BullShnit: Egyptian homophobia’s Swiss defenders

Mona Iraqi, in an Egyptian Internet meme

Mona Iraqi, in an Egyptian Internet meme

ACTION: Please write to Shnit and Olivier van der Hoeven in protest at the film festival’s decision to support homophobic informer Mona Iraqi: 

The International Short Film Festival is based, along with its director, Olivier van der Hoeven, in the placid Swiss capital of Bern. The festival has branches or “playgrounds” in Argentina, El Salvador, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and Thailand. Oh, and Cairo, Egypt. The festival goes by “Shnit” for short, a semi-acronym ugly but calculated to grab attention. As director of its Cairo playground, Shnit chose someone also skilled at doing ugly things that grab attention. Shnit’s Egypt representative is the infamous TV presenter, gay hunter, homophobe, and police informer Mona Iraqi.

Pink in some places, not in others: Olivier de Hoeven, director of Shnit

Pink in some places, not in others: Olivier de Hoeven, director of Shnit

A splendid French blogger discovered this four days ago. But let’s be fair: Shnit chose Mona Iraqi before her full penchant for depredations was known. She only revealed herself wholly last weekend, when — doing her bit for a massive government crackdown on Egypt’s LGBT communities – she led a police raid on a Cairo bathhouse. 25 or more men — beaten and bound, paraded naked and humiliated into the cold night, their faces shown on Mona’s own Facebook page — now face charges of homosexual conduct as a result of Iraqi’s work, with prison terms of up to three years. Since then, she’s been boasting about this for a domestic audience, and lying about it for a foreign one. This poses PR problems for an international cultural klatsch like Shnit, which — as its name shows — has an fine ear for publicity. They’ve had a week to decide: how do they deal with their wayward Egypt employee?

By lying. Amazingly, Shnit hasn’t distanced itself from Mona Iraqi’s collusion with Cairo’s gay-chasing, torturing police. They endorse what she did while parroting her deceptions. That’s disgraceful. Shnit owes LGBT people, in Egypt and around the world, an apology; they owe one to Egypt’s whole embattled human rights community. And, for the sake of their reputation, they need to scrub Mona Iraqi from their credits now.

The first thing Shnit did post-debacle was to change its website to cover its tracks. Now, when you open the site, you get this:

Screen shot 2014-12-16 at 10.22.29 PMSo very pro-queer! The ad’s for a Dutch movie about a trans* teenager. You might get the impression from the context that it has shown in Shnit’s Cairo festival. That’s misrepresentation number one: So far as I can make out, it never has.  

The context is what counts here, and it’s all about justifying what Mona Iraqi did. When you click on the image, you get some boilerplate:

Shnit International Shortfilmfestival has a proud, long-standing history of support and inclusion of films, filmmakers and audiences of all sexual orientations, of all races and walks of life, from every corner of the world. We strongly believe in freedom of lifestyle and expression.

But then comes the good part:

This is complete bullShnit, and surely Olivier van der Hoeven knows it. Mona Iraqi wasn’t looking for evidence of “sex trafficking” — which is not, of course, the same thing as “sex trade for money” — nor did she find any. She was looking for evidence of homosexual conduct, because the police have been arresting alleged gay and trans people by the dozens or hundreds for a year now. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that here and here.) The men are being charged under an Egyptian law against men having sex with men; the provision says nothing about the exchange of money. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that law here.) Mona Iraqi collaborated with Cairo’s gay-hunting cops in planning and executing the raid: a perfect paradigm of what indignant Egyptians call “informer journalism.” Iraqi wrote on her Facebook page the day after the raid (complaints later got the post taken down):

Today is a beautiful day … Our program was able to break up a place for perversion between men and to catch them flagrantly in the act … My God, the result is beautiful.

As for filming “to ensure the police act in accordance with the humanitarian standards” — this makes me so sick I can barely breathe. If Mona Iraqi cared about “humanitarian standards” she would protest how police led the men stripped onto the street, humiliated and degraded, or about the forensic anal exams — a form of torture, repeatedly condemned by Human Rights Watch and other rights groups — that the victims have been forced to endure. About those grotesque abuses, the “humanitarian” Mona Iraqi hasn’t uttered a sound.

Neither will Shnit. In regurgitating Mona Iraqi’s hypocritical lies, Shnit and de Hoeven excuse or deny homophobia, prison terms, police brutality, and torture. On the other hand, Mona Iraqi’s footage of the raid should make an exciting short film. Shnit can rake in dollars showing it in Cape Town, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Bern.

Mona Iraq (R) making a short film about police acting in accordance with humanitarian standards, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) making a short film about police acting in accordance with humanitarian standards, December 7, 2014

Iraqi’s allusions to “sex trafficking” are simply a stab at explaining away these horrors. (If the men are victims of trafficking, why are they facing three years in prison?) She and Shnit evidently share the certainty that sex workers have no human rights. That parallels Iraqi’s mortifying invocation of HIV/AIDS as a reason for the raid. The arrests she supervised, Iraqi told the Egyptian press, “confirm the strong relationship between the spread of AIDS and sexual practices between men.” She was actually saving lives for World AIDS Day, she insists. These fictions only further the transmission of HIV/AIDS: by increasing the stigma attached to men who have sex with men, by driving vulnerable communities further underground, by furnishing heterosexual partners a false feeling of safety. In giving Iraqi’s deceptions a free pass, Shnit deals a further and disgusting insult to Egyptians actually trying to combat the pandemic.

It gets worse. Today a Shnit staffer, researcher and project coordinator Ekaterina Tarasova, started tweeting in Mona Iraqi’s defense. The blogger who initially discovered the Mona – Schnit connection reproached her. In reply Tarasova cited the statement on Schnit’s website:

Katja 1“It’s her work.” This got me riled up. I stepped in:

Katja 2I tried to give Tarasova and Shnit the benefit of the doubt: maybe they actually didn’t know that any sex between men is an “unlawful action” in Egypt, or that a police crackdown has been expanding for a year. I wrote:

Katja 4And that led to the following exchange:

Katja 3Meanwhile, Mona Iraqi was furiously retweeting everything her colleague Tarasova wrote:

Katja 6One Middle Eastern LGBT rights activist wrote to Tarasova:

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Georges Azzi, distinguished Lebanese activist and head of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, weighed in:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.48.26 AMBut Tarasova insisted that she knew better than people in the region.

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.47.18 AMIt was, she said, just “words against words.”

Katja 6The rainbow flag always makes everything better.

Ekaterina Tarasova’s job with Shnit is “research,” and I think she could use some lessons on how to do it. You might also suppose that, at some point, a staffer in a sensitive situation like this would decide the better part of valor was to shut up. But not Shnit, and not Tarasova. The thing is, they truly love Mona Iraqi. They’re truly eager to defend her against any and all evidence. And her victims, rotting in a Cairo jail, can go to hell — except they’re already in it.

