British colonialism outlawed 'sodomy' in Iraq
Lavender & red, part 120
Published Feb 1, 2008 11:17 PM
British colonialism outlawed “sodomy” in Iraq after World War I.
The edict was part of an entire body of colonial law created by British
overlords more than half a century earlier, which the English called “The
Indian Penal Code.” The code was not indigenous to India. It was the
legal system that the British colonial rulers forced on India in 1860.
Article 377 of that colonial code made “carnal intercourse against the
order of nature” a crime punishable by up to 20 years of deportation or
up to 10 years imprisonment.
The term “sodomy” originates in the Bible: “Sodom and
Gomorrah.” British Common Law derived from
In 1533, as England’s church split with Rome, King Henry VIII had made
“buggery”—synonymous with “sodomy”—a
capital offense punishable by hanging. A British colonial law in Ireland in
1634 also called for the death sentence. Later, the 1885 British
Labouchère Amendment reduced the sentence to imprisonment with hard
As the British colonial empire expanded, its overlords imposed and enforced
Article 377 and similarly worded edicts against “sodomy” in
Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar,
Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang
and Malacca, Hong Kong, Fiji, the Malay Peninsula and Burma, Sri Lanka, the
Seychelles and Papua New Guinea, “British” Honduras (today Belize),
Jamaica, Anguilla, the “British” Virgin Islands, the Cayman
Islands, Montserrat, Bahamas, Tobago, Turks and Caicos, and St. Lucia, New
Zealand, Canada, and Australia.
In the Middle East, British colonialism made “The Indian Penal
Code” the law of the land in Aden, Bahrain, Kuwait, Muscat and Oman,
Qatar, Somaliland, the Sudan and what is today the United Arab Emirates.
Any system of law, as Karl Marx explained, cannot break free of its economic
foundation. Colonial Britain imposed its patriarchal capitalist “order of
nature”—theft of labor and natural wealth, brutal state repression,
attempts at cultural genocide, and guarantee of commercial distribution,
private ownership and property rights—on the pre-capitalist, essentially
feudal economic system in Iraq in 1918.
The outlawing of “sodomy” in 1919 was part and parcel of British
structuring of Arab family and kinship, sexuality and society, in order to
exploit the greatest profits from the oil-rich region.
During the first interimperialist world war, from 1914-1918, the British
promised the Arab people that if they fought to defeat the Ottoman Empire, with
its administrative center in Turkey, that England would grant them
World War I was the first international military bloodbath between imperialist
rivals over the division of global capitalist markets and resources. The
massive human toll, military and civilian: 20 million dead and 21 million
Yet even as they sent their armies into battle they were cutting backroom deals
with each other. England, France and Czarist Russia signed the secret
Sykes-Picot Treaty, which divided up the Middle East into colonial
“possessions,” during the middle of the war, in 1916.
After World War I, the Supreme Commander of the British Forces of Occupation in
Iraq drew up the penal code—including the outlaw of
“sodomy”—in 1918 and imposed it on the population of the
capital city on Jan. 1, 1919. Later the British applied it to the whole
The colonial penal code was written and published in English. No Arabic
translation was made for the first two years after it was established as the
rule of law in Iraq.
The British legal code wasn’t translated into Arabic until 1921.
Discrepancies between the English version and the Arabic translation created
As far as the British were concerned, the English version was definitive and
Jehoeda Sofer wrote in the essay in “Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males
in Moslem Societies,” a book co-edited with Arno Schmitt, “In 1956,
this Code was replaced in the British territories of the Persian Gulf by a new
Penal Code. Article 171 made sodomy punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 10
years, with or without corporal punishment.”
First step toward independent law
After decades of vicious imperial rule, an Iraqi military rebellion on July 14,
1958, lit the fuse of an anti-colonial revolution for independence.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed an estimated 20,000 Marines to Lebanon
to block the Iraqi national independence movement from widening in the region
and was prepared to send a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
But the determination of the Iraqi population to oust imperialism and
nationalize the country’s vast oil wealth helped stay imperialism’s
hand. Anti-imperialist solidarity with the Iraqi national democratic revolution
of 1958 from the socialist governments of the USSR and China—and support
from India under Nehru and Indonesia under Sukarno—also sent a strong
message to U.S. finance capital not to intervene militarily.
However, the U.S. and Britain never gave the newly independent Iraq a
moment’s peace to rebuild its society, free from the legacy of
colonialism and imperialism.
In 1969, the independent Iraqi Ministry of Justice issued, in Arabic, the first
Iraqi revised penal code. It was a first step towards creating an independent
national legal system.
Did the 1969 code legalize “homosexuality”? Those who ask reveal
their historically based, economically bound cultural concepts of
‘Sodomy’: a colonial concept
The British imported the concept of “sodomy” in order to outlaw
Khaled El-Rouayheb is the author of “Before Homosexuality in the
Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800,” which was published by the University of
Chicago Press in 2005. He explained, “Homosexuality is usually seen in
the modern West as an innate and abnormal condition of a minority of humans
which reveals itself in a regular desire to have homosexual intercourse, but
also in various other ways. For example, a ‘homosexual’ is widely
assumed to be effeminate, promiscuous and sexually uninterested in members of
the other sex. McIntosh argued that such a homosexual ‘role’ or
stereotype only emerged in England in the late 17th century.”
El-Rouayheb stressed, “The concept of male homosexuality did not exist in
the Arab-Islamic Middle East in the early Ottoman period. There was simply no
native concept that was applicable to all and only those men who were sexually
attracted to members of their own sex, rather than to women.”
He concluded, “[T]he encounter with European Victorian morality was to
have profound effects on local attitudes toward what came to be called
‘sexual inversion’ or ‘sexual perversion’
Next: Independence brought greater social freedoms; imperialism rolled them
For more on Iraq, read Part 119 at www.workers.org, where the full Lavender
& Red web-book-in-progress is posted.
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