suggest that these laws were invoked infrequently, mainly in cases of rape or other "exceptionally blatant infringement on public morals".[25] Public attitudes toward homosexuality in the Muslim world underwent a marked negative change starting from the 19th century through the gradual spread of Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Salafism and Wahhabism,[30][31][32] and the influence of the sexual notions and restrictive norms prevalent in Europe at the time: a number of Muslim-majority countries have retained criminal penalties for homosexual acts enacted under European colonial rule.[33][34][35][36]

In the 19th and early 20th century, homosexual activity was relatively common in the Middle East, owing in part to widespread sex segregation, which made heterosexual encounters outside marriage more difficult. Georg Klauda writes that "Countless writers and artists such as André Gide, Oscar Wilde, Edward M. Forster, and Jean Genet made pilgrimages in the 19th and 20th centuries from homophobic Europe to Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and various other Arab countries, where homosexual sex was not only met without any discrimination or subcultural ghettoization whatsoever, but rather, additionally as a result of rigid segregation of the sexes, seemed to be available on every corner."[37] Homosexuality was outlawed in 1943 in Lebanon, to conform to the rule of the Vichy regime of France. The law is known as article 543 in the country's Penal Code.[38] In Iran, men could be intimate with other men without being in a formal relationship. Young men without facial hair were considered beautiful and older men would pursue them. It was not until the nineteenth century, when Europeans began to visit Iran, that the view of homosexual male relationships became negative. European men claimed the relations between Iranian men were immoral. This European perspective was widely adopted by Iranian society.[39] This outlook on queerness within the Middle East has worsened as totalitarian governments, beginning in the 1970s, came to power and justified their values on Islamic fundamentalism.[40]

Transgender people have also faced backlash in the Middle East in the late 1900s. There was fear that because one could not differentiate men and women based on their outer appearance, it would cause instability within society. Gender reaffirming surgeries were introduced and became accessible and prevalent among transgender women in Iran. In 1976, the Medical Council of Iran outlawed gender reassignment surgery after seeing the increase of procedures among transgender women. They have changed this ruling since then.[41]

Before globalization, Middle Eastern men and women who had homosexual relations did not consider themselves to be 'homosexual'. Due to the exchanges between the West and Middle East, the idea of "homosexuality" was introduced to Middle Eastern regions and these people were then encouraged to associate themselves with new labels, such as "gay", "lesbian", "straight", and more. Before the use of these labels, people did not categorize their sexuality in that way.[42]

The Middle East today[edit]

In Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, the laws state that if a person is found guilty of engaging in same gender sexual behavior, the death penalty would be applied.[43] According to Country Reports of the US Department of State, in Saudi Arabia there are no established LGBT organizations. Furthermore, reports of official and social discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation remains unclear because of strong social pressure of not to discuss LGBT matters.[44]

Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq are the only Arab countries where homosexuality is legal;[45] however, there is some stigma in the Iraqi society which sometimes leads to vigilante executions.[46] ISIS does not tolerate homosexuality.[47] Some Middle Eastern nations have some tolerance and legal protections for transsexual and transgender people. For example, the Iranian government has approved sex change operations under medical approval. The Syrian government has approved similar operations back in 2011.[48] LGBT rights movements have existed in other Middle Eastern nations, including Turkey and Lebanon. However, in both Turkey and Lebanon, changes have been slow and recent crackdown on LGBT oriented events have raised concerns about the freedom of association and expression of LGBT people and organizations.[49][50]

Image of Gay Pride flag in Jerusalem
Image of a Gay Pride flag and the Star of David combined.

Israel is a notable exception, being the most progressive concerning LGBT rights and recognizing unregistered cohabitation. Anti-occupation activists have introduced this as a phenomenon under the name of pinkwashing.[51] Same-sex marriage is not legal in the country but there is public support for recognizing and registering same-sex marriages performed in other countries.[52] Israel also allows transgender individuals to legally change their gender without surgery.[53] Transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces.[54]

There are different legal systems in Palestine. A report of Human Rights Watch in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity in the Middle East notes:[55]

The British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance, No. 74 of 1936 is in force in Gaza. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Jordanian Penal Code of 1960 applies, and does not contain provisions prohibiting adult consensual same-sex conduct. In Gaza, having "unnatural intercourse" of a sexual nature, understood to include same-sex relationships, is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In February 2016, Hamas’s armed wing executed one of its fighters ostensibly for "behavioral and moral violations," which Hamas officials acknowledged meant same-sex relations.