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 2.48.24 AMOnce again: you can write to Shnit at . They surely should explain how they square their support for Mona Iraqi’s police raid with their supposed endorsement of equality; how their equanimity about jailing gay men (or torturing supposed victims of “trafficking,” for that matter) fits with their pieties about human rights. The arts aren’t there to make torture and hate honored guests at a champagne reception. As one activist put it:

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النشطاء يدينون غارة منى عراقي / Activists condemn Mona Iraqi’s raid

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Mona Iraqi, R, films while police lead away naked prisoners from December 7’s bathhouse raid: From her Facebook page

(English below)

نشطاء يستنكرون قيام الإعلامية منى عراقي بالإبلاغ عن مجموعة من الرجال و تصويرها لهم أثناء القبض عليهم
ويطالبون الحكومة المصرية بالتوقف عن ملاحقة المواطنين بسبب ممارساتهم الجنسية
 

تابعت المجموعات الموقعة أدناه بمزيد من الصدمة والقلق الشديد واقعة قيام شرطة الآداب بمديرية أمن القاهرة بالقبض على حوالي ستة وعشرين شخصا أثناء تواجدهم بحمام عام للرجال بمنطقة رمسيس بدعوى ممارستهم “للشذوذ الجماعي” بمقابل مادي داخل الحمام. وجاءت هذه الواقعة بناء على بلاغ من الإعلامية منى عراقي والتي ادعت أن الرجال يحولون المكان إلى “وكر للشذوذ الجماعي”، ولم تكتف عراقي بالبلاغ ولكنها أيضا صاحبت قوات الشرطة أثناء عملية المداهمة التي وقعت في مساء الأحد في حوالي العاشرة مساء، وقامت بتصوير مجموعات الرجال داخل الحمام وهم متجمعين عرايا وغير مسموح لهم بارتداء ملابسهم ويحاولون بشتى الطرق إخفاء هوياتهم في انتهاك صريح لحقهم في الخصوصية وفي خرق واضح لمواد القانون.

تأتي هذه الحادثة استكمالاً لهجمة أمنية شرسة تشنها الدولة، متمثلة في شرطة الآداب، ضد المثليين والمتحولين جنسياً، هذه الحادثة والتي تعتبر أكبر واقعة قبض على أشخاص بتهمة “الفجور” منذعام 2001، سبقتها العشرات من وقائع القبض على مثليين أو متحولين جنسيا او أشخاص يشتبه في كونهم كذلك في هجمة هي الأشرس منذ الهجمة التي صاحبت “حادثة كوين بوت” الشهيرة في 2001، فبعد الثلاثين من يونيو 2013، رصد النشطاء القبض على اكثر من 150 شخصا على خلفية الاعتقاد بكونهم مثليين أو متحولين جنسياً، ووصلت العقوبات في بعض هذه القضايا إلى ثمان وتسع سنوات من السجن على خلفيات قانونية غير سليمة أو ملفقة. وغالبا ما صاحبت عمليات القبض هذه حملة إعلامية أكثر شراسة تنتهك بيانات المقبوض عليهم وتنشر صورهم وتسجل أحاديثا مصورة معهم، وتصور المثليين كمجموعات من المرضى والمجرمين الذين بحاجة للعلاج أو تصويرهم كمجموعات غريبة انتشرت بعد الثورة.

لم تقف الحملة الإعلامية عند هذا الحد ولكن قامت الإعلامية المذكورة بنقلها لمستوى جديد إذ حولت وظيفتها من إعلامية إلى مخبر يعمل لصالح البوليس ويقوم بالإبلاغ عما يعتقد بأنه جريمة، ورغم عدم ارتكاب المقبوض عليهم جريمة يعاقب عليها القانون فقد روجت وسائل الإعلام المختلفة للقبض على “أكبر شبكة للشذوذ” في مصر قبل أن تحكم عليهم أي محكمة أو يثبت ضدهم أي اتهام، وتفاخرت منى عراقي ببلاغها باعتباره عملا بطولياً و”انتصاراً أخلاقياً” بل وقامت بما ينافي أبسط قواعد آداب مهنة الصحافة وقامت بتصوير المقبوض عليهم، وإذ يدين بشدة الموقعون ما قامت به هذه الإعلامية من أفعال تسيء إلى مهنة الصحافة والإعلام فإنهم يؤكدون أن من خالف القانون في هذه الحالة هو هذه الإعلامية وليس الرجال المقبوض عليهم. فبعيدا عن التفتيش في نوايا الناس وممارساتهم الخاصة والرضائية فإن هذه الإعلامية خالفت بشكل واضح المادتين 58، 75 من قانون الإجراءات الجنائية والتي تعاقب قيام أي شخص بإفشاء معلومات عما تضبطه الشرطة لأشخاص غير ذوي صفة، ويطالب الموقعون بإعمال مواد القانون على الإعلامية منى عراقي التي تستغل مهنتها لانتهاك خصوصية الأفراد ونعتهم بما ليس فيهم من أجل التحصل على مكاسب مهنية.

وتؤكد المجموعات والمنظمات الموقعة استياءها الشديد من استغلال انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسبة (الإيدز) كحجة وغطاء شرعي لهذه الممارسات الإعلامية المهينة، فلا يمكن لمثل هذه البلاغات إلا أن تزيد من الوصم والتمييز تجاه مجموعات تعتبر من الأكثر عرضة للإصابة بالفيروس، وبالتالي تقلل من فرص لجوئهم إلى خدمات المشورة أو الفحوصات الاختيارية والعلاج. وفي النهاية تؤكد المنظمات الموقعة أن الدولة عليها أن تنهي ترصدها لممارسات الأفراد الخاصة وتتبعهم داخل غرف نومهم أو في الأماكن العامة والتجسس عليهم وعلى وسائل اتصالاتهم وتؤكد المنظمات مسئولية الدولة في حماية وتفعيل حقوق هؤلاء الأفراد ومن ضمنها حقوقهم في الخصوصية وعدم التشهير والوصم..

