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Transgenderism and homosexuality in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq Essay

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In this paper I will address the issues of transgenderism and homosexuality. These issues are quite controversial and attitude to them is different in different countries of the world. It should be mentioned that attitude to sexual minorities is different in different countries of the world and varied though time.

Brief Outline of the Homosexual and Transgender Issues

The first question under discussion is the homosexual relations. We can observe a great number of laws, intended to regulate the relations between people of the same sex.

In some countries this is considered quite acceptable. People of the same sex are even allowed to marry legally and even adopt children. In the other communities the attitude to the same-sex relations is completely different and homosexuals can even be punished with the death penalty for their homosexual conduct. The fist laws on same-sex relations date back to 600 BC in ancient Crete and Sparta. These were the first laws allowing adult men to participate in the same sex relations (Rothblatt, 1995).

In the majority of the Western cultures same-sex relations are tolerated and calling a person a gay or a lesbian can be considered even sufficient enough for a libel lawsuit, like this happened in case of Jason Donovan and Liberace, who won the case against the newspaper calling them gays (Rothblatt, 1995).

However, we can’t say that homosexual relations are always tolerated. The first laws against same-sex relations date back to 550 BC, when homosexuals were called Leviticus and punished with the death penalty. Many scholars attribute this difference in attitudes to a distinction between Judaism and Paganism. Pagan religions usually consider same-sex relations to be normal, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam blame people for the same-sex relations.

One more issue under discussion in this paper is transgenderism, which can be briefly defined as a social movement, which is intended to support transgender rights and raise self-esteem of transgender people.

One more definition, which I’d like to mention, is the one proposed by Martine Rothblatt in her book “Apartheid of Sex”, where she defines “transgenderism as a grassroots political movement seeking transgender rights and affirming transgender pride” (Rothblatt, 1995). On the other hand, transgenderism, is usually used to denote a phenomenon of gender identity disorder. This definition is supported by the International Journal of Transgenderism.

Transsexualism is also a subject matter of the study in this paper. It is usually defined as a condition, when individuals identify themselves with the physical sex different from the one of their birth. After the sexual revolution in Western Europe, which took place in the end of 20th century transsexualism became a recognized notion, however, in many other countries of the world it is still a taboo due to the religious and cultural norms accepted in the definite country (Lang, 1997).

Quite close to the notion of transsexualism is the notion of transvestism, which is defined as a practice of cross-dressing, when a person wears the cloths of the opposite sex and thus associates him/herself with the individual of the opposite sex.

Transgenderism and Homosexuality in the Middle East

It should be mentioned that attitude to homosexuals, transgender people and transvestites differ from country to country. While the attitude to them in the West European cultures is quite moderate, Eastern cultures usually do not accept them. This is greatly due to the great influence of religion on the lives of all people. Islam has stricter rules concerning the sexual life of individuals be it people with traditional sexual orientation, transgender people or homosexuals. A lot depends also on the position of the government and their attitude to sexual minorities.

The issues of transgenderism and homosexuality are quite different, which leads even to different attitudes towards them based on the Quran interpretation.

The Quran considers “approaching males in lust, as well as the castration of males, as the sin of the people of Lot” (Quran 7:81, 26:165-166, 27:55, 29:28-29). On the other hand it’s quite acceptable under the Quran to use as passive sex partners the ancient category of men who by nature lacked desire for women, since such men were not considered “male” due to the fact that they lacked of arousal for women. These kinds of men are often known as “gays” today, but in the ancient world they were identified as anatomically whole “natural eunuchs” (Malik, 2007).

Also these men, who lack arousal for women, are called “ghair oolaa il-irbati min ar-rijaali” (Quran:24:31) which translates as “without the defining skill of males” (Malik, 2007). These men are by Islam allowed to see woman naked. Islam is extremely against a man seeing any part of a woman if they are not directly related or wed, to the extent where, in some translations, the woman has to even cover her hair with a scarf. This only proves the fact that Islam doesn’t consider these individuals as me. They belong to their own category, which is not is not regulated by the rules of the Quran.

