Yes, There Is a Word for “Gay” in Arabic
15 August 2012 § 3 Comments
Washington-based foreign policy writer Steve Clemons published an article today on the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices channel called “Arab Words for ‘Gay’ Need to Be Better Than ‘Pervert or ‘Deviant’”. The issue of Arabic language terms for sexual identity is an emphatically important one, especially because the prevalence of derogatory words for queer Arabs directly reflects their marginalization in their own societies and cultures. However, the article itself is problematic for a number of reasons.
Before I get into that, some background on the Arabic language terms is in order. Two of the most common words to describe queer people in Arabic is shādh ّشاذ and lūṭi لوطي. The first word means “deviant” or “pervert” while the second means “of Lot,” i.e. the Biblical/Qur’anic character whose people tried to rape two male angels. It is roughly equivalent to the word “sodomite” in English. These words are so prevalent, it even caused Google a PR headache when its translation service assumed that these were the correct Arabic terms.
However, contrary to Clemons’s suggestion that a new, “better” word is needed, one already exists. That word is mithli. Mithli is the abbreviated, colloquial form of a longer, academic compound word mithliyyu l-jins, which is a direct translation of the word “homosexual.” Arab gay organizations exclusively use mithli and its variations to refer to their identity. For example, there is a Moroccan queer magazine called Mithly; Helem, the name of a Lebanese LGBT rights organization, is an acronym whose “m” stands for mithliyyīn “gay people”; the Palestinian queer organization Al Qaws describes itself as working for the Palestinian queer community (l-mujtamaˤ l-mithliyy l-filastīniyy). Incidentally mithli also happens to mean “same as me,” and word play using the Arabic saying mithli mithlak, which means “I am just like you,” is not uncommon.
Clemons readily admits to not knowing Arabic in the first sentence of his article, which probably explains why he refers to “Arab words” rather than “Arabic words.” To help him out, he turned to two native Arabic-speakers to explain the terminology to him. One of them claimed that there is no accurate Arabic word for “homosexual” and gave him an incorrect translation of mithli, saying it only meant “same as me.” The other provided the correct translation, but claimed that it was the literal equivalent of the English word “homo,” which is a slur — something mithli is absolutely not. This incorrect information coupled with his lack of expertise on the issue apparently led Clemons to the conclusion that there is a deficiency in the Arabic language regarding terms for sexual identity, which then led him to misdiagnose the problem and, by extension, the solution.
The prevalence of derogatory words is not the cause of the problem but merely a symptom. The real problem is the lack of acceptance of LGBTQ people in Arab societies, where they are assumed to be sinners outside the bounds of what is normal. These attitudes will be rectified not by merely introducing a new word but rather by addressing the patriarchal and sexist beliefs that inform and reinforce them. And that is unfortunately much harder work.