الموقعون:

من الشرق الأوسط وشمال إفريقيا:
المؤسسة العربية للحرية والمساواة
الجمعية التونسية للنساء الديمقراطيات
تحالف الحقوق الجنسية والجسدية في المجتمعات الإسلامية
حلم- لبنان
تحالف الميم- لبنان
موزاييك- المنظمية الشرق أوسطية للخدمات والتأييد والتكامل وبناء القدرات
اللجنة الاستشارية للشباب (مصر)
قوة ضد التحرش/ الاعتداء الجنسي الجماعي (أوبانتيش)
حملة التضامن مع مجتمع م م م م في مصر
انتفاضة المرأة في العالم العربي

Activists condemn TV presenter Mona Iraqi, who reported a group of men and filmed them while they were being arrested: and demand that the Egyptian government cease persecuting people for their sexual practices

The undersigned groups have followed with much shock and increasing worry the arrest, by Egyptian morality police of the Cairo Security Directorate, of approximately 26 individuals while at a public bathhouse for men in the Ramsis neighbourhood. The men were arrested for the alleged “group practice of deviance” in exchange for money inside the bathhouse. This incident happened after the bathhouse was reported to police by media presenter Mona Iraqi, who claimed that the men turned the place into a “den of group deviance.” Iraqi did not stop at reporting these men: she actually accompanied the police force while they stormed the place, at around 10 PM on Sunday, December 7. She photographed groups of men inside the bathhouse while police gathered them naked, denying them the right to put on their clothes. The men desperately tried to conceal their identities, but they were filmed and photographed in clear infringement of their privacy rights and in obvious disregard to the law.

This incident is the continuation of a vicious security campaign launched by the state, carried out by its morals police, against gay and transgender people. The incident is the largest mass arrest of individuals arrested on the charge of practising “debauchery” since the notorious raid on the Queen Boat in 2001. It was preceded by dozens of other arrests of gay and transgender people, or people suspected of being so. After June 30, 2013, activists have documented the arrest of more than 150 individuals on the assumption that they are gay or transgender. In some cases prison sentences of eight or nine years have been imposed, on legal grounds that are incorrect or fabricated. The arrests have been accompanied by a still more monstrous media crusade, publicizing the personal information of those arrested, publishing their pictures, even posting filmed interviews with them. The media present homosexuals as a group of “sick” individuals and criminals in need of therapy — or paints them as a deviant community that spread after the revolution.

The media crusade has not stopped at that. Mona Iraqi took the media frenzy to a new level as she transformed the job of a presenter to that of an informant, working for the police, reporting to them what she thinks is a crime. Those who were arrested did not commit any crime punishable by law. Yet various media outlets promoted the idea that the biggest sex ring in Egypt for “practising deviance “ had been arrested, before any verdict was reached or any accusation against those individuals was actually proven. Iraqi boasted about her reporting, calling it a heroic deed and a “moral triumph.” She took pictures of those arrested, in clear violation of the basic ethics of journalism. The signatories to this statement condemn most strongly what this media presenter did. Her acts disgrace the professions of media and journalism. We assert that the person who violated the law is the presenter and not the men who were arrested.

Besides prying into people’s intentions and their private, consensual practices, this presenter clearly violated articles 75 and 58 of the law of criminal procedures: these prohibit anyone from disseminating information about persons arrested by the police to others who do not have standing in the case. We demand that the presenter, Mona Iraqi, be held accountable before the law for misusing her profession to violate the privacy of others and slander and misrepresent them, and for pursuing professional benefit regardless of consequences.

The groups and organizations signed below profess their deep distress that the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (AIDS) has been used to justify and legitimate these demeaning media practices. These reports have done nothing but increase stigma and discrimination against the groups most vulnerable to the virus. Ultimately this will damage their opportunities to seek counselling services or voluntary testing and therapy.

In conclusion, the undersigned organizations affirm that the state has to end its prosecution of personal behaviour, its pursuit of individuals both into their bed rooms and in public spaces, and its spying on them and their means of communication. The organizations also stress the responsibility of the state to protect and realize the rights of these individuals, including their rights to privacy, and to freedom from stigma and slander.

MIDDLE EAST / NORTH AFRICA REGION:

Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality – regional
Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) – Tunisia
Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) – regional
HELEM – Lebanon
M Coalition, Middle East/North Africa – regional
MOSAIC / MENA Organization For Services, Advocacy, Integration, and Capacity Building – regional
National Youth Advocacy Taskforce – Egypt
Operation Anti Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) – Egypt
Solidarity With Egypt LGBT – Egypt
Uprising of Women in the Arab World – regional

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Photo of the raid, from Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page (faces blurred by Scott Long)

 

Dozens arrested for “perversion” in a huge raid in Cairo

Arrested men from the Bab el-Bahr hammam being herded into a Central Security truck, December 7, 2014. The woman with a camera to the R may be Mona Iraqi.

Arrested men from the Bab el-Bahr hammam being herded into a Central Security truck, December 7, 2014. The woman with a cameraphone to the right appears to be Mona Iraqi.

At about 10 PM last night, December 7, police carried out a massive raid on a hammam (bathhouse) in the Ramsis area of Cairo, not far from the main railway station. They arrested many men — dozens, reportedly — and hauled them, stripped naked like concentration-camp inmates, to the trucks. Someone living nearby who watched the assault wrote on social media that “police together with Central Security forces attacked the bath.” (Central Security, Amn el-Merkezi, is an army force mainly composed of raw recruits; it takes over many policing duties in an increasingly militarized Egypt.) “40 people were arrested. Some were beaten up in the baths, and they were all arrested with no clothes.” He said “a female journalist and a cameraman” arrived “before they attacked the baths. She tried to enter and film inside, and she was kicked out by the owner. Immediately this was reported [to the police], and the baths were attacked. People say there were informers from the police inside the baths before that.”

The reporter was Mona Iraqi, presenter for the TV program El Mostakbai (The Hidden), which airs on the pro-government Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) news channel. Around 2:00 this morning, Mona Iraqi posted proudly about the raid on her Facebook page — along with still shots, bearing the El Mostakbai watermark. Two hours later, she took it all down. But I had saved the pictures, and a friend saved screenshots of the post. What she wrote was a promo for coming attractions.

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With pictures, we reveal the biggest den of group perversion [shuzooz gama’ay] in the heart of Cairo. …

With pictures, a filmed investigation by El Mostakbai reveals the den of perversion near the El Azbekeya police station.

El Mostakbai program, presented by the journalist Mona Iraqi … reveals the biggest den for group perversion in the Ramsis area. El Mostakbai also reveals that the den is a steam bath in the heart of Cairo, a place to have a bath and massage, for men. It’s run by a man who is 60 years old, for financial gain. It is at 35 Bab el-Bahr street, in Ramsis in the heart of Cairo.

In the bath, there are spaces for group perversion … Males of different ages and different nationalities come. The cameras of El Mostakbai managed to do a filmed investigation to prove incidents of group perversion and record the confessions of the owners of this den.

We had decided to show the episode last Wednesday [December 3]. El Mostakbai filed complaints with national institutions about what is happening in the baths. But the warrants from the prosecution were late, so the program team decided to postpone the show to give security institutions a chance to close down the baths. Immediately a force of morals police under the instruction of General Mohammed Qassem, the head of general administration for Cairo Intelligence, and with the leadership of Colonel Ahmed Hashad, the head of the investigations department of Cairo Morals [adab] Police, arrested the men who were in the baths, caught in the act during a group sex party. They also arrested the head of the den and all the workers. They were immediately transported to the prosecution with no clothes. Their clothes were taken as evidence in the case.