Arab and Muslim views of homosexuality as a purely "Western" creation have been explored in the film Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. The starting line of the dialogue spoken by an as yet unseen gay Egyptian man stating "I was accused of being Westernized."[56]

A report of Human Rights Watch in relation to LGBT rights in the Middle East notes:

In a few places, like Egypt and Morocco, sexual orientation and gender identity issues have begun to enter the agendas of some mainstream human rights movements. Now, unlike in earlier years, there are lawyers to defend people when they are arrested, and voices to speak up in the press. These vital developments were not won through identity politics. Those have misfired disastrously as a way of claiming rights in much of the Middle East; the urge of some western LGBT activists to unearth and foster ‘gay’ politics in the region is potentially deeply counterproductive. Rather, the mainstreaming was won largely by framing the situations of LGBT (or otherwise-identified) people in terms of the rights violations, and protections, that existing human rights movements understand. (Human Rights Watch 2009, p. 18)[57]

Although many Middle Eastern countries have penal codes against homosexual acts, these are seldom enforced due to the difficulty to prove unless caught in the act. In the Middle East today many countries still do not have codification of homosexuality or queerness as an identification of sexual orientation.[58] In Saudi Arabia, gender segregation is practiced to uphold the purity of women, because this separation exists some women and men will openly seek homosexual companionship in open spaces like coffee shops, public bathrooms, their cars, and their households. To navigate their own sexuality many men who engage in homosexual acts in Saudi Arabia do not deem the acts to be homosexual unless they are a bottom, which is a sexual position deemed to be more feminine while a top is deemed to be masculine.[59]

In Iran there is a strict gender binary. The government enforces the gender binary by suppressing information about homosexuality and encouraging people questioning their sexuality to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Since the sex reassignment surgery is accepted by the government and religious institutions along with obtaining funding from the government for the surgery many Iranians who are attracted to the same sex see this as a way to be public about their sexual orientation without being persecuted by the government.[58] Since being homosexual is not an option presented to Iranians, there has been a surge in the amount of Iranians who undergo gender reassignment surgery when their sexual orientation is towards the same sex. Sex reassignment surgery is encouraged by clerics, psychologists, and the government as homosexuality is illegal and punishable by lashing or execution.[60] This has led to a bolstering transgender community in Iran as homosexuality has been removed from society as an identity leading homosexuals and transsexuals to all seek gender reassignment surgery. The people who undergo these surgeries are fully accepted by the government but families still often reject family members who undergo gender reassignment surgery. Family members are a primary resource for job acquisition in Iran. Without a social network to call on for job leads it is increasingly difficult to find work, and transsexuals are discriminated against in the job market forcing them into sex work.[61]

Regional LGBTQ NGOs and Solidarity Groups[edit]

Listed below are a few ally organizations that aim to help and support LGBT people in the Middle East. Other organizations with the same goal exist as well; however, these are the organizations that have made the most impact in the regions thus far.

Rainbow Street

Rainbow Street is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is determined to help LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in any way they need. This includes:

  • "working with local health providers to promote mental and physical health of local LGBT community members
  • to provide regular cash stipends to exceptionally vulnerable LGBT people to alleviate the challenges of homelessness, food insecurity, and other barriers to dignity and self-determination"[62]

OutRight Action International

OutRight is a NGO that promotes human rights of LGBT people around the world, including in the Middle East. The organization focuses more on Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, but also partners with other groups in the region in order to listen to local LGBT activists, and advocate on their behalf at the United Nations.[63]


Helem (Arabic: حلم) is a NGO based in Lebanon, established in the 2000s, that has the main goal of annulling article 534 in Lebanon's Penal Code which punishes "unnatural sexual intercourse", most commonly used to target people that do not conform to society's gender binary system. Helem's other goals include making Lebanese society more aware about the AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases in the country, and advocating for the rights of Lebanese LGBT individuals. Helem also allows allies to access membership to the organization.[64] The name is an acronym for Himaya Lubnaniya lil Mithliyeen wal Mithliyat, which translates to "Lebanese protection for gays and lesbians." The acronym itself means "dream".[38]


This section is by no means exhaustive, and does not cover every particular law pertaining to LGBT rights. This is partly due to the non-existence of these laws in some Middle Eastern States, and also due to the laws being available in Arabic.

