As Western ideas are being imported into new regions, have public perceptions of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) in the Middle East changed? Some may recognize this group while others may stay silent on this issue. The range of attitudes span across the spectrum, varying from country to country. The focus of this research paper lies with regard to the Sultanate of Oman, a small yet growing nation on the Southeastern end of the Arab Peninsula. For the purpose of this paper, the focus is on those who identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ community in this region with the inclusion of those who may transgress gender norms or whose sexuality falls outside of Western definitions of LGBTQ. Due to the focus of human rights groups and other Non Government Organizations (NGOs) on more notorious nations such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, Oman and similar countries lie at the fringes of media and human rights attention. The places more influenced by Western ideas and European powers such as Lebanon and Jordan compose of areas and attitudes which are more relaxed pertaining to this issue. As a result, these regions are more accepting of LGBTQ identities in comparison to their other Arab neighbors. However, religiously conservative states are not so welcoming, with places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan prescribing more severe punishments for any forms of public displays of affection or actions between two consenting adults of the same sex. In places like Oman, any sexual relations outside of marriage are deemed illegal; however, much of the LGBTQ nightlife in capital cities goes unnoticed and allowed to continue as long as it does not become involved with public life.
Why Oman? What makes Oman different is that it serves as a key country in terms of future development and is a model of a growing, modernizing state. After emerging from an oppressive rule under the previous Sultan Said III bin Taimur (1932-1970), Oman has been working towards national modernization and attracting businesses and tourists to diversify its economy (mainly based on oil and gas). Oman also has the challenge of adapting to Western norms and customs should it encourage Western businesses to invest in the Omani economy and send over workers and employers. More and more Western tourists are visiting with the possibility of LGBTQ identified people wishing to learn more about the country before visiting or working there.
The toughest aspect to this research paper is the limited information on the LGBTQ community and people in this nation of around three million people. This is mainly due to the social taboo set in place towards same sex relations and gender transgression. Much of this research was spurred by personal experience living openly in regards to sexuality and gender identity in a fairly conservative yet tolerant state. There is an atmosphere of stigma to personal sexuality and being open about ones sexuality, regardless of which orientation they identify as. Although, there have been small gains in the past decade on information about this community. Recently, the Omani newspaper The Week praised Oman for being tolerant towards the LGBTQ community. The Omani government quickly responded negatively to this article and censored the article inside the country, asking for it to be erased. While occurrences such as this may be around in more liberal Arab states, this topic remains a taboo not only for governments but also for society in general. This issue is also highlighted with regards to Oman’s far North neighbor: Qatar. Qatar plans to host the 2022 World Cup of Football and faces pressure from predominately Western human rights groups to prevent discrimination of LGBTQ people.
The attention on Islamic states placed under the spotlight shadows the LGBTQ communities in nations that do not prescribe harsh penalties yet have laws against their personal freedoms and safety. This paper explains the current situation of members of the LGBTQ society in Oman through personal experiences, statistics, events and occurrences from neighboring Gulf states, and by analyzing international pressure to secure basic human right.
-Looking at Islam and its History
To understand more about the treatment of LGBTQ members in religiously conservative societies (and more so in Oman), one must look into the texts and history of Islam to find clues and answers. The Islamic faith has been described as a “sex positive” religion, especially compared to its Abrahamic relatives (Christianity and Judaism). This view is reiterated from the Muslim scholars such as Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), who states that God had created human beings, “causing them to be related by procreation and marriage, and subjecting creatures to desire through which God impelled them toward sexual intercourse and thereby preserved their descendants” (Safi: 190). Sexual relations within Islam were seen as extremely important, not only spiritually but as well as to continue their linage and create a family.
Christianity has been more conservative regarding sexuality. Christianity followed more of a moral high ground, viewing the sexual act itself “[associating] it with evil, sin, the Fall, and death.” This code of sexual morality “drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends withing that conjugal relationship” (Foucault: 14). Followers of Christianity in medieval times went as far as “accusing [Muslims] of being ‘sodomitical’ and engaging openly in same sex practices” (Safi: 198).
