Lebanon can be seen as a microcosm for the entire Middle East: intractable sectarian conflict, economic potential, terrorist threats and a labyrinthine web of competing national interests. These days, it seems, the small nation of just over six million inhabitants risks again becoming the live theater for the region to play out its many rivalries with the next proxy war.
The surprise resignation one week ago of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has indeed had repercussions well beyond Beirut, not least because it was announced from the Saudi capital. A Sunni Muslim with dual Lebanese-Saudi nationality, Hariri had been leading a national unity government that included the Shia party/military organization/terror group Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia's archrival. In his strongly-worded resignation speech, Hariri — whose father, former Prime Minister Rafik, was assassinated in 2005 allegedly by Hezbollah — said he feared for his own life, and attacked both the organization and Tehran, saying that "Iran's arms in the region will be cut off."
The move quickly fueled speculation that Hariri had been at least pressured, if not detained, by Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom's broader strategy against Iran. Hariri's televised interview Sunday, in which he said he would "soon" return to Lebanon to formally hand in his resignation that President Michel Aoun has so far refused, will have done little to contradict this perception, as The New York Times noted.
Saudi Arabia is trying to "move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon."
French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin of the investigative website Mediapart offers further suspicions of foul play by Riyadh. The journalist noted the virtually simultaneous news of Hariri's resignation and the wave of highly-politicized arrests led by Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Perrin reports that Hariri and his construction company Saudi Oger (which closed in July) allegedly played an important role in laundering money for Mohammed bin Salman's rivals, many of whom were arrested in what critics have described as a purge. Seen from this angle, a trapped Hariri provides the Crown Prince with the stone that could kill two birds: reinforce his hand domestically and increase the pressure on Iran.
Beyond that, these moves might also serve to show, as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote in Haaretz, that Saudi Arabia is trying to "move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon," with Iran's ally Bashar al-Assad "clearly having survived the challenge posed by Saudi-backed rebels." And some observers are worried that by shifting the focus to Lebanon, Riyadh is trying to draw Israel into the conflict and get it to "do its dirty work."
Writing for Hebrew-language website Walla, Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff plays down the risk of an escalation because of Hariri, but he observes nonetheless that "it's been a very long time since the Sunni-Shia split was this sharp and clear. The removal of the Islamic State from the scene also removes the common interest of the Iranians and the Saudis, leaving an unbridgeable gap. This is a basic religious gap, a conflict more than 1,400 years old, which has reemerged."
In Beirut meanwhile, La Stampa"s Giordano Stabile reports that most people believe the theory of Hariri as "a prisoner of Riyadh" and that the fear of yet another war is on everybody's minds. In his editorial for the Lebanese French-speaking newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour, Elie Fayad urges the country to "get out of the mess it finds itself in. ... Because if Saudi Arabia has shot itself in the foot, as some seem to believe, Lebanon should avoid aiming at its own brains."
One can only hope. But sadly, for both the people of Lebanon and the entire Middle East, it again looks like the gun is in the hands of others.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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