The reason of intolerable attitude of the Quran to homosexual relations lies in the interpretation of marriage. Muslim people strongly believe in heterosexual marriage, and do not accept sexual activity before marriage between a man and woman. Since there can’t be any marriage between the persons belonging to the same sex, sexual relations between a man and man or woman and woman are also prohibited.

As a result many Muslim Middle Eastern nations consider LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues as a crime which is punished by fines or by imprisonment. In some countries homosexuality is even punished by the death penalty. Examples of such countries are Afghanistan, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (Brown, 2005).

Some researchers explain why nations of the Middle East do not accept sexual minorities in the following way: “many Middle Eastern nations did not gain full independence until the 1960’s—1970’s and those nations that were unified and independent were focused on foreign policy conflicts and economic development”. (Brown, 2005).

Moreover, “most Middle Eastern nations were authoritarian regimes based on Islamic fundamentalism. Thus gay citizens had little or no free democratic institutions to openly influence public policy. Political parties or organized were prohibited. ‘Moderate’ nations that allowed for some degree of political and social freedom never extended to any challenge to the laws and opinion regarding sexual orientation” (Brown, 2005).

In this paper I will consider in more detail the issues associated with homosexuality and transgenderism in four countries of the Middle East, namely Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

Transgender and Homosexual Issues in Kuwait

The fist country, which I will analyze in regard with its attitude to LGBT issues, is Kuwait. It should be mentioned that the attitude of Kuwaiti people towards sexual minorities is generally shaped by Islam and the government. Kuwait is 85 % Muslim (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007). As it was already mentioned Islam does not tolerate homosexuality and in some cases transgenderism is associated as homosexual behavior as well.

The other factor, which influences the attitude to LGBTs, is the government. Kuwait is a constitutional emirate, (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007) functioning under authoritative document that contains all the laws determining the operations and limits of that government. Also, the Kuwaiti government is a government where power and the final word belongs to the emir ( roughly translated as prince, but means the ruler of the state). Furthermore, the legal system is a civil law system with Islamic law significant in personal matters(Central Intelligence Agency, 2007). This technically means that Islamic laws would interfere with personal issues such as a person’s sexual orientation.

Homosexuality in Kuwait is illegal and punished (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, 2002). An example of such an incident where homosexuality was punished and discriminated against occurred in February 2005, where the police charged a group of 28 alleged homosexuals with creating a public disturbance after they met outside a fast-food restaurant.

On October 27, police raided a party where homosexuals were allegedly celebrating a wedding. On December 10, the legislative committee of the National Assembly unanimously approved a law to impose a fine of $3,450 (1,000 dinars) and/or one year’s imprisonment for those imitating the opposite sex (Reports and Musings from the Veteran Gay and AIDS Human Rights Advocate, 2007).

In the case of transgender, however, the attitude is a bit milder. Thus, the legal stand is that it is appropriate to treat transgender people medically if it possible. But in some cases the problem of a transgender person is simply denied.

The Kuwaiti court recently had a case where a 25 year old man who underwent a sex change operation wanted to be regarded as a woman. This ruling was overturned by the court under the belief that God decides gender and humans have no right to change it.

“Ahmed is still a man, and the operation he had does not change the way he was created, even if it changed the way he looks to others”, said Mohammed al-Tabtabai, the dean of Kuwaits Sharia College (Kuwait: transsexual fighting for recognition, 2004)

Transgenderism is still unclear and uncertain when it comes to the law and the government, in society, however, it is clearly unaccepted. An example of this can be seen from an interview with a cross dressing kuwaiti male. In reference to his family, this cross dressing kuwaiti male says that,

“They (his parents) tolerated me as a child, thinking it was a result of growing up in an all-girls family. Eventually as I got older, they kicked me out of the house, but agreed to pay for my education abroad. They said what I’m doing is extremely shameful, and while they love and care about me, they can no longer be seen with me. They don’t like the embarrassment.

