Words by Musa Shadeedi
Translated by Hiba Moustafa
Images by Omar Sha3
I started writing this article months ago, in an effort to document the most prominent public statements made by queer groups in our Arabic-speaking region over the last 10 years that denounce violence, harassment, and corruption in queer and feminist institutions that promote themselves as safe and progressive. I also aimed to contextualize future statements in this regional rebellion and to show how widespread these crimes are.
Fatima Fouad, a queer young woman in Lebanon, published her testimonial accusing Ayah Metwally, an Egyptian singer, and Bashar Suleiman, a Palestinian-Jordanian musician, of drugging and raping her in a concert hosted my Ma3azef. A huge uproar on social media followed with people calling out the alleged assaulters.
Days later, Ma3azef posted a statement placing the blame almost entirely on Ayah and Bashar, stating that they will remove all works produced in collaboration with these artists from their platform, and claiming that they had no prior knowledge of the incident (which directly contradicts Fatima’s statement). In response, a group of Ma3azef’s former staff posted a statement that corroborated Fatima’s testimonial, called for it to become collectively owned, and spoke about further forms of violence that Ma3azef committed against its staff. This included name-calling, insulting, belittling, inflicting psychological stress to the point of tears, salary cuts, lack of financial transparency, and unfair dismissal.
Following these events, Ayah posted a statement from her perspective that declared that she, too, was a rape victim and not Bashar’s accomplice. This further complicated the situation, particularly since Fatima’s latest statement confirmed that Ayah told her that she had been raped by Bashar.
These events reignited broader discussions on issues like the exclusion of queer people and victims of sexual violence from the justice system, ambiguity around exposure and accountability, and debates around cancel culture. It also makes us question how we can structure our organizations in a way that provides real protection and safety for those within our organizations, which many of these statements included in this article aimed to do.
Below, I aim to link past to present to understand how exposure became a necessary tactic to bring accountability.
Queer groups, associations, and organizations started to appear in Arabic-speaking countries in the early 2000s. Many of these were funded, like other parts of civil society, by Western governments and organizations, and adopted a Western style of organization that focuses on essential sexual identities [like “LGBT”]. Many of these organizations aimed to defend the rights of lesbians and gays and to protect them against violence in Arabic-speaking societies.
Helem, ( حلم/ “dream”, is also an acronym that stands for حماية لبنانية مثلية/“Lebanese protection for the LGBT community”), was founded in 2001 as one of the first (of three) of these organizations in the region. In 2012, an anonymous woman published the first public queer testimonial about harassment and violence in Helem online, at a time when our countries were breathing the air of revolution across several cities.
In her article, “Helem and Sexual Harassment,” she wrote about experiencing sexual harassment at the hand of one of Helem’s leaders, and about witnessing men’s collective bullying of women in the organization, using words like “ugly,” “angry lesbian,” “smelly,” or “abnormal.” “One [of the] Helem members sexually harassed me repeatedly, ignoring my constant objections to his unwelcome touches every time.” In another article published on the same blog titled “Where Do We Stand?,” she wrote, “I was given male names and many other infractions without a thought to what I desired or if I consented to these practices. I didn’t give my consent and I made it very clear that I didn’t. They didn’t stop, at first, but continued until my objections were a loud repeated scream. But that was not the worst offense; the transgression on my body, that happened repeatedly, without my consent, was the worst – the breast grab.”
Helem’s men staff and leaders justified grabbing coworkers’ breasts by saying that they were gay and not attracted to women. Addressing this, she stated “But who said that a lack of sexual desire towards my body would make it public property?? This idea in particular, that women’s bodies are public and revolve around men’s sexuality and desire, forms the basis of the patriarchal system that discriminates against me, as a woman, and makes me pay very dearly for my non-normative personal choices.”
Ghassan Makarem, a member of Helem’s board of directors until stepping down in 2012, posted an article titled, “The Good Queer: Masculine Privileges as an Alternative to Liberation,” in which he wrote about systematically silencing criticism. This included “bullying and verbal harassment” over Helem’s mailing list and silencing women who complained about being discriminated against in the organization by accusing them of having “personality disorders.” He also recounted that Helem’s director had sent an email to the woman who filed a complaint in which he called her names in front of other members. The director had done something similar with one of Helem’s first female members “because of her Palestinian nationality.” He went as far as “sexual intimidation.”
Helem had represented a central node for organizations concerned with sexuality and sexual health in Lebanon. Following the accumulation of these accusations, many of those who were accused of harassment or violence left to establish their own sanctuaries and independent organizations in an attempt to restore their image. These organizations served as a sort of safe haven for Helem’s leaders who were involved in these crimes.
Soon enough, this model of non-government organizations and associations spread through other Arabic-speaking societies, and, with it, the same crimes occurred.
In 2018, the Tunisian Alliance for LGBT Rights released a statement signed by three Tunisian LGBTQ organizations – Mawjoudin ( موجودين/”we exist”), Damj ( دمج/”integration”), and Chouf ( شوف, which literally mean “see”) – announcing their boycott of the Tunisian LGBTQ organization, Shams (شمس / “sun”). In particular, they were boycotting its CEO, Mounir Baatour, for exposing the sexual orientation of some homosexual people and putting their lives at risk, for complaints that he sexually harassed minors, and for fully normalizing the Zionist entity.