At the beginnings of Islam, and even predating the arrival of said religion, same sex relations and homoerotic art and stories were not uncommon in society, from the Greeks, to the Romans, and to the Arabs. Even more surprising, the Qu’ran has no explicit text forbidding same sex relations, not even a specific word to define “homosexuality.” The current word for homosexuality, “Alshuddud Aljinsi” roughly translates to rare sexuality or even abnormal sex as well as the term “Almithilyyia Aljinsi” or literally “same sex”. Within the Hanafi school of law, there as been claims that a passage in the Qur’ran that depicts “If two of you commit it, then hurt them both; but if they turn again and amend, leave them alone, verily, God is easily turned, compassionate. (4:16)”, could be interpreted as a form of punishment for same sex relations. However, Vern Bullough notes in his Sexual Variance in Society and History that “the stipulated sentence seems to be both ambiguous and mild…not considered by Islamic scholars to be the basis for legal opinions on the punishment of sodomy” (El-Rouayheb: 122). We may thus ask where does the rulings on how to treat the LGBTQ members and punishment for same sex actions come from? As stated before, the Qu’ran has no explicit text banning same sex relations, yet many followers look to the story of Lot in order to show God’s disapproval for same sex actions. The land of Sodom, ignoring Lot’s calls to follow God, was destroyed due to the people’s lustful actions. Ironically in regards to the story of Lot, “the relevent passages of the Qur’an do not specify which sexual acts had been committed by the people of Lot” (El-Rouayheb: 125). Since certain texts on these relations cannot be found directly in the Qu’ran, most rulings and interpretations come out from the hadith or from close companions of the Prophet.
Punishments for same sex actions also depend on the school of law being practiced in a certain region. The Hanafi school has no prescription of any form of punishment as it is not explicitly stated in the Qu’ran and leaves the decision up to the judge’s ruling in the case. With the more conservative schools of law such as the Hanbali and Maliki, the standing punishment for same sex activity is death. Minor variations are present in both parties on the punishment prescribed and through means of stoning, lashes, or other forms of physical punishment. On the opposite spectrum, many Western progressive Muslims cite Qur’an 49:13 in favor of respecting and accepting LGBTQ Muslims and non-Muslims. The verse describes the differences between people in order to learn more about one another and see their differences. Scott Kugle, in his book Homosexuality in Islam argues that not only does this call for Muslims to follow God, but “is also a warning to pursue a policy of social tolerance” and “[a] transgender Muslim is no less than other Muslims who have not struggled with their own gender identity […] except by awareness of God” (Kugle: 1).
Oman follows Ibadhi traditions, with regards to Islamic law, which differs greatly from Sunnis on views of the Hadith. The Hadith are a collection of the words of the Prophet and serve as a major source of Islamic law. The two sects differentiate in which hadith to follow. Ibadhis mainly follow Musnad al-Rabī’ ibn Ḥabīb while the Sunni sect generally accepts far more hadiths than do the Ibadis. This is due to accepting different narrators as being more or less reliable, based in part on which of the first four caliphs they followed. In regards to the relationship between the past Kharajites and Ibadis, the two sects formed around each other but are near opposite in regards to sinners. These two groups greatly differed after the Kharajites broke off from Ali, with the radical portion calling for action against non believers and the “quietists” which included Ibadis. The radical portion of this sect “felt that any Muslim who commits a grave sin and does not repent is an unbeliever […] and deserves death” (Hoffman: 284). The Ibadhi sect distanced themselves from the more radical portion and continue to reject their ideology of violence. The Ibadhis, however, dissociate themselves with sinners (Muslim or non-Muslim) but not through hostility or violence like the Kharajites. The challenge with Ibadhi beliefs and current conditions in Oman seem to clash with one another, causing both sides to show little tolerance on a taboo topic.
