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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia: De facto tolerance

"I will not wear high heels. Because heels are a male invention designed to make women's butt look smaller... and to make it harder for them to run away." - Amanda Bynes (as Viola Hastings, She's the Man)

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The Kingdom in the Closet - Nadya Labi - The Atlantic

"“It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here,” he had said. “If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have a date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.”

Notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam, and as the birthplace of most of the 9/11 hijackers, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that claims sharia, or Islamic law, as its sole legal code...

The kingdom leaves considerable space for homosexual behavior. As long as gays and lesbians maintain a public front of obeisance to Wahhabist norms, they are left to do what they want in private. Vibrant communities of men who enjoy sex with other men can be found in cosmopolitan cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. They meet in schools, in cafés, in the streets, and on the Internet. “You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any time of the day,” said Radwan, a 42-year-old gay Saudi American who grew up in various Western cities and now lives in Jeddah. “They’re quite shameless about it.” Talal, a Syrian who moved to Riyadh in 2000, calls the Saudi capital a “gay heaven.”

This is surprising enough. But what seems more startling, at least from a Western perspective, is that some of the men having sex with other men don’t consider themselves gay...

In Saudi Arabia, “It’s easier to be a lesbian [than a heterosexual]. There’s an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism,” Yasmin said, adding that the number of men in the kingdom who turn to gay sex is even greater. “They’re not really homosexual,” she said. “They’re like cell mates in prison”...

Many “tops” are simply hard up for sex, looking to break their abstinence in whatever way they can...

Many gay expatriates say they feel more at home in the kingdom than in their native lands...

In The History of Sexuality, a multivolume work published in the 1970s and ’80s, Michel Foucault proposed his famous thesis that Western academic, medical, and political discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries had produced the idea of the homosexual as a deviant type: In Western society, homosexuality changed from being a behavior (what you do) to an identity (who you are). In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that—an act, not an orientation...

Yet a paradox exists at the heart of Saudi conceptions of gay sex and sexual identity: Despite their seemingly flexible view of sexuality, most of the Saudis I interviewed, including those men who identify themselves as gay, consider sodomy a grave sin...

Indeed, the Koran does not contain rules about homosexuality, says Everett K. Rowson, a professor at New York University who is working on a book about homosexuality in medieval Islamic society... "200 years ago, highly respected religious scholars in the Middle East were writing poems about beautiful boys”...

The gay men I interviewed in Jeddah and Riyadh laughed when I asked them if they worried about being executed. Although they do fear the mutawwa'in to some degree, they believe the House of Saud isn’t interested in a widespread hunt of homosexuals. For one thing, such an effort might expose members of the royal family to awkward scrutiny...

The power of the mutawwa'in is limited by the Koran, which frowns upon those who intrude on the privacy of others in order to catch them in sinful acts. The mandate of the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is specifically to regulate behavior in the public realm. What occurs behind closed doors is between a believer and God. This seems to be the way of the kingdom: essentially, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Private misbehavior is fine, as long as public decorum is observed... Few people in the kingdom, other than the mutawwa'in, seem to take the process seriously...

To be gay in Saudi Arabia is to live a contradiction—to have license without rights, and to enjoy broad tolerance without the most minimal acceptance...

A policy of official denial but tacit acceptance leaves space for change, the possibility that gay men will abandon their sinful ways... But as the Western conception of sexual identity has filtered into the kingdom via television and the Internet, it has begun to blur the Saudi view of sexual behavior as distinct from sexual identity... “They know if your favorite artist is Madonna and you listen to a lot of music, that means you are gay”... His father, a Saudi, threatened to kill himself, then decided that he couldn’t (because suicide is haram), then contemplated killing Radwan instead...

The expectation that Zahar would maintain a public front at odds with his private self is no greater than the expectations facing his straight peers... Most of the gay men I interviewed said that gay rights are beside the point. They view the downsides of life in Saudi Arabia—having to cut your hair, or hide your jewelry, or even spend time in prison for going to a party—as minor aggravations. “When I see a gay parade [in trips to the West], it’s too much of a masquerade for attention,” Zahar said. “You don’t need that. Women’s rights, gay rights—why? Get your rights without being too loud.”

Embracing gay identity, generally viewed in the West as the path to fuller rights, could backfire in Saudi Arabia. The idea of being gay, as opposed to simply acting on sexual urges, may bring with it a deeper sense of shame...

He tried to rally the community and encourage basic rights—like the right not to be imprisoned. But the locals took him aside and warned him to keep his mouth shut. They told him, “You’ve got everything a gay person could ever want.”"


Meanwhile in Singapore, activists are still hung up over 377A.

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Saudi gays flaunt new freedoms: 'Straights can't kiss in public or hold hands like us'

"The paradox of Saudi Arabia is that while the executioner's sword awaits anyone convicted of the crime of sodomy, in practice homosexuality is tolerated.

"I don't feel oppressed at all," said one, a 23-year-old who was meeting in one of the coffee shops with a group of self-identified "gay" Saudi friends dressed in Western clothes and speaking fluent English. "I heard that after 11 September, a Saudi student who was going to be deported on a visa technicality applied for political asylum because he was gay," he added, provoking laughter from the others. "What was he thinking of? We have more freedom here than straight couples. After all, they can't kiss in public like we can, or stroll down the street holding one another's hand."

Saudi Arabia's domestic reform initiative, combined with the kingdom's eagerness to shed an international reputation for fostering extremism and intolerance, may even have some benefits for this strict Islamic society's gay community. Shortly after the attacks on America - most of the suicide-hijackers were Saudi nationals - a Saudi diplomat in Washington denied that the kingdom beheads homosexuals, while openly admitting that "sodomy" is practised by consenting males in Saudi Arabia "on a daily basis". Even the head of the notorious religious police has since acknowledged the existence of a local gay population.

The treatment of gay men here received international attention when an Interior Ministry statement reported in January 2002 that three men in the southern city of Abha had been "beheaded for homosexuality". The report provoked widespread condemnation from gay and human-rights groups in the West - and a swift denial from an official at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC. Tariq Allegany, an embassy spokesman, said the three were beheaded for the sexual abuse of boys. He said: "I would guess there's sodomy going on daily in Saudi Arabia, but we don't have executions for it all the time."

A Riyadh-based Western diplomat, aware of the details of the case, confirmed the men were beheaded for "rape". "The three men seduced a number of very young boys and videoed themselves raping them. Then they used the recordings, and the fear the boys had of being exposed, to get the youngsters to recruit their friends," he said.

While homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, doubt surrounds specific punishment for it. Some gay foreigners were deported in the 1990s, "but no Saudi has ever been prosecuted for 'being a homosexual'...

In an unprecedented two-page special investigation, the daily newspaper Okaz said lesbianism was "endemic" among schoolgirls. It justified the article with a saying of the Prophet's wife Ayeshathat "there should be no shyness in religion". The article told of lesbian sex in school lavatories, girls stigmatised after refusing the advances of their fellow students, and teachers complaining that none of the girls were willing to change their behaviour.

Mr Ghaith dismissed a suggestion that he should send his "enforcers" to investigate"
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