Written by Rachelle Kliger
A Yemeni filmmaker is facing a smear campaign from conservative and religious groups in his home country after publishing an article in a local magazine promoting gay rights.
The Paris-based author, Hamid Aqabi, wrote that homosexuality was “part and parcel of our society.” He called on the parliament to extend more rights to gay people and went as far as to suggest that the Yemeni government should consider allowing gay marriages, just like in the West.
The article tackled several thorny issues and appeared in A-Thaqafiyya, a cultural magazine funded by the government and issued by the Al-Jumhouriyya institution.
Like in most of the Arab world, in Yemen homosexuality is controversial and rarely discussed topic.
"Yemen is the same as other Arabic societies – homosexuality is practiced in private,” Ali Hilli, the pen-name of a London-based gay rights activist and director of Iraqi LGBT told The Media Line.
“Freedom of speech is very important and should not be subject to prison sentences. Threats or intimidation are a very dangerous weapon against human rights activists and journalists in the Middle East and governments should tackle this issue,” he said.
As to Aqabi’s suggestion to introduce gay marriages, Hilli said it was “not very rational” to bring this up for discussion in a society like Yemen.
“In Yemen there is no gay community, because according to Islamic Sharia it’s prohibited,” Mohammed Al-Qadhi, a Sanaa-based journalist and analyst told The Media Line. “Yemen isn’t the United States. It’s a very conservative society and no one will admit that they’re gay.”
Al-Qadhi called Aqabi’s article “very rare.”
He speculated that the editors of A-Thaqafiyya apparently overlooked the article and probably did not notice how explosive its content was; otherwise it never would have gone in.
On one hand, Al-Qadhi maintained that Yemen was becoming increasingly conservative and religious. But on the other, he rejected the notion that the publishing of the controversial article indicated a growing tolerance towards the gay community.
He explained that a hard-line approach among decision makers can be perceived in several areas such as the reluctance of religious authorities to support a ban on child marriages and a move to make the school curriculum more religious.
Following the unusually open discussion of this topic, the head of the Al-Jumhuriyya institution blocked the magazine from being published and ordered an investigation of the editorial team.
The article has fueled angry responses among Muslim clerics and the general Yemeni population, who are demanding that Aqabi be given a severe punishment and be put on trial.
The issue has also been discussed extensively on Internet forums, where some participants called for Aqabi to be executed for promoting what they consider pornography.
One forum even prompted “our terrorist brothers” to “prepare one of their suicide operatives to wipe this malignant man off the face of the earth.”
The case has reached Yemen’s parliament, where several members of the religious Islah party condemned the article. Following a discussion on April 7, the parliament sent a memo to the Ministry of Communications asking to shut down the paper and investigate those responsible.
However, several journalists and artists have also come to Aqabi’s side to express their solidarity.
Aqabi could not be immediately reached for comment to The Media Line. He was quoted as saying to DPA, the German Press agency, from Paris that he will not backtrack on his comments and was astonished by the huge amount of negative comments about him in Internet forums accusing him of indecent sexual acts and calling for his execution.
He has vowed to take legal action against MP Muhammad Al-Hizmi, who has been particularly virulent in his verbal attacks to the point Aqabi has accused the MP of inciting to kill him.
“Those who are instigating these lies think they are agents of God on Earth,” Aqabi was quoted as saying. “These are the same people who permit child marriages. They are blocking a law to limit the age of marriage and another law that prevents carrying weapons without legal justification or a license. They’re against women’s freedom and they are silent when it comes to government corruption.”
“I believe that it’s the right of any person anywhere to choose their way of life and to enjoy personal freedoms. I don’t think this warrants me being labeled a heretic and killing me.”
Aqabi denied rumors that he was trying to stir up a commotion against him as a ploy to win French citizenship, claiming he was fully entitled to this status as a resident there for the past decade.