When Nasser Mohamed, a Qatari physician now living in San Francisco, gave an interview to the BBC in May about LGBTQ rights abuses in his home country, he didn’t know that he could be the first Qatari person to publicly come out as gay.
“I did look a little bit for other people, and I couldn’t find them,” Mohamed told News@Northeastern on Friday, two days before the 2022 World Cup was set to begin in Qatar. “The night before [the BBC] released it I was telling myself, ‘You are really brave. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve said it and people don’t care, and nobody hears it.’ ”
But that wasn’t the case. All of Qatar heard the interview because it was aired on BBC Arabic. Mohamed, 35, who was cut off from his family in 2015 after he came out to his mother, says he received a lot of hateful responses, but also connected with many queer Qataris for the first time.
His main goal now is to build as much visibility for LGBTQ issues in Qatar as possible before international journalists leave when the World Cup is over.
“I hope for us to have a platform. The path still needs to be navigated but visibility is the first step,” he says.
Mohamed has recently established the Alwan Foundation, the first nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ communities in the Persian Gulf region and collecting evidence-based data about their living conditions and rights violations.
He was also the major force behind the recently published Human Rights Watch report on abuse of LGBTQ people by Qatari authorities. He helped the international organization gather evidence for the report and connect with victims of abuse who described mistreatments that took place as recently as September.
The illegality of same-sex relationships under Qatari law has been widely discussed in the press and on social media since the country won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010. Both LGBTQ soccer fans and players have been questioning whether it would be safe for them to go to Qatar for the event.
“These [LGBTQ rights] are extremely important rights. They go to the most fundamental aspects of humanity and human expression, and human identity, and just being human and realizing one’s full self,” says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law at Northeastern.
LGBTQ rights are a part of human rights
LGBTQ rights are a part of human rights that are inherent to all human beings without discrimination, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a part of the International Bill of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
However, the extent of the international consensus on LGBTQ rights is a complicated question, Meise says.
“If you look at the last 10 or 15 years, you will see growth in recognition of LGBTQ rights worldwide, generally speaking,” she says. “And if you look at just one measure of that—the number of countries that have legalized marriage equality in some form—that is a significant change in the last two decades.”
But such growth is not universal. There is a subset of states who have actively expressed their intention not to see human rights extend to cover sexual orientation or gender identity, Meise says. There are also countries who actively resist efforts to expressly codify in some way protections for the LGBTQ people.
Qatar is among 11 countries in the world that have the death penalty as one of the possible punishments for consensual same-sex conduct, according to ILGA World, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Same-sex sexual relations between men are illegal, even if consensual. Penalties include lashing, lengthy prison sentences and/or deportation for foreign nationals, according to the U.S. State Department.
There is no law criminalizing same-sex sexual relations between women, however, in practice they are persecuted as well, Mohamed says.
The state conducts cyber-surveillance, tries to shut down hangout spots and infiltrates groups of LGBTQ people to arrest them, according to the Human Rights Watch report. LGBTQ people are taken into custody by the Preventive Security Department, a law enforcement agency, Mohamed says, and remain jailed for weeks to months, sometimes without a charge. There they are verbally and physically abused, tortured and sexually harassed, the Human Rights Watch reports.
Qatar subjects LGBTQ people to conversion therapy
The state also subjects LGBTQ people in Qatar to conversion therapy, according to Human Rights Watch.
Mohamed says the treatment LGBTQ people in Qatar experience cannot be completely explained by religious beliefs.
“I can definitely make an argument that the type of persecution that Qatar is subjecting us to is against Islam,” he says, “because Islam does not support abducting and torture of people. And that’s what they do to us.”
Mohamed believes foreign LGBTQ fans who visit Qatar for the World Cup, will not face the same risk of persecution as local queer people.
“Because Qatar does have this double standard for applying things,” he says. “There is just a very different treatment for the local community.”
Qatar will be on its best behavior while on the world stage, he says.
