Protests against Qatar’s poor record on LGBTQ+ rights are amping up in the run-up to the World Cup – but it’s vital western activists approach the issue with sensitivity
As we get closer to the World Cup, protests around Qatar’s record on LGBTQ+ rights are starting to heat up. Last week, veteran gay activist Peter Tatchell was stopped by the police in Doha after posing in the street with a sign which read “Qatar arrests, jails and subjects LGBTs to conversion therapy”, Australia’s football team became the first to release a joint statement expressing solidarity with LGBTQ+ Qataris, and here in Britain, foreign secretary James Cleverly inspired furious backlash when he suggested that LGBTQ+ football fans had to “compromise” and “show respect” to Qatar and its cultural norms while attending the World Cup. All over the world, gay football fan groups have announced they will be boycotting the event in protest, and a number of high-profile public figures in the UK – including Keir Starmer and Prince William – have declined invitations.
The flurry of activity around this issue is well-justified: not only is homosexuality illegal in Qatar, there’s little indication that the situation has meaningfully improved in light of its successful World Cup bid. Last month, Human Rights Watch published a report which revealed that LGBTQ+ Qataris are being arrested, physically assaulted, sexually harassed and subject to conversion therapy on account of their identity. Some of the incidents detailed in the report took place as recently as September 2022. As the world turns its attention to Qatar, it’s crucial that these problems don’t get swept under the rug. But when it comes to LGBTQ+ activism, the response from the west requires some sensitivity. There is a serious risk that even the most well-meaning attempts to show solidarity could backfire and end up making the situation on the ground even worse. If we want to avoid a “white saviour approach”, which centres our own moral indignation, we actually need to be in dialogue with the queer community in Qatar.
Following Peter Tatchell’s protest, some LGBTQ+ Qataris criticised him for failing to inform them of his plan in advance, despite the fact they were previously communicating through a Signal group. Dr Nas Mohamed, a gay Qatari based in the States, acknowledged that Tatchell had made helpful contributions to the cause, but he was critical of the stunt, saying in a recent Instagram Live, “Tatchell showing up in Qatar without speaking to us and without taking our opinion into consideration was not a good move. We had explicitly asked him if he was going to be there, in order to strategise, and our opinion was not taken into consideration. That makes me wonder who he is doing it for.”
For many queer Arabs, Tatchell’s intervention felt like a classic “white saviour” move: in other words, an enlightened westerner trying to save the poor, benighted Arabs from a position of superiority. “The main problem here is the prevalence of the white saviour complex, and how these western LGBTQ+ activists have no self-awareness whatsoever – especially when it comes to knowing when they should stay in their lane,” Elias Jahshan, journalist and the editor of anthology The Arab is Queer, tells Dazed. “Too often we see western activists inserting themselves in other people’s struggles or liberation movements for their own personal clout. And we still see western LGBTQ+ activists so blinded by their western exceptionalism that they fail to see that imposing their activism methods on other cultures – without any regard for the local sensitivities and nuances – is just another form of imperialism.”
If we simply import a western mode of activism, without considering the viewpoints of the people affected or the reality on the ground, we risk making the situation worse. “Although Tatchell was in contact with members of the community, he also seems to have missed the crucial lesson in that his actions have the risk of antagonising the government, or leaders in conservative corners of society, to kick start a witch hunt or persecution campaign in order to shore up support or to distract from more pressing issues, like a financial collapse or a surge in cost of living,” says Jahshan. ”In short, western LGBTQ+ activists going to countries in the Global South to pull a protest stunt without the backing of the local community always risks doing more harm than good.”
“There’s an assumption that results of this kind of activism will be positive for the people here, but I’ve seen examples on social media... which show that it only reinforces homophobia” – Ali*
According to Ali*, an Arab media expert who asked to remain anonymous, the prevailing discourse ignores the fact that social dynamics are shifting in Gulf societies all the time. “On the one hand, in recent months, there’s been this huge moral panic in the Gulf media about LGBTQ+ issues,” he says. “For example, governments have been confiscating toys which have rainbow flags or pressuring Netflix to remove programmes with LGBTQ+ themes, especially children’s programmes.” But at the same time, these societies are undergoing social changes. “This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia, which is shifting its vision on social liberal policies and relaxing some laws in terms of gender and women’s rights,” he says. “Of course, they’re still authoritarian, but this changing dynamic is lost in media debates around the Gulf, because they’re seen through such a limited lens.”
