Shirin Qureshi: In Iraq, a conservative society means most gay and lesbian locals have to hide their sexual orientation. (photo: محمد رحمن)
For decades, Kurdish people living in northern Iraq, who were attracted to the same sex, have been living secret lives. While some of Iraqi Kurdistan’s cities might be more open in some ways, in general the society remains conservative and homosexuality is a major taboo.
Although local authorities do not have any rules about homosexuality being illegal, most Muslims in Iraq believe that religious laws based on Islam do not condone same sex relationships. Often gay and lesbian Kurds end up getting married and living in a traditional heterosexual relationship.
Just because some people are expressing support and openly discussing the issue, that doesn’t mean it is safe to come all the way out.
That doesn’t mean that an underground gay scene doesn’t exist though. Judging by social media sites and various Facebook pages, there are plenty of gay and lesbian individuals in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is just extremely rare for them to declare their sexual orientation openly. Most use anonymous avatar-style pictures and pseudonyms to participate in online communities.
However more recently, there seems to have been a shift in attitudes, albeit a minor one. There are still many misconceptions about what being gay means, but a more open conversation appears to be starting in some sectors of the local community. For example, a number of better known locals have started speaking about homosexuality openly.
"I am not a homosexual, but I support them with all my strength,” says Wahid Nazad, a singer from Iranian Kurdistan who now lives in Erbil. “As a defender of their rights, I am always attacked and often insulted - but I don’t care.”
In June 2017, many in the community took note of the fact that Shirin Qureshi, a 26-year-old originally from the Kurdish part of Iran, told Voice of America’s Kurdish channel that she was a lesbian.
It may well be that Qureshi is one of the first Kurdish women to do this, speaking openly about her sexual orientation while also giving her real name and showing her face. Then again Qureshi lives in Germany, where the culture is far more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender, or LGBT, communities.
“I certainly don’t feel bad about being a lesbian, it’s just normal,” Qureshi told NIQASH. “But in Kurdistan I was forced to hide this because society doesn’t accept gays or lesbian. There are a lot of us in Kurdistan,” she confirms. “But we live in fear.”
Arina is the assumed name of a 24-year-old university student living in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. She believes she is a lesbian and had her first sexual experience with a female relative recently. But now, she says, she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it.
The only place Arina can find information is on social media and it is here that most of the discussion and socialising goes on.
Astera Karim is an Iraqi Kurdish woman living in Sweden. She has become well known among Kurdish speakers for her YouTube and Facebook broadcasts where she will often tackle topics that could not be talked about so openly back home.
After talking about body image one day recently, Karim received many messages from Kurdish-speaking gays and lesbians in different countries.
Karim told NIQASH she was surprised to get so many messages as she had not realized there were so many LGBT community members in Kurdistan.
There have been other positive developments. As Middle Eastern news site, Al Monitor reported earlier this year, two of Iraqi Kurdistan’s major TV channels broadcast shows about difficulties the local LGBT community face. “While both programs had some shortcomings, it was nonetheless brave of the journalists and the channels' managers to address an issue that many see as taboo,” the journalist wrote.
But just because some people are expressing support and openly discussing the issue, that doesn’t mean it is safe to come all the way out.
Recently Iraqi Kurdish director Hayman Khofiya submitted a movie on the subject to a film festival in the city of Sulaymaniyah, which is generally known as the most liberal of the major cities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“But it wasn’t accepted,” Khofiya explains. “The selection committee told me that such a film about same sex activities would not be appreciated by the general society. It’s not like I think everybody should be gay. But gay people exist, and we should not condemn them.”