To whom it may concern,
We are a group of queer individuals and initiatives who are writing to explain our concerns regarding the current social-political environment we are facing in Jordan.
Since the end of 2022, there has been an alarming increase in attacks on queer spaces, initiatives, social media pages, applications, and individuals in Jordan. While some have linked this to the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ activities and discourses that emerged around the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this is part of a much longer campaign against queer (but also some critical and feminist) movements in the country. Taking place between online and in-person spaces, these attacks seem to be part of a coordinated effort by governmental entities, media organizations, and conservative politicians, leaders, and individuals acting via social media and in everyday interactions.
The present crackdown seems to be targeting queer activists, artists, writers, and platforms, and it seems to be rooted in tactics of intimidation rather than threats to physical safety. However, we believe that the longer-term goals of these campaigns are to further restrict civic spaces, implement laws against queer individuals and activities writ large, and increase interference of the state in private, public, and digital spaces. Additionally, we fear that these attacks will further solidify the place of “public moralities” of non-conforming behaviors, practices, or ideologies as a talking point in Jordanian politics and society, which could have ripple effects to empower vigilante-style policing of public space and bodies, particularly female and queer ones.
2023 saw several media storms around queer individuals and activities, as well as the quiet closing of queer platforms and initiatives. Below, we outline just some of the most recent events, listing them in reverse chronological order to highlight the urgent situation we are now facing.
While we are addressing mostly queer movements in this statement, we also want to highlight that anti-queer government, media, and individual efforts often depict queer, feminist, and critical groups and platforms under a similar rubric of foreign-ness and as threatening public morality and Islam. They also target these movements through similar tactics to intimidate, generate fear, and force these movements to close.
July 27, 2023: House of Representatives Passes Amendments to Cybercrime Law
On July 16, 2023, a long-anticipated amendment to the 2015 cybercrime law was put before Parliament, which would add to an already restricted internet freedom in Jordan. The amendments were introduced to the public and discussed in Parliament on July 16th and were voted through in Parliament on July 27th. These amendments – which were comprehensive but use vague language that is easy to manipulate – target all of civic space and punish those in violation with massive fines and prison time.
Each article of the amendment is concerning, though we highlight only three below. Article 13 punishes all involved in the production, distribution, or consumption of activities or content considered pornographic, which is vague and undefined, punishing them with 6+ months of imprisonment or 3,000-6,000 JD in fines (4,250-8,500 USD); this could put anyone who is producing content around queer or feminist issues at risk. Article 14 can be used to target homosexuality more directly, criminalizing websites or online account holders that produce content that “promotes prostitution,” seduces another person, or hurts public morals and punishing them with 6+ months in jail and with 9,000-15,000 JD (12,700-21,000 USD) in fines. Penalties increase if individuals who are under 18 years old and/or who are disabled engage with the site or account, with fines on the platform or account reaching up to 45,000 JD (63,500 USD). And, under Article 12, which bans any tool used to manipulate one’s IP address, which would criminalize anyone who tried to access queer content through VPN, which is necessary to access the increasing number of queer and/or alternative political sites which are blocked in the country. Punishment is 6+ months of prison time or a fine of 2,500-25,000 JD (3,500-35,000 USD).
These laws also damage the possibility of activism or engagement with queer issues by criminalizing crowdfunding (an important funding tool for many) and by threatening the platforms that many use to build their communities and circles (ie. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook). It would force platforms with more than 100k users in Jordan (ie. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to have an office in the country and comply with requests to remove content or hand over data, or else face blocking or choking access to the site. Finally, these amendments can be used to prosecute cases retroactively, meaning they can be used to prosecute complaints that were filed in previous years.
While these laws are not yet in effect – they also need to be passed by the Senate and be signed by the King – it is a major step toward the targeting of civic space, digital and physical. In July 27th discussions of the amendments, members of the lower house of parliament made explicit the need to target queer content and online activities and that these laws effectively do that.
July 12, 2023: #Fitra
Queer and feminist social media accounts and pages became targets of media and individual politicians’ ire when they came together to show solidarity with those targeted by the unfolding crackdown on queer spaces and individuals, expose the politicians behind it, and generate pressure to confront this crackdown. On Wednesday, July 12, this culminated in the Islamic Action Front releasing a statement that condemned what it considers the “demonizing incitement” of queer groups against the member of its executive office and ex-PM, Dima Tahboub, explaining that she is doing her legal and national duty to defend Jordanian values and Islamic identity against abnormality, and calling on authorities to prosecute those behind these campaigns to punish them legally and socially.
