Isah Rakeem is a Kurdish activist and representative of gay and transgender rights and bisexual immigrants from Muslim backgrounds in one of the largest organisations in Scandinavia.
What are the difficulties facing gays from immigrant backgrounds when they come to Europe?
Many struggle to accept themselves as they are because their families do not accept them as gays. Often, it’s third generation teenagers who suffer most from this issue. For example, in schools, it’s difficult for many to accept a gay from a Muslim background and the reason behind this is the widespread belief that all Muslims are against homosexuality. This is the biggest problem, because it’s not true. In fact, the gay issue is facing rejection in all societies – Jewish, Christian and even atheist communities.
What is the situation of homosexuality in the Kurdish community?
I am a Kurd and it is still a problem to be gay but not as big problem as in the rest of Middle East. Homosexuality in other areas in the Middle East is a bigger problem than what we see in Kurdistan. If we want to explain the perspective of the Kurdish community towards gays, we must understand the nature of the Kurdish society.
Many mainstream Kurdish politicians are playing a strong role in the fight for democracy and human rights. Of course there are those who support more traditional, conservative ideas in the Kurdish community, and who are not always so progressive, you know, there are millions of Kurds around the world.
It’ also worth mentioning that what is happening in the political movement in Kurdistan affects very positively on the progress and democracy movement in the wider Middle East. Add to that, the Kurdish community accepts the role of women in the political and democratic movement in Kurdistan and female fighters in Kobanî is something we do not see anywhere else in the Middle East.
What are the difficulties you face as an activist in the field of gay and women’s rights?
It can be quite difficult to meet Kurdish politicians to discuss homosexuality with them directly. It is very important for me to study their mentality and their background before I discuss the issue with them, and often I ask them indirectly and it is not difficult for me to understand their opinion within minutes of discussion. It’s actually wonderful discussing the issue in Kurdish.
Do you think that the Kurdish government should start raising awareness about the issue of homosexuality in the curriculum?
The war makes it difficult. Many politicians and representatives in the government, despite their positive reaction towards the issue, say we must wait for the end of the war and then we can look at the other issues, which I think isn’t the right mentality. If we look at the war’s victims, they are coming from minorities. Homosexuals are a minority as well as Assyrian, Yezidis and Jews. We must work to protect them during the war.
Have you raised the issue of homosexuality directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government?
As I mentioned earlier, homosexuality isn’t a big problem but we still can’t discuss it openly in our society so I have tried to talk about this subject indirectly. Women do not have sexual rights in general, the role of women is seen just in terms of reproduction, so we must begin to discuss small topics to begin with. For example discussing the issue of abortion which is one of the red lines as well and which a lot of men prefer not to discuss.
The simplest thing – love affairs face rejection in many of our areas because of the wide difference in either age, sect, belief or doctrine. The contrast here is that love is the thing that occupies the Kurdish society. Kurdish songs and films are filled with forbidden love stories. We even have the Kurdish version of Romeo and Juliet, Memmo and Zine. But we don’t discuss these topics in our policy, only in our art, and I see the main reason for this, is that the suffering and injustice imposed on our society created the fear of talking about our desires directly.
Where do gays suffer the most in Kurdistan?
Kurdistan of Turkey, Diyarbakir city, is the best place for gays; they are very well organized there and have got formal organizations to protect their rights. The reason behind that is that Turkey wants to enter the EU so it draws attention to this issue, but as we saw in past years, the gay pride march in Istanbul faced violence by the government, as it sprayed tear gas and it attacked them violently, which shows the power of Islamic policy within the Turkish government, which in turn affects the whole gay issue.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, I met one of the activists in the city of Sulaymaniyah, who does a great job in the field of gay rights, not only in Kurdistan but in Iraq, and this is what Kurds do in other fields as well.
We should draw attention to Kurds as the most trustworthy people and they must get the direct support from the world to protect minorities in the Middle East.
What would you want to tell the Kurdish politicians and the Kurdish government on the issue of gays in Kurdistan?
I plan to return to Kurdistan as I owe this nation that fights ISIS terrorists. Our country, despite its small size and the fact that it’s still not an independent state, is fighting terrorism and opens its doors to immigrants. In the city of Dohuk alone, there are a half million immigrants, compared with countries like Norway, that refused to bring 10,000 immigrants this year. It is necessary to reduce the responsibility on Kurdistan and support it in its fight against terrorism. I also want to send a message to the Kurdish politicians to be open in speaking about gay rights and raise awareness of the issue among Kurdish society.