When he later ran for president, many platforms – including Daraj, Raseef22, and Vice – celebrated Baatour as the first gay Tunisian presidential candidate.
EXCLUSION FROM STATE JUSTICE
Crimes like those committed by leaders of Helem and Shams can destroy queer movements. Further, these crimes are no less dangerous than those of Western-supported ruling regimes that attack the movement relentlessly under the pretext that these movements are themselves Western and incompatible with local customs and traditions. These crimes are actually connected; the criminalization of queerness in many Arabic-speaking countries and the complexity of complaints made by victims of sexual violence – and being belittled and doubted, especially by those in positions of authority – make seeking resolution or protection from courts or security services impossible and potentially harmful to victims. Thus, those in positions of authority within these organizations feel safe daring to commit such crimes; the criminalization of homosexuality serves to protect the criminals, leaving the victims with no choice but to release statements.
According to the testimonial of the sexual harassment survivor in Helem, several attempts were made to open a discussion about the matter. “All this verbal and physical sexual harassment has always bothered me, and many women in Helem have experienced it. But the matter was never seriously addressed, which made many women resign and leave the organization for good. The absence of serious handling of the issue has always been linked to a patriarchal structure that prevents any form of accountability against those who commit discrimination, defamation, and harassment. This structure is evident in the reactions that followed every complaint, including victim-blaming, claiming that these were isolated events, and diminishing or making fun of the issue. These are just a few of the oppressive means that aimed to silence whoever dared to open the matter for discussion.”
Statements made to appease the victims or those who wrote testimonies made claims about attempted internal reform but failed to acknowledge or announce that there was the culprit among them. Authorities ignored the matter, pushing people toward exposure, boycotting, calling for resignation, and/or demanding social accountability.
These organizations are reproducing the same forms of oppression they claim to protect the queer community from. Because of our exclusion from the justice practices of the repressive patriarchal state and powerful colonial NGOs, they are allowed to commit these crimes without fear of accountability. What choice does this leave us?
Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE)
Arab Foundation of Freedoms and Equality (AFE), the largest regional queer organization in the region based in Beirut, was founded in 2009 by the former director of Helem.
On April 17, 2020, AFE announced that they would be starting an independent and transparent process of accountability following several calls for investigation into harassment allegations made against a senior management member. The investigation lasted 45 days. On May 20th, they issued a statement that “there is no evidence of harassment on the part of AFE senior management,” that they took their anti-harassment policies seriously, and that they were “committed to maintaining a safe work environment for everyone.”
However, on June 26, 2021, the chairperson of AFE’s Board, Sa’ed Atshan, released a statement “with a heavy heart” announcing his resignation from AFE’s board. Atshan wrote that Georges Azzi, AFE’s founder and CEO, had “never once undergone a performance evaluation” and had never “presented [Atshan] with an organizational budget that [could show] how finances are being managed.” Though investigations concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that Azzi committed sexual harassment, they concluded, “that there was evidence for a pattern of impulsive and vindictive behavior on his part, in addition to what one investigator called aggressive use of social media…” Soon enough, Atshan said that he became “a firsthand witness to – and personal target of – bullying by Azzi and one of his senior staff members (Thea Khoury) in retaliation for my trying to address legitimate concerns about the organization. They are blocking any form of accountability with regard to the ED [Executive Director].”
In his three-page statement, Atshan explained that AFE had a “very fraught relationship” with LGBTQ and feminist communities in Beirut, that Azzi “institutes nondisclosure agreements as a tool for further silencing staff,” and that the board was “under tremendous pressure from Azzi and senior staff as we were debating our final drafts.” Atshan’s resignation was followed by that of the entire advisory board, including Ahmed Shehab Eldin, who tweeted his resignation.
During this period, most queer organizations and activists in the Arabic-speaking region had not suspended their alliances with AEF, as far as I know.
Days later, AEF released a statement, opening with “In light of the series of unfortunate events and misguided statements based solely on truncated information that has been circulating lately through different networks and platforms, it is now the right time for AFE to address the issue at hand in an open and transparent way.” The statement then addresses AEF’s achievements over the years, without referring to Azzi or the allegations made against him, neither denying nor confirming them and declares that they will “embark on the process of electing a new board.” According to AEF’s latest statement, Azzi, who had been declared innocent, resigned on March 30, 2021.
In 2019, a group of anonymous LGBT rights and freedom activists released an online statement, calling for a boycott of Beirut Pride for six reasons, including its organizer’s suspicious ties to the Lebanese security services, “Damien stated that Internal Security Forces [ISF] —who were and continue to arbitrarily detain, discriminate, and torture members of the LGBTIQ+ community—were providing safety to BP [Beirut Pride] attendees during the event’s inaugural edition. Then, the organizer failed to disclose the ISF’s involvement publicly in an event which could have included high-risk attendees.” In 2018, after several police officers cracked down on a scheduled theatre reading at Studio Zoukak and took in Damien for questioning on charges of inciting “debauchery,” Damien “proceeded to cut off communications with all participants of Beirut Pride that year and left them to deal with hostile police incursions by themselves in the aftermath of his detention.”