Affirming her victimhood of a demonizing campaign, the ex-PM received public support which led her to reignite the #فطرة (i.e. natural instincts) campaign. This campaign, which was used regionally in 2022 to crack down on queer people and movements, calls for the criminalization of homosexuality in the name of morality and the “natural” (ie. heteronormative) family order. In the week following the launch of this campaign that calls for the criminalization of homosexuality, more than 12 individuals reached out to us to report they’d faced physical violence from families and on the street.
June 19, 2023: Closing of Queer Screening
Media controversy unfolded on June 19 when the office of Amman’s Governor, Yaser al-Adwan, closed down a private initiative’s screening of a queer film at a local cafe and cultural space. After the governor acted swiftly once information about the private event went public, first shared on Twitter by Khaled Juhaini, the Director of the Office of Parliamentary Reform, and then Husna.FM. Shortly after the governor reached his decision to prevent the event, media sites and public figures escalated the issue to a national level by sharing their “gratitude” over this collaboration between government and concerned individuals: Dima Tahboub thanked Governor Adwan directly for protecting the public, and Khaled El Juhaini, thanked Tahboub and parliamentarian, Yanal Fraihat, for their communication with officials to prevent this “illegal activity,” both reposting the Husna.FM post.
Media and individuals’ attention was also directed toward a queer writer who was linked to the event. Twitter posts and mainstream media targeted him, accusing him of promoting homosexuality, circulating a photograph of him, and pointing to his immigrant status. This homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric attempted to depict him as an ultimate threat to Jordan’s public space. Further, it ignited a crusade taking place in the comments section, which called on the government to deport, punish, arrest, or burn him.
June 16, 2023: Attack on a Feminist Social Media Platform
We have come to expect attacks on queer and feminist initiatives during June, as a response to international discourses on LGBT rights that coincide with Pride Month. These started with the targeting of a well-respected human rights lawyer who was to give training on the principles of feminism; she was attached to “Islamist” discourses before the event took place, which they linked to homosexuality to damage her reputation publicly, and presented as an infidel. This led not only to a smear campaign and calls for violence.
On June 16, shortly after this attack, a feminist social media platform became the target of another wave of hate. A fake social media page was produced shortly before the incident and published a manipulated image of a political cartoon that was initially published in September 2022 in solidarity with the Women Life Freedom movement in Iran. The original depicted a woman pulling a Shi’a imam off her back, whereas the new cartoon was edited to look like it called for the removal of the hijab. Dima Tahboob published this fabricated screenshot on her Twitter, falsely attributing it to the original page despite comments that negated the image’s legitimacy and attribution, calling on authorities to find and arrest whoever was behind the platform, also inciting her followers and local media.
(Note: The fake social media page was active for less than a week before it was deleted.)
While these attacks were on feminist rather than queer organizations, they are significant because they demonstrate the way that authorities use queerness to demonize feminism. And, primed the media and public for events yet to come.
These events are not isolated instances but are just another iteration of a longer history of anti-queer and anti-feminist politics, which have come to characterize modern political practice in post-colonial states from the 1990s. They are part of a coordinated and prolonged campaign, characterized by ongoing heterosexist media. The campaign peaked when it banned Mashrou’ Leila in 2016 and again in 2017, with the quiet blocking of My Kali in 2016 and later publicity around the issue in 2017. Another escalation came prior to the World Cup in Summer 2021, which prompted a “rainbow scare” that presumed rainbows as a symbol of solely LGBTQ+ exclusivity and reignited latent concerns regarding queerness in Jordan. Understanding these recent events in light of an escalating campaign reveals the patterned nature of such attacks and how these may intersect with other political-economic factors and the development of tactics as new technology becomes available.
Role of the State
In addition to its role in these very public cases and the pending amendments to the cybercrime laws that would further restrict civic and digital space, governmental and intelligence forces have also interfered in initiatives and targeted individuals allegedly linked to queer activities or ideologies. Five different initiatives were affected from October 2022 to June 2023, and have collectively faced interrogations by intelligence and the governor, the freezing of bank accounts, requests to turn over private records, administrative detention, persecution of individual activists, forced termination of operations, continuous intimidation, and targeted surveillance. In addition, the government has acted to block alternative media sites, and even issued arrest warrants used to raid parties and take individuals who they decided “looked gay.”
