Kurdistan LGBTQ mural showing a woman reading and refracting white light into a rainbow
Kurdistan mural of a woman refracting white light into a rainbow

Kurdistan LGBTQ+ rights in jeopardy as NGO license rescinded

This week, during Pride Month—a global celebration each June that honors the impact and ongoing advocacy for equality by all members of the LGBTQ+ community—a Sulaymaniyah court rescinded the license of a local organization devoted to defending the rights of women and the Kurdistan LGBTQ+ community.

The Rasan Organisation, an NGO legally recognized as a women’s rights group in the Kurdistan Region, has seen its license revoked following accusations of “promoting homosexuality” and violating its internal regulations.

Despite the relative safety of the Kurdistan Region compared to the rest of Iraq and an increased awareness of sexual orientation and gender identity in recent years, activist and organization efforts to address these issues have sparked backlash from conservative politicians and the public.

“The LGBTQI community has more or less never felt safe in the Kurdistan Region,” shared activist and journalist Dilan Sirwan, who has extensively covered these issues.

Sirwan expressed that actions by Islamist parties, compounded by this recent official ruling against LGBTQ+ rights, have elicited serious concerns within the community. These adverse conditions have driven many to leave the country, either out of fear for their lives or in pursuit of a place where their human rights are acknowledged and upheld.

Iraqueer, a nationwide Iraqi organisation claiming to be the country’s first LGBTQ+ NGO, also asserts that the Kurdistan Region offers no protection for homosexuals, mirroring the reality in other Iraqi cities.

In response to a community member who had fled to the Kurdistan Region from the rest of Iraq due to fears of retaliation, but who still feared possible incarceration or death, the NGO advised, “We recommend that you keep your sexuality private, avoid clothing that may raise suspicion, refrain from wearing rainbow-coloured accessories, and choose your friends wisely.”

Established in 2004, Rasan initially focused on advocating for human and women’s rights. In 2016, the NGO expanded its mission to include the defense of LGBTQ+ rights. Over time, Rasan has endeavored to highlight the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community and normalize diverse sexual orientations. These initiatives involved painting rainbow murals in public areas across Sulaymaniyah and other Iraqi cities, a move criticized by some as ‘promoting homosexuality’.

The backlash against Rasan dates back to 2020 and 2021 when vocal lawmakers initiated legal actions against the NGO and even urged the Kurdistan Parliament to step in.

Omar Gulpi, a homophobic islamist MP, expressed his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and to the NGO when he announced his lawsuit against Rasan in 2021. In a February interview with Rudaw TV that year, Gulpi claimed that Rasan “operates outside of the law, violates public rights from a familial and societal perspective, and infringes upon the sacred values of society.”

“If you have a disease, you can’t promote it as something normal to society,” Gulpi added, derogatorily referring to gay people.

In that same year, a social gathering of gay men in Sulaimani was stormed by police, leading to dozens of arrests. This operation was executed under the guise of enforcing laws against “immoral” acts and prostitution, but was condemned by members of Kurdistan’s LGBT+ community and gay rights activists as a targeted attack on their community.

In January of this year, Ali Hama Salih MP, ex-darling of the opposition movement in the Kurdistan Region, lodged formal legal complaints with the region’s general prosecutor against two NGOs, including Rasan, for their advocacy of LGBTQ+ issues. At the time, Salih expressed his intent to block any future attempts to establish gay advocacy organizations.

In response to the court’s decision, Tanya Kamal Darwesh, the director of the NGO, told Rudaw that the verdict had “shortcomings,” and that her organization plans to appeal it.

NRT English contacted Darwesh for comment multiple times, but she was not available.

Previously, Darwesh had contended that their “mission is not to promote the LGBTQ+ community, but to raise societal awareness about it,” as reported by Global Issues last year. She noted that society often accuses this community of “prostitution, drug trafficking, or other offenses as a means to remove them from the streets” instead of accepting their presence and identity.

Although neither Iraq nor the Kurdistan Region has laws that explicitly target homosexuality, indirect methods of criminalization contribute to the LGBTQ+ community being one of the most persecuted groups in the country. LGBTQ+ individuals across Iraq have been subjected to horrifying abuses, including torture, sexual assault, and extrajudicial killings.

In federal Iraqi politics, LGBTQ+ individuals frequently bear the brunt of populist sentiment, even being blamed for delays in forming a government.

Last year, Shia opposition leader Muqdata Al-Sadr suggested a “day of action” devoted to combating homosexuality. This week, he tweeted: “I can not turn a blind eye to what is happening in the world and how they unfold.. with regard to the LGBTQ community issue, especially after America, which considers itself the ‘greatest state’ and we consider it the ‘lowest state’, announced itself as a ‘homosexual state in order to support the spread of obscenity in the world.”

The tweet, in response to President Biden’s condemnation of Uganda’s draconian new anti-homosexuality laws, saw Sadr receive overwhelming support from Iraqis in comment sections and social media.

Despite a rise in Kurdish- and Arab-language media coverage of LGBT+ matters, the majority is negative, often featuring verbal abuse directed at the community, which is rarely given the chance to respond.

Legislation targeting the activities of the LGBT+ communities has made headway in both the federal and Kurdistan Region parliaments. Last September, a draft law introduced in the Erbil assembly gained the support of 76 of the chamber’s 110 members but did not progress to a floor vote.

The draft law in the Kurdistan Region did not explicitly target homosexuality but instead targets the advocacy for homosexual rights. Given the ambiguous phrasing, there may not be a significant practical distinction. The proposed legislation, titled the “Bill on the Prohibition of Promoting Homosexuality,” imposes potential penalties for advocates and promoters of LGBT+ rights, including up to a year in prison and fines as high as $3,500.

This week’s verdict against Rasan, reached despite the aforementioned draft bill not becoming law, could further compound the pressures faced by the community.

“The court’s decision to revoke Rasan’s license serves as a dangerous legal precedent for other people supporting the rights of the LGBTQI community in the Kurdistan Region,” warned Sirwan.

“This serves as a solid ground to further target the already persecuted community, and would essentially raise serious questions about the already deteriorating situation of human rights in the Region.”