Meet the UN's 'Woman of the Year': An Egyptian, queer, bellydancing activist

Meet the UN's 'Woman of the Year': An Egyptian, queer, bellydancing activist
3 min read
14 March, 2018
Shrouk El-Attar is a 25-year-old who was granted asylum in Britain because of her LGBT status who has helped hundreds in similar situations flee persecution.
The 'Dancing Queer' performance is a protest against LGBT persecution in Egypt [YouTube]
A queer Egyptian woman was recognised by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR as the ‘Young Woman of the Year’ for her activism and inspirational leadership last weekend, Reuters reported.

Shrouk El-Attar is a 25-year-old who was granted asylum in Britain because of her LGBT status and is a current masters student at Cardiff University in Wales.

But the dynamic electrical engineering student is involved in a lot more than meets the eye.

When she’s not studying, El-Attar is a prominent activist who bellydances around the globe while donning a beard. The ‘Dancing Queer’ performed is a form of protest against the persecution of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Egypt.

Through the dance performances, El-Attar raises funds to pay legal fees for LGBT people in Egypt  and is able to help relocate those at risk because of their sexuality.

As part of her campaigning, El-Attar has also helped many asylum seekers gain access to higher education in Britain - a topic she gained interest in and passion for after struggling for several “heartbreaking” years in her attempt to access university.

In the UK, asylum seekers, like international students, pay between 10,000 to 38,000 pounds ($13,800-$52,600) a year - far more than local students.

“It’s just not fair,” El-Attar told Reuters. “We are denying an education to some of the world’s most vulnerable people - people who have fled wars, torture, rape.”

When she isn’t bellydancing with a beard or fighting Britain’s higher education system, El-Attar spends her free time teaching asylum seekers English


Through her work, El-Attar joined with Student Action for Refugees and played a pivotal role in a campaign designed to give asylum seekers the same access to university as British students, with fee waivers, scholarships and bursaries.

When she isn’t bellydancing with a beard or fighting Britain’s higher education system, El-Attar spends her free time teaching asylum seekers English to help integrate them into their new society.

“When I was applying for universities there were no universities accepting asylum seekers,” she said.

“Now there’s around 60 across the country, and it’s beautiful to see real change happening because of our work.”

Although homosexuality is not criminalised in Egypt, authorities are considering a draft law that would see homosexuals and their "supporters" sentenced to lengthy jail terms, amid a government crackdown on homosexuality.

The move came after an open-air concert in Cairo on September 22 by Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila, when the colourful flag representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community was raised.

Pictures of the flag were shared widely on social media, leading to a public backlash and discussions on prime time television with many calling for those involved to be punished.

Since then nearly 70 people have been arrested, and more than 20 have been handed sentences ranging from six months to six years.

Although homosexuality is not yet outlawed in Egypt, discrimination is commonplace.

Gay men are frequently arrested and typically charged with debauchery, immorality or blasphemy.

International rights groups have slammed the ongoing crackdown.

"Egypt should immediately halt this vicious crackdown on a vulnerable group simply for waving a flag," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.

"Repression will not turn gay people straight - it will only perpetuate fear and abuse," she added.