Egypt can ban a Marvel movie, but its LGBTQ+ community will not be silenced
I exist. Yet, for my entire life, my existence as a queer Egyptian has been routinely denied, even wholly erased.
"These people only exist in the West'' was the commonly believed fallacy, referring to members of the LGBTQ+ community. The misconception felt genuine; I had never seen a representation of myself in my country, and so I thought that maybe there was no one else like me. That was until I saw the first representation of a bisexual Egyptian woman.
It was 2009, I was 16 years old, and there was a new film out in the cinemas called Bedoon Rekaba, meaning Uncensored in Arabic. One of the main characters was a bisexual Egyptian woman, and I was so excited! But when I watched the movie, she wasn't what I expected to see.
In the movie, the character exploited and preyed on desperate young women that she seduced using her financial powers, and was depicted as a cautionary tale of what children could grow up to be if they weren’t raised properly. I was completely heartbroken at such a negative portrayal of queerness, but it didn’t end there.
"Thirteen years later, the same erasure of the LGBTQ+ community continues. Marvel's Dr Strange 2 is being released in cinemas on 6th May, but Egypt has already banned the film from screening"
Lawyers took the film to court over "promoting lesbianism" and "homosexual crimes". Ola Ghanem, the actor who played the bisexual character, then took it upon herself to “educate” Egyptian society about the supposed “evil lesbianism” that was allegedly spreading throughout the country in TV and newspaper interviews. On the streets, the audiences across the country were enraged: "this doesn't exist in Egypt, only in the West" I heard one angry man reiterate.
The scene that triggered the movie’s ban is a mere 12-seconds long and shows teen superhero America Chavez, a lesbian character, referring to her parents: two mothers. Egypt requested that Disney cut the 12-second scene for Egyptian cinemas because it seems the very existence of queer women thriving is too much for my home country to handle.
It may come as a surprise to many that Disney has historically happily catered to such requests, removing representations of LGBTQ+ characters to be able to show the films in as many countries as possible. But this time, Disney stood its ground and refused to cut the scene out, and rightly so.
On the other hand, in the West, Marvel fans were outraged that the scene was so short, and have criticised the film for "woke washing" and using Xochi's character as the "diversity hire" - phrases I am all too familiar with as a queer brown woman engineer.
A crusade of hate speech bombarded Xochil Gomez's social media: American and European fans are angry that the film isn't reaching other countries due to a "gay agenda", while Egyptian and Arab fans are angry that they can't see the movie in the cinemas. She, a 15-year-old child, was the one they blamed, not the homophobic Egyptian government.
Unfortunately, the double stigma Xochil is facing right now is nothing new. LGBTQ+ refugees in the UK have faced it for years; British people discriminate against us for being migrants, and our communities discriminate against us for being LGBTQ+.
The unfortunate irony is that the laws that Egypt and other countries across the Middle East use to criminalise us for our gender and sexual identities are mostly colonial laws introduced by the British empire.
Society: "The West paints such a pretty picture of coming out" - Egypt's LGBTQ+ community reckons with Pride - Nadine Talaat investigates https://t.co/wc9oisFoVg— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 7, 2021
"This is Egypt" - the famous Egyptian tourism tagline.
This is Egypt, where waiving a rainbow flag can get you arrested, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured, causing you to develop PTSD and commit suicide like my friend, Sarah Hegazi.
But it wasn't always this way. Queerness is arguably one of the most authentically and historically Egyptian experiences there is. A painting of the two ancient Egyptian high officials, Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep, kissing is possibly the oldest depiction of homosexuality in the world, painted some 4000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian statues of two women, Idet and Ruiu, are depicted in a form typical to married couples.
The ancient Egyptians were so well known for their queerness and liberal sexualities that medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides referred to lesbianism as "the acts of Egypt." Even when Egypt entered the medieval Muslim era, Arabic homo-erotic poetry was common. In fact, up to the mid 20th century, homosexuality was viewed as a usual practice, which shocked the French and British colonisers.
"Egypt’s consecutive dictators have used homophobia for political gains, often as a method of distraction to draw attention away from more significant issues"
From that pre-1950s accepting Egypt to today's Egypt, where a 12-second clip portraying lesbian mothers calls for a ban, are years of colonialism and political dictatorships. Egypt’s consecutive dictators have used homophobia for political gains, often as a method of distraction to draw attention away from more significant issues.
From Hosni Mubarak, who started the crackdowns in the early 2000s, most famously, the Queen Boat incident where fifty-two men were arrested for "habitual practice of debauchery" and "obscene behaviour", to Sisi, who continues to crackdown on LGBTQ+ people in Egypt today, past and present Egyptian regimes continue to criminalise, oppress and erase Egypt’s queer community.
But we rise. In 2012, the British government brutally raided my family’s home in Cardiff and deported the rest of my family. I was left behind alone in the UK, then later given the right to remain legally. One year after this traumatic experience, I started performing as Dancing Queer - a show I created that mixes two of the most significant parts of my identity: being queer, the art of drag, with being Egyptian, the art of belly dance.
When I first took to the stage, I felt empowered for the first time since arriving in the UK. I use my show as a protest against the treatment of LGBTQ+ Egyptians. It has become very successful, touring the world with countries as far as India and Japan.
I donate a portion of my income from Dancing Queer to the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt. These funds help with everything from mental health support to covering legal fees for members of Egypt's LGBTQ+ community imprisoned for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And I am not alone. The past decade has seen the rise of countless fearless Egyptian LGBTQ+ activists like New York-based Iman LeCaire, who survived a stabbing attempt by her own brother in Egypt. Today, she is the founder of the charity Trans Asylias supporting transgender asylum seekers.
Ana Masreya, a New York-based fellow drag performer, celebrates both their queerness and Egyptian-ness in the show Nefertitties. Sweden-based Dalia Alfaghal, who once received hundreds of death threats because she posted a viral picture of herself kissing her girlfriend, is now one of Egypt's most vocal queer and women's rights activists.
"Most Egyptians on the ground doing the revolutionary work of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights cannot be named, but I see you. And I can't wait for a once again tolerant Egypt to rise back from the ashes so I can loudly celebrate you"
Despite living in Egypt, the fearless Malak Elkashif is an out and proud activist. Unfortunately, that came at a cost. The Egyptian government held her in an all-male prison for four months, where she suffered sexual violence and survived a suicide attempt. At the time, she was only 19. She has now dedicated her voice to activism, even appearing publicly on Egyptian TV and daring to take the Egyptian government to court over their transphobic policies.
Most Egyptians on the ground doing the revolutionary work of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights cannot be named, but I see you. And I can't wait for a once again tolerant Egypt to rise back from the ashes so I can loudly celebrate you. So I can say your name. So everyone can say your name. Inshallah, that day will come.
It saddens me that my performances can tour the world but not my country. It saddens me that I will always feel safer away from home.
But we continue to rise and have succeeded at one thing; the Egyptian government can continue to attempt to erase Egyptians like me, but they can no longer deny our existence.
We exist, and loudly so. We exist, and with this comes great power.
Shrouk El-Attar (She/They) is a Senior Electronics Engineer, belly dancer, and refugee. She was named BBC 100 Most Influential Women, IET Top 6 Young Women Engineers in the UK, and United Nations Refugee Agency Young Woman of the Year.
Follow her on Twitter: @ShroukELA
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