The Iraqi politician who introduced the bill into parliament is absolutely certain: Any behavior that deviates from heterosexuality is a danger to his country. This is why, in mid-August, Raad al-Maliki introduced a bill that would amend Iraq's "Law on Combatting Prostitution" from 1988 to make same-sex relations a crime, alongside any kind of expression of transgender identity.
Should al-Maliki's bill be passed, same-sex relationships in Iraq would be punishable by death or long prison terms. The bill also pertains to transgender women and sets a penalty of up to three years in jail or a fine of up to €7,100 ($7,700) for anyone who "imitates a woman." The latter is defined as wearing makeup or women's clothing or "appearing as a woman" in public.
The timing of this bill's introduction is no coincidence, said Rasha Younes, a senior LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). It's connected to general discontent and public protests in Iraq. "It comes at a time when the Iraqi government has struggled to deliver on key demands made by protesters, leading to a further breakdown in the social contract between rulers and ruled," she told DW. "The weaponization of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation to mobilize a largely uninformed public against a marginalized group is a state strategy."
According to Human Rights Watch, which has seen a copy of the bill, the Iraqi draft law describes same-sex relationships as "sexual perversion" and also punishes what it describes as the promotion of homosexuality with up to seven years of jail time and financial fines of up to €10,600 ($11,500). The draft law does not explain what is meant by the "promotion of homosexuality."
New law adds to culture of impunity
Until now, Iraq has not had any laws explicitly against same-sex relationships, and authorities have tended to use morality laws to harass the LGBTQ community. "The introduction of the anti-LGBT bill follows months of hostile rhetoric against sexual and gender minorities by Iraqi officials, as well as government crackdowns on human rights groups," HRW said in its report on the law.
"Armed groups and individuals have for decades launched attacks against people perceived as LGBTQ to 'discipline' any non-normativity expressed in Iraq," Younes explained. "The arbitrary nature of the attacks and the fact that they occur in broad daylight in public testify to the climate of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, who know that they can literally get away with it."
Given all this, the new law is just adding "fuel to the fire," Younes continued. "It is an insult to individuals who are already trying to protect themselves from the armed groups that are hunting them down on a large scale."
Amir Ashour, head of one of the country's only LGBTQ rights organizations, IraQueer, feels similarly. If the bill is passed, those attacking locals they perceive as homosexuals will feel even more free to do as they wish. "This law would be against Iraqi and international laws which guarantee equal protection for all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation," Ashour said.
The Iraqi government has been moving against the local LGBTQ community for several months.
"On August 8, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission issued a directive ordering all media outlets to replace the term 'homosexuality' with 'sexual deviance' in their published and broadcast language and banning the use of the term 'gender,'" HRW explained in its statement.
This populist strategy, making the LGBTQ issue a scapegoat in the middle of tough times and arguing that it is an import from liberal Western countries, seems to be working. When demonstrators in the Middle East protested against the burnings of the Muslim religious book, the Quran, recently, they would burn or stamp on rainbow flags — the symbol of the LGBTQ and diversity movement — as well.
The political establishment in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan has also moved against the local queer community. "In September 2022, members of the Kurdistan regional parliament introduced the 'Bill on the Prohibition of Promoting Homosexuality,' which would punish any individual or group that advocates for the rights of LGBT people," HRW noted.
In December last year, influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr tweeted that "believers" should unite to fight the LGBTQ community. He did add that the fight should be conducted "not with violence, killing or threats, but with education and awareness, with logic and ethical methods."
Locals in the LGBTQ community in Iraq tell stories about regular violent and even deadly attacks against them.
"When I hear about the killing of a young man in Iraq because of his sexual orientation, it makes me very sad and afraid at the same time because I am aware that I am in constant danger and that I have no choice but to escape or wait for death," a 43-year-old Iraqi man, who wants to live his life as a woman eventually, told the culture magazine, Raseef 22. "And all I want is to be myself. Every person should decide what he wants in his life freely and safely."
This is even though there is a tradition of homosexuality in the Middle East that goes back hundreds of years. It is not an import from the West. However, the Iraqi draft bill reflects a relatively widespread public sentiment that often mixes with arguments against international interference in Iraq's affairs. According to Equaldex, an organization tracking the progress of LGBTQ rights worldwide, around 56% of Iraqis thought that homosexuality was not justified. That number is actually an improvement. In 2014, around 80% of Iraqis felt that way, according to the same organization.
Author and performer Amrou al-Kadhi believes that the Iraqi aversion to same-sex relationships results from the importance of the family unit in Arab society.
"You're not you, you're me," al-Kadhi's mother said when they were just 15 and wanted to wear pink socks, the Iraqi-British author, who was brought up in a religious family in the Middle East and then London, wrote in "This Arab is Queer. An Anthology by LGBTQ+ Arab writers."
"I can't speak for all Arab families, obviously," al-Kadhi continued. "But in the Iraqi community that I was raised in, parents view their children as direct social replications of themselves — not autonomous individuals who have their own wants and dreams, but byproducts of the Iraqi gene pool whose only goal is to ensure the survival of the wider family unit."
What is developing in Iraq right now is not surprising, said Tea Braun, the chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, a UK-based organization that uses legal means to challenge anti-LGBTQ discriminatory laws worldwide.
"The Trust's position on the death penalty remains clear," she said in a statement to DW. "It is patently a disproportionate and cruel punishment for consensual, human rights-protected conduct, and does not stand up against international law."
This story was originally published in German.