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Digital persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals in the MENA region

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LGBTQ+ individuals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region face imprisonment and violence for expressing their identities online, while major platforms like Meta fail to protect them. Human Rights Watch's Rasha Younes writes on how we can create safer digital spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals.

When I was researching the digital targeting of LGBT people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, I spoke to Yamen, a gay man fromJordan. He told me he was extorted online by another man, who was threatening to post a compromising video on social media, and that his biggest regret was going to the authorities to seek protection. Instead of prosecuting the extortionist, a Jordanian court sentenced Yamen to six months in prison for "promoting prostitution online," based on the country's 2015 cybercrime law.

Yamen's experience is not an isolated incident. In recent years, many governments in the region, includingEgypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, have introduced cybercrime laws that target dissent and undermine freedom of expression and privacy.

Cybercrime laws often establish new investigative powers, allowing authorities to intercept, retain, and access people's data. Obtaining data from online services such as social media platforms can be essential for prosecuting cybercrime, but only if these powers come with crucial due process protections.

These laws, combined with existing laws that criminalize same-sex conduct, "morality" clauses, or prostitution laws, have also created a treacherous climate in which LGBTQ+ people can beprosecuted merely for expressing themselves online, even in countries that do not criminalize same-sex relations. In addition, a proposed global cybercrime treaty would facilitate international cooperation on a range of technology-facilitated activities a government criminalizes domestically—even if violating human rights. These domestic laws may carry a penalty of at least three or four years in prison, which could lead to the prosecution of LGBTQ+ individuals across borders.

Cairo egypt prison cells that were in use from ancient times until the 20th century OPED Cyberbullying Middle East targeting lgbtq peopleTamer A Soliman/Shutterstock

Take Mohamed al-Bokari, a Yemeni activist who traveled on foot fromYemen to Saudi Arabia after armed groups threatened to kill him due to his online activism and gender non-conformity. While living in Riyadh, he posted a video onTwitter declaring his support for LGBTQ+ rights. Saudi authorities then charged him with "promoting homosexuality online" under the cybercrime law. They sentenced him to 10 months in prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for weeks, subjected to a forced anal exam, and repeatedly beaten.

Some governments are making online self-expression a crime explicitly toward the LGBTQ+ community. In Iraq, parliament passed a dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ law in April as an amendment to the country's existing anti-prostitution law. In addition to punishing same-sex relations with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, the new law provides for 7 years in prison for "promoting homosexuality," including through online platforms. When I documented thekillings, abductions, sexual violence, and torture of LGBT people by armed groups in Iraq, many cases surveyed were based on victims' social media activity. The new law legitimizes the discrimination fueling this rampant violence against LGBTQ+ individuals, criminalizing their existence and anything they have to say about it online.

Governments are the primary duty bearers responsible for protecting human rights, including on the internet. But in the MENA region and beyond, authorities weaponize online activity to justify their persecution of LGBTQ+ people.

This is compounded by the failure of major digital platforms likeMeta to address and effectively mitigate the harm stemming from abusive use of their services. Despite numerous reports of online harassment and abusive content, platforms like Facebook and Instagram often fail to act, leaving LGBTQ+ users vulnerable to further harm.

cellphone meta facebook instagram whatsapp logos OPED Cyberbullying Middle East targeting lgbtq peopleInk Drop/Shutterstock

That is why, in 2024, Human Rights Watch initiated the"Secure Our Socials" campaign. It aims to engage social media platforms in being more transparent and accountable by publishing meaningful data on investment in user safety, including regarding content moderation in the MENA region and around the world. The campaign also offers a variety of possible solutions for Meta to keep LGBTQ+ users safe on its platforms.

The fight against the cyber-criminalization of LGBTQ+ people is not only about legal reform but also about creating safer, more inclusive digital spaces. Yamen's and al-Bokari's accounts reveal a harsh reality faced by many, where seeking protection or expressing one's identity can lead to imprisonment and violence.

By addressing both the legal structures that outlaw LGBTQ+ people and digital platforms that enable persecution, we can begin to dismantle digital oppression and create safe avenues for everyone's free expression.

Rasha Younes is Interim Co-Director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch.

Voices is dedicated to featuring a wide range of inspiring personal stories and impactful opinions from the LGBTQ+ and Allied community. Visit Advocate.com/submit to learn more about submission guidelines. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of our stories. Email us at voices@equalpride.com. Views expressed in Voices stories are those of the guest writers, columnists and editors, and do not directly represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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