Seven people have been arrested for displaying rainbow pride flags at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt. They were arrested after photographs from the concert were published online, providing evidence for what Egyptian officials claim is an act of “promoting sexual deviancy.”
No official charges have yet been laid against the detainees, but the arrests are cause for alarm.
Although homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited under Egyptian law, charges of “debauchery,” “immorality,” and “blasphemy” are routinely filed against individuals suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual relations. Prejudice and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community are still serious problems in the largely conservative Muslim country.
That said, there’s been an appropriately uproarious response both at home and abroad over the arrests which seem to take issue with a culture and with an identity as much as with any set of actions: the lead singer of Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila is, after all, openly gay and the band has previously been banned in Jordan—a policy the deputy head of the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate is now saying they will try to implement in Egypt as well.
In the past several days, a number of activists have taken to social media to express their disgust at a system which would prosecute people based on their gender or sexual orientation.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian feminist and writer, wrote on Twitter: “It is utterly ridiculous to arrest anyone for waving a flag. It is utterly ridiculous to arrest anyone for their sexuality as #Egypt does.”
Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ, an advocacy group whose mission is to “reach out to LGBTQ movements and individuals around the world for LGBTQ issues in Egypt” has been tweeting consistently since the arrests were made public, providing information and links to relevant sources.
Still, no amount of vocal support is likely to impact a court system with a history of dolling out lengthy prison stays for charges of moral corruption. In a four-year survey of violence against LGBTQ individuals in the country, which can be found on Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ’s Facebook page, the group makes data available from 114 criminalization cases and 21 violent or hate crimes against people who identify as LGBTQ. available to the public. The data covers the period from late 2013 to November 2016 and provides information on who and why they were prosecuted. The data also includes information on their sentence, nationality, and other factors. The harshest sentences recorded were for a group of 11 homosexual men, in which three received sentences of 12 years incarceration.
The reality of these sentences is upsetting. Perhaps the most surprising element is the means through which police and other officials collect information on LGBTQ individuals. Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ asserts that social media, dating applications, or internet usage were used to track the subjects of 58 percent of reported cases (66 of a total of 114).
What Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ’s data and the past week’s events evidence is, therefore, the persecution of what has been deemed a criminal identity rather than a criminal act or set of actions. It is not illegal to hold a flag. It is not illegal to search for material of a homosexual nature online. However, what appears to be illegal in Egypt, or what might as well be, is to openly and proudly identify with a group whose mere existence has been deemed threatening to the conservative majority.
“We are a religious, conservative society, an identity we need to preserve,” said Reda Ragab, from the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate to the Daily News Egypt website.
The display of rainbow coloured flags does not threaten any conservative or religious identity. It simply expands or stands outside that identity.
Ultimately, the past week’s events might be understood as a violation to freedom of expression. It is ridiculous to arrest anyone for waving a flag. It is ridiculous to arrest anyone for being proud of who they are.
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