How Brave LGBTQ Arab Activists Are Challenging Stigma in Their Everyday Lives
A new campaign seeks to portray queer Arabs as activists rather than victims.
At a concert in Cairo in September, fans of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila waved a rainbow flag. It was a simple but bold statement in direct defiance of an Egyptian government that describes homosexuality and gender nonconformity as “sexual deviancy” that “goes against nature.”
In the weeks that followed the incident, the Egyptian government arrested dozens of concert-goers, citing a “debauchery” law from the early 2000s. Officials under the direction of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who appears to have embraced persecution of gay and transgender people as a political strategy, subjected detainees to forced anal inspections and imposed a media blackout on pro-LGBTQ speech.
The incident at the Cairo concert received widespread attention from international media, and raised awareness in other parts of the world about the Arab LGBTQ community’s constant struggle against oppression. But it was only one of countless daily acts of quiet defiance from LGBTQ people across the Arab world.
In an attempt to highlight such activism and inject momentum into a movement for acceptance and equality, Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality released a report and launched a series of videos this week as part of a project titled “Audacity in Adversity: LGBT Activism in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The project, which details the fight for sexual orientation and gender identity rights in 19 Arab countries, seeks, in part, to inspire young LGBTQ people and connect activists across the region.
“This report does not seek to gloss over the severe, pervasive human rights violations that affect LGBT people in most of the Middle East and North Africa. Human Rights Watch has documented many such violations, ranging from extrajudicial killings to mass arrests to censorship of pro-LGBT speech, and will continue to do so,” the report read.
“Rather, the report aims to capture the complexity of a movement that is opening doors for LGBT people in the region, even as some governments seek to slam those doors in their faces. In solidarity with LGBT activists in the region, it seeks to examine all that is possible beyond victimhood.”
The first video in the series, titled “No Longer Alone,” which can be viewed above, includes some influential figures from the Arab world, including Omar Shariff, an Egyptian actor, and Hamed Sinno, front man for Mashrou’ Leila, the band playing during the rainbow flag incident in Cairo.
“I felt like a freak of nature ― that there was something completely wrong with my existence, even,” Sinno, who identifies as queer in the video, said in Arabic. “People would make fun of me, hit me. I used to feel very alone.”
After Sinno came out, he realized that there was nothing wrong with him. “It’s the people around me who were wrong,” he said.
Sinno, whose band has been banned from performing in Jordan, is well-renowned as one of the only openly queer rock stars in the Arabic-speaking world. He’s an outspoken opponent of patriarchy, and Mashrou’ Leila’s songs address issues such as the importance of nightlife for the queer community and the inherently gendered nature of the Arabic language.
The video also features the testimony of a number of other LGBTQ people from Arab countries, including some who chose to keep their identities hidden.
Many interviewees told stories of ignorance and oppression.
“Most people don’t even know what ‘gay’ means,” said Yousif from Bahrain. “They say ‘sodomite’ or ‘abnormal,’ and your job is to explain.”
But not all stories were unhappy ones. Some interviewees recalled the moment when they found their community, while others told stories of love and acceptance.
“I found this [Facebook] group that had many Sudanese [lesbian] girls,” said Noor from Sudan. “I wrote, ‘Where are you people?’ I realized I was not alone in the world, and there are many people like me, and I was very happy.”
“My father was against me in every way,” said Dalia from Egypt. “But he transformed from hateful to accepting and tolerant. He loved me as his daughter and accepted me unconditionally.”
Overall the report seeks to shift the portrayal of the LGBTQ community in the Arab world from an emphasis on victimhood to an emphasis on solidarity, self-expression, and activism.
“We don’t want the image anymore of just being victims, Zoheir Djazeiri, an Algerian activist, told Human Rights Watch. “We want to speak about reality, speak about violence, but also to [show what is] positive.”
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