Dan Danielsen, professor of law and faculty director of the Program on the Corporation, Law and Global Society at Northeastern, agrees that it is unlikely that Qatar will focus on international LGBTQ athletes or visitors during the World Cup as it would create an international press stir.
“The general rule is that traveling people have an obligation to abide by the laws of the country in which they are finding themselves,” he says, noting that it would be more advisable to give some careful consideration to one’s trip instead of facing draconian penalties for violation of Qatar laws.
Gay visitors extremely careful and conscious
Danielsen visited Qatar multiple times in the 2010s for international law and governance workshops. He was extremely careful and conscious of the fact that he didn’t know Qatari culture very well, he says. He wasn’t going to do anything that he thought would be offensive to anybody around both out of personal safety and out of respect for the context of his visit.
“That was one place the entire time I stayed there I had a separate room from my partner. It was one of the only times in our long relationship that that was the case,” Danielsen says. “I wouldn’t want to overstate the risks, but at the same time, you don’t want to imagine that you are completely safe everywhere, because it is just not true.”
In Mohamed’s opinion, there is a bigger question mark about whether Qatari government will be able to protect foreign LGBTQ fans that might decide to stand up for queer visibility from local violent homophobes. Some of the tribal people in Qatar can be very proud of their values, he says, and they can react negatively to any acts of solidarity with local LGBTQ people.
If an international LGBTQ fan becomes a victim of a homophobic crime or an assault, Danielsen says, their most powerful weapon would be publicity, international press, and getting out on social media what happened. The U.S. citizens can contact the local U.S. consulate, which will try to intervene on their behalf.
“Although, generally speaking, the consulate isn’t able to excuse violations of local law, they can try and argue for leniency or they can put diplomatic pressure on the state,” he says.
LGBTQ people after the World Cup
What Mohamed fears the most is the rumors that the government is preparing to conduct “Western cleansing” among local LGBTQ people after the World Cup, he says. He is also afraid that misleading public relations that “everyone is welcomed in Qatar,” as the country officials have been saying, will shut down the path for LGBTQ Qataris to seek asylum in the West like he did because there is almost no public evidence of abuse and persecution to prove their cases.
He has also launched The Proud Maroons—the only LGBTQ National Football Supporters’ Group that cheers on the Qatar’s national football team, nicknamed the Maroons, but that can’t have fans from its own nation, because homosexuality is currently illegal in Qatar, Mohamed says.
Human rights and international sports is a complex topic, Meise says. Calls on international sporting organizations to consider human rights questions when making their host selections have been raised before, both in the case of the World Cup and the Olympics as well as other contexts.
“What I would say is that investment and choices of where to spend money is a reflection of values,” Meise says. “That also extends internationally.”
However, during the Cold War, for example, international sporting events were some of the only opportunities for there to be a coming together of individuals from countries that otherwise did not engage, that otherwise did not get to have exchanges, that otherwise did not get to speak to each other, she says.
They might have their own political strategies
When outsiders or international organizations want to help local community groups, Danielsen says, they have to take the cues from those groups about what they feel they want to do, whether they want the spotlight shone on them, and whether they might have their own political strategies or their own ways of being in the society that are making that feel tolerable.
“They can be really important, risky questions,” he says. “It can be [a matter of] life and death.”
Mohamed believes that only economic and foreign policy repercussions imposed on Qatar for its record of the LGBTQ rights abuse can make some difference in the situation.
“It has to be really inconvenient for them to persecute gays,” Mohamed says.
There are various mechanisms within international, diplomatic, geopolitical structures and international organizations that can be used to encourage countries to protect and preserve human rights, Meise says.
Besides the U.N. Human Rights Council and other formal gatherings of members of the international community in multilateral diplomatic settings, there can be bilateral enticements and incentives that can encourage countries to protect and preserve rights, like economic aid, trade, technical assistance, exchanges on military training that can be negotiated for compliance with specific human rights standards.
Sanctions can be another pathway to calling-out human rights abusers, Meise says.