In terms of the moral panic around LGBTQ+ issues, Ali argues, this can’t be understood without considering the western politicisation of the issue, which draws attention away from the lives of queer people living in Gulf societies and makes it a matter of government relationships. The danger here is that western activism on gay rights can have the opposite of the desired effect: rather than pressuring the Qatari government to liberalise, it effectively encourages it to double down. It means that the issue of LGBTQ+ rights can be positioned as a form of western colonialism, and allows the government to portray itself as the defender of traditional values, thus bolstering its own authority in the process. This goes beyond mere speculation: this dynamic is already happening. “There’s an assumption that results of this kind of activism will be positive for the people here, but I’ve seen examples on social media – for example, Arabic reactions to the video which the Australian players did – which show that it only reinforces homophobia,” Ali says. “It portrays homophobia as an authentic nationalist position against western intrusion and turns it into a patriotic stance. Again, this seems like something which western activists simply aren’t considering.” If we were talking about the UK, it makes more sense to argue that we shouldn’t tone down our rhetoric to appease homophobic forces. But in this scenario, it’s not really our risk to take.
“Crucially,” says Jahshan, “western allies need to understand that if they’re going to talk about the persecution that’s prevalent across SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa), they can’t do it without also talking about the colonial legacies of France and Britain – both of whom paved the way for dictators or absolute monarchs to rise to power from the mid-20th century.” This is particularly relevant when thinking about the government’s relationship with Qatar, which only achieved full independence from the British empire in 1971 and remains one of our most important trading partners. Given Britain’s history of quashing progressive movements in the Gulf states, we aren’t really in a position to hand-wring over their present-day social conservatism, nor – at a time when our own prime minister is considering removing trans people’s protections under the Equalities Act – do we have much credibility in portraying ourselves as progressive champions of LGBTQ+ rights. This isn’t to say we should simply shrug and decide to do nothing, but the efforts of British LGBTQ+ activists might be better directed towards our own government and its continuing complicity in the human rights abuses of the Qatari state, along with FIFA itself and its various sponsor and brand champions. Not only do we have more legitimacy in taking this course of action, but there’s also less risk of it backfiring.
It’s also important recognise that gay rights and migrant workers rights are not two distinct issues. While a number of gay football fan groups have – to their credit – made this connection explicit, there’s a broader tendency to see LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar through a single-issue lens. Over 95 per cent of Qatar’s workforce are migrants, and many of them work in construction, which is typically one of the most dangerous industries. While the country has introduced reforms around labour rights in recent years – which human rights groups say don’t go far enough – it still operates a ‘sponsorship’ programme for migrant workers. In many cases this amounts to a form of indentured servitude or even forced labour: workers often have to pay an exorbitant recruitment fee up front, which leaves them in debt upon their arrival in the country and makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation. According to Human Rights Watch, “Workers have little power to complain about or escape abuse when their employer controls their entry and exit from the country, residency, and ability to change jobs. Many employers exploit this control by confiscating workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and denying them wages.” Banned from going on strike or joining trade unions, workers are faced with working conditions so dangerous they have in many cases proven fatal. That’s not to say we should focus on migrant exploitation instead of LGBTQ+ rights, but we need to realise that they are in effect one and the same: many of the queer people living in Qatar will be among the exploited migrant class, and any serious attempt at improving the lives of LGBTQ+ Qataris has to acknowledge that these issues are inextricable.
The World Cup poses an important opportunity for solidarity, but we need to tread carefully. For Jahshan, the key thing is that LGBTQ+ activists must “prioritise the safety and wellbeing of the community they’re dealing with. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.” Beyond that, he suggests it’s about understanding that it’s not all about us, that our egos have no place in the queer liberation movement across the SWANA region, or anywhere in the Global South, and that our own tried-and-tested approaches to protest might be effective in different contexts. “The meaning of the word solidarity is to think about someone else and stand with them in their struggle,” says Ali. “But if the other is invisible and not even a thought in what western activists are doing – what’s the point?”