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MIDDLE EAST: An online 'Arab Spring' for region's gays and lesbians

June 19, 2011 | 12:36 pm

Picture 4 "Joon" is unhappily in love and needs advice.

"For the past few years I have been in love with a straight girl, my best friend," she writes.

"Apart from her being straight, I suspect she is homophobic, because bringing up this subject in any form disgusts her. What happens when we fall in love with a straight person, or worse, a homophobe?"

A person writing under the profile "Reem" responds:

"I can relate to this, as it happens to pretty much every lesbian. In my situation I realized that I simply needed to get over her. Maybe you can come out to her at some point, if she is really your best friend then her homophobia should not interfere in how much she cares for you."

The thread above was published on Ahwaa.org, a new user-generated online community and forum run by a group of volunteers where members of the LGBT community in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond can vent their feelings and discuss and debate just about any issue on their minds in what administrators say is a safe and secure environment.

While the media kerfuffle continues over the fake Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Arraf Omari, who was actually an American male in Scotland, gays and lesbians in the Middle East are struggling daily to make their voices heard. 

Based on the island of Bahrain off the Arabian Peninsula,  Ahwaa (which translates as "passion" in English) is one of the projects of Mideast Youth, a regional nonprofit organization that seeks to foster diversity and advocate change in the Middle East and North Africa using digital media.

Other projects undertaken by the group include one that provides a forum for the region's ethnic Kurds and another that aims to spread awareness about the situation of migrant workers in the Middle East.

So what makes Ahwaa different from other websites and forums tailored to LGBT people living in the Middle East?

According to Mideast Youth director Esraa Shafei, it's how the site functions as a platform and its community-based approach to engaging in the debates and tackling issues facing homosexual and transgender youth in the Middle East that make the site unique.

"LGBT persons wanted  a place where they could really connect to share their stories aspirations, and tragedies,” she told Babylon & Beyond in a telephone interview from Bahrain. “We looked around and didn’t find an LGBT website that really deals with those issues. Our site is not about news reports and not so much about policies but really about sharing stories. It’s a place where people can go and connect with each other.”

To learn more about the mission and features of Ahwaa, see the video posted below.

 

Site contributors and readers come from a range of countries in the Middle East and beyond, says Shafei, including countries in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, Iran and Syria.  Myriad issues and topics are discussed and debated on the site, including how to come out to one's family, homosexuality and religion, and the revolutions and uprisings that are currently sweeping the Arab world and whether they will help pave the way for more minority rights, including for homosexuals.

"A part of me can't help but wonder if those protests succeed, whether or not we will have any presentation in these movements and new societies or if it will be better or worse or.... ?" wrote  one contributor in a thread. "What does all of this mean for gay rights?"

So far, government censors in Bahrain have left the site and its administrators and moderators alone -- something that could be related to the timing of its launch. When the site hit the Web in March this year from Bahrain, the Bahraini government was ruthlessly crushing an anti-government uprising and cracking down on dissidents. In other words, they had bigger fish to fry. 

"So far, they've been pretty distracted. Launching it then was the best thing we could do. The crackdown is not as big as it used to be because they have their hands full with a lot of others," Shafei said.

Anyone can join Ahwaa, but to become a trusted commentator and receive access to all levels takes a bit of time. It all depends on how many points you as a commentator collect. The more points you collect, the more trusted you become and the more access you will be granted. Points are increased when contributors click on the "This was helpful" button after you as a commentator have left a response to someone's thread, according to Shafei.

She adds that responses to the site have been positive aside from a few nasty comments posted here and there on various social media forums. But she does worry about the site becoming subject to censorship in various countries in the region once governments catch on. 

And then there is always the security risk for moderators based throughout the region. In Bahrain,  just like many other Arab countries, homosexuality can be ground for fines or imprisonment based on vague laws upheld to protect public morality. Still, it's not something that will keep Ahwaa moderators from fighting for their cause.

"It's a risk for all of us, but it is one that we're happy taking," Shafei said. "We feel that it's needed and that it's necessary. I don’t think risks stand in the way of us."

ALSO:

Carnegie launches new tool to track the 'Arab Spring'

Gay jurist in Proposition 8 case had no legal obligation to remove himself, judge rules

Same-sex couples find rough road to immigration

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A screenshot of Ahwaa's website. Credit: Ahwaa.org

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