Rainbow Flags & Persecution in the Heart of Cairo

The rainbow flag is raised during the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in Cairo on September 22nd 2017 (Credit: Egyptian Streets)

A brief glimpse on the etymology of the word homosexual in the Arabic language is reflective not only of the widely held belief and internalized homophobia in contemporary Egypt, but also of the nature of the laws persecuting queer bodies and viewing them as a threat to Egyptian society’s morality[1]. Multiple variations exist: Luti is derived from Quranic verses, referring to the practices of male sodomy the people of Lot engaged in that resulted in their destruction in the sinful city of Sodom; the more derogatory Shaz or ilq literally translates to deviant, pervert,  or faggot — mind you, it’s still the most common linguistic utterance used in the Egyptian dialect; the recently coined Mithli, meaning same, is the closest to the English word homosexual or same-sex lover.

Much like feminism — only recently acknowledged in the Arabic language as nasaweya — homosexuality is seen as un-African/Arab or Egyptian. It’s vilified as an imported Western product that tries to taint the Islamic Arab cultural values and lure its youth into debauchery and immorality to further destabilize the region. Homosexuality is also condemned as a pathology that needs psycho-medical treatment or as a major sin. Its sinful nature is interpreted in Quranic verses and Hadiths of the prophet that state how homosexual acts invoke God’s curse on earth and in the afterlife [2]. Alternative interpretations of Queer Muslims reconciling both their religious beliefs and sexual orientations have been made, but they are not recognized as valid by religious institutions or predominantly conservative societies in the East. While there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality, there are plenty of laws that were purportedly put in place to combat prostitution but which actually persecute LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. The charges issued under these laws vary from inciting debauchery to engaging in immoral acts, to inducing sexual deviance[3]; the sentences fall between 1 and 12 years of imprisonment.

Homophobia and violence directed against bodies that dare challenge the heteronormative patriarchal norm are nothing new. So why write about this now? In recent days a wave of allied support and LGBTQ+ pride as well as a counter-hate sentiment in Cairo have taken social media by storm. The events unfolded as follows: the biggest Mashrou’ Leila concert that took place in Cairo this past September saw a bittersweet display of the pride flag. The raising of the flag was met with surprising acceptance and even support by concert-goers and social media posts. Ultimately, however, the government and Egyptian society’s hate, animated by a fear for love and freedom, calls for the punishment of LGBTQ+ bodies and their allies.

A first-hand account confirmed the beauty of the ambiance during the concert:

              “It was just magical… almost surreal. Everyone was harmonious, from the LGBTQ+ community to their allies, and to the straight couples making out everywhere… It just didn’t seem like something that would happen in Egypt… individuals who raised the flag and identified themselves as Queer couldn’t believe the amount of straight allies who joined them. One of them cried from happiness. There was also some intersectionality. I don’t know if they were allies or LGBTQ+ individuals themselves, but there were at least a couple of veiled women, and everyone was dancing together. It was a scenery I will never forget.” — I.R (22 years old)

Coming from Cairo myself, I had a bad feeling. Despite my initial euphoric reaction at the news, it was difficult for me to get excited. And soon after the promising news about the concert came out, as if the universe was conspiring to confirm my worries — or, what’s worse,  as if the Egyptian governmental system and the majority of the population were fulfilling their prophecy — social-media and local media outlets erupted with hate-speech and homophobia. Soon enough headlines started appearing about the banning of the band from ever playing in Egypt again and the arrest of a number of those responsible for raising the flag.

Dare I say love and freedom are universal concepts and basic rights for every being and not a falsely imported Western concept? The concert was followed by the biggest systematic crack-down on the LGBTQ+ community since the 2001 ‘Queen Boat incident’, a rather blatant human rights violation [4]. Unfortunately, the recent events related to the concert are only the continuation of an ongoing narrative of injustice against the Egyptian LGBTQ+ community. Since Abdel-Fatah El Sisi came to power in 2013 following a military coup toppling over elected president Mohamed Morsi, an estimated 232 suspected trans women and queer men have been arrested. It has been argued that the new government is attempting to win over the Muslim Brotherhood supporters by launching a witch-hunt against the LGBTQ+ community, trying to destroy it once and for all using terror tactics.

A reported number of 57 individuals, the majority of which were not affiliated with raising the rainbow flag at the concert, have been detained after police home-raids, street arrests and luring through dating websites, marking Egypt’s most vicious crackdown on the gay community in recent history. In a powerful statement given on October 2, Mashrou’ Leila broke the silence of how the Egyptian state is “currently rounding up kids and violating their bodies. This is not a time for silence, nor is it a time for condescendingly discussing identity politics.” [5] Clearly, this is a time to call for an international LGBTQ+ solidarity with the countless violated queer bodies and their allies in Egypt . Western apathy and leftist cultural relativism are not going to physically prevent the state-sanctioned rape queer men undergo during the brutal so-called anal-examinations conducted upon their arrests [6]. They will also not put a halt to Sisi’s dictatorship scapegoating anyone affiliated with queerness or homosexuality, which only fortifies its oppressive yet brittle heteronormative and toxically masculinist foundations. Silence is complicity in the systematic oppression and human rights violations queer bodies have long been subjected to.

As if the mass arrests weren’t enough, the state-sponsored press and governmental statements are vilifying the LGBTQ+ community, their allies and human rights activists by making them out as a danger to national security and social morality. Some have even claimed that we are paid agents by the West aiming to destabilize and divide the Egyptian society by importing Western deviances. Moreover, all forms of support towards the LGBTQ+ community have been banned on social media, unless it is in support of queer individuals repenting for their abhorrent sexual orientation and seeking conversion therapy from their ‘disease’[7].

While this vicious and, quite frankly, hysterical crackdown on Egyptian queers does not seem to be facing any external pressure to come to a halt, nor do there seem to be any internationalist LGBTQ+ solidarity movements mobilizing, it is nonetheless necessary to point out that the community has gained an unprecedented number of local allies. This is why the state-sanctioned homophobia supported by a religious and cultural veil is in danger, and this is precisely why the fight for queer rights and human rights more generally is of paramount importance now more than ever: Internal dissent has brought the oppressive socio-political system close to breaking point. In the face of internationalist solidarity movements, the vulnerable masculinity of this  system will falter. By dismantling the oppression of sexual orientations and gender identities and demanding sexual emancipation and bodily sovereignty, the political struggle against a repressive form of government and socialization in the Arab world will be a universal liberating force for all.



[1] http://lgbt.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_terms_for_gay_in_different_languages

[2] https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/quran-homo.asp

[3] https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/egypt0304/9.htm#_Toc63760431

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/03/world/cairo-once-the-scene-cracks-down-on-gays.html

[5] https://www.facebook.com/mashrou3leila/posts/10155035503593806

[6] A forensic technique intended to determine the victim’s engagement in anal sex. It has no medical validity and is condemned internationally as a physical and psychological torture method violating human rights, but it is legal and widely practiced in Egyptian prisons.


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