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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 ecclesiastical—church—law.

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 labor.

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.

Colonial ‘law’

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 independence.

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 wounded.

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 country.

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 legal chaos.

As far as the British were concerned, the English version was definitive and binding.

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 sexualities.

‘Sodomy’: a colonial concept

The British imported the concept of “sodomy” in order to outlaw it.

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’ (shudhūdh jinsī).”

Next: Independence brought greater social freedoms; imperialism rolled them back.

For more on Iraq, read Part 119 at www.workers.org, where the full Lavender & Red web-book-in-progress is posted.

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org