By Milandré van Wyk (1)
The last thirty years of Egypt’s history have told a tale of regression, oppression and the slow erosion of democratic institutions. The Egyptian state, under the leadership of Hosni Mubarak, has been in a state of emergency for almost the entire duration of his presidency. Human rights have been shifted to a back burner in this military regime, with tyranny, harassment, and torture being the order of the day. The Queen Boat Trial (2) of 2001 was a very clear and pronounced display of the Egyptian state’s homophobia. This CAI paper addresses the issue of female homosexuality in Egypt as experienced on a micro level.(3) Theoretical approaches to homosexuality in the Middle East are considered along with the political, religious and social forces which interplay in the lives of homosexual women in Cairo.
The ‘debauchery law’ renders male homosexuality de facto illegal through allowing the state to persecute men who are suspected to be gay.(4) This law does not, however, apply to female citizens and the distinction between the sexes begs for debate on the existence and discourse of lesbianism in Egypt.
Military rule and homosexuality
The current political culture in Egypt is one that completely disregards human rights and alternative gender identities. Declaration of emergency law in a state virtually suspends all democratic institutions, putting everything under the iron fist of the military. Egyptians live in fear of the military and have no legal support in a case of confrontation. Ryn Gluckman (5) argues that militarism decreases civil liberties, freedom of expression and dissent. Marginal groups are silenced by political realities. It is during times of militancy that hate crimes increase and homosexual groups are amongst the first to be victimised in cultures of violence and fear. Militancy encourages a climate of fundamentalism, and this has been the case par excellence in Egypt.(6)
Homosexuals were targeted by the state on various occasions in recent years. Gluckman purports that militarism perpetuates rigid gender norms, which are further exacerbated by a rise in religious fundamentalism: “At its most basic level, militarism is rooted in traditional, heterosexist ideas of gender that define masculinity as physically powerful and aggressive and feminity as meek and passive… These gender norms have historically been used to marginalise and criminalise queer people, who often challenge the legitimacy of these norms… Increasing their dependence on the military and making war a priority strengthens the heterosexist, patriarchal culture that promotes war, intensifying the stigmatisation of those who defy that culture.”(7) Egypt’s political climate is therefore detrimental to the free expression of homosexuality.
Homosexuality in Egypt
There is very little information and research available on lesbianism in third-world countries. Most research addresses male homosexuality, and references to same-sex relationships between women are rare.(8) “Historically, lesbianism has not always been addressed equally within gay studies. It has been assumed that lesbianism is more difficult to identify historically, more hidden and silenced, less accessible to the scholar.”(9) Two principal theoretical approaches toward understanding female homosexuality in the Middle East exist in the body of literature. The first argues for the existence of lesbianism as an actuality. Samar Habib (10) highlights female homosexuality as a social identity throughout the history of the Middle East. The second, put forth by authors like Joseph A. Massad, (11) claims that there exists no such thing as a homosexual identity in Arab countries (12) – an approach which lays same-sex activities at the door of gender segregation or sexual deviancy.
The narratives of homosexual Egyptian women studied nullify denials like the one above. The majority of them have forced themselves to engage in heterosexual activities for the sake of their families. A heterosexual marriage is esteemed to be the cure and the answer to any sexual aberration, whilst homosexuality in Egypt is viewed firstly as a sinful, conscious act; secondly as a mental illness and thirdly as a symptom of Westernisation.(13) Homosexual women are furthermore confronted with the question of what language and terminology to use to articulate their experiences.
