It's technically not illegal to be queer in Iraq, but that reality hasn't stopped widespread, and often socially accepted, violence against LGBTQ+ individuals throughout the country.
The queer community is rendered nearly invisible, with most Iraqis seeing homosexuality as a "Western export." The so-called Islamic State (or Daesh) and other armed groups have violently targeted LGBTQ+ individuals, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them in horrific ways.
But terrorist groups weren't the first to target the community.
Queer Iraqis have long been ostracized by their society and even murdered in brutal honor killings. The government has done little to address the human rights violations, with Iraqi politicians even failing to mention, let alone condemn, the violence committed against the community by terrorists.
Terrorist groups have made things worse for queer Iraqis
"Every single terrorist group that came to power or had power within Iraq was targeting queer people," he said, explaining that the government did nothing to curb the violence.
"The government was actually partnering with some of those terrorist groups. Not necessarily to target queer people but queer people were targeted. And those groups were empowered as the result of their partnership with the government."
Such extreme oppression and social stigma forces LGBTQ+ individuals to hide their identity, fearing for their lives and safety. That's why Ashour, an activist who has worked with rights groups on gender and sexuality issues for seven years, decided to found IraQueer.
Although several foreign rights groups were already campaigning on behalf of Iraq's queer community, their efforts were quickly dismissed by Iraqis as "Western propaganda." Ashour also saw a disconnect between the agenda of the Western rights group and the reality faced by his country's LGBTQ+ community.
"Everywhere I went to train people or to talk, people were discrediting our work because we were a Western organization," Ashour explained. "And In a way it was true. It made me think that we need to create something local, where we decide what’s gonna happen, we lead it."
"That’s how I started reaching out to other queer people around the country."
Ashour went on to launch IraQueer in March of 2015.
Even language is a challenge to the Iraqi LGBTQ+ community
But in a place like Iraq, and within the Middle East more broadly, even finding the right terms to discuss LGBTQ+ issues is still a challenge. The mainstream language used to refer to homosexuality is often derogatory and homophobic.
Normal Arabic terms used in Iraqi media translate into English as "faggot" or "abnormal people."
"The first thing we decided to do was to generate as much information and to either reuse, or actually come up with new words that we can use to refer to the queer community in a neutral way. Because we can’t say 'let’s give queers rights' when we’re saying 'let’s give faggots rights,'" Ashour explained.
Although progress is slow, IraQueer has found some success on this front. In 2017, Ashour was invited by a major Iraqi channel for an interview. He had one condition: the reporters would have to use non-offensive terms for the LGBTQ+ community during the program.
"I’m not saying you’re gonna have a big loss. I’m sure you had someone else to talk to," Ashour told the channel.
The reporters agreed to the terms. Beyond that, the few reports the channel has done since the interview, focusing on the LGBTQ+ community, have refrained from using derogatory language.
"I think that’s a big win for us," Ashour said. "Because the language the media used up until then, has been instrumental in supporting violence and promoting violence even, against queer people."
"There are at least two or three channels that are actively mentioning our name and using our funders name as 'these organizations that are targeting our values, etc.,'" he added.
Violence is a daily reality for Iraqi LGBTQ+ individuals and allies
Ashour himself is all too aware of the disturbing reality of threats and violence faced by queer Iraqis. Due to his activism, he was forced to apply for political asylum in Sweden.
Now, he spends his time between Europe and New York City, where he's pursuing a master's degree in human rights at Columbia University.
"I’ve never had a formal education in human rights and I wanted to make sure that IraQueer doesn’t outgrow me," he said.
Someday, although he doesn't think it will be soon, Ashour hopes he will be able to return to a safer and more accepting Iraq.
"I want to go back [to Iraq] today if I can, because everything I'm working on is to focus on Iraq," he said, explaining that if he returns now, Sweden can't legally protect him.
"I can’t risk the little protection that I have," he said. "Eventually, I do want to go back. I want to be involved in politics, to be involved in leading the country, but at this moment, it’s not possible for me."
For now, Ashour continues to oversee a growing network of employees and volunteers scattered throughout Iraq.
"Now we have a few employees and we have a network of a few hundred people inside [and] across the country," he said. "Of course, they are underground and still invisible, but they are the most inspiring, empowered people."
Explaining more about what IraQueer does within the country, Ashour explained that his organization has created safe houses for LGBTQ+ individuals who need protection, while also raising awareness about sexual health and security.
"We do a lot of guides: security, sexual health, other things that focus on the queer community, for them to have access to something very simple, but that could literally be life saving," he said.
"In addition to that, we do a lot of reports to raise awareness about what’s happening. That’s what we use in the other part of the work, which is international advocacy."
IraQueer also partners with some local organizations interested in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. Although Ashour says many Iraqi rights group have shown little or no concern for the queer community, some youth organizations have been willing partners. However, there are risks for any group or person who openly takes a stand for LGBTQ+ rights.
"One of our main Iraqi partners, which is a feminist organization – it’s not a queer organization – they always face threats and violence because they stand up for queer issues as well," Ashour said.
Ignorance is the biggest problem
Despite the problems, threats, and slow progress, Ashour remains optimistic for future change.
"I think the main [problem] that we have in Iraq is ignorance," he said.
"[Iraqis] are not really homophobic. They’re just expected to express homophobic opinions, because if you don’t, then you’re associated with that community."
Among young people, things appear to be changing however.
"I already see change. I see my peers and colleagues or classmates or people I’ve been friends with or just had some kind of relationship with growing up, some of them have been very rejecting, but actually, most of them have been very accepting," Ashour explained, saying he is "hopeful" the conversation will move forward.
"I think the young generation in Iraq is progressive. I do see more conversation happening in a more positive way, compared to when I started working with these issues seven years ago," he added.
As for the goal his organization is working towards, Ashour explained that LGBTQ+ individuals within Iraq just want to feel safe and be able to live normal lives.
"People just want to be themselves, be accepted, and to be loved and to love someone," he said.
Until that is possible in a safe environment, Ashour, IraQueer, and their allies will continue to raise awareness and fight for change.