-Social Taboo, Western Visitors, and Silent Censorship
In regards to conservative laws set up by the Gulf states, the attitude of the government and the laws they pass may not necessarily reflect the views and tolerance of every citizen. My perceptions of visiting the Middle East as a member of the LGBTQ was nightmarish, fearing the worst in even a relatively liberal Gulf state. I never went out advertising anything or went to any clubs, as traveling on my own was fairly limited. However, there was one instance in which I wanted to try henna (body art typically for women). The girls who came over to the student house gladly applied henna to my hands as well as with a group of other girls. My language partner laughed in a positive manner and loved the artwork. The designs were of flowers and vines from the center of the palm to the fingertips. The designs may have been feminine to cause concern with some Omanis, or simply for the reason that henna in Oman is seen as only worn by women. The head of the school, in response, had notified me that some of the staff were noticing my henna and were uneasy about a male wearing it. She did not come off as threatening or upset, but concerned for my welfare, as this was seen as transgressing gender roles.
To an extent, this models the society specifically in Oman, but most likely not so much in other Arab states. To most citizens, LGBTQ topics, including gender transgression, are seen as taboo. An example of this deals with the perceptions of Omanis on the possibility of a gay ruler. Brian Whitaker notes in his book Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East of an article by Mark Katz on this issue. Katz learns from three Omanis (a microscopic yet probable sample of the nation’s view) that discussion on the subject of the current Sultan being homosexual is only permissible “with trusted relatives and friends since more open discussion of it could result in negative consequences” (Whitaker: 77). The consensus among the three Omanis was that of shame and lack of legitimacy to his name. Whitaker also includes the use of using identities as a political tool and usage to cause social opposition. Looking at the Islamic World as a whole, this tactic has been used in places like Malaysia, where the prime minister Mahathir Mohammad “[sacked] and imprison his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim” after allegations of sodomy was used against him “for the purposes of character assassination”(Whitaker: 78). In places where same sex relations are illegal, and even in places where it is legal, there is a strong social opposition of the LGBTQ community, even perceptions and alligations.
Same sex relations are illegal in Oman and face prison time, most often only if promoted publically. Much of the Arab states hosts underground night clubs for LGBTQ which operate unnoticed and overlooked, similar to Oman. These urban underground clubs serve as a safe zone for LGBTQ identified individuals, or at least safer in comparison to more rural areas. Despite being a religiously conservative state and following Islamic social trends, Oman is a fairly progressive country in relation to its neighbors. This is especially due to a Western educated Sultan, who is focusing on modernization in the Sultanate while maintaining traditional religious and cultural norms. There is also the presence of Western tourists, groups, companies, and communities which attribute a greater sense of tolerance and openness in this nation. Members of the LGBTQ are not necessarily picked out and attacked unlike other Gulf states like Kuwait, where “some transgender women have noted that police arrested them for capricious reasons—sometimes because of having a soft voice or other times because of having smooth skin (Wille July 15, 2013).” Though transgender individuals and other members of the LGBTQ community may face harassment and discrimination, the society in Oman is far more tolerating than those of its neighbors to the North like Kuwait, the Emirates, and Qatar.
This can be credited to the majority Ibadi sect of Islam, a more conservative group yet more open and tolerant to other religions and cultures. The combination of increasing foreign workers entering the country (including a number from countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States) and a more open influential religion could positively affect the LGBTQ community in Oman, specifically the capital city Muscat. The main urban areas in turn could be described as far more progressive and a future path towards extending basic human rights for members of the LGBTQ community in hiding.
