Words by: Fatima KriedI
Photographed by: Oumaima Dermoumi
Subject: Juliana Yazbeck
Styled by: Marwa Asserraji
From Shoot: Neither Here Nor There
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
Note: Photography included was not submitted by the author but illustrates content of the article.
I recently stumbled upon a video of Sarah (hegazi) wishing her lawyer a happy birthday that went viral back in June (2020). In it, she confessed that she hadn’t had a lot of strong close friendships. This sentiment struck me because it is not unique; Sarah was one of many queer Arabs who are isolated in a society that consistently tells them that they cannot exist openly. It didn’t matter whether she was in Egypt or in Canada, because in either case, she was isolated from part of herself and from forming a community. On a social impact level, her suicide has resulted both in hate speech towards the Arab LGBTQA+ community and in an outpouring of support and a sense of acknowledgment that the loss was felt globally. Yet politically, nothing has officially improved in Egypt or anywhere else in the world. Rather than looking only at what has and hasn’t changed since her death, we must reflect upon the conditions that she and many Arab queer individuals face in their home countries and “new homes.” Only then we can move toward a brighter future in which they are included fully.
In theory, the East is unified by a collectivist mentality and Arab culture prides itself on taking care of others. But in practice, this does not extend to those marginalized. For those excluded, collectivism is a burden that makes one consider not only their actions, but also how their actions will affect other people. A mindset of shame is born from collectivism, and those who push back against it (whether through holding up a rainbow flag at a concert or discussing topics deemed taboo) are rejected and punished for their transgression. The collectivist mindset is also a reason why many in the Arab world see queerness as an “action” you take rather than an identity factor. The rigidness and categorical unwillingness to improve the treatments of LGBTQIA+ across the SWANA region isn’t hidden away either. Egypt’s outright denial of the existence of queerness when pushed to face their inhumane treatments speaks volumes. Not only are the governmental powers in the region incapable of being accountable for how they treat the queer community, the meer push from allies to fight for equality has also been repeatedly punished across the region. Tensions caused by colonialism and neocolonialism are of course a piece of the puzzle, yet, many of the nations that have colonised the region are now considered “liberal” and pro LGBTQIA+ rights.
On the surface, both sides of the world seem miles apart in their current treatment of queerness. Within Arabic culture, homosexuality is discussed as deviance and something to be mocked or feared. The language of deviance and fear can be used to foster hatred towards others and in the way we perceive ourselves, how language plays a part in our perceptions has been a much heated debate. But when exclusionary words are ingrained into our everyday language, it’s easy to create the impression that “it’s always been this way.” Such language is also dangerous in how it is linked to question morality. If the majority deem queerness immoral, then it is completely understandable (and sadly encouraged) to police it. We see this play out over and over in most countries in the region. While in the West, sexuality is now described and discussed as an identity, which has helped humanise the issue in public discourse and led to dramatic shifts in societal perceptions as well as law. This shift prevents notions of queerness being symptomatic of impulsiveness, sickness, or insanity. And instead become a part of what makes a human being. Unfortunately, this thinking falls short when queerness is tied to a brown or black body.
Although queer Arabs do not have basic human rights in the Arab region, they are “still Arab” and part of society in that way. The marginalization and discrimination they face “at home” might force them to emigrate in the hope of a better future elsewhere, but a fundamental part of them only remains behind once they reach a “liberal” destination.
There seems to be an unbridgable gap in being a queer Arab and being part of a community fully. In Sarah’s case, she was vulnerable and not allowed to love outwardly or without consequence in Egypt. But in Canada, though she would have experienced some acceptance for her sexuality, she had to deal with the trauma of the violence she encountered by the hands of her government as well as the trauma of being exiled from her home.
The marginalization and discrimination queer Arabs face “at home” might force them to emigrate in the hope of a better future elsewhere, but a fundamental part of them only remains behind once they reach a “liberal” destination
Though the West acknowledges queerness as an identity factor rather than “an action,” it fails to acknowledge the intersectionality between sexuality and ethnicity. A white queer lens does not make space for those who do not fit into its boxes. Here, we see queer Arab immigrants as “still Arab” playing out differently; it affects who is deemed includible or not in “the West.” An Arab-Canadian describes his experience saying “There’s no denying that being a POC is already hard in the West, but it becomes even harder when trying to find a sense of community with those like you, only for them to reject you due to your non whiteness.” He continued that individuals who find themselves in a position like Sarah’s battle to achieve a sense of belonging. “It has taken me a long time to accept, but I have never felt accepted within the wider queer community and don’t think I ever will […] Being a queer man of colour already makes it hard enough in society and there’s no denying that white supremacy still reigns in queer Canadian communities.”
The implied connection between queerness and “whiteness” now seems essential to “liberal” political stances in the West. What Queer Arab-Canadians are experiencing in their every day life has trickled down to one domain where this is especially visible: Politics. Voting habits of white queer men across Europe and the US reveal that Islamophobic and racist concerns trump questions of inclusion. Because the individual vote holds so much power in political processes and social participation, actively choosing a candidate that is racist or Islamophobic is an act of political violence that completely erases the fact that Queerness exists and always has outside of whiteness.
Tensions between inclusion and exclusion are also evident in how those in power authorize exclusionary stances, many times having life-threatening consequences. Though we might be tempted to consider politics of inclusion and exclusion as a singular thing, it is much more complicated. For instance, it would be incorrect to conflate Islamophobia and anti-immigrant stances with homophobic ones. In 2017, it was widely reported that Le Pen was winning the gay vote despite her Islamophobic political views; it goes without saying that the Muslim gay community in France were not voting for Le Pen. And during Pride month 2019, Trump spoke to the LGBTQ community saying, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” The us/them undertone in this statement suggests that queer Arabs will not be protected with their fellow “LGBTQ citizens,” and reiterates the exclusionary logic of the Muslim ban that made it more difficult for Arab queers to seek asylum in the US.
Can we be surprised that Sarah was unable to find support on either side of the world? Can we be surprised that news of an Egyptian queer activist commiting suicide in the country where she sought asylum seemed to fall on deaf ears? Sarah Hegazi’s story is perhaps emblematic of the ways that Arab queer communities are failed in their home countries and the countries they sought for help; they are subjected to violence from both sides though both also claim to be inclusive. The terms of “liberal West” and “oppressive East” are so overused in our everyday terminology, yet they no longer hold any real value to the actual reality of both sides.
The world could have chosen to take positive action following the horrible news of Sarah’s passing, but it seems to already be forgotten or pushed aside. The need for connectedness and being part of a community is universal, yet marginalised people are stripped from such a basic right to belong. To really achieve a more accepting future, governments and their people must realize how they are accountable and/or complicit in the mistreatment of Arab and Muslim queer communities on both sides of the world. Without any real acknowledgement of wrongdoing we are putting more lives at risk everyday.