The El Mostakbai program will be shown next Wednesday [December 10]: the whole story of the dens for spreading AIDS in Egypt.

Stay tuned. This is a higher-headcount case than the already-famous “gay wedding video” scandal, and promises to be as high-profile. Questions multiply: for one, how long had Mona Iraqi and El Mostakbai had the hammam under surveillance? What’s clear is that another pro-Sisi media organ is working in close collusion with security forces, to produce a sensational show about sex with appalling and terrifying images, to invade privacy and engorge the prisons and destroy innocent people’s lives.

Screen shot 2014-12-08 at 4.47.05 AMIf you want to tell Mona Iraqi how you admire her, her personal Facebook page is here. (Update: Her other fan page is here. It turns out that there, the post remains up — for now.) And here are more of the horrific pictures she so avidly posted. Where the faces are blurred, it was done by me, not by Mona Iraqi.

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The woman filming on the right is probably Mona Iraqi.

I hadn’t believed tensions around sexuality and gender could rise higher in Egypt. But they have. A brutal campaign of arrests continues, and the media incitement steadily intensifies. On December 3, for instance, Youm7 — the favorite mouthpiece of the Ministry of Interior — announced that morals forces led by General Magdy Moussa had uncovered a “den of prostitution” in the rich Zamalek district of Cairo, including people it called mokhanatheen [“sissy” or effeminate], transgender, and homosexual. They “found on the site quantities of drugs and sex drive pills and underwear and sex videos.” The accused used “several Internet sites and pages to promote their sexual networks.”

This message about “networks” is a menacing constant. Egypt’s powers that be treat homosexuality and gender dissidence as political, and — like any kind of politics under an ever more constricting dictatorship — conspiratorial and sinister. In mid-November, for instance, police arrested a secondary school teacher with four other men in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, and accused him of leading a “homosexuality network” there. The ringleader had a laptop with gay images on it, as well as “women’s clothing, wine, and condoms”; yet this didn’t stop him, according to the media, from trying  to “attract sympathizers to the terrorist [Muslim] Brotherhood” — by having sex with them. He reportedly also liked to flash the four-finger salute of the Brotherhood in bed. (I have spoken to two people who knew the man distantly. They assert that while he was devout, and repelled by the state murders of Brotherhood supporters in 2013, the notion of his recruiting anyone to a political movement is absurd.) The case had a blatant quality of vengeance. During the furor over the “gay wedding” video, the banned but still militant Brotherhood had accused Sisi’s regime of bringing perverted marriage to Egypt; now the regime charges the Brotherhood with passing out pervert sex as a membership bonus. It all shows how security threats and sexual temptations blend to a single enemy in official propaganda. The man got three years in prison; his co-“conspirators,” three to nine. More lives destroyed.

Top: Defendants in the Zamalek case, from Al-Youm al-Sabbah; Bottom: Gen. Magdy Moussa, from VetoGate

Top: Defendants in the Zamalek case, from Al-Youm al-Sabbah; Bottom: Gen. Magdy Moussa, from VetoGate

The hapless lead defendant from Helwan figured again two days ago in a long, livid expose on the tabloid website VetoGate, revealing the extent of “perversion” in Egypt. By now, his crime has swelled to “managing an international perversion network.”

The investigations revealed that he was one of the leading perverts in Egypt; he was proven to have practiced perversion and also exported it to rich [Gulf] Arabs by sending them young people. … The investigations also revealed that he facilitated the travel of a number of perverts abroad under the cover of working in tourism, giving them cuts in exchange that are more than the money sluts and [female] prostitutes earn. They facilitate and make it easy for perverts to travel abroad to enjoy freedom in practicing perversion openly — with no fear of the pursuit by security forces that they experience here, because of the refusal of the Egyptian and Islamic community to tolerate these practices that go against religion, morals, and traditions.

This is heady stuff for a high-school French teacher. But the regime’s xenophobia, its loathing of the decadent Gulf (where, despite the steady support the Saudis furnish Sisi, Qatar’s rulers continue to fund the rebel Brotherhood), and its fear of any solidarities outside State surveillance — all these potent anxieties intersect. “Sexual perverts” are scapegoats and victims.

The VetoGate article is worth quoting at length. It unveils insecurities that fuel not only the crackdown but the regime’s broader politics. It claims to offer a “map of the perverts [shawazz] existing in Egypt,” given the reporter by a “source” high in the morals police: “We monitor movements and activities of many people who commit acts against morals. Especially the crimes of sexual perversion.”

Lately the number of moral crimes has been increasing. … The surprise is the increasing percentage of sexual perversion in Egypt, which has reached the highest rate in decades.

This fits neatly with the narrative by which the Sisi government, and its police, claim legitimacy. The specter of social sickness makes them needed.

The source added that the outbreak of the January 25 revolution [which overthrew Mubarak in 2011] contributed to spreading crimes and activities against morals. That was because of the absence of the security institution from the scene at that time, until the revolution of June 30 [2013: the coup that brought Sisi to power]. Since then, the national security has begun to regain its strength.

We're watching you: Graphic from VetoGate article

We’re watching you: Graphic from VetoGate article

Despite that, the perverts — “of both kinds,” male and female — are still everywhere.

Security officials drew VetoGate a map of the most popular places for perverts to go in Egypt. It includes a lot of cafes and ahawi [traditional coffeeshops] where they gather in the downtown district … and in City Stars [a giant mall] in Nasr City,  and Costa Café in Maadi and Grand Mall Maadi … and in one of the cafes in El-Giza Square in front of Omar Effendi store, and Talaat Harb Square, and El Korba Square in Heliopolis, and in front of Arcadia Mall in the area of the Maspiro building, and Cinema Café Odeon, and El Borsa Café. The source also added that sexual perverts live in Egypt hidden and discreet from all sides, like night bats, and they appear under the name “gay” [transliterated in Arabic]. You will find that each and every one has a name different from his original name, by which they call each other. There are nicknames like Oum el Ali, Oum el Farouk, Oum El Susu, Oum el Fadi [nicknames for mothers in Arabic]. …. That helps them forget their masculinity and appear feminine and arouses the instinct that they have. … They are professionals in practicing prostitution in a wide range, and with very expensive prices that compete with the prices of female sluts.

Self-evidently this justifies the government’s ongoing crackdown on downtown Cairo life, including cafes that breed deviant sex while sheltering dissident opinion.

