How are radical transformations in perception and practice of homosexuality impacting Middle East society?

Length: 1006 words


Each of the four articles in question discusses an aspect of homosexuality in the Middle East. Despite the region being largely Islamic, with its attendant conservative sexual codes, queer sexuality is being expressed in unprecedented ways. Israel, Iran, Morocco and Lebanon are the focus of the four articles. Each of these countries has had key political developments in recent years. As a result, studying homosexuality in these regions also leads to the understanding of their political and socio-religious milieu. Moreover, while the articles focus on distinct issues while also being based on broad commonality. Apart from the obvious focus on homosexuality, a major common ground among the articles is how they all attempt research on their respective subjects in a logical and systematic fashion. The methodology and deductive reasoning that they employ are quite sound. What follows is a comparative and critical analysis of the four articles with the aim of highlighting the salient socio-political questions raised by them.

Comparative Analysis:

Changing female sexual expression in liberal and conservative societies:

The article ‘But What If Someone Sees Me?’ by Pardis Mahdavi is perceptive and witty in its take on the emergent ‘sexual revolution’ in Iran. Ever since the

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country fell into the grips of theocratic rule three decades ago, the rights and liberties of women have been largely suppressed[1]. As the Mahdavi suggests, people of Iran seem to have decided on a subversive counterattack on authoritarian social norms in the country. The surprising fact in Mahdavi’s illustration is how it is women who are at the forefront of this sexual revolution. In retrospect, it is easy to understand why women were central to this revolution. In Yael Ben-zvi’s article on Israel, the focus is once again on queer women, but is set in a social and political atmosphere that is far more liberal[2]. It exemplifies the diversities within the Israeli queer community. The main impact of the article is in showing how there could be conflict and disagreement even within members of the same sexual minority group. In contrast, in the rigid patriarchal mores of present day Iran, women find it hard to express themselves socially, politically or in the inter-personal domain. Of these domains for self-expression, the inter-personal is the most discreet and the most radical. That such a revolution is now taking place is evidence to the oppression and repression that has preceded this outburst.

Ben-zvi’s article stands in chronological relation to Mahdavi’s assessment of the Iranian sexual revolution. Whereas Iran’s theocracy doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of a sexual minority within its population, Israel celebrates its inclusive politics as a public relations exercise to boost the country’s image. I was intrigued by the attitudes and beliefs of the two personalities discussed in the article – Dana International and Michal Eden – who disagree on the best way to take their community forward. Dana faces more opposition due to her outspokenness and her integration of diverse Arabic themes in her music. Michal, on the other hand, is far more respectful of authority and is tactful as well – a disposition that has allowed her to run for political office.

Male sexual expression in transition in the backdrop of economic growth:

The article titled ‘Hairy Chest, Will Travel…’ by Jared McCormick is a scholarly yet light-hearted foray into the world of sex-tourism that is developing in the Middle East. Lebanon and Syria are especially acquiring a reputation for gay-centric tourism, with Beirut proving to be the epicentre of this commercial and cultural phenomenon[3]. The best feature of the article is its ability to expose how conventional cultural stereotyping has very little relevance in the face of rank commercial opportunism. For instance, the society of Beirut, despite its history tendency toward religious orthodoxy, has developed this thriving semi-clandestine market for sexual interaction. The industry is now so well-established that even specific sexual orientations are being targeted. For example, The LebTour program specializes in offering exotic sexual opportunity for ‘bears’ – a particular strand within the larger male homosexual group. The bears are marked by their hyper-masculinity – thick muscular body types with abundant hair in face and chest serve as symbols for this classification.

In contrast, the article by Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer titled ‘Sexuality in Morocco…’ doesn’t merely address changing masculine identities but also attempts to review “several domains of research – studies of Islamic doctrine, anthropological research on sexuality, ethnographies of Muslim countries, as well as recent studies of sexual behaviours and attitudes in Morocco.”[4] What I found most impressive about the article is how the case of Morocco typifies similar demographic attitudinal and lifestyle shifts in other parts of the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria. The country’s integration into the global neoliberal project (globalization) has caused tension between its traditions and modern compulsions. It is interesting to note that such tensions are not to be witnessed in Lebanon vis-a-vis its LebTour program. If anything, the social friction witnessed in Morocco is akin to that happening in Iran and Israel.

Critical discussion:

While Mahdavi’s article implicitly lauds the progressive mindset of Iranian women, its main concern is about the associated ‘risks’[5]. In this regard Mahdavi is echoing the concerns raised by Yael Ben-zvi in her article ‘Zionist Lesbianism and Transsexual Transgression…’, where even emancipated women face social ostracism/political backlash for expressing their views freely. In this scenario, what is conspicuously absent in these women-centric scholarships is the possible solutions and recommendations to alleviate said risks. In the absence of such positive suggestions in the article, the implications of the sexual revolution in Iran and elsewhere become frightening. In other words, allied to its potential to liberate, the sexual revolution in Iran also places women at unprecedented risk – social, political and personal. The rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI) are rising among heterosexual Iranian women. The “distribution of educational information related to the health risks of sexual activity is extremely low, while the few existing sexual education programs are reserved for couples who are married or engaged.” [6]

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