“Everyone should be equal,” Ayaz Shalal told the Washington Blade on Aug. 10 during an interview at Human Rights First’s offices in downtown Washington. “That’s a right for every human being.”
Shalal, 24, is from Sulaymaniyah, a city in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He is the deputy director of programs for the Rasan Organization, which advocates on behalf of LGBT people and women and young people.
The Rasan Organization has launched a research project with Bo Peshawa, a group with offices in Baghdad and in the predominantly Shiite city of Basra in southern Iraq, that seeks to document attitudes towards LGBT Iraqis.
Shalal told the Blade the organizations will hold a series of what he described as “community forums” next month in Baghdad, Basra, Sulaymaniyah, Irbil and Dohuk.
Professors, police officers and government officials from a variety of religious, social and cultural backgrounds are expected to participate. Shalal told the Blade the participants will form action plans in support of LGBT-specific issues that they can implement in their respective communities. They will also receive psychological, social and legal support.
The Rasan Organization and Bo Peshawa have invited Kurdish and Iraqi lawmakers and diplomats from the U.S. and other countries to attend a day-long conference in Irbil at the end of next month. The groups will release the findings of their research and show a documentary that documents the project.
“I’m moving in a very smart way to attract them to come,” Shalal told the Blade, referring to the Kurdish and Iraqi lawmakers. “They will come because they like to show off, not because they’re interested . . . so I’m going to do that.”
All Iraqis ‘have challenges’
Shalal arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 5.
He met with officials at the State Department, the World Bank and the U.N. in New York. Shalal also visited the Human Rights Campaign and the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore before returning to Iraq on Aug. 19.
Shalal’s trip took place against the backdrop of rampant anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in Iraq.
He told the Blade that a gay friend received asylum from Sweden because his father tried to kill him. Shalal said his friend is now married to his same-sex partner.
“LGBT Iraqis look at themselves as less than others,” said Shalal. “They always feel if they appear to everyone as gays or as lesbians people will judge them.”
Shalal told the Blade that LGBT Iraqis don’t trust anyone because the way they are treated in the country. Religious attitudes also have an adverse impact on the way people view homosexuality, even though Shalal said the Quran does not specifically speak against the issue.
“An imam would say it’s haram, they should be killed, they should be stoned, their heads should be cut off, but that’s not the truth,” said Shalal. “The same goes for Christians in my country.”
Prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr last month issued a decree from Najaf that banned his followers from committing violence against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Members of the Mahdi army, a militia that al-Sadr runs, have been accused of kidnapping and executing LGBT Iraqis over the last decade. OutRight Action International and other advocacy groups have accused the Iraqi government of not doing enough to respond to this violence, allowing it to happen and even perpetrating it.
“We have challenges that everyone who lives in this country has,” said Shalal.
ISIS is ‘very, very, very scary’
The so-called Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that controls portions of Iraq, has publicly executed dozens of men who have been accused of committing sodomy. Mosul, which remains an ISIS stronghold in Iraq, is less than 200 miles from Sulaymaniyah.
“It’s very, very, very scary,” Shalal told the Blade.
He said he was “terrified” when he read a recent New York Times article about ISIS militants throwing people from buildings.
“I just started crying because it was so shocking,” said Shalal. “As a human being, it’s just very terrifying to see someone who is throwing someone else from a building because of his sexual orientation.”
“You are not allowed to kill anyone because of anything,” he added. “Why would you give yourself the right to throw someone from the building because he does things in his bed that’s none of your business.”
Shalal told the Blade that LGBT people who visit Rasan Organization’s office are scared of ISIS because of its relative proximity to Sulaymaniyah. He also said there is lingering fear that the militants could overrun the city as they did in 2014 when they took control of Sinjar.
“Why not in Sulaymaniyah,” asked Shalal. “What’s different?”
Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this year that ISIS has committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS militants killed hundreds of Yazidi men and older women in the Iraqi town of Kocho in August 2014. They also enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and girls after they captured Sinjar.
The Rasan Organization worked with 90 pregnant Yazidi women who fled ISIS until funding for their program ran out.
Shalal told the Blade that militants raped some of them after killing their husbands and other relatives. He described ISIS as “sick” for their treatment of LGBT people, women and other groups.
“If you go to ISIS you are a good man,” said Shalal. “You are a journalist, you are writing about peoples’ lives and you are making a change through your readers. If you go there they will kill you for no reason because you are American. It’s just because it’s ISIS.”
Shalal arrived in the U.S. less than five weeks after ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing in Karada, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, that killed nearly 300 people and left another 200 injured.
Shalal was in Irbil when the attack took place. He told the Blade that people thought four cars were about to enter the city and “kill hundreds of people.”
“Everyone was very scared and we didn’t go out,” said Shalal. “So whenever there is something happening in the rest of Iraq, we also feel threatened because we are one country.”