Scene from the glamorous Cairo gay scene, Egypt's fabulous answer to Studio 54

Apparently a glimpse of the glamorous Cairo gay scene, Egypt’s fabulous answer to Studio 54

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the society of perverts has a conspiratorial counter-government.

The source exposed a very interesting surprise, when he confirmed that the management of these networks is through a godfather for perverts who administers the ring and divides perverts among those who are craving forbidden pleasure. In pursuing this task, he also communicates with his customers among tourists and from hotels through groups and pages on social-network websites.

The godfather gives the four-finger Muslim Brotherhood salute, while making an offer you can't refuse

The godfather gives the four-finger Muslim Brotherhood salute, while making an offer you can’t refuse

The godfather also appoints mediators, who “in case of any conflict or fight between people attached in a relationship” will work “to resolve matters between them.” That is because perverts are violently jealous, and “these problems can result in strong damages to the partners and to perverts like them.” Moreover, “the source continues that the godfather also writes the perverts’ marriage contracts. It is a usual contract, with this difference, that it is a marriage between two men.” The article quotes at length from what it claims is a contract for an ‘urfi marriage (a form of Sunni union not registered in civil law) between two men. The godfather did his job devoutly: There’s even a dowry [sadaq]. The whole thing is calculated to arouse an ordinary reader to fury against the imitative impudence of perversion. The police source shares the outrage. “The throne of God is being shaken” by the perverts, he tells VetoGate, which probably made this up.

Ominously insouciant, the article even hints that charges of “debauchery” and “perversion” may unseat high state officials.

The source revealed to VetoGate … a shocking surprise. A big, well-known official in the government was arrested along with his son and others, in female outfits, while practicing forbidden pleasure in an apartment. He confessed to the prosecution that he is accustomed to practicing perversion and advertising it through the pages of social networks. He carried out and organized parties for perverts in exchange for financial gain. …

The source reveals that the forces of the administration found, after the criminal’s arrest, a number of videos showing practices of a group of perverts who hold sensitive posts in Egypt. Some videos contain dance routines, with men wearing female outfits. Other videos show them practicing perversion. The criminal declares that he intentionally recorded this discreetly during the parties that he organized for them, to protect himself, specially because some of them are in very high positions: it would be a tool of pressure that he could use if needed, to blackmail them and force them to obey his wishes …. And the source confirmed that the criminal is jailed now, by order of the prosecution.

It’s conceivable that this is just a fantasy from VetoGate, which lies regularly. Or it might actually presage a purge. (Lately cracks have showed in the seeming unanimity of State support for Sisi’s dominance. Last week voice tapes, leaked to the media in mysterious fashion, seemed to reveal high military officials conspiring to fake evidence in the trial of overthrown ex-President Morsi. If real, they suggest that somebody highly placed wants to undermine the government’s most crucial maneuvers. And possibly somebody else wants to punish him.) To speculate on the basis of this nonsense is pure paranoia. But paranoia is everywhere in Egypt these days. The government’s paranoia, rooting out perversion among sidewalk-cafe denizens slumped over shishas, finds its match in the paranoia of its subjects, reading dark plots between the lines of tabloids. Ignorance feeds ignorance. Fear breeds fear.

زودوا-الجهل

Presidential aide: “Sir — sir — what will we do about the garbage, traffic, electricity, hospitals, security, income, law and order, jobs and the future — WHAT WILL WE DO ABOUT IGNORANCE!?!!” Sisi, after a pause: “…Increase ignorance!” Controversial cartoon by Andeel for Tok Tok magazine

Fear is not abstract. It finds a form in the violence inflicted on vulnerable bodies, the stripped bodies on Bab el-Bahr Street in the winter chill. Look at the pictures; the men’s backs bowed, their hands bound, dragged naked into the December night and off to hell. It is 10 AM in Cairo now, and the men must be in cells in the Azbekeya lockup, perhaps still naked, perhaps being tortured at this moment, freezing and despairing. I can think of nothing but the pictures, but thinking of them is unbearable.

The state in Egypt lives on fear. Reporters and writers who intermittently tried to live in truth, fighting fear with the strength of a lucid sentence or a honed story, now replicate the fear and spread it. They terrorize, together. Look at their victims.

From Mona Iraqi's Facebook page

From Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page

 

Buggery and beggary, and Ferguson

Hijras in Bangalore. Photo by Johanan Ottensooser, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsandsugar/6723701709/

Hijras in Bangalore. Photo by Johanan Ottensooser, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsandsugar/6723701709/

On November 26 and in the days before, police in Bangalore, India, rounded up more than 150 hijras and put them in a concentration camp. (Hijra is a traditional term, across much of South Asia, for people born males who who identify either as women or as a third gender.)  At Orinam, an online resource for LGBT issues in India, human rights lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan tells the story:

Approximately 167 members of the transgender community have been taken away by the police and kept at the Beggars’ colony. These detentions have been entirely arbitrary … Most detainees were not on the streets begging or doing any act that is prohibited under the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975. Most of them were going about their daily chores when they were arbitrarily picked up by police officers and taken away to the Beggar’s colony in Hoysalas. The police even walked into the homes of the hijras and dragged them out. … Clearly the objective of the police was not merely to pick up those who were begging, but in effect all persons who answered to the description of being hijra.

The reason for this mass detention is unknown to us but there is information suggesting that this is retaliation for the misbehaviour of one of the members of the community. Even if this were true … [i]t is unconscionable that the entire transgender women community should be punished for the alleged wrongs of some members of the community.

The Bangalore Mirror reports the crackdown began on November 24th, with “more than 200″ picked up. Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali told the Mirror that when she and her colleagues tried to investigate, “Officials at Beggars Colony did not even let us in and threatened that even we will also be locked inside the rehabilitation centre.”

Thanks to human rights activists’ quick intervention, officials freed the prisoners by the end of the 26th. Padmashali wrote on Facebook:

The day was hectic in fighting for our rights with Minister, Commissioner, Additional Commissioner. After long lobby [the victims] finally got released. Today protest against police brutality in front of town hall. Permission was granted and again cancelled. Finally we were on street claiming our fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution of India and were successful.

Protest in front of Bangalore Town Hall, November 26, from the Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali (speaking, lower L)

Protest in front of Bangalore Town Hall, November 26, from the Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali (speaking, lower L): Photo © Akkai Padmashali

Congratulations to everyone who worked to get the victims free. India’s LGBT rights movement rocks, along with India’s progressive civil society in general. At the same time, the repression leaves questions about whether police perceive any limits on what they can do to people they despise. My friend Mario da Penha tweeted to Bangalore authorities:

Screen shot 2014-11-27 at 6.10.23 PMThe ugly case reveals even more hideous things. When I wrote “concentration camp,” I meant it. Police seized the hijras under the Prevention of Beggary Act, passed by Karnataka state in 1975, which mandates that beggars be sent to a “relief centre” for “rehabilitation” — for up to three years.