The statement recounts this specific incident in its final point: “In June 2019, transgender activist and drag performer Sasha Elijah took to her social media to recount a harrowing experience she described when collaborating with Damien, after he had invited her to perform as part of an exhibition he curated for the Prague Quadrennial. Elijah claims she was promised to have her flight, visa fees, accommodation, and production costs covered by Damien, but that, once in Prague, he eventually withdrew his initial promise and left her to fend for herself amidst a transphobic and racist climate with no money, basic amenities.”
The statement calling for the boycott of Beirut Pride concludes, “After countless attempts to negotiate a seat at the table and stick through false promises of reformation, we are left with no choice but to take matters into our own hands and demand for a boycott of Beirut Pride as it currently stands and is organized. We hope you will too.” In cases when assaulters refuse attempts to be held accountable, exposure emerges as an important form of resistance from a queer feminist perspective. Fatima Fouad also noted this in her statement when she wrote, “The effectiveness of exposure as a feminist tool used to expose revolutionary political hypocrisy and to cancel the presence of rapists, harassers, and abusers from public spaces in order to liberate ourselves … and take back our public space and raise the voice of truth in there.”
But, exposure remains a tool to bring the accused to real accountability and not an end in itself. This is often missed because we carry the flaws of our upbringing in patriarchal societies with us, and get carried away easily by mass scandals that (generally) target women and queer people. This pushes us toward an extreme cancel culture that cancels the individual, a tool that states often use against the queer community, as seen in the Queen Boat incident in 2001 when the Egyptian government published the faces and names of people arrested in newspapers.
On March 9, 2022, Jeem (جيم, the first letter in “الجندر والجنسانية والجنس“) – a platform that publishes content about gender, sexuality, and sex – released a statement (English translation here), announcing the reasons for an entire team’s resignation. The statement focused on the administration’s systematic psychological violence committed against the team consisting of Reem, Aida, Mona, and Marwan. The most shocking thing was that Jeem’s administration threatened to fire a former member of the team “because her productivity decreased while she had cancer and received chemotherapy.” She died before the dismissal took place.
Jeem remained silent as if nothing had happened, and not a single media platform published anything about the incident. Even the platforms that re-posted and published the content of Fatima’s aforementioned testimonial remained silent as if there was some kind of hierarchy among the criminals these platforms are willing or unwilling to expose. Interestingly, after Fatima published her testimonial in June 2022, Jeem republished one of its articles about the necessity of believing survivors.
On April 18, 2022, almost a month after Jeem’s team resigned, a group of former employees at Bedayaa (بداية, “beginning”), the largest LGBTIQ+ rights organization in Egypt, exposed the organization’s financial and administrative corruption and psychological violence committed by the management against them. After this group submitted the necessary evidence and documents to Bedayaa’s board of directors, its activities were suspended as was the staff for an indefinite period. This action prompted many of them to resign and release a statement circulated on a semi-public mailing list for activists, funders, and NGOs focused on SOGI issues.
One day later, the management responded to the statement via the same mailing list saying, “We assert that the financial and administrative corruption accusations are unfounded.” A group of veteran gay activists responded and stood with Bedayaa management.
What is frightening is the similarity between these statements, although they were published at different times and in different places, and although there is no connection between those who released them in most cases. This rules out the claim that these are individual cases driven by naive personal motives, revealing, instead, that these are “serial crimes” that resurface in patterned ways through different places and times.
It is also striking that each of these statements cites funders and funding as instruments of power that allow a person to carry out their crimes within LGBT organizations. It seems, also, that funders often condone many of these crimes committed using their funds, since most of them want to continue funding these organizations despite testimonials and statements.
So, what form of accountability do we aspire to? Were these crimes actually individual isolated cases? Do we expect them to be resolved when the criminal is fired or their online content is taken down? Or, do we want a larger process of accountability that enables us to understand the range of impacts that this style of organization, which often takes the form of hierarchically-structured non-governmental organizations funded by the West?
Was it solely individuals or boards of directors that were responsible for these crimes? What about the people in their circles who defended them to the end and attacked victims? What about the platforms that covered up for them, including the media platforms that attacked Bashar and Ayah to make up for their own past of silencing and whitewashing their corrupt histories? What about the funders who continued to fund these organizations despite their knowledge of the violations committed in them? Shouldn’t they be held accountable too? Shouldn’t the entire work structure of non-governmental organizations and associations be held accountable, as well? If this structure is capable of containing these crimes and this cheating of justice in similar forms in various countries, then the real criminal may be the system rather than just the individuals.
If this organizational structure centered around NGO-funding makes it possible to cover up these crimes across multiple contexts and countries, then is the system a conspirator in the individual’s crimes? How can hold the system to account?