I left right away, it was very hurtful. I was very dependent on my mother. I was also hurt because my sisters didn’t help me when I thought they would. They are also embarrassed with me because students used to make fun of them at school, when they would pick me up from class” (Interview with a Kuwaiti transsexual, 2007).

Furthermore, in reference to teachers, he said “They never helped me when others teased me. They treated me like I was a mentally ill child whenever I’d request their help. I would play with the girls in the playground and the girls used to complain that it’s a “just for girls” game. Teachers would pick me up and throw me out” (Interview with a Kuwaiti transsexual, 2007). Finally, In reference to his peers, they were the harshest. He stated “I wish it was just teasing. I was beaten and very humiliated. After I came home with a broken arm and nose, it was too dangerous for me to go to public school, so my parents forced me to switch to home schooling” (Interview with a Kuwaiti transsexual, 2007).

Although they are treated badly by society and the government, homosexuals and transsexuals actually take a stand and fight for their rights. Kuwaiti transsexuals and homosexuals have applied for a permit to form their own association. They are hoping to get some protection from Kuwait law especially after the Kuwaiti parliament (Majles al Umma) decreed laws that criminalize changing to the `third sex.` (Improvisations: Arab Woman Progressive Voice, 2007)

Transgender and Homosexual Issues in Saudi Arabia

The other country under discussion is Saudi Arabia, which is 100 % Muslim. Its government type is a monarchy, under which all the power belongs to the monarch who controls the entire state. This monarchy is very strict and very harsh. Furthermore, the legal system in Saudi Arabia is based on the Sharia law, which is all based on a very strict version of Islam (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007).

Saudi Arabia takes Islam to the extreme, to the point where the position of a woman is almost illegal. They are not allowed to walk out of the house without covering up, so one can only imagine the lack of tolerance Saudi Arabia would have for homosexuals.

Homosexuality is severely punished, in some cases even with the death penalty. Moreover, the death penalty is carried out in a barbaric manner. In Saudi Arabia it is still accepted to stone homosexuals to death. An example of such a barbaric incidence occurred 7 years ago when the Saudi government imprisoned nine Saudi men and lashed them for engaging in cross-dressing and homosexual acts. Moreover, they executed three Yemeni male workers for homosexuality and child molestation.

In addition, in April 2005, the government imprisoned a hundred men because they were at a private party that was most probably a same-sex wedding ceremony or a birthday party. Yet, not long after a gay foreign couple was sentenced to death for homosexuality and allegedly killing a man who was blackmailing them for homosexuality (Reports, stories and information for gay men in Saudi Arabia, 2007).

 The other accident of the death penalty for homosexual behavior happened in 1996, when one Saudi man was beheaded for homosexual behavior (Gay Marriage…in Saudi Arabia? 2007).

The attitude to transgenderism in Saudi Arabia is a bit different. The government also does not tolerate it, however, permits surgery for intersex people in case it is proven that this is a mental disorder. “Saudi Arabia does not allow surgery for transsexuals, but permits operations on people with an intersex condition” (Usher, 2007).

An extreme example of such surgeries took place to five sisters who wanted to change their sex to male. The doctor carrying out the surgery stressed that he just made “gender correction” rather than sex change operations. This doctor, Dr Jamal has preformed has performed over 200 sex change operations. However, as he states most of the operations were performed were on androgynous babies. Saudi Arabian, Dr Jamal, emphasized that these five girls were actually inter-sexed, and he would never perform surgery on people with normal genitalia but wanted to belong to the opposite sex, because as he states “Islam did not allow people to change what God had created” (Usher, 2007).

Transvestism is severely punished. For example, Saudi man was given 200 lashes and 6 months in prison for cross dressing at a wedding party (Saudis Arrest 5 Pakistani TGs, 1998).

Transgender and Homosexual Issues in Iran

The other country, which is would like to describe regarding its attitude to LGBT issues, is Iran. The attitude to sexual minorities here is ambiguous. On the one hand homosexuality is punished by death; on the other hand, Iran is the country, which legally performs sex change operations in the word.

