“I feel that my body no longer belongs to me”

Zainab is a 22 years old lesbian women from Baghdad. Her family forced her to marry a man. She was repeatedly raped by him. When she tried to return to her family’s home she was subjected to physical violence after which her relatives forcibly returned her to her husband. She now suffers from mental problems that affect her health. This situation led her to attempt suicide several times. Meanwhile, she can’t reach a therapist. “I feel that my body no longer belongs to me,” explained the young woman.

The series of wars, low economic levels, insecurity, omnipresence of lawles armed groups, has multiplied crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Iraq. This led to an increase of mental disorders cases, depression, and even suicide among the members of the LGBT community who remain unable to escape the miserable reality they live in. Meanwhile, mental health services remain close to nonexistent, and are considered a luxury by many.

Although homosexuality was removed from the list of diseases of the American Psychiatric Association in 1987, and the World Health Organization (WHO) retracted it in 1990, classification of homosexuality as a type of mental disorder by some doctors remains frequent. Yet, the WHO regularly reminds that attempts at conversion therapy are useless and amount to no less than a form of psychological torture for homosexuals. Indeed, the United Nation’s Health Organization has exposed how homeopathic treatments are instrumentalized by biased practitioners who submit theirpatients to social and religious beliefs at the expense of homosexuals’ sexual liberty.

Lara Emad, 23 years old, is a lesbian from Nasiriyah. She explained how she began discovering her gender identity at the age of fourteen and immediately tried to hide her tendencies from her family, especially as she was being subjected to physical violence from her parents because they accused her of imitating men. “I faced discrimination in my family; when I was fifteen, my father imprisoned me in a dark room for three days and prevented me from going to school because I cut my hair. He said that God will punish me for trying to imitate men. Even my mom despised me from the moment she knew about my sexual orientation”. Since then, Lara suffers from depression which sometimes leads her to harm her body. Throughout her interview, she spoke with a worried and stuttering voice, indicating her anxiety and the nightmare she goes through on a daily basis.

Biassed doctors

“Every night, I wake up in the middle of a nightmare where someone is trying to asphyxiate me. This is the result of the abuse and ostracism that I am exposed to. The violence I subject myself to is a way of trying to get rid of the anxiety I live with,” She added.

Many psychiatrists in Iraq are still cynically treating the depression and anxiety of LGBTQ people by attributing these mental health issues to their homosexuality. Some doctors insist on prescribing hormonal treatments in an attempt to curb LGBT people’s sexual orientation. Also, other doctors have forced their patients to read the Qur’an or to visit spiritual sites in  order to “liberate” them from Satan according to their religious beliefs, without any consideration for the patient’s privacy or his psychic health.

Years ago, a doctor on social media in Iraq, claims that he was able to treat homosexuality. According ot this doctor, homosexuality is the result of a rape in in the patient’s childhood, which leads to a weakening of his self-confidence and a deviation of his or hers’ sexual orientation. Those dubious claims are popular among sections of the medical community and indirectly induce an increase of hate speech against LGBT in Iraq, without any concern on the impact of such discourses on their psychological and mental health.

On his twitter account, Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s suggested the monkeypox epidemic is a result of homosexual behavior, as some of the early cases detected in the latest global wave of this disease were detected among gay people. “I call on them [homosexuals] to repent. And call for repealing laws upholding gay rights to protect humanity from the monkeypox epidemic or what we call homosexual-pox”. The shia cleric also proposed designating a day every year to express opposition to homosexuality. This was not the first time that Al-Sadr accused LGBT people of spreading disease, as he blamed the outbreak the legalizing same-sex marriage in Western countries for the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic

Psychological pressures 

IraQueer, is the first NGO specialised in LGBT rights in Iraq. The organisation provides many services to LGBT, such as support groups, medications in some cases as well as arranging psychological treatment by specialists, such as therapists or psychiatrists that are sensitive to LGBT rights and realities.

Psychotherapists working with the organisation have also provided assistance to many patients suffering from psychological disorders and problems related to domestic violence. Psychotherapy provides a safe space for LGBT to talk about mental health issues and the painful life experiences they endure such as war, childhood trauma, violence, death, and harassment cases.

Since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in 2019, the consumption of sedatives in the world drastically increased, which has caused significant psychological problems in situations of prolonged confinement. LGBT people are no exception and remain significantly vulnerable to mental disorders due to their prolonged stay at their family home where they are exposed to homophobia.

According to the statistics of Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organisation, Iraq has become a home for mental illnesses exacerbated by the escalation of security and political events. Consequent to the lack of data and research on the matter, there are only three hospitals that can be found in Iraq that treat mental illnesses: Al-Rashad and Ibn Rushd hospitals in Baghdad, and Suz hospital in Sulaymaniyah.

In 2020, an IraQueer survey attempted to evaluate how many LGBT people sought mental health services. Some of them who visited psychotherapists reported that they preferred to see a doctor outside of their cities to avoid the risk or social stigma, as explained Murtada Hassan, a 17 year old inhabitant from Najaf: “I suffered from psychological problems at school and got regularly bullied by other students after one of them revealed that I was transsexual. This made my psychological case worse. My father forced me to see a sheikh who claimed that I was possessed by the devil and he beat me with a hard stick all over my body while reciting incomprehensible words. His “spell” was an attempt to convince my father and me that he would cure me. Since that day, I have suffered from depression and mental disorders”.

The challenges of social support

LGBT people in Iraq have great difficulties accessing therapists and psychiatrists who do not separate their religious beliefs and social prejudices from their duty to assist their patients. Hadeel Zuhair – a pseudonym given to the interviewee for privacy reasons – a 33 year-old psychiatrist, explained that mental disorders LGBT are exposed to are not due to their sexual orientation, but rather to the unhealthy way of the society precieves them. “These prejudices and animosity directly lead them to psychological disorders.

“Also, people should understand that requesting social or psychological support does not necessarily mean that a person is mentally sick. Anyone may go through a psychological crisis at a time of their life. As for any specialised support, it is obtained following a medical intervention leading to a diagnosis. It is important to note that throughout all these steps, doctors and medical staff should always respect the privacy, identity, and human dignity of the patient” Hadeel added.

Overall, Iraq still has tremendous efforts to do in order to improve the mental well being of the LGBT community. This can only be obtained through deep societal changes in the perception Iraqis hold of these people. Homosexuality is a natural and immemorial behaviour that should not lead to persecution because of conservative views held by the majority.