Examples of laws regarding homosexual orientation or transgender/non-binary identity[65]
Country Homosexuality legal status Laws regarding same-sex behavior Laws regarding being transgender or non-binary
Bahrain Yes check.svg The penal code does not prohibit private, non-commercial acts of homosexuality between consenting adults, although "adults" for the purposes of that law are at least 21 years old. There are several other parts of the penal code that can be used against LGBT people. According to the Human Rights Watch, the government of Bahrain has also charged citizens for acts of "indecency" and "immorality". Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Cyprus Yes check.svg Homosexual activities are legal in Cyprus, and civil unions have been legal since December 2015.
Egypt X mark.svg Felony – Article 9 of the Law 10/1961 on the Combating of Prostitution punishes anyone who "habitually engages in debauchery or prostitution", or who offers, owns, or manages establishments for the purpose of such activities, with up to three years in prison and a fine up to 300 Egyptian pounds (US$17). Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Iraq Yes check.svg Although homosexuality itself is legal since 2003,[66][67] LGBT people can be charged under public indecency law 401.[66] People also face execution by vigilantes and Sharia courts.[68] Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Israel Yes check.svg The law protects LGBT individuals; any violent crime motivated by sexual orientation is considered a hate crime.[69] The law protects LGBT individuals; any violent crime motivated by sexual orientation is considered a hate crime.[69] Foreign same-sex couples are recognised.
Jordan Yes check.svg Jordan does not criminalize consensual adult homosexual intercourse. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Kuwait X mark.svg Felony – Men can be sentenced to up to seven years of imprisonment under Article 193 of Kuwait's Penal Code for same-sex relations. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Lebanon Yes check.svg Under Section 534 of the Lebanese Criminal Code, "any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature" is punishable with up to a year in prison. However, this law is rarely enforced. In 2019, it was ruled that homosexuality is not punishable by law. In 2013, Lebanon became the first Arab country to declassify homosexuality as a disease. Conversion therapy isn't outlawed, but it is discouraged and unsupported by the government. Various LGBT organizations exist in Lebanon. See LGBT rights in Lebanon. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male. However, sex reassignment therapy has been legal since 2016.
Oman X mark.svg Felony – Any sexual act occurring between people of the same sex is punishable with imprisonment, varying from six months to three years, under Article 262 of Oman's latest penal code (promulgated in January 2018). Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Palestine Yes check.svg / X mark.svg Gaza Strip and West Bank are governed by different penal Codes. Gaza follows the British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance (promulgated in 1936), which punishes any "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" with a prison sentence of up to ten years. The West Bank on the other hand follows the Jordanian Penal Code of 1951, which, as previously stated, does not incriminate same-sex sexual acts. Both Gaza and the West Bank do not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Qatar X mark.svg Felony – inducing or seducing a male or a female anyhow to commit illegal or immoral actions" is punishable by up to three years. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Saudi Arabia X mark.svg Saudi Arabia has no written laws but penalizes LGBT activity with up to death Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
Syria X mark.svg Felony – Article 520 of Syria's Penal Code criminalizes "unnatural sexual intercourse", and Article 517 punishes any crime "against public decency" occurring in public with a prison sentence varying from three months to three years. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) X mark.svg Article 354 of the Federal Penal Code states: "Whoever commits rape on a female or sodomy with a male shall be punished by death." In addition, a 2019 ILGA report says that Article 356 punishes all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage with at least one year of imprisonment. In addition, Zina crimes are punished with death.[70] Also, Abu Dhabi's penal code incriminates unnatural sex acts with up to 14 years in prison. Does not acknowledge any gender identity other than female and male.

Social context and extrajudicial violence[edit]

Beyond the sphere of legislative politics, individuals who practice behaviors that can be considered LGBTQ and/or people who directly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer often face profound social consequences due to this designation falling outside of the cultural "normal". These consequences can include negative repercussions in one's family life and social marginalization, as well as direct violence and even honor killings. Discrimination towards LGBTQ people is therefore not only a legal matter but a social and cultural phenomenon that must be understand beyond just the letter of the law as it is codified. Due to the power dynamics specific to societies in the Middle East today, one must therefore look not only to law but also to social norms and cultural practices in order to understand the state of LGBTQ rights in the region. As put by Sabiha Allouche, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of London SOAS, the traditional "formulation of the legal sphere" throughout the history of queer advocacy in the West is "not necessarily applicable to contexts where penal codes often intertwine with further regulatory systems, including religion, customs, traditions, and kin-based patterns of governance."[71] The elitism and jargon endemic to the NGO-ization of human rights advocacy in the region can actually impede the endeavors of these organization, in that NGO-ization causes the work of local activists to be perceived as systematic colonial intervention from the west.[71]

As happens in European and North American nations, interpretations of religious doctrine are commonly used as justifications for violence and exclusion of gay people from society. Christian populations in the Middle East persecute gay people as well, demonstrating that cultural customs may play a role as much as religion. The centrality of heterosexual family structures to social and religious rituals can also lead to heightened scrutiny from people in one's own family.

Due to the illegality and stigma around people who identify as LGBT, there is a dearth in the quantity of credible data collected regarding violence and discrimination that LGBT individuals face on a daily basis. However, a report written by Outright International submitted to UNHRC regarding violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Iraq has found that despite LGBT rights being protected by the law, there exists no feasible legal recourse for victims of such hate crimes.[72]

Public opinion[edit]

Due to a rise in Islamic conservatism in the late 20th century in the region, any non-conforming sexual behavior is condescended, and incriminating in most countries, as previously stated. It is popularly believed that this opinion is shared only by government officials and religious men. However, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 disproved this when it was found that over 80% of people polled rejected homosexuality as "morally unacceptable".[40] Those who do identify with the LGBTQ community live in hiding due to the fear of backlash and punishment. While some are comfortable to attend LGBTQ themed events, many will wear masks to cover their identities. Thus, it is unclear how many are actually in support of LGBTQ rights.[73]

See also[edit]


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