Sarah Hegazy holds the rainbow LGBT flag at a concert. (Twitter)

Arab Reaction to Gay Egyptian Woman’s Suicide Is Mix of Criticism, Support

Sarah Hegazi’s fate provoked disgust, gloating and sadness in Arab societies

The suicide of Sarah Hegazi, a 30-year-old Egyptian lesbian activist who went into exile in Canada, has aroused feelings ranging from hostility to sympathy in the socially conservative Arab world. Hegazi was imprisoned in Egypt on charges of promoting “homosexuality and sexual deviation” in 2017 and was allegedly tortured during her time in prison.

Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political science professor and former coordinator of the National Association for Change political reform alliance, told The Media Line that the Arab street was divided over everything, including the suicide of Hegazi.

“There are those who reject Sarah’s suicide on religious grounds,” said Nafaa, who is also a writer. “Committing suicide is prohibited [in Islam], and therefore she committed a sin.”

“Others criticized her for having made political mistakes [bringing negative attention to Egypt], saying that she deserved to die the way she did,” he said without elaborating. There has been “a kind of gloating.

“And, there are others who criticized Sarah for other reasons,” added Nafaa, who was coordinator of the National Association for Change before the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

There are those who reject Sarah’s suicide on religious grounds. Committing suicide is prohibited [in Islam], and therefore she committed a sin. Others criticized her for having made political mistakes [bringing negative attention to Egypt], saying that she deserved to die the way she did.

The Arab world is divided on political, social and intellectual issues and “sometimes matters reach the level of polarization. The reaction over Sarah’s suicide was expected and not surprising.”

The Egyptian authorities arrested Hegazi in October 2017, a month after Hegazi raised the rainbow LGBT flag at a concert of the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou Leila [Leila Project], which supports gay rights. The authorities accused Hegazi of joining a banned group that promotes “deviant thought,” but she denied the accusations and said she waved the flag in solidarity with gay rights.

Mashrou Leila, formed in 2008 at the American University of Beirut, is known for taking outspoken positions on social, religious and political issues in Lebanon and in Arab society, including freedom of expression and LGBT rights. Its songs tackle such issues as homophobia, patriarchy and corruption, and the group is widely accused in Arab countries of “encouraging homosexuality.”

Fans of the Lebanese group Mashrou Leila show a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, Egypt, September 22, 2017. The group, perhaps the most famous indie rock band in the Arabic world, is now banned in Egypt because of rainbow flags at its concerts. (Benno Schwinghammer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A message attributed to Hegazi that was circulated on social media channels said: “To my brothers: I tried to survive and failed, forgive me. To my friends: The experience is cruel and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world: I was very cruel, but I forgive.”

Dina Azouni, a Ramallah, West Bank-based social media activist and blogger, who shared Sarah’s story and letter, told The Media Line she had received a backlash from followers who accused her of promoting homosexuality.

Hegazi was only trying to express herself at the concert of a band known to be progressive, Azouni said. “Sarah felt like she was in a crowd where she could express herself openly and that is why she raised the rainbow flag and was very happy about it.”

Sarah neither made a mistake nor did she aim to provoke society because her action occurred in an environment where it was acceptable and not in the middle of Cairo, Azouni said.

“Nobody can blame her for what she did. Actually, what happened afterward shows how closed and unaccepting of other ideologies our society is,” Azouni said.

“People justify their reactions in the name of religion but I consider that wrong. The Western world considers us Muslims to be terrorists and judges us by our religion and I believe we’re doing the same thing to the LGBT community.”

Azouni said that people should respect those who are different and who have not harmed anyone else.

“LGBT people exist in society – whether in secret or publicly and whether we like it or not. And we need to allow them to be.”

She said the reactions she received on social media include: “Why are you sympathizing with her? I can’t sympathize with her at all”; “homosexuality is forbidden in all religions and that’s beyond discussion, regardless of Sarah’s story”; and “I really, really don’t understand why people love to think they know everything. Like seriously, are you God or something to judge her [Sarah’s] story? Our relationship between ourselves and God is solely private. People act as if they are saints and it disgusts me because they do worse things.”

Milad Latof, a Dubai-based Iraqi journalist and women’s rights activist, told The Media Line that most of Arab society was raised to believe that homosexuality was prohibited.

The Western world considers us Muslims to be terrorists and judges us by our religion and I believe we’re doing the same thing to the LGBT community

“They don’t know better and they weren’t exposed [to the other side] enough to understand the matter,” she said. They have not knowingly “lived around LGBT people. But Sarah is a human being, and we’re talking about a soul.”

Most LGBT people in the Arab world keep their sexual orientation a secret, she said. “Because if they say out loud that they are gay, they can lose some of the people closest to them. … They can lose their best friends and their families.”

Islam is not the only religion that bars homosexuality; however, Arab culture is also hostile to it, she said.

“If we look closely, there are a lot of other matters that are barred by culture and not religion. For instance, in Islam, after a man and woman marry in the presence of a sheikh, she becomes his wife. But, the culture doesn’t allow them to live together until they have a wedding party and inform everyone that they are married.”

Latof added that in Iraq the rainbow flag is totally unacceptable. “The reactions to Sarah’s story were very ugly, and reflect ignorance.”

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