Culture, Gender, Politics

I have serious problems with a theme that has been running through reports on the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. The most elaborate version of this argument appeared in today’s Washington Post, in an article which asserts that

… by stripping the prisoners naked and posing them in ways designed to insinuate homosexual behavior, the American guards at Abu Ghraib violated some of the oldest and most deeply held prohibitions in the Arab world.

The article goes on to elaborate on why it is supposedly much, much, worse for Arabs to be photographed and abused in this way than it would be for Americans:

Not only do the photographs upend traditional gender roles — homosexuality is a strict taboo in Islam, and women, through practices like veiling, are encouraged to take a demure attitude toward sexual matters — but the casual treatment of nudity itself is offensive to many. In Saudi Arabia, for example, customers in gymnasium locker rooms are admonished not to let others see them as they change.

Seymour Hersh put it this way:

And the one way to humiliate an Iraqi man more than any other Arab, a follower of the Islamic faith, is to have them be seen naked by other men and have them participate in homosexual activity, even if posed.  Because that‘s also a no-no in the Islamic faith.

And, according to an article by Juan Cole,

Samia Nakhoul of Reuters reported that Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arabist London newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, said, The liberators are worse than the dictators. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back for America . . . That really, really is the worst atrocity. It affects the honour and pride of Muslim people. It is better to kill them than sexually abuse them.”

As I see it, there are three things wrong with this argument. First of all, wouldn’t torture be bad no matter what culture someone was from? Why is it necessary to assert that somehow it is worse for Arab men to be sexually tortured and abused than it is for men in other cultures? Secondly, is it really worse? Am I supposed to believe that American men aren’t concerned about their honor, their pride, and their masculinity? And finally, it seems to me that these claims obscure the true history of homosexuality in the Arab world.

This last topic (the history of homosexuality in the Arab world) isn’t something I know much about, but there have clearly always been gay men and lesbians in Arab society. I know there is a substantial body of Arab poetry and literature devoted to describing the beauty of pretty boys…. This book, Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, seems like a good place to start if one wants an alternative view.

Of course, religious fundamentalism (whether Islamic or Christian) is never good for Homosexuals. Several activist sites document current abuses in the Arab world, as well as offer online communities and links to more information. The most important site seems to be Queer Arabs, which has a blog that documents much of the recent oppression. The most recent headline in the blog reads: U.S. leaders decry Egypt’s anti-gay abuses.” There is also Queer Jihad, which has this depressing article about the Islamic treatment of Homosexuals. There is also the Al-Fatiha Foundation, and Gay Egypt. The Queer Muslims Home Page has some useful references as well.

Note: The title of this post, comes from this article: The Politics of Naming: A Queer Arab Identity?” Which defines the term Haboub(a)” as ‘sweety’ in Arabic”, claiming that it is roughly the equivalent of how queer” is used now by gay-rights activists in the West.

UPDATE: A couple of things have been pointed out to me which deserve mention. A friend who speaks Arabic and lived in Israel says he never heard the term Haboub” being used. He suggested some other terms, which aren’t very polite, so I won’t write them here. Also, it is been pointed out that only one of the quotes uses the term Arab” and the rest use the term Muslim.” This is my point — the very concept of a homogenous and unchanging Arab” or Muslim” culture in which there is no room for homosexuality is what I am trying to criticize. Both terms, used in this way, are equally meaningless. Any nuanced view of either will show both regional differences and historical changes — both of which will reveal that homosexuality has a significant and often institutionalized role in many so-called Muslim” or Arab” societies.