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Imagine risking your life to paint a mural. It might sound extreme but these are the lengths brave activists in Iraq are going to in their fight to be heard.

LGBT+ people in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, close to the Iranian border, are picking up their paintbrushes to create anti-discrimination murals that will bring hope to those living in a country with an unforgiving stance towards LGBT+ rights.

OutNews Global spoke exclusively to one equality activist who admits he “might even be killed” for taking part in this project.

Ayaz Shalal Hassan is an internationally-renowned human rights campaigner for Rasan, an LGBT+ rights group in Iraq. Ayaz makes no apology for his outspoken fight for equality and gave express permission for OutNews Global to use his real name in this article.

Activist Ayaz Shalal Hassan knows he’s risking his life in his fight for equality

The group was granted permission from the Kurdish government to paint murals that celebrate diversity and reduce discrimination towards LGBT+ people.

Yet, despite the government’s accord, Ayaz admits that societal attitudes in the country towards LGBT+ people remain hostile, meaning that the work of his team is dangerous and extremely important.

One of the original Rasan murals which have since been vandalised

“Being a part of this project needs a lot of courage.” says Ayaz. “You are going to be on the streets painting LGBT+ murals in Iraq during daytime when everybody can see who you are and what you are doing. Simply, anything and everything might happen.”

Ayaz lives and campaigns in a world where people are expected to conform.

“In Iraq, being different in anything will put you in a position where you will face violence, discrimination, hatred and many other things.

“I am feeling very strong because I know what I am doing is right and the LGBT+ community deserves to be equal to others. Rasan has always been in the lead of positive change in Iraq and will always be.”

Rasan and All Out have joined forces, in order to raise funds for the latest murals, after the group’s original artwork was vandalised.

Proud activists show off a mural carrying a message of equality but it was destroyed by vandals. Now defiant campaigners want to repaint it.

“This project is very important.” Says Ayaz. “We are showing people that they must know that the LGBT+ community exists in Iraq, and their voices must be heard.”

Iraq’s troubling history on LGBT+ rights runs from the country’s inception under British rule following the First World War. The Empire overlords lent the new region a law making ‘sodomy’ a criminal act. The ban was maintained in 1932 when the country gained independence but, perhaps surprisingly to some in the West, the Ba’athist party then dropped the legislation against homosexual sex in the 60’s.

Nonetheless, those few openly LGBT+ people in Iraq faced flagrant discrimination in society at the hands of employers, the justice system and government. Not criminalising people’s sex lives doesn’t necessarily allow freedom.

In 1988, sodomy was re-criminalised in cases of prostitution and attacks on LGBT+ people were common.

Today, it is not against the law to be LGBT+ but police officers can face 15 years in prison for engaging in homosexual acts and murderous vigilante attacks on LGBT+ people are inspired by a fatwa on gay people issued by Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stating that homosexuality and lesbianism are “forbidden” and that they should be “Punished, in fact, killed. The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing”

The media and religious leaders have described any men with gel in their hair and stylish clothes, particularly jeans, as potentially gay and deserving of vicious beatings and possibly even murder. In 2017, model and art student, Karar Nushi was found murdered and brutally tortured for wearing ‘Western’ clothes and having long, blonde hair. It’s not known whether Karar was homosexual, but he was regularly attacked online using homophobic language and his death proves the risk of looking different.

Karar Nushi who was tortured and murdered in 2017

Meanwhile, before those in other parts of the world judge from a pedestal, it’s worth noting that the CIA considered discrediting Saddam Hussein by faking images of the anti-West leader engaging in sexual acts with a teenage boy.

So-called ‘Honor killings’ by the families of gay people are reportedly not uncommon and Rasan knows its members are risking their lives by speaking out.

“We are making paintings on walls to ask people to think about LGBT+ issues and do research to understand it.” Ayaz explains, arguing that his team’s project is not simply a mural, it’s a “mind-set changing process” for those living in Iraq. He also believes the murals will benefit the Rasan group in the long run.

“It is a project that will open the door so we can make our other projects bigger and more effective.”

In addition to the murals, Rasan also help drive a shift within Iraq’s society. “We make movies so we can reach out to everyone and teach them and invite them to be our allies.” says Ayaz.

Ayaz Shalal Hassan wants to repaint vandalised murals

The group’s efforts are perhaps needed now more than ever. Currently LGBT+ people living in Iraq have no protection from any form of discrimination.

“In Iraq, being different in anything will put you in a position where you will face violence, discrimination, hatred and many other things.” Ayaz explains. “It is dangerous to be LGBT+ in Iraq if you do not know the rules of the society and understand the context very well. You might even be killed.”

Yuri Guaiana, Senior Campaigns Manager at All Out, explains his organisation’s role in Rasan’s latest project: “They tried before, but the murals were destroyed. They have permission from the Kurdish government in Iraq to paint the public murals in more secure locations – they just need the funds. All Out is crowd-funding from our members to do just that.”

All Out continue to collect donations from people across the world, in the hope that Iraq’s LGBT+ activists will once again be able to express messages of acceptance and unity through the medium of art.

You can donate and help Ayaz and the Rasan team here.

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Hadley Stewart

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