A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Another Reason Not to Write Any Story About Sex in the Arab World without Fact-Checking: The "Kuwait/GCC to Test for Gays at Airport" Story

I have learned from experience never to repeat stories involving certain subjects without careful checking. Rule number one: if it involves an Arab country and sex (straight or gay or anything else), check it first. Rule number two: if it involves a person identified as a sheikh (named or unnamed) issuing a fatwa (whether the reporter understands what a fatwa* is or not), check it at least twice. Rule number three: if it appeared only in The Daily Mail, check it at least three times. Rule number four: if it was an unsourced fatwa about sex by a sheikh you've never heard of and was only in The Daily Mail, go to lunch.

*In Islamic law, a fatwa is a ruling issued by a duly constituted judge with the authority to issue such rulings (a mufti). In Western journalism, as I said once before, it means "anything we can get some lunatic sheikh** to say to the press" or on an Internet website.

**Frequently self-proclaimed.

Not long ago we noted that the much-reported "Tunisian women going to Syria for 'sexual jihad'" story was mostly smoke and mirrors. (All utterly true except for the fact that no Tunisian women apparently reached Syria or engaged in "sexual jihad." Other than that, dead on.) Then there was the "Tunisian girl who posted a topless photo faces stoning to death" story, in a country where prostitution is tolerated and topless beaches exist and which hasn't executed anyone in over 20 years (and not by stoning). She spent a short time in jail, in part for desecrating a cemetery. And I spent a bit of time a year and a half ago deconstructing the Egypt "necrophilia law' hoax, in which a credulous media reported that the Egyptian Parliament was about to permit men to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after death. (No, it wasn't. See the post for an analysis of where this crazy idea got started.)

And I never even posted the widespread story a couple of years back that said an (unnamed) sheikh from an (equally unnamed) "European country" (Denmark? Kosovo? Andorra?) had issued a fatwa (there's that word again!) saying that women were forbidden to shop for fruits like bananas or vegetables like zucchini because, well, it might give them ideas by reminding them of something else.  This was so totally improbable and unsourced I refused to mention it here, except in retrospect as an evidence of credulity and gullibility, and of course no source for the story was ever found.

(Though of course there really are crazy sheikhs who say crazy things about sex: "Egyptian Salafi: "Shi‘a Are More Dangerous Than Naked Women." (Please note for the record that while I reject this, it does not mean that I think naked women are more dangerous.)

So when over the past day or two we have seen stories with headlines like this: "Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to 'detect' gay people and stop them from entering the country," all my usual alarms went off. That particular headline was in fact in The Daily Mail, so Rules 3 and 4 above allowed me to doubt it. But a far more respectable British paper, The Independent, chimed in with "Gulf states could have clinical screenings to 'detect' homosexuals and stop them entering the country." You'll notice the disstinction between "Gulf states to introduce" and "Gulf states could have": but what kind of "clinical screening" detects gay people?  (After Egypt's "virginity tests" in 2011, this is probably not something you want to dwell on.) While The Independent  is not The Daily Mail, the bullshit detectors were still sounding loudly. But there were screams from people who feared that gay athletes might be barred from the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.

Now, even the original stories made certain things clear. This is not GCC policy; it is a proposal by Kuwait to be put forward at a forthcoming GCC meeting on immigration. The GCC moves at a glacial pace, and even if this were adopted it could take years. It does not at this time apply even to Kuwait, let alone Qatar.

But it isn't really about gay visitors at all. A lengthy post at an international sexual rights website (with what seems like an LGBT tilt), A Paper Bird, and a subsequent confirming follow-up post, make several things clear. First, this is not about visitors to Kuwait; it's about immigrant laborers. Second, it is not about gays: it's directed at transgendered people, especially those who have undergone sex changes. Immigrants seeking to become expatriate laborers already are required to undergo physical examinations. I personally dislike any form of discrimination, but barring transgendered persons from immigrant labor visas is not quite the same as testing every visitor to Kuwait or the whole GCC for gayness, however exactly they do that.

Unlike Iran, which former President Ahmadinejad assured us has no gays, I'm pretty sure they exist in the GCC. Perhaps even at the very highest levels. So no one should throw stones.

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