The law says a magistrate should decide these sentences; but in practice, as Ambrose Pinto wrote in an eloquent expose in 2011, many victims are held without any hearing.

Most of those who were picked up have not been informed of the reasons for their being placed in the colony. … Migrants, labourers and people who come to the city in search of employment are randomly arrested and detained for indefinite periods. Instead of producing the inmates before the Magistrates, they are charge-sheeted by the administrative staff of the colony. People are treated worse than convicts with no access to any legal assistance.

The law defines a beggar as anyone “having no visible means of subsistence” who is caught “in any public place.” That makes looking poor a criminal act. In 2010, the Deccan Herald recounted “horror stories,” especially of migrants who had come to neoliberal Bangalore for the table scraps of its wealth:

Inmates of the [Bangalore Beggars] Colony were not necessarily beggars. Take the case of 25-year-old Rahman, a native of Davangere. The youth worked as a painter … About twenty days back, on his way to work, he was reportedly picked up by some people, bundled into a van and dumped at the Colony … “I was thrashed and not given an opportunity to contact my family members and inform them about my whereabouts,” he rued….

Another ailing inmate, Muninanjappa, a resident of Avalahalli said he was waiting for a bus near the Karnataka High Court when he was picked up by unknown men, on the pretext that he appeared too weak and required hospitalisation. He was later brought to the Beggars’ Colony.

At least these victims get some care, right? The Karnataka state government’s website describes the “relief centre” like a summer camp: It “extensivly [sic] works on rehabilitation of Beggars. It provides not only shelter and hygenic food but also gives training on various skills and strives for better living of Beggars.” The state also shows you pictures, perhaps less than encouraging:

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Scenes of Bangalore’s poor, detained and “rehabilitated” in the Beggars Colony, from https://www.karnataka.gov.in/prms/

Reality is darker. Over just eight months in 2010, at least 286 Beggars Colony inmates died, many from tainted or inadequate food and substandard medical care. An official report found “heartless conditions,” according to The Hindu: 

Gross violations ranging from financial irregularities, inefficient administration, medical negligence and inhuman attitude of the staff … woeful lack of medical help with no more than one doctor available during day, and the flagrant manner in which all mandatory legal procedures and rules were thrown to the wind every step of the way. … Not only did several deaths occur under unexplained circumstances, but several bodies simply disappeared. … [A]s part of a large racket, vital organs could have been extracted and sold illegally.

One inmate told the Deccan Herald: “Everyday, a few inmates fall ill after having food and are shifted out of the Colony on the pretext of being hospitalised. But they never return. Only later we come to know that they have died. Even the place of their cremation will not be known to us.” A media furor erupted; a state cabinet minister was fired; the government dilly-dallied, then brought token charges against four officials; no one seems to have been convicted. It is not remotely clear that conditions have substantively improved.

Inmate of the Beggars Colony in Bangalore being removed to a hospital for treatment, under media pressure, in August 2010. Photo by K Murali Kumar,  The Hindu, December 28, 2010

Inmate of the Beggars Colony in Bangalore being removed to a hospital for treatment, after media pressure, in August 2010. Photo by K. Murali Kumar, The Hindu, December 28, 2010

This is the fate the 167 hijras mercifully escaped. I am detailing these monstrosities for a reason.

First, the laws underlying this are fascinating. The best-known legal instrument in India for persecuting LGBT people is Section 377 of the Criminal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” It’s a survival of British colonialism, direct descendant of a statute against the“detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery” enacted in England under King Henry VIII (he of the many wives). In 2009 the Delhi High Court overturned the law, to rejoicing across the subcontinent. Then, in late 2013, India’s Supreme Court curtly reinstated it. The fact that it’s back has given an informal go-ahead to renewed repression. And there may be no police in India more eager for a crackdown than Bangalore’s. The Karnataka constabulary have a terrible record with transgender people: a history of harassing and jailing them, torturing them, evicting them from homes.

Yet in this case Bangalore’s finest didn’t use the revived 377 at all. Instead, they turned to a law that has equally venerable colonial roots: a law against not buggery, but beggary.

Where did it come from? Laws against vagrants and beggars date from the beginnings of the modern nation-state and its powers. They gave muscular, growing governments tools to classify as well as dominate their citizens. England imposed them, also around the time of Henry VIII, as a means to manage peasants uprooted by enclosure and privatization of formerly common lands; the laws punished any who refused to transit into wage labor, who couldn’t or wouldn’t become workers in a nascent capitalist economy. In time, they were enforced against migrant laborers, the homeless, travelers, street children. As lawyer and activist Alok Gupta and I noted in 2008, they “criminalized poverty, to keep it and the effects of economic dislocation out of sight.” They took on new purposes, though, when carried to European colonies. “In Europe,” we wrote, “vagrancy laws targeted the poor, but rarely had an explicitly racial side. In the colonies, everything was racial. These laws regulated the movements, and controlled the conduct, of the non-white population.”

Sheriffs whipping a beggar out of town, from 16th-century English woodcut

Sheriffs whipping a beggar out of town, from 16th-century English woodcut

Because they strove to subdue and suppress whole groups, not individuals, these laws worked differently from other criminal provisions. Their aim was, Gupta and I wrote,

to rid the public sphere of people not wanted there: to “alleviate a condition defined by the lawmakers as undesirable,” as one commentator observes. They do not require a “proscribed action or inaction,” another writes, but depend on a “certain personal condition or being a person of a specified character.” They make people criminals for what they are, not what they do.

19th-century photograph of "reputed hermaphrodite," eastern Bengal. Photo © British Library Board; from http://notchesblog.com/2014/01/06/hyperbole-and-horror-hijras-and-the-british-imperial-state-in-india/

19th-century photograph of “reputed hermaphrodite,” Eastern Bengal. Photo © British Library Board; from http://bit.ly/1uPkEyo

In 1763, the French philosophe – and judge — Guillaume Francois Le Trosne declared that when the law looked at a beggar, “his estate is his crime, and a habitual crime that provides the ground for conviction.” A direct line runs from this to what the legal scholar Meena Radhakrishna identifies as the guiding principles of the vagrancy acts India passed after independence. “Following English law,” Indian legislators treated vagrancy as “habitual,” a matter of character, not actions. “Indian vagrancy was being again defined in much the same way as European one,” an expression of “proneness to criminality.” Specific deeds were irrelevant. Examining beggary laws in both Bombay and Karnataka, she observes that “from the time a beggar is apprehended, the terminology treats the beggar as an offender, even before it is proven that the person was indeed begging.” Authorities don’t need evidence; they hardly need a trial. Police can convict and confine anyone from a suspect group on sight. Victims are, as Radhakrishna says, “criminals from birth.” India’s Beggar Colonies are great-grandchildren to the dépôts de mendicité and workhouses where European governments used to lock up their unwanted and unemployed. But — offering “rehabilitation” through indefinite and brutal jailing, with only a risible pretense of due process — they are also the dressed-up, moderately more presentable siblings of Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Guantanamo Bay.

