United in Love: LGBTQ+ Resisting Oppression in the Arab World

Renee Skaf

July 1, 2020, 5:51 a.m.

As June 2020, also known as Pride Month in many countries, comes to an end, the accomplishments over the years made by LGBTQ+ movements around the world are openly celebrated. However, the fight for equality and respect within societies is not over. Societal and governmental LGBT-phobia still infiltrates many areas of the world, with the Arab world being a prominent example of such disdainful systems. Even though LGBTQ+ organizations and informal entities existed throughout most of the region by 2017 with some gaps in the Persian Gulf states, and given the vast number of queer Arab activists, Arabic-speaking MENA governments continue to erase and oppress LGBTQ+ culture.  

In all MENA region countries, deviating from socially constructed sexual orientation norms is either criminalized, threatened by death, or looked down upon by society. Any member of the LGBTQ+ community in Arabic-speaking countries specifically faces inevitable social or legal stigma at one point or another. It is quite common for young Arab LGBTQ+ members to seek refuge, or to seriously consider an escape to a more liberal country, away from home, where they can express themselves freely without having to ordain to societal expectations and discrimination. Their desire for an escape is mainly due to the fact that in most parts of the region, conservative religious-political fundamentalism has created a hostile heteronormative environment that prohibits any gender and sexual non-conformist to display their own identity publicly.  

As conservative religion shapes most laws and social norms, Arab countries are anything but a haven for the LGBTQ+ community. Although a few countries within the area are more accepting than others in terms of legislation, like Lebanon and Jordan, family and community pressures are a nightmare for personal acceptance, community building, and sustainability for LGBTQ+ movements.  

A 2018 Human Rights Watch report published under the title ‘Audacity in Diversity: LGBT Activism in the Middle East and North Africa’ identifies the severe, pervading human rights violations that affect LGBTQ+ members in most of the Arab region. Abuse ranges from extrajudicial punishment and execution to mass arrests, suppression of pro-LGBTQ+ speech, and most appalling, haunting cyber bullying and verbal harassment. In addition, legal limitations on freedom of association also hinder the work of LGBTQ+ groups. According to the ILGA World (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association) report, regulations imposed on non-governmental organizations in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates make it nearly impossible for organizations adapting matters of sexual orientation and gender identity to be legally registered.  

As a result of the numerous looming pressures that still exist in modern times, the current debate must shift a considerable portion of its narrative from demanding LGBTQ+ people's rights to questioning why state-sponsored repression and justified social stigma towards the LGBTQ+ community are still allowed.  

Sadly, however, the Arab world is far from shifting the narrative. Two weeks ago, on Sunday June 14th, 2020, Sara Hegazi, an Egyptian queer activist, took her own life in her home in Canada, where she had been living in asylum since 2018. Sara was arrested along with others in 2017 at a Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo for waving the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag amongst the joyful crowd. The Egyptian security forces charged her with "promoting sexual deviancy and debauchery." After spending three months in prison, being tormented for her queer activism and leftist political views, Hegazi fled to Canada in hopes of escaping the Arab world's cruelty. Heartbreakingly, she was unable to escape the haunting memory of her torment nor the homophobic cyber-hatred that targeted her life decisions and mission. As a final insult, Sara's Arabic Wikipedia page was deleted based on an alleged lack of notability. This is another all too apparent attempt to erase and oppress queer voices and their existence in the Arab world.  

Despite what other hateful voices have said, Sara was never alone in the fight. Hamed Sinno, Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer and queer activist, in a commentary on his Instagram page about Sara’s painful suicide wrote: “To my young LGBTQ+ following, you are God’s creation, as much as anyone else is. You are perfect. You are beautiful. You are loved. You deserve better”. Activists throughout the region regularly risk their lives fighting a system that endorses  criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct and gender expression,  arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, no recognition of transgender people, physical violence, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, family exclusion and social marginalization. Activists from MENA countries have shared their experiences with the world in a Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) collaboration  video campaign titled ‘No Longer Alone’. Throughout the video, they spread much-needed support to other LGBTQ+ members in the Arabic-speaking world who suffer from isolation and fear.   

People must continue to share their journeys, nurture alliances, network around the region, develop movements, and refine ways to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Believe it or not, despite all the adversities and heartbreaking losses facing LGBTQ+ members and activists alike, resistance is stronger than ever. In the Arab world, it has only just begun.   

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