Iran is 98 % Muslim (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007). Its legal system is based on Sharia law, and its government is a theocratic republic, which is a form of government controlled by religious authority. Moreover, there is a Deity who is considered the supreme civil ruler, and his laws interpreted by the mullahs (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007)

Basically Iran is an extremely Muslim state, which explains completely the intolerable attitude of people and government to homosexuality. “All sexual relations that occur outside of a traditional, heterosexual marriage (i.e. sodomy or adultery) are illegal and no legal distinction is made between consensual or non-consensual sexual activity. Homosexual relations that occur between consenting adults in private are a crime and carry a maximum punishment of death” (LGBT Rights in Iran, 2007).

In addition, there are no civil rights legislation that exist in that disallow discrimination against homosexuals, and only negative depictions of homosexuality are allowed in the press. The concept of sexual orientation is not recognized in Iran, nor does the judiciary acknowledge the existence of LGBT people and instead believes that all people are normally heterosexual.

Thus, they claim that `homosexuality is a violation of the supreme will of their God. As a result, no laws exist that protect LGBT Iranians from discrimination, harassment, or bias-motivated violence, and as a theocratic political system, no such laws are permitted to exist. Most Iranian LGBT people remain in the closet about their sexual orientation for fear of being the victims of discrimination, hate crimes, government sanctions, corporal punishment, and/or capital punishment.

Male homosexuality is a crime punished by death, The way they are killed is usually barbaric, but ultimately decided by the Sharia judge. All homosexuals are punished by death unless they are not sane or are not adult. Juveniles who are accused and proved to have engaged in homosexual behavior are punishment with 74 lashes. (Articles 108 to 113) This is proved by confession or by the testimony of four righteous men only and not women.

Different homosexuals acts have different levels of punishment. For instance “Tafhiz”, which is the rubbing of the thighs or buttocks, done by two men is punished with 100 lashes. If this act is repeated four times then they will be punished with the death penalty. (Articles 121 and 122). Furthermore If two men simply stand naked under one cover together without touching or anything, they are punished with up to 99 lashes. If one man kisses another in a sexual way they are punishment with 60 lashes. (Articles 123 and 124).

As for adolescents, in 2007 two teenagers have been executed for homosexual behavior, (LGBT Rights in Iran, 2007) even is this goes against the law stated earlier.

Female homosexuality is punished less severely. Thus, women are usually punished with 100 lashes. However if the act is repeated more than three times then they will be punished with death. Women who stand naked under one cover without touching or any farther acts of lust and are not relatives are punished with 100 lashes. (Article 134)` (LGBT Rights in Iran, 2007).

Real life examples that occurred in Iran of punishing homosexual behavior according to The Boroumand Foundation exceed 107 executions between 1979 and 1990. Moreover according to Amnesty International, at least 5 people convicted of `homosexual tendencies`, three men and two women, were executed in January 1990, as a result of the Iranian governments policy of calling for the execution of those who practice homosexuality. However, transsexuals are considered completely normal, greatly due to the fact that since 1980s transexuality is considered an illness that can be corrected by surgery (LGBT Rights in Iran, 2007).

Iran has between 15,000 and 20,000 transsexuals, according to official statistics. In addition Iran has more sex change operations than any country in the world next to Thailand. These operations have been legal since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution, passed a fatwa legalizing them nearly 25 years ago, under the fact that the Quran says nothing about sex change operations for those who need them. Transsexuality is considered an illness, while an operation is the cure. Furthermore, not only does the government allow sex change operations, they fund it as well as the hormone therapy needed.

An example of a transgendered person in Iran Mahyar. As a small child Mahyar liked dressing up in womens clothes and playing with make-up. This obsession did not die, in fact it only increased over time, and as she got older she stated that `I badly needed to do it but it had to be in secret,` and now she wants to have a sex-change operation.