The hijra, it seems, first appeared in modern Indian law through colonial provisions against vagrancy. 19th-century British administrators marked off most nomadic tribes on the subcontinent as “criminal,” largely because they were “vagrants,” refusing to settle down. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 included “eunuchs” as a culpable group (defining them as “all members of the male sex who admit themselves, or upon medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent”). An 1897 amendment required eunuchs suspected of specified criminal behaviors (including those in Section 377) to register with the state — much like prostitutes. It mandated that any such eunuch “dressed or ornamented like a woman in a public street … be arrested without warrant” and imprisoned for two years. It also held eunuchs incapable of making a gift or a will, acting as a guardian, or adopting a son. This put hijras in a class somewhere between children on the one hand, and beggars and bandits on the other: legally incompetent like minors, yet innately menacing to civilized society.* *

We're off to see the Wizard: Real estate in South Bangalore

We’re off to see the Wizard: Real estate in South Bangalore

Why are these ancient laws still there? Because they’re useful. They put a good-streetkeeping seal of approval on social cleansing. In a place like Bangalore — South Asia’s Silicon Valley, model megalopolis of local neoliberalism — they prod the police to scrub thoroughfares into hygenic shopping malls, purify the sidewalks of the impudent and unclean, punish those who dare to be poor, set up a gated, rich, and renovated environment. Brilliant Bangalore, city and symbol, embodies “India shining” — the slogan coined by the right-wing BJP ten years ago and trumpeted by neoliberal icon Narendra Modi in his triumphant election campaign this year. For the rich and tech-savvy, Bangalore will be paradise and Paris, Manhattan and Mahagonny. For the homeless, sex workers, migrants, hijras, it’s the Beggars Colony. Bertolt Brecht, exiled in Los Angeles in the 1940s, wrote:

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.

In late October, the Karnataka High Court demanded that the government make Bangalore (in a newspaper’s words) a “beggar-free city.”Justice Ram Mohan Reddy thundered: “Every day, I have to pay a beggar on the street. … Remove them from all public places. You should have removed every beggar from the street by now. I am fed up.”

Shining India, to be built in Bangalore: A new development. Apartments here range from 5-10 million rupees (US $80-160K). The average yearly wage in Bangalore is 60K rupees ($1000)

Shining India, to be built in Bangalore: A new development. Apartments here range in price from 5-10 million rupees (US $80-160K). The average yearly wage in Bangalore is 60K rupees ($1000)

There’s a lesson in all this. If society stigmatizes a class of people as comprehensively undesirable, getting rid of just one law won’t solve their situation. If Section 377 is scrapped, the police have other penalties at their disposal. There are plenty of provisions to target “deviant” identities and public conduct; though buggery may be out of style, beggary is forever. (Even a landmark Supreme Court of India ruling this year recognizing transgender people’s constitutional equality — discussed here and here, with a more skeptical view here – hasn’t removed the arrows from the cops’ quiver. Supposedly “neutral” laws outlast a formal ban on discrimination.) Moreover, a legal change that salves abuses against some members of the class may leave many others in the lurch. Gay activists worldwide are right to rejoice at the repeal of sodomy laws; yet does this mean real “decriminalization” for all people in their communities? Not in India. The beggary codes, a stringent law on sex work (or the “Suppression of Immoral Traffic”), and punishments for “public indecency” ensure hijras will be criminals long after 377 is gone — along with lots of poorer gays and lesbians who don’t have safe indoor space to be sexual. Not in the US, either. Lawrence v. Texas was liberating; marriage is coming down the pike; but gay men still endure jail and blackmail under solicitation laws, and anti-prostitution measures make merely walking while trans a crime. Too many naive advocates speak of LGBT “decriminalization” as though the laws still constraining L, and the T, and much of the B and G, didn’t exist — or didn’t matter. That’s not just ignorance. It’s indifference to human lives.

Police power I: Bangalore police command the streets during an India-Pakistan cricket match, 2012

Police power I: Bangalore police command the streets during an India-Pakistan cricket match, 2012

Hundreds of millions of people in supposed democracies live, in practice, under dictatorships. States of emergency follow them wherever they walk. Race, poverty, the way you look or what you do with your body can all deprive you of due process, brand you an outlaw, strip down your citizenship — no less than a military coup can. (It may be no coincidence that Karnataka’s beggary law dates from 1975, the year that Indira Gandhi’s Emergency exposed all Indians to similar arbitrary, repressive rule.) Sex workers know this, and hijras, and many more. I’ll venture one broad comment on the Bangalore story — and I think some Indian activists might agree, based on old conversations I recall. Liberation for Karnataka’s hijras won’t come from changing 377 or the beggary law alone. It would require overthrowing a system of police power that confines some people to permanent criminality. And it would require overturning an economy of patriarchy, hierarchy, and stigma that relegates some people to permanent social exile. What Ambrose Pinto wrote of Bangalore’s beggars is likely true of migrants, and sex workers, and hijras too: “The city hates the beggars and refuses them human treatment. As far as the State is concerned, they are no citizens.”

Those are massive and insuperable tasks, but the world is full of similar ones. “Ferguson,” in recent months, has become a name for a massive, seemingly immovable accumulation of injustice. Two days ago a grand jury refused to indict the cop who gunned down an unarmed black man. Talk of police and citizenship these days inevitably brings the name to mind.

Police power II: Police force protesters off the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Police power II: Police force protesters off the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

As with our old sodomy laws (carried to America with British colonists), India’s beggary laws have cousins in the United States. Harsh laws against vagrancy spread almost immediately after slavery ended. “Nine southern states adopted” them, Michelle Alexander writes, and “made it a criminal offense not to work”– “applied selectively to blacks”:

Prisoners were forced to work for little or no pay. One vagrancy act specifically provided that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen” must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found with no lawful employment were deemed vagrants and convicted. Clearly the purpose of the black codes and the vagrancy laws in particular was to establish another system of forced labor.

The Black Codes intended to reincarnate slavery; they were mostly overturned. Vagrancy laws returned in other forms, though. They exist everywhere in the US today. As in colonial societies, they were never meant to punish crimes so much as to control a racially subordinated population. They remain part of a vastly larger legal edifice circumscribing movement, criminalizing solidarity, denying due process to a subject class: they still bolster what Alexander calls the new Jim Crow, as they supported the old one. This is a thread linking Bangalore and Ferguson.

