Monday, August 29, 2005

Gay Iraqi laments life after invasion


As the drafters of the new Iraqi constitution debate the role of religious law, Salam Pax, the gay Iraqi blogger who became internationally known through his postings about life in Iraq during the war, told the Blade that conditions have worsened for gays in the country since the United States invaded.

Salam said that gays in Iraq have no rights and are seen as, “lower in status than sewer rats.”

An architect by training, Salam worked as a translator for an American journalist during the war. He began his blog to keep in touch with his friend, who had moved to Jordan to pursue a master’s degree. After gaining international fame as a writer, he covered the 2004 U.S. presidential election for the British Guardian newspaper. But since then, his voice has not been heard much on the Internet.

“Being ignored and not acknowledged is for me much better than being actively persecuted by a religiously zealous government,” he said.

“The previous regime [of Saddam Hussein] didn’t actively persecute gay men, and we never got to the point where men were hanged like in Iran, but if you got accused if engaging in homosexual acts then [you could] get something like five months in prison which, as we know, is never going to be a pleasant thing in Iraq.”

Shiite religious groups have come to play a far more prominent role in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship.

“There is now a real struggle to keep the demands of the religious extremists in check, to make sure that Iraqis are not denied basic human rights in the name of abiding to religious laws,” Salam said. “It is way too early for us to even think about gay rights. I want to make sure I will have the right to shave my beard and wear a tie if I want to.”

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who has been following the development of the new Iraqi constitution on his blog “Informed Comment” confirmed Salam’s concerns.

“I very much doubt the constitution will give rights to gays,” Cole said via e-mail. “If it enshrines Islamic law, in fact, being gay could be a capital crime.”

There are no political support groups for gays and no political party sees any benefit in mentioning gays in a positive or negative way, Salam said. Public discussion of gay issues is generally limited to discussion in the newspapers of how disgusting gays are and what type of punishment is appropriate for gay behavior.

The only group that has voiced an opinion about gay rights for Iraqis, Salam said, is the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which is affiliated with the Iraqi Worker’s Socialist Party, “and they have never mentioned this inside Iraq because as progressive as they are in demanding women’s rights, they know that supporting same-sex relationships is a bit too progressive.”

Many high-level members of the government are eager to have religious law enshrined in the new constitution, said Farida Deif, researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch said. Everywhere that conservative religious law has been written into a constitution, Deif added, it has codified inequality and discrimination.

“The question is, is Islamic law going to be a source of legislation or is it going to be the source of legislation,” Deif said.

Since the adoption of the Code of Personal Status in 1959, Iraq’s family law has been fairly secular, Deif said.

Zaid A. Zaid, a gay American, worked in Iraq as a liaison between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Counsel between February and April of last year. Zaid said that his experience as an openly gay man in Iraq was a positive one.

Zaid said inside the Green Zone, the three square mile area guarded by American troops, he encountered other openly gay government workers, closeted U.S. service members and National Guard troops, and closeted gay civilians who had previously worked for Republicans in Washington.

Working in the Green Zone is stressful, Zaid said, with most people working 13 or 14-hour days and nothing to do but sleep during down time.

“It’s not like there were many opportunities for dating or anything else.”

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