Much of the LGBTQ society in Oman remains somewhat invisible and unknown to the general public, as clubs and groups are forced to meet in secretive underground places during evening times. The unwavering social taboo against same sex activity, or any sexual relations for that matter, have pushed this community to the edges of the country, more predominately in the underground clubs of Muscat. An active and organized LGBTQ community is not present in the country, even within the city of Muscat. Although, there have been rumors from activists in the area that more people are opening up to friends about their sexual orientation or gender identity. These individuals coming out about their sexuality to friends are also finding places to spend time with others who are part of the LGBTQ community while being reserved when it comes to family and public life. Much of these reports by activist and blogs such as Muscat Confidential on the website Blogspot, a website that hosts a wide range of blogs, are rare or not common mostly due to the continuing social taboo on the topic. Muscat Confidential is a blog ran by an expatriate discussing current events in Oman, often times focusing on the LGBTQ community within it. These LGBTQ groups hope that the increasing Western influence will be able to ease the Omani society into accepting different lifestyles, especially in major economic hubs like Muscat and Seeb.
-The Government’s Actions
Police are not known to crack down on LGBTQ events so long as they go unnoticed and refrain from disturbing public life or making itself present in open society. The current unofficial ruling for police officers has been lax when it comes to sexual relations between any two people. The ruling is based on the conditions at hand, so long as these “scandals” do not expose how lenient Omani culture may be compared to its other religiously conservative neighbors. This atmosphere of tolerance resulted in a published news article in the Gulf State’s newspaper The Week “[claiming that] the Middle East country is tolerant of LGBT community,” highlighting the fact that “[anti-sodomy laws] are largely ignored unless if they involve a ‘public scandal’” (Karim 1). The Omani government was quick to censor this piece on the community within its borders, forcing the author to apologize for the released article. Though the social taboo has been the biggest force in keeping LGBTQ activity silent, there is an active campaign by the government as well in terms of censorship and downplaying its tolerant views. The government of Oman, and many others in the Arab World, have the ability to depend on social standards in regard to sexuality in keeping LGBTQ out of sight and unmentioned. In regards to social life, topics such as sexual relations are rarely talked about in public and same sex acts are met with a silent opposition. This repressed topic paired with the government’s internet censoring of any LGBTQ topics in the country detail the ever prevalent social taboo against the LGBTQ community. The combination of a social and state enforced censorship creates a tough environment for LGBTQ individuals to find sources of information or forms of support and community.
-Outside Influence and the Sporting World
The Arab World has been adamant in refusing to sign human rights laws in the United Nations, laws in place to protect people in the LGBTQ community from violence and discrimination. The measures of human rights for the LGBTQ is seen as going against many of the Islamic laws in these conservative countries. As a result, the violence against people who do not fit within the social norm, or even appear to belong to the LGBTQ community are often attacked and harassed by police, government officials, and everyday people on the streets or in public spaces. To see how Western society is influencing the perception and protection of LGBTQ members in Oman, it is possible to refer to other Gulf nations as a possible expectation on future developments, more so on how Qatar will respond to Western tourists visiting the Gulf nation for the 2022 World Cup for Football.
There has also been a response from human rights groups such as the Peter Tatchell Foundation (out of the United Kingdom) asking for action from the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) against Qatar’s policies towards LGBTQ people. Recently the Gulf region (more specifically Qatar and Kuwait) have come under fire for their plans to “detect gays” and prevent them from entering these countries. This measure has been proposed by the Kuwaiti health ministry, with the director of public health Yousuf Mindkar announcing “we will take stricter measures that will help us detect gays who will be then barred from entering Kuwait or any of the GCC member states” (Toumi). This creates a problem within Qatar, a near neighbor of Oman and affects LGBTQ travelers, sport spectators, and business people visiting or working in the Sultanate in the future. Many LGBTQ people enjoy the sport and make up a portion of World Cup attendees. For this reason, more and more nations, rights groups, and people are urging Qatar as well as other countries within the Middle East to set up protection laws for LGBTQ members. The outcome in Qatar may spur a stronger movement for extending human rights in Oman, a fellow supporter and major contender in football in the Gulf region. The main concern is whether the global influence of different societies and a new movement in human rights has the potential to alter generation aged conservative Islamic laws in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East.