The evidence in these cases has been sparse, if not absent. At times, these cases were legitimized with laws related to money laundering or the Society’s Law (for organizations and non-profits), and at others, there was no legal rationale at all beyond being under the vague umbrella of “Crime Prevention Law,” which permits the governor to detain anyone they believe is about to commit a crime or is “a danger to the people.” Administrative detention is commonly used to “circumvent the greater rights that Jordan’s ordinary law of Criminal Procedure gives those arrested, an obligation that law places on the arresting authority,” and harms principles of due process.
In their 2023 report, Human Rights Watch asserted that state actors often use these procedures to “[undermine] LGBT people’s right to privacy with digital targeting,” through entrapment, online harassment, and extortion, threatening to out them monitoring social media, and relying on “illegitimately obtained digital evidence in prosecution.” They further explain that the state carries out arbitrary arrests and detention “based on digital evidence found on personal devices,” censors online content, and intimidates activists. These above actions are used despite there being no explicit law against same-sex acts.
Queer individuals, initiatives, and organizers who have faced such governmental attacks are often hesitant to speak publicly or privately about such matters, perhaps for fear of what would happen if they did. This fear is not unfounded: even if individuals and organizations that faced such attacks were to push back, they are often left absent of legal support because few, if any, are willing to take on these cases to support these cases beyond an advisory role for fear of retribution or being blacklisted.
Role of the Media Industry
Media organizations play a key role in supporting, legitimizing, and inciting such violations in the public and private spheres through discussions of social-religious spheres and politics. This trend has increased since December 2022, when Roya News – which purports to provide “independent and objective coverage” of Jordan and beyond – published a 45-minute segment in which Mohamed Al-Khalidi hosted three “experts” to discuss the perversion of homosexuals following the 2022 World Cup and the way that the West had criticized Qatar for protecting its tradition. Speakers fed anti-queer and hetero-sexist discourses of the issue through the discussion was full of contradictions: at one point, they would criticize the West for imposing their ideologies about sexuality on Islam and Jordanian traditions, and at another, they would praise the British for being so advanced to criminalize homosexuality when they colonized the region. Despite this skewed logic, this segment demonstrates the power of media both to promote such discourses through “expert testimony” and to obscure the reality of the issue itself and its evidence.
Roya’s homophobic coverage has continued steadily, particularly in its Arabic-language content. The network reported on the governor’s cancellation of the film screening after the news was leaked by Husna.FM, which elevated the story to a mass scale, and then published a political cartoon by Latif Lityani that depicts the rainbow flag in the trash with the text, “Jordan bans a homosexuality promoting event.” A coterie of other Jordanian media platforms also published on the issue, almost copy-pasting what the previous had said.
Roya, June 21, 2023
Commentary produced during the above discussions on society and “current events” are supported by coverage of legal amendments and legislation that could further “protect” Jordanian society, Islam, and civic space. On July 2, 2023, Al Taj News reported that it had a series of investigative journalists working through fake accounts who were surveilling an app that “thousands of gays in the country hide behind,” a severe privacy violation, and later that the government is aiming to block an app “that promotes homosexuality.” On a July 5th broadcast of Sowt Al-Mamlika discussing upcoming amendments to the “Society’s Law,” the host took a harsh stand on NGO funding and particularly those that aim to support programming around women’s rights and LGBTQ+ groups.
Whether these discussions are about anticipated state legislation or the present and future conditions of society, this kind of media coverage authorizes and fuels anti-queer and anti-feminist discourses, bolsters the ideologies that undergird them, establishes and feeds an unfounded fear of “perverts” and homosexuals, and provides a playbook that individuals might mobilize in their own endeavors to “protect” public morality. Furthermore, it scapegoats queer individuals as a way to distract from the very real social, political, and economic strife that many Jordanians are facing. One could imagine people making accounts to bait or blackmail individuals they believe to be queer.
Role of Individual Instigators and their Followers
Individuals and political interests are a central driving force behind these coordinated structural and institutional attacks. Most notable among them is an ex-MP and media spokesperson, Dima Tahboub who is often the first to condemn queer activists and activities. It’s important to remember that while she is perhaps the most visible, she is not acting alone: this work is also supported by the party, other politicians, and other individuals with significant followings and visibility. For example, Eyad Qunaibi, a popular voice on YouTube, has had a major impact through his videos commenting on queer and feminist activities and critiquing the government for not sufficiently punishing the organizers further. Such coverage fans the flames of whatever case is up for public scrutiny.
