Advertisement Close

He Says Habibi, Not Habibti

posted on: Mar 16, 2021

Homosexuality in the Arab World

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

Many cultures regard homosexuality as taboo, resulting in rejection of homosexuality and discrimination against homosexuals. These cultures are often highly religious and conservative, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other religions. Arab culture is one of the cultures that doesn’t accept homosexuality (take note: Arab culture is a very big umbrella term-each country in the Arab world has its own culture, therefore, each country has its own views on homosexuality). As a broad statement, most of the Arab countries are not very friendly towards the LGBTQ+ community.

Yet, if you listen to a song in Arabic, you might hear the (male) singer say habibi, which means “my love” for a man. This implies that the singer is saying it to a man he loves. For example, check out one of the most well-known songs in the Arab world, Nour El Ein by Amr Diab. Likewise, if the song’s subject of affection is a woman, the singer will use habibti.

Or, if you are walking down a street in an Arab country, you might notice that two women walking together are holding hands or hanging onto each other’s arms, or simply walking very close together. It’s the same sort of thing with men: they will walk very close together (in a way Americans might say is invading personal space), hold hands, and they greet each other with a kiss on each cheek.

Why am I mentioning this? It’s not because these actions mean that someone is gay. Instead, it shows that at some point, the Arab and Islamic world accepted that sexuality is fluid, and did not outright ban homosexuality.

History of Homosexuality in the Arab World

Homosexuality in the Arab world
Abu Nuwas

The history of homosexuality in the Arab and Islamic world is long but is not well-known. Going back to the 8th century, Abu Nuwas wrote about sexuality in general, including homosexuality, in his poems. In the 13th and 14th centuries, people like the poets Rumi and Hafiz (both male) wrote about other men affectionately, and not always platonically. Although Abu Nuwas, Rumi, and Hafiz were in modern-day Iran, they were not the only, or the first, to write about same-sex love. In fact, it was fairly common.

Many Islamic caliphs were tolerant of homosexuality, some even preferring men to women themselves. This is especially true once the Islamic rule had been established, and the rulers did not have to fight to maintain their rule, only to expand it. One example is al-Walid bin Yazid, an Umayyad caliph in the 8th century, who was known to favor intercourse with other men. The practice of tolerance continued into the Abbasid dynasty and beyond.

Part of what made homosexuality more common in the Islamic world was the practice of segregating the sexes. Outside of marriage, men and women found it difficult to have any sexual relationship because of this segregation. In order to satisfy their desires, they turned to same-sex relationships, which attracted far less attention in segregated societies.

To be clear, though, intercourse between men has always been a sin in Muslim courts. Kissing, fondling, and intercourse between women have not.

If you want to learn more about the history of homosexuality in the Arab and Islamic world, Khaled El-Rouayheb, a scholar at Harvard University, wrote a book called Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800.

What Happened?

The French storming Constantine in Algeria in 1837

One reason Islamic and Arab societies switched to outlawing homosexuality is the influence of the European countries when colonizing the Middle East and North Africa. At that point, the European countries were heavily homophobic, especially Britain and France. In 1885, Britain introduced penal codes to all British colonies making homosexuality illegal. France presented similar laws around the same time. Fun fact: There are 70 countries that currently criminalize homosexuality, 12 of them are in the Middle East or North Africa; about half of all of the countries are former British colonies.

At the same time, the conservative interpretations of sharia law had a huge influence on the legality of homosexuality in Islamic societies. These interpretations are that the Qur’an and Hadith forbid homosexuality, leading to its criminalization. Also, in some countries, there are “morality” laws, which can be enforced to include “sexual deviancy” without actually naming homosexuality as illegal. This is the case in Egypt.

Another reason for the shift comes from the 1980s, when Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise, alongside more intensified anti-U.S./Western sentiments. While people in the Arab world were harboring resentment towards the U.S., the U.S. was undergoing its gay-rights movement. This led to the people in the Middle East and North Africa wanting to distance their societies from the West in any and all ways possible, including the stances on homosexuality. As time has passed, the views and discrimination against homosexuality in the Arab and Islamic world have only solidified.

Homosexuality in the Arab World Today

Homosexuality in the Arab world
(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

As mentioned before, many countries have made homosexuality illegal. Some accomplish this with vague morality laws that can be interpreted to mean homosexuality is illegal. There are a few countries, though, that have repealed the laws that criminalize homosexuality. Two of them are Jordan and Bahrain, both of which repealed the laws soon after their independence.

Jordan, for example, repealed the law and made homosexuality legal. However, that does not mean that homosexuality is accepted. Instead, gay marriage is illegal, and public displays of affection (between men and women as well as a couple of the same sex) remain unacceptable. According to the Jordanian laws, adultery is relations between two people who are not married to each other. As gay marriage is illegal, this would mean that any couple in a sexual relationship are considered adulterers. The police would then punish them according to the law.

Culturally, homosexuality is still taboo in Jordan. This means that there are many cases of discrimination, parents rejecting their own children over their sexuality, and more. For that reason, there are “safe havens” for the LGBTQ+ community in Jordan. One of them is Books@Cafe, a café, and bookstore located in Amman. The co-owner, Madian Aljazeera, created the space to be safe for the LGBTQ+ community, without having to necessarily be underground.

On the other extreme, there is Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is completely illegal. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no LGBTQ community. Since there is strict segregation of the sexes, intercourse between two men or two women is not uncommon, even if it is illegal. Still, the community stays almost completely underground and remains taboo. This is very similar in other Arab countries, where homosexuality is illegal.

Although the Arab and Islamic world used to be more tolerant of homosexuality, much has changed. Gay rights are by no means extensive, or in some cases, exist at all. Many activists today call attention to this problem and work to change it, but it might take some time before big changes happen.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!