LGBTQ Communities in the Arab World Face Unique Digital Threats

Published: April 23, 2014

 Across the Arab world, LGBTQ communities still struggle to gain social recognition, and individuals still face legal penalties for consensual activities. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq, homosexuality is punishable by death. In 2001, 52 men were arrested for being gay in Cairo. And in Syria, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates, being outed as homosexual means facing years in prison. While activists in some countries, such as Lebanon, have made progress toward greater rights, personal security remains an imperative.

In countries where homosexuality remains taboo or punishable by law, it makes sense for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and other queer-identifying (LGBTQ) people to explore their sexual identity online. But the Internet is increasingly becoming a risky place for exploration. More and more governments in the region are using digital surveillance to entrap, arrest, detain, and harass individuals who visit LGBTQ websites or chat rooms, or who use social media to protest homophobic laws and social stigmas. Meanwhile, nationwide filtering and complicit Internet search companies have censored content relating to homosexuality by blocking websites and restricting keyword searches in countries like Sudan, Yemen, and across the Gulf region.
Fear and self-censorship
In Saudi Arabia, religious police have outed individuals, resulting in their incarceration. One man in the kingdom was arrested by the religious police for using Facebook to find and date other men. This happens often, but it is extremely difficult to collect details of cases, since being publicly accused of homosexuality can ruin one’s life. Outed homosexuals may be permanently ostracized from their families, lose all job prospects, and destroy the reputation of their social networks.
Another man in Saudi Arabia was jailed for three years and tortured with 150 lashes after a police officer entrapped him in a public chatroom and asked to meet in person with all of his makeup and drag outfits in tow. Men who are arrested are often detained in a cell designated for gay men in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, where anywhere between 50-75 men have been reported to be packed into a single cell. Men detained in the designated cell have reported that they were entrapped by police while using chat and hook-up sites like Hornet, U4Bear, and WhosHere.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country utilizing these tactics. In the United Arab Emirates, where male homosexuality is punishable by death, men have been detained for looking for sex partners in chat rooms (presumably ensnared by covert police officers). And in neighboring Iran, a massive Internet entrapment campaign a few years ago put dozens of men in jail, many of whom were subject to public torture.
Tactics like entrapment—and the severe consequences that follow—undoubtedly lead to self-censorship, as those looking for moral support or partnership online may fear that doing so could ruin their lives.
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