-Current Situations and Western Investors
Oman boasts a growing economy in the region and a steadily evolving nation ready to take part in major economic and global affairs. One aspect to aiding the expansion of the Omani economy and putting the country on the map is opening the country to Western businesses and tourism. This is the direct influence of Western society and views on Omani culture. Not only are economic conditions becoming ideal for businesses to invest in, the country as a whole is fairly liberal compared to its neighbors and remains one of the most peaceful and stable in the region. Tied with low living costs and a government supported natural and wildlife environment, Westerners are slowly flocking to this unknown nation. Today in Muscat, Western hotels are easily spotted, and tourists’dress codes are much lax compared to the more conservative regions of the country. One example of this in which I saw was during a trip to a swimming area on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. There were a few Omani men wearing the traditional dishdasha and everyone in our group were wearing conservative swimming outfits. As we were stepping off of the bus, we noticed what appeared to be a Western tourist wearing a very revealing bikini walking out in the open. Obviously we could imagine the glaring looks she might have gotten or someone scolding her outfit, but the tourist was able to pass though with little to no attention.
Visiting Oman, one is told to dress modestly and respectfully to adhere to local customs and traditions. However, the main urban regions of Oman like Seeb, Muscat, Sur, and Sohar have seem to adapt fairly well to far more liberal Western dress codes (such as shorts, tank tops, and swimsuits as given in the previous example) and actions with Western hotels complete with alcohol and loud music spanning parts of the cityscape. The point here is if Omanis are slowly adapting to more Western behavior and lifestyles (at least in urban region), then Western influence on tolerance towards LGBTQ members has already taken into effect. This combined with the Sultan’s desire to gradually open the country up more will eventually call for the acceptance and tolerance of LGBTQ members.
-LGBTQ Groups and Movements from Within
Due to Oman being practically invisible in the sphere of current events as well as state sponsored censorship of LGBTQ members and information, there are not many, if any, LGBTQ support groups in Oman. There are hardly even LGBTQ support websites accessible due to the government’s internet block on homosexuality. When dealing with LGBTQ rights in the Middle East, most information revolves around events and situations involving developments and situations in major nations such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan. While Western rights groups focus on events in predominately these selected nations, the other more invisible societies are left isolated and cut off from outside aid or physical support groups (as opposed to the rarely unblocked online LGBTQ support websites). This does not go saying human rights campaigns in the more infamous countries are a waste of time or are meaningless compared to a country such as Oman. The more noticeable countries tend to be far worse off in human rights conditions (death penalty for same sex acts, violence against LGBTQ members) and stand as a higher urgency. However, Oman’s current lack of worldly renown sets the LGBTQ society in a sort of limbo where conditions are not atrocious, much like its neighbors yet they remain in hiding from mainstream society.
A substantial driving force towards LGBTQ recognition and a greater tolerance to this community lies first hand in those traveling or working in this small Sultanate. As the country is preparing its economy to welcome new businesses and Western investors into the nation, the treatment and conditions for the LGBTQ members may come into question facing pushes towards an extension of stronger human rights laws. However, it is also important to listen to the voices of LGBTQ Omanis, as they know their own society better and the path they wish to take towards a more welcoming and tolerating community.
The current situations for LGBTQ members in Oman are certainly not ideal, however they are in a better condition than its Gulf neighbors. The country has acted in a more liberal view compared to the more religiously conservative border countries due to the prevalent tolerating branch of Islam. More and more Western tourists and investors are finding Oman to be the next top destination in the Middle East for both relaxation and business ventures. However, those identifying as LGBTQ face a tough environment as social taboos on same sex (even sexual relations in general) remain strong in the Sultanate. There is a steady amount of progress towards better human rights despite the rare actions and declarations against the LGBTQ people by the government. Regardless of the current situations and the path the Sultanate and its people decide to take, the LGBTQ community quietly exists in cities and underground clubs across the region. Despite the present social taboo, simply one smile from an Omani, who found amusement from a visiting Westerner wearing henna, is enough to show signs of progress towards tolerance.
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