Pinkwashing Palestine

Posted: June 8, 2012 in Middle East

By Comrade Sara Salem

Pinkwashing is “the attempt by a state or people to highlight its treatment of gays to show howprogressive it is, in turn covering up human rights violations from which it wishes to detract attention.”

It has repeatedly been used by Western powers, for example, as a way to construct themselves as “superior” or “advanced” because they support LGBTQ rights, and to construct the Other as “backwards” because they supposedly don’t supportthese rights. A person or institution is engaging in pinkwashing when their motives are not to help LGBTQs but rather to further a separate agenda.

In the recent past, Israel has perhaps been the most avid “pinkwasher” due to its repeated attempts to divert attention away from its brutal occupation of Palestine by constructing itself as the “only gay haven in an otherwise homophobic Middle East”:

Recently, Israel has launched a publicity campaign aimed at portraying the country as a safe haven for homosexuals in the Middle East. Advertisements, public stunts and activities have been set up, all geared towards convincing the world that Israel is the only homophobia-free country in a very homophobic Middle East. This campaign has been especially effective in portraying Palestine as a place that is dangerous for gays, lesbians, queers, and transgendered people.

This campaign is problematic on several levels. First, Israel is not free of homophobia and portraying itself that way is simplistic and misleading. Second, Palestine, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, have vibrant LGBTQ scenes which include organizations, events, campaigns, and media promotions. Third, it appears that Israel is attempting to divert attention away from the occupation of Palestine and the various crimes it repeatedly commits there by re-branding itself as a gay-friendly country and thus endearing itself to Western democracies and human rights organizations. Finally, Israel is using and reproducing old Orientalist assumptions many in the west have about the Middle East, particularly with regards to homosexuality.

Since the wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, there have been repeated instances of pinkwashing emerging from the Western mainstream media. In an excellent article, Maya Mikdashi and RM argue:

The “gay issue” is becoming an increasingly hot topic in Western media coverage of the Arab world. In fact, beginning with the spate of gay killings in US occupied Iraq, the status of non-normative sexualities has perhaps been enfolded within a discourse that highlights the plight of “women” in Arab/Muslim countries, and the ideological, material, and military mobilization that such a discourse licenses.

A critical reader might ask what lies behind this interest in gays? Where did it come from and what kinds of discourses and practices is it contributing to? What assumptions does this conversation make as to international practices of sexuality and politics, and what silences about other forms of oppression is this anxiety over the status of gay Arabs in Arab democracies implicated in?

This is not to say that homophobia does not exist in the Middle East. It does. It exists in every country in the world. However, the question here is: are these groups/governments legitimately and honestly concerned about LGBTQs in the Middle East, or are they simply using them and their struggles for their own ends, whether it is to show how much more advanced they are or to deflect attention away from their own homophobia/political problems? Does the Israeli government, for example, honestly want to help Palestinian LGBTQs, or is it simply using them to make a point about Israeli society being more advanced, and to whitewash its occupation? Indeed, if the Israeli government wanted to help Palestinian LGBTQs, wouldn’t removing an occupation be the first step?

Palestinian Queers for BDS write on their website:

As an integral part of Palestinian society we believe that the struggle for sexual and gender diversity is interconnected with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. As Palestinian queers, our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid; a system that has oppressed us for the past 63 years.

Violations of human rights and international law, suppression of basic rights and civil liberty, and discrimination are deeply rooted in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, straight and gay alike. PQBDS show that the struggle for sexual rights cannot be separated from other political struggles, such as the one against Israeli occupation. They are interlinked, and should be fought together.

This focus on LGBTQ Middle Easterners is not new. It fits in with an Orientalist worldview in which Middle Eastern countries are seen as especially oppressive when it comes to minorities. Historically, these minorities have usually been religious minorities and women. More recently, however, there has been increased focus on LGBTQs as the most persecuted group in the Middle East. Again, this is not to say that LGBTQs do not face persecution in Middle Eastern countries: they do. My point is to ask why the west engages in pinkwashing, and why it repeatedly attempts to construct homophobia, sexism, and persecution of minorities in general as constantly happening in the Middle East, and never at home.

