The online magazine Aswat has launched an anti-homophobia campaign called “Love for All” that will last throughout the month of May. In a statement issued on April 29, Aswat called on citizens from throughout the Arab World to submit pictures of themselves holding signs with messages rejecting homophobia.
The campaign commemorates the International Day Against Homophobia, May 17, a date chosen because homosexuality was removed from the national classiﬁcation of diseases by the World Health Organization on that day in 1990.
“We started this campaign to peacefully protest online the upsetting conditions that our community lives in the Arab world, to demand revoking laws that criminalize same-sex relations, and to protect sexual minorities within their own societies,” read the statement.
“We, Aswat magazine, believe it is our moral responsibility to raise awareness about the occasion. The success of the campaign has been overwhelming and LGBTQ Arabs have been sending us their voices through signs they made,” said Maher Alhaj, a member of Aswat’s staff.
Tunisia Live interviewed Maher Alhaj, a US-based Jordanian LGBTQ activist, who told us more about Aswat.
TUNISIA LIVE: What is Aswat? When and how was it created?
Maher Alhaj: We are a group of Arab activists and writers from around the Arab world who are a part of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc) community. Aswat is an Arabic online monthly magazine founded and led by Marwan Said from Morocco, where it is now operating. The magazine was ﬁrst launched in April 2012 and we are now on our 13th issue. It is published monthly in a PDF format where people can download it for free. Our website is visited by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people daily.
What are the goals of Aswat and what audience is it trying to reach?
Our goals are to educate the Arab world about LGBTQ issues and to ﬁght for our basic human rights. We have voices that need to be heard. We address various issues that pertain to our existence and situation as oppressed sexual minorities from sexual health, gender and sexual identities, psychological health and education, creative writing, LGBTQ activism, advocacy, organizing, etc. We aim to educate not only the LGBTQ Arab community but also reach out to others as well who might have many misconceptions about us. We are humans like others, we exist everywhere and we deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated within the fabrics of our societies like all other groups in society.
Where are you based? And are you interested in covering issues in that country only or in the Arab World in general?
We are based in Morocco but our writers and staff and guests contribute to the magazine from all across the Arab world and abroad.
Do you think that the situation of the LGBTQ community has changed since the Arab Spring or not? If yes, how so?
Well, there is certainly a slight improvement in the situation when it comes to women’s rights and LGBT rights. We have more people who are working on changing our unjust predicaments. Many of us are doing that from abroad more freely like myself because of my circumstances, and others are doing it more heroically from inside the Arab World.
I don’t know if the Arab Spring has a lot to do with this or not, but I believe the Internet is playing a major role in this improvement because it allows us to be more connected, to learn from what others are doing and to be inspired.
Recently in Tunisia, two men were allegedly arrested for being caught in the action of sodomy in a hotel. The law in Tunisia does not criminalize homosexuality per say but sodomy between all couples. Is the legal framework the same in the Middle East? How would you describe such laws and the laws in your region?
Most countries in the Middle East and in other Muslim and Arab societies criminalize homosexuality from a legal framework. A few don’t (such as Jordan for example) but that does not mean it is celebrated or accepted. Homosexuality is not accepted or practiced publicly in our Arabic and Muslim societies and violating that results in extreme punishments. However that is not to say homosexuals do not exist. We do and people have homosexual encounters but it is the ultimate “don’t ask don’t tell” and all behind close doors.
This is not only due to the laws in place but also to our Arabic cultural, religious, scientiﬁc, and other understandings of the issue. Morocco is no different. Article 489 in the Moroccan Penal Code is used to criminalize homosexuality. Homosexuality is natural and a beautiful thing and our laws need to change to accommodate that. They will sooner or later.
What should be done in terms of raising awareness and addressing LGBTQ issues? Would Arab countries prioritize raising questions about gay marriage or adoption or gay pride parades for instance, or do they have other concerns and different questions?
I see the role of media as crucial in raising awareness about LGBTQ issues. It has to be done in a positive manner though. We are mainly portrayed as sinners and abnormalities in the limited instances that shed the light on our existence.
Our laws need to change to allow for our protection, but I believe also that in order for that to happen we need to change the conversation in the Arab world and to educate people about our beautiful existence and to “normalize” this issue.
Aswat magazine is just one media outlet that hopes to do that and to affect change. Our LGBTQ community exists but we are invisible, and that has to change. With that said, I think our ﬁght is still in the primitive stages and before we ﬁght for marriage and adoption rights, we need to ﬁght for our existence and visibility.