The denialist theoretical approach to homosexuality in the Middle East claims that existing homosexual appellations are Western by definition and delineate a specific identity which is not directly applicable to homosexuals in the Middle East. “The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalised by the epistemic, ethical and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by the very international human -rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating.”(14) The existence of an Arabic word for ‘homosexual’ has been widely disputed among scholars. Standing terms such as shadh /shadhah (15) and suhaqiyya (16) carry very negative connotations. Recently, the terms mithli and mithliyya have been introduced to connote a homosexual and the translation (sameness in sex) is not derogative. Homosexual women in Egypt, however, tend to use the term ‘lesbian’ in their narratives, arguably because it creates more distance between themselves and their ostensibly deviant behaviour. (17)
The role of Egyptian women and the issue of sexuality and marriage
Sexuality is deeply embedded in power relations. “Sexual relations in Middle Eastern societies have historically articulated social hierarchies – that is, dominant and subordinate social positions: adult men on top; women, boys and slaves below. The distinction made by modern Western ‘sexuality’ between sexual and gender identity (that is, between kinds of sexual predilections [and] degrees of masculinity and femininity) has, until recently, had little resonance in the Middle East. Both dominant/subordinate and heterosexual/homosexual categorisations are structures of power. They position social actors as powerful or powerless, ‘normal’ or ‘deviant.’”(18) It is precisely for this reason that female homosexuality is completely disregarded as a social category in Egyptian public discourse: lesbians overlook the role of males in their sexualities and identities.
Egyptian women (as is the case in many Islamic societies) are bound by very particular societal and familial roles and obligations. Women are supposed to be “the bearers of cultural values, carriers of tradition and the symbol of community.”(19) It is therefore imperative to uphold values of chastity and virtue as a woman. It is the duty of a woman’s family to prepare her for marriage and nothing is more important than her reputation as a woman, because it carries the reputation of the entire family. Egyptian women’s identities are stringently regulated by their societies. Central to the identity of the Egyptian woman is her sexuality, or the arguable absence thereof. Women’s sexualities are mediated and restricted to the private confines of marriage. Women have very little autonomy over their own sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation. Decency and control over their sexual desires are highly esteemed and in the Egyptian context women have to appear devoid of any sexuality. “Cutting female homosexuality loose from hetero-normativity is harder to do, since it involves breaking two norms at the same time: both the norm of heterosexuality and the patriarchal norms of female sexuality in general.”(20)
Agency and daily strategies
A survey conducted in 2009 (21) found that 76,6% of Egyptian females thought that homosexuality was forbidden, but only 17,4% thought that it was wrong. Considering the political, social and religious milieu in which Egyptian homosexual women are situated, they negotiate everyday challenges related to their identities as women. The narratives produced by some of these women highlight some of these important strategies. One of the most significant strategies is that which they call ‘passing’ as a heterosexual woman. These women veil their homosexuality from their friends and colleagues, and – most importantly – from their families. They appear as heterosexuals in all their interpersonal activities in order to avoid the negative consequences experienced by gay individuals in an Islamic society. Note that lesbian women are forced to employ these strategies as a means of protecting themselves from the onslaughts against contra-normative behaviour.(22) Homosexual women in Egypt are terrified of being discovered, for fear of being sent to a mental institution or psychiatric therapy to treat their ‘symptoms’, and they are regularly confronted and compelled to deny their sexual identities.
A concern for homosexual women in Cairo is the lack of public meeting places. They yearn for public spaces to make friends, share their challenges and concerns, and meet prospective partners and sources of support. Any gatherings among women who have same-sex relationships are clandestine due to their fear of being unmasked. In the event of such gatherings in public spaces, these women are extremely conscientious in their interactions. They tend to use the grammatical masculine forms of words when speaking about a lover to protect themselves in case possible eavesdroppers overhear them.(23) They take extreme care before they let newcomers join their gatherings. They find it safer to resort to the internet and many take part in online meetings.
Lesbianism as a social identity in public discourse is paid no heed. Public images or representations of lesbian women are non-existent across the board.(24) A lack of information and support to come to grips with their possible homosexuality is central to the experiences of women with same-sex desires. This lack of information and support is a manifestation of the position of women’s sexuality in Egyptian society. Women who engage in same-sex activities are perceived first as being not ‘good’ (due to the fact that the Qu’ran deems homosexuality haram, or forbidden.) Second, many believe that these women have simply not ‘tried’ men and that their lesbianism is merely a phase that will pass.(25) “…female homosexuality remains locked into traditional, heterocentric discourse which claims that lesbianism exists only as a prelude to or as a temporary replacement of “normative” heterosexuality, thus undermining the validity of lesbian body politics.”(26)
The preponderance of women studied claim that they have all engaged in relationships with men to please their families. “I was thinking that when I get married I will be ok and feel like everyone. I will do it for Allah, for my parents. Even my girlfriend is telling me the same thing, that I have to try, and maybe I will be like everyone.”(27) Societies convey a message of compulsory heterosexuality, says Adrienne Rich.(28) In Egypt, however, the handler of the whip is not merely society, but the state, and most important, religious orthodoxy. Experiments with heterosexual relationships illustrate how lesbian women in Egypt try to avoid society’s judgments vis-à-vis non-normative behaviour. In each case, normative behaviour did not change their true selves and they remained obligated to feign their sexualities in public.