Pollice with armored personnel carriers fire tear gas at protesters, Ferguson, Missouri, August 17, 2014. Photo: Roberto Rodriguez/EPA

Pollice with armored personnel carriers fire tear gas at protesters, Ferguson, Missouri, August 17, 2014. Photo: Roberto Rodriguez/EPA

That edifice is huge. To face the whole of it is to feel your helplessness. Eliminating one detail or another might be emollient in a mild way but seems hardly able to shake the structure. The police power that keeps part of the population powerless is a technological, ideological behemoth; it survives any of the particular laws it claims to carry out. The racism it enforces is the deep fact of American life. Its strength comes from being protean as well as profound, at once obvious to its victims and invisible to the people who act it out. (One poll last week showed that only 37% of white Americans think Ferguson raised important issues about race. 80% of African-Americans thought so.) Those who propose remedies end up talking in the problem’s terms. The American system sustains itself by criminalizing people; built into its version of justice is the belief that you can right any wrong by criminalizing still more people. Prosecuting a killer cop would fix little or nothing. The problem is that not prosecuting him nods affirmingly at the racism, and tells the police to go kill some more.

None of that’s a secret. It’s a form of what radicals have probably felt every century, facing interlocked, impenetrable systems of domination. Any single change looks paltry, palliative, impotent against the totality. Where can anybody start?

Don’t look at me. But I did feel some glimmering hope — improbably — reading an article by left-wing lawyer David Cole about the American carceral state. As most Americans don’t know, the United States has highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Its Gulag is overwhelmingly racial. (The percentage of African-Americans in prison is more than three times the rate of incarceration of the general population in any country worldwide.) What hides behind penitentiary walls is, of course, the other side of that overwhelming police power felt on open streets in Ferguson. The power imprisons those it doesn’t kill.

Graph from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html; by Peter Wagner, 2012.

Graph from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html; by Peter Wagner, 2012.

Where can the work of unlocking the prisons begin? Politicians are lockjawed, parties deadlocked, courts looking “not to lead but to follow.” But Cole concludes:

Mass incarceration is one of the most harmful practices we as a society have ever adopted … If mass incarceration is to end, it won’t be because courts declare it unconstitutional. It will instead require the public to come to understand … that our policies are inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive. And it will require us to admit … that our approach to criminal law is cruel and inhumane.

Here’s the rub, though. A transvaluation of values like that doesn’t happen by voluntary osmosis. The public doesn’t placidly persuade itself that what it thought was right is profligate or immoral, that what it thought was protection is devastation and sheer waste. In all of history, such a change has only come from a single starting point: when the disposable themselves stood up and said: We are not waste material. It’s only happened because the trash refused to be taken out, when the victims of inhumanity shouted: We are human. Such a consciousness negates the negations that neoliberalism or militarism beget, sweeps away the sterile detritus of all the reigning denials. In breaching existing reality, it is intrinsically violent; in annulling the intolerable, it affirms itself, and life. That is the definition of a revolutionary act. I don’t know whether it is possible anymore. The air is thin these days, and shouts don’t carry; the walls loom close, and scrape the skin. If it is possible, Bangalore and Ferguson are places it could begin.

Hijras at Bangalore Pride march, 2008

Hijras at Bangalore Pride march, 2008

* NOTE: The text on how “eunuchs” appeared in colonial India’s Criminal Tribes Act has been corrected above. The original text read: “In 1897 the colonial rulers amended the Criminal Tribes Act to add “eunuchs” as a group (defining them as ‘all members of the male sex who admit themselves, or upon medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent’).” I revised the text after Mario da Penha kindly pointed out that eunuchs were already listed in the original law; the revision reflects the research (at the hyperlinks) of Arvind Narrain and Siddharth Narrain.

Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com. Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.'”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor’s] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives — seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom — political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” — said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

اسئلة قانونية بخصوص المثلية في مصر

بعد أن صار المثليون ومتحولو النوع الاجتماعي والجنس في مصر هدفاً لاعتداءات الشرطة كصورة من صور الحماية الزائفة للأخلاق، فقد قمنا بجمع اسئلة من المجتمع المثلي والاجابة عنها بواسطة متخصصون قانونيون بهدف حماية المجتمع المثلي من هذه الاعتداءات قبل وفي حال وقوعها. برجاء مشاركة هذا المنشور مع جميع الصفحات المتعلقة بالمثلية الجنسية والمتحولين/ات جنسياً حتى يتاح لأكبر عدد من الاشخاص الاستفادة بها

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Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Policing Pride

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Stonewall riots began, the reason Pride happens at this season. I have a Dark Gay Secret: I’ve never enjoyed most Prides. Mostly it’s because of how I deal with crowds. Prides are peculiar marches, not about specific goals but about visibility itself as a general good; the exultant pointlessness, which is the point, disconcerts me slightly, and I feel like a guy who comes to a lazy cocktail party thinking it’s a fancy-dress ball. I swing into a different state of mind, perversely, if there’s a chance the police or a mob might attack. Then I’m poised to document, record, act, a good human rights gnome, as I’ve done at tiny embattled Prides from Budapest in 1992 to Zimbabwe in 2000 — or at probably hundreds of other demonstrations from Romania to Egypt. That I know how to do. But otherwise I stand around wondering what’s the value of my personally being visible — does anyone want to see me? — and why the hell I’m there.

This is by way of explaining that in sixteen or so years of living in New York, I only went to Pride once. It was 1998. A friend and I staked out sidewalk space on lower Fifth Avenue and watched the platoons go by. It was fun till we heard a roar of exuberant welcome, a surging surf of cheers, billow down from a few blocks before; as the thunder neared we saw a blue-uniformed brigade the crowd was wildly applauding, and someone told us it was the first-ever contingent of LGBT police officially allowed to march in the parade. This was nine months after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been raped by policemen in a Brooklyn jail. I turned away. I asked my friend: how could they go all jismic over an institution that, however many gays it hired, was historically their oppressor, still firmly in the business of oppression? (This was the warm noon of Giuliani time.) He frowned dourly. “They love power,” he said.

Today is Pride in London. (A few years ago it was renamed to avoid the whole annoying question of whose identities were included — L? G? B? T? Q? — and make it more a self-lauding celebration of the city’s own diversity, however unspecified.) A good if only slightly jargony article by Huw Lemmey asks questions similar to mine in more detail. He describes how the festivities welcome the Metropolitan Police, parading in full uniform.

Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole. …It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.

We'e here, we're queer, don't move, motherfucker: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

We’e here, we’re queer, we love you, really: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

As this shows, it is easy to see the privileged police participation as symbolic of things a lot of people dislike about Prides these days, though fewer and fewer find language to resist them: their mainstreaming, commodification