Similarly, focusing on LGBTQs in the Middle East fits into the framing of sexuality in Other societies that Orientalists usually engage in. Rather than focus on how specific histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Western domination have led to certain types of homophobia in the modern Middle East, the focus is instead on how Islam, Arab culture, or other inherent traits are the reasons behind the homophobia in the Middle East.

In his monumental book, Desiring Arabs, Joseph Massad creates an intellectual history of how Western scholars have tried to impose Western categories of sexuality, namely the strict binary between heterosexual/homosexual, onto other cultures, and how this has led directly to specific forms of homophobia found in places such as the Middle East today:

The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized by the epistemic, ethical, and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by the very international human rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating.

Moreover, Massad points out that it is necessary to look back to Western history in order to understand how the categories of gay/lesbian were created for specific political and economic purposes:

We can say that homosexuals did not exist in Europe before the medical and juridical discourses of the second half of the nineteenth century invented them as subjects of medical and juridical intervention, and before capital created relations of production that made possible the development of new residential and migratory activities, and new kinship configurations within and without the biological family that led to the development of forms of sexual intimacy that would be linked to identity and community.

What Massad is essentially arguing is that while same-sex relationships and relations have existed in the Middle East as far back as can be accounted for, they were not understood or practiced in the forms that the west adopted in the late 18th century, namely as strictly tied to identity or as strictly tied to the binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality. People in the Middle East did not identify themselves according to their sexual acts (and neither did people in the west, before the identity of homosexual, and later heterosexual, was created by the medical profession). This is not to say that people in the Middle East today should not identify as gay or lesbian or queer, as many do. It is to show the importance of going back in history in order to understand contemporary sexualities and sexual relations in the Middle East and to show how these evolved over time.

To return to the point of pinkwashing and the Arab uprisings, it is clear how LGBTQs are once again being used to prove a point about Middle Eastern culture. In her article on how the MENA uprisings have been framed, Maya Mikdashi makes the excellent point that the focus is almost always on issues of gender or sexuality:

“The legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.””

The act of pinkwashing in this instance, therefore, is to delegitimize the MENA uprisings because of their supposed lack of attention to LGBTQ and women’s rights. Rather than acknowledge the immense people power, creativity, bravery, and peacefulness of the millions of protesters that took to the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and Sanaa, the Western mainstream media has chosen to divert attention to the ever-present Orientalist obsession: how minorities in the Middle East are (mis)treated.

As a queer Egyptian (my definition of queer is at the end of the article*) that has been living in the Netherlands for the past 2 years, it has become clear to me how essential pinkwashing is in the construction of the binary between the civilized “West” and the uncivilized “East.” It is difficult to get into a discussion with a Dutch person, for example, about Muslims without questions about Islam and women, Islam and homosexuality, and Islam and freedom dominating the conversation. Homosexuality is often used against Muslim “immigrants” (if you’re not white you’re forever an immigrant), rather than focusing on what Dutch society and government could be doing to help “integration” (which often means assimilation).

In conclusion, it is crucial to note that LGBTQs in the Middle East cannot be separated from the societies they are in, as Mikdashi points out:

Gay Arabs cannot be cut out of the fabric of their societies; they are Arab, they are Muslim, Christian, conservative and progressive, soldiers and civilians, communists and capitalists, sexist and feminist, classist and revolutionary, and both oppressors and the oppressed. Islamist discourses are not ossified and stuck in the 16th century, as most Western commentators assume. They are plural, responsive, dynamic, and they represent the point of view of a large and diverse public.

As a queer person from the Middle East, I do not appreciate being used by Western Orientalists in their constructions of themselves as superior and more civilized. I do not appreciate being used as tool to delegitimize the tremendously important uprisings that are happening across the Middle East. I am both queer and Middle Eastern, and therefore I will continue to fight both homophobia at home and racism, imperialism, and Orientalism, abroad.

* I define queer as a theoretical stance in which identities are not only seen as socially constructed, but as harmful. In this sense, someone who is queer is someone who rejects categories, identities, and labels; and believes in fluidity, dynamism, and nuance when it comes to things like gender, sexuality, race, and so on.

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