Transgender and Homosexual Issues in Iraq

Finally, I’d like to discuss one more country – Iraq. It should be mentioned that homosexuality was considered legal in Iraq under Saddam Hussein until late 2001. However, later the attitude towards it changed and became stricter due to the pressure from religious conservatives. Under the law passed in 2001 homosexuality was punished by imprisonment, and repeated convictions were defined to be punishable even by death.

However, there were still no cases when homosexuals were punished with the death penalty. Hussein did not consider homosexuality to be a crime due to the fact that it was against the Secular Socialist beliefs of the Baath Party. Now the legal status of homosexuality is still a matter of severe dispute. Thus, we can see that homosexuality is not illegal in Iraq de jure, but still remains a taboo (Brown, 2005)

The legal basis of Iraq concerning homosexual and transgender issues is quite controversial. On the one hand Iraq does not have a definite criminal or penal code concerning these issues. On the other hand this does not mean that sexual minorities have the same rights as people with traditional sexual orientation. This controversy arises from the inner controversy in the country. Thus, Iraq was a secular socialist dictatorship, but its life is generally ruled by the fundamentalist Islam.

One prove of the intolerable attitude of the public towards sexual minorities can be seen in the event, which took place in 1993. Then Iraq’s United Nations representatives opposed the International Lesbian & Gay Associations application, when the latter tried to apply for consultative status as a non-governmental organization. The explanation of this act was simple: “based on our firm belief that the work of this organization runs counter to the beliefs of all divine religions.” (Brown, 2005).


So, as we can see the attitude to sexual minorities in Iraq is milder than in the other countries of the Middle East but still it is quite severe if compared with the Western Europe. Still the problem of treating homosexual and transgender issues exists. This is greatly because of the strong influence of the religion on the public and political life of the country. As Islam is quite a strict religion concerning the sexual life of the people, it makes the situation of the sexual minorities really hard. However, as we can see little by little homosexuals and transgender people still gain their rights and probably in the future their position in the Middle East will not be that dangerous.


Brown, Edward TJ. (2005). Iraq: Sexual Orientation, Human Rights and the Law. Online. Available from: < http://www.sodomylaws.org/world/iraq/iqnews003.htm> 30 November 2007.

  Central intelligence agency. The world factbook. Online. Available from: <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ku.html#People> 30 November 2007.

Improvisations: Arab Woman Progressive Voice. News and Commentary on Arab Women, Palestine, Cultural Politics, and Everything in Between. Online. Available from: <http://arabwomanprogressivevoice.blogspot.com/2007/09/kuwaiti-boyaats-seek-to-unite.html> 30 November 2007.

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (2002). Kuwait. Status of Sexual Minorities. Amnesty International Report. Middle East and North Africa.

Interview with a Kuwaiti transsexual. Online. Available from: <http://www.mideastyouth.com/2007/07/21/interview-with-a-kuwaiti-transsexual> 30 November 2007.

Kuwait: transsexual fighting for recognition. (2004). Online. Available from: <http://mostlyafrica.blogspot.com/2004/11/kuwait-transsexual-fighting-for.html> 30 November 2007.

Lang, Sabine. (1997). Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. University of Illinois Press.

LGBT Rights in Iran. Online. Available from: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Iran#_note-7> 30 December 2007.

Malik, Faris. Queer Sexuality and Identity in the Qur’an and Hadith. Online. Available from: <http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/Qurannotes.htm> 30 December 2007.

Reports and Musings from the Veteran Gay and AIDS Human Rights Advocate. Online. Available from: <http://mpetrelis.blogspot.com/> 30 November 2007.

Reports, stories and information for gay men in Saudi Arabia Online. Available from: <http://www.gaymiddleeast/country/saudiarabia> 30 November 2007.

Rothblatt, Martine (1995). Apartheid of Sex. Westview Press.

Saudis Arrest 5 Pakistani TGs. (1998). PlanetOut Corporation.

Usher, Sebastian. Gender correction for Saudi girls. Online. Available from: < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3814041.stm > 30 November 2007.

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