Same-sex interactions or activities, consistent with the writings of Massad, are viewed in Egypt as mere acts or conducts, rather than bases for identity. A significant concern among the studied homosexual women is the liaison between sex and love. An exaggerated emphasis on sex accompanies public discourse on homosexuality, but the women insist that their relationships with other women are identical to heterosexual relationships regarding the importance of romance, companionship and sex.(29)
The plight of homosexuals world-wide demands acknowledgement. The experiences of female homosexuals in Egypt do not diverge much from those in other societies. What makes Egypt peculiar, however, is the political and religious climate which renders homosexuality both a sin and a crime. Women have adapted and negotiated their sexual identities globally. Egyptian women, however, must not only negotiate their sexual identities, they must also feign identities which are neither existent nor appropriate. Central to their quandary is the non-negotiable importance of family, marriage and reputation in a society which is slowly becoming more rigid and parochial in its religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Says a homosexual woman in Cairo: “Maybe someday they are going to make a wake-up call to the community that ‘We are here and we exist and we are humans just like you.’ Maybe someday, who knows? But the reaction would be tough, for sure, because we are in an undemocratic country – plus it’s Islamic, so I don’t think homosexuality will ever be accepted. But whatever is acceptable or not – we are here, so what they are doing is not stopping anything or anyone.”(30)
(1) Contact Milandre van Wyk through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Fifty-two gay men were tried under the debauchery law for being homosexual after they were arrested by police on the Queen Boat (a popular gay night club) in Cairo.
(3) A thesis which explores the narratives of lesbian women in Cairo will be used as a reference throughout this paper. In instances where there are references to Egyptian homosexual women, it refers only to those women studied and not all homosexual women in Egypt.
(4) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P.13.
(5) Gluckman, R. 2003. “Ten reasons why Militarism is bad for queer people.” in Different Takes, A publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. No. 21.
(8) Drucker, P. 1996. “’In the tropics there is no sin’: Sexuality and gay-lesbian movements in the Third World.” in New Left Review, 218: 75-101.
(9) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P. 12.
(10) Habib, S. 2008. Female homosexuality in the Middle East. Routledge.
(11) Massad, J.A. 2007. Desiring Arabs. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
(12) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P. 8.
(13) Ibid. P.17
(14) Ibid. P.17
(15) Translates as ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal.’
(16) Usually the word to describe a woman who has sex with women, often translated ‘tribade.’ The origin of this word is disputed. Massad states that the word is borrowed and that there is no Arabic root for this word, though Habib and many others claim that the root is ‘sin’ Ha-qaf, and deriving it like this conveys the meaning of ‘rubbing’ or ‘grinding.’
(17) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P.21.
(18) Dunne, B. 1998. “Power and sexuality in the Middle East” in Middle East Report, 206: 8-11, 37.
(19) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P. 16.
(21) Abdelaziz, A. 2009. “Sexual knowledge, attitude, and behavior among Egyptian and Jordanian married women. Transcultural Study”in Current Psychiatry (Egypt), Vol. 16(4).
(22) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P.12.
(23) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P.6.
(24) Ibid. P.5.
(25) Ibid. P.38
(26) Al-Samman, H. 2008. “Out of the closet: Representations of homosexuals and lesbians in Modern Arabic Literature”. Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 39. P.270.
(27) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P.39
(28) Rich, A. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, from Signs, Vol. 5, No.4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer, 1980), pp. 631-660.
(29) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P. 31.
(30) Lindström, C. 2009. "Narratives of lesbian existence in Egypt – Coming to terms with identities.” Bachelor Thesis in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Stockholm University, Sweden. P. 13.