* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.“I left Iraq because of my activism and being gay"
By Amber Milne
In 2014, after two previous arrests and the perpetually increasing threat of violence in his home country of Kurdish Iraq, human rights activist, Amir Ashour, fled the country to Sweden, where, four years on, he still lives as a political refugee.
“I left Iraq because of my activism and being gay. I was detained twice by the police, and it was no longer possible for me to stay.”
Although homosexuality has been decriminalised in Iraq since 2003, members of the community are not protected from rogue police, armed militia, or familial “honour killings”, and it is still unsafe to openly identify as LGBTQ+.
After fleeing the country, Amir began Iraq’s first LGBT+ organisation, IraQueer, of which he is founder and executive director. IraQueer is intended as a safe space and advocacy group for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, providing informational resources, safe housing and medical help, and is also the first LGBTQ+ organisation to provide human rights training.
“We focus on two things in our work: (1) Advocacy through working with the UN and the international community, submitting shadow reports, and such. And (2) Knowledge Production: as we produce publications that aim at raising the awareness level of LGBT+ people about themselves, and the rest of the Iraqi community about the LGBT+ community.”
“We’ve been releasing knowledge in Arabic and Kurdish that has never been produced before, which is really helping people understand who LGBT+ people are”
The organisation now has six main members, and boasts a network of over 600 Iraqi LGBT+ people, the majority of whom still live in or around Iraq. Most of the members and supporters of IraQueer remain anonymous over concerns for their own safety and wellbeing.
Since starting the organisation, Amir tells us he’s seen big social changes come from their work.
“The biggest change that I have seen is the number of young people who support the organization, and the increasing number of LGBT+ people who are reaching out and want to be a part of the organization. It’s been heartwarming to see, and I personally feel hopeful about our generation. We’ve also seen small changes. A couple of media outlets have been using the language we encouraged them to use.”
“Language is very important for us as Arabic and Kurdish does not offer a lot of words that are commonly used by the public to talk about LGBT+ people. Most of the words are offensive. These words are used by the media and impact the public’s perception of LGBT+ people. That’s why at IraQueer, we had to reclaim some words, and even invent words especially for Kurdish to have a language that is neutral and respectful of LGBT+ people.”
However, Amir tells us that it has been more difficult for his and his team to influence legal change on an international level.
“Unfortunately, we are still not even close to changing policies, as the Iraqi government has refused to meet with us, and it’s still not possible to lead advocacy efforts publicly inside Iraq”
As a human rights defender with nine years of experience, Amir has worked with Iraqi and international organizations including Madre and Outright Action International, focusing on human rights of LGBT+ people, women, sex workers, and other marginalized groups.
He has a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University. He gave the keynote speech at OutSummit2016, and has been nominated for several awards including Raoul Wallenberg Academy Prize and David Kato Voice and Vision award.
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