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Sara Hegazy's Journey: A Turning Point for LGBTQI+ Rights in the Arab World

Merissa Khurma
NYC Pride March June 24 2018
New York City Pride March 24 June 2018

On June 13, Egyptian LGBTQI+ activist and exiled political prisoner Sara Hegazy committed suicide in Toronto, Canada. Sara, aged 30, addressed the world in a tragic letter, and her death stands as a sobering reminder of how limited freedoms are in the Arab world; how stifling it is to fight for your rights facing overbearing authoritarianism and a society that scorns some lives as unnatural and sinful.

Sara’s LGBTQI+ activism made headlines worldwide in 2017 when she was arrested by Egyptian authorities for raising the rainbow flag (widely known as the LGBTQI+ pride flag) at a concert in Cairo for the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila whose lead singer is also openly (and courageously) gay. What was her crime? Human Rights Watch reported that Sara was arrested and jailed for “allegedly joining a banned group aimed at interfering with the constitution.” Many others were also arrested for either being gay or for supporting LGBTQI+ rights. After three months in prison where she was tortured by police, Sara sought asylum in Canada.

However, even in her new ‘sanctuary’ in Toronto, where she could exercise her full rights as a member of the LGBTQI+ community and a gay activist, Sara continued to struggle. In September 2018, she recounted her painful experience in prison on the Egyptian online site Mada Masr. Sara wrote that an Egyptian policeman asked her to prove that the World Health Organization (WHO) does not designate homosexuality as a disease. She was forced to oblige. The WHO removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases in 1992, but that is still, sadly, how many in the Arab world see gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender people – diseased.  In fact, days after Sara’s suicide, the Egyptian Dar al Ifta’ (House of Fatwas or religious edicts) issued a fatwaon its twitter page noting that God has forbidden “sexual deviance or abnormality” (which is how homosexuality is often referred to) and strongly “advising” those with such “sexually abnormal” leanings to seek a “medical specialist.”

However, even in her new ‘sanctuary’ in Toronto, where she could exercise her full rights as a member of the LGBTQI+ community and a gay activist, Sara continued to struggle.

According to Tarek Zeidan, Executive Director of Helem, a Lebanon based non-profit organization focused on improving the legal and social status of LGBTQI+ people in the country and across the region, “Most people in Lebanon, according to a survey we conducted, believe homosexuality is a disease, rather than a sin.” However, Zeidan adds, “we do not have ethnographic accounts or enough data on the LGBTQ community in the MENA region…so it is difficult to really know where people really stand on the issue.”

Further, a 2018-2019 survey by the Arab Barometer, shows that so called “honor” killings are considered “more acceptable” than homosexuality in a number of Arab countries. In Morocco, for example, 25 percent consider honor killings acceptable compared to 21 percent of respondents who consider homosexuality to be acceptable. In Jordan, 21 percent consider honor killings acceptable compared to 7 percent who believe homosexuality is acceptable.

Sara’s painful journey is testament to how risky it is being a member or supporter of the LGBTQI+ community in the Arab world. In many countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. In others, such as Jordan and Iraq, homosexuality is not illegal, however, society and authorities are often intolerant of it. In Jordan, for example, Mashrou’ Leila’s concert was banned two years in a row (in 2016 and 2017) for what Amman’s Mayor at the time claimed was the band’s songs that “contain lyrics that do not comply with the nature of Jordanian society”.

“There is a lot of fear in the LGBTQ community in the region,” says Jordan-based human rights activist Madian Al Jazirah. What happened to Sara, he told me, from the arrest, to the imprisonment, to the torture she was subjugated to, and then her tragic death, is every member of this community’s “nightmare scenario.”

A Turning Point

Since news broke out about Sara’s death, messages of support, grief and solidarity have been pouring in nonstop on social media both in the region and worldwide. There were also incendiary messages and comments that flooded the social media space in response. However, many human rights activists believe Sara’s tragic departure represents a “turning point.” Al Jazirah notes that there has never been “this level of outspokenness” in solidarity with Sara and what she represents, “particularly from outside of the LGBTQ community in the region.” There is “more awareness,” he adds.

Since news broke out about Sara’s death, messages of support, grief and solidarity have been pouring in nonstop on social media both in the region and worldwide. 

Zeidan agrees. “It is a pivotal moment for LGBT rights in the region especially in Egypt as Sara has now become a topic of discussion in every single household in her country...” He adds that her suicide note, particularly her forgiveness of all those who have caused her pain has “agitated people and created unprecedented debate.”

Perhaps it is too soon to tell how the LGBTQI+ and other human rights movements demanding equality and justice across the region will go from here. One thing is certain however, Sara’s last words will resonate loudly with the hundreds of thousands who marched and protested for justice in recent weeks:

“To the world, you’ve been cruel to a great extent. But I forgive.”

Her words speak courage and also hope in the darkest of moments. 

About the Author

Merissa Khurma

Merissa Khurma

Director, Middle East Program
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more