In addition to the public figures who condemn those who are aligned with queer and/or feminist politics, the shares, comments, and replies on such posts further propel these discourses. Each time these figures post on their Twitter – providing names or cases with some thin explanation – they encourage their followers to take up the call to demonize, harass, and even incite violence explicitly or with their ardent language. And, as is the case with the current social media ecosystem globally, this army of followers is ready to take matters into their own hands and go after each post or account that pushes back against these incitements, further solidifying a support base like Tahboub’s.
Individual attacks have also taken more material and everyday forms. One form is through recent phishing scams that involved pop-up messages on websites that “promote sexual abuse of children, violence, and homosexuality,” bearing the logo of the Jordanian Public Security Directorate. These messages state that users are banned from entering the site and threaten that they must pay a fine electronically or face arrest.
Another form is venues denying entry for “looking gay” or “dressing flamboyantly,” citing “a new set of rules enforced by authorities on any ‘flagrant appearances’” or which are “in direct offense to the country’s ‘traditions and values’” and which could put “the place and the organizers in jeopardy of permanently closing and further consequences we cannot disclose.” An organic grocery in Amman, Rawabi Farah, even posted explicit signs that forbid the entrance of “pigs, homosexuals, and Swedes” because it is a “pure” place. This message was endorsed with a video by parliamentarian Yanal Fraihat, in which he explains that this is a symbolic gesture against Sweden that puts them in line with the pigs and gays, whose forbidden status is taken for granted.
Rawabi Farah, Dabouq, Amman, June 2023
These add to ongoing issues of being denied medical treatment; being harassed and/or stalked by police; and feeling and experiencing unsafety along multiple axes (financial, physical, psychological). While these forms of discrimination are not new, and while pressures related to one’s identity performance are felt differently by people of different social strata, there is a growing sense of fear and uncertainty over what will come next, further distrust of communities, and subsequently further alienation.
Connections and Conclusions
Again, these anti-queer and anti-feminist attacks on initiatives and individuals are just a new chapter in a longer story of the closing of civic space, which is being restricted at an ever-quickening rate. As these attacks and publicity around them worsen and become more frequent, without any legal recourse, so too does the violence that individuals face in their everyday lives and the threat of legislation that would effectively criminalize homosexuality and make illegal many of the tools that activists have developed to stay safe.
These attacks place Jordan in line with a regional crackdown on queer initiatives, public figures, and civic space. We have seen this with proposed legislation criminalization homosexuality in Iraq and the anti-gay propaganda of militia and political parties in Lebanon; with increased digital targeting of queer individuals in Egypt; with the politics of the rainbow and rainbow flag in Syria, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, and Iraq; and much more. In all of these contexts, government-like bodies, media, and self-interested individuals are aggressively trying to maintain the status quo by sacrificing the freedom and safety of its population; it’s a response to the homonationalist politics of the West.
We are calling for action from several parties:
- To the Jordanian State: Stop your project of closing civic space through legislation and sanctioned violence, adhere to the constitution and international agreements that you have signed on all levels of the government, and hold individuals and media accountable for inciting violence and content, particularly those in political office.
- To International Organizations and Bodies: Stop funding and supporting the individuals who have been proud leaders in the violation of queer civic space, instigating of violence, and limiting of Civil Freedom and Safety – including Dima Tahboub, Yanal Fraihat, and Khaled al-Juhaini – as they are threatening local, regional, and international peace and security. And, adhere to the human rights codes that you abide by.
- To Digital Rights Activists: Continue pressuring social media platforms to review their community guidelines and the procedures for reviewing reported posts and accounts. Social media is the major platform where these individuals and media organizations gain their following and find impact, and they remain posted and active despite significant attempts to call them out for inciting violence, hate speech, and other relevant claims.
- To Local and Regional Organizations and Media: Stand in solidarity with us so we might work against these forces together, whether that be behind the scenes or visibly. This is an ongoing and compounding issue, and as such, we need sustained support and coverage.
- To Queer Community and Supporters: We are aware that many have encouraged us to hide and wait for this wave to pass. But, we have continued to work and advocate in this way for years, and attacks are only getting stronger and more systematic. We are trying something new, in whatever capacity we are able in our respective contexts, and encourage you to think about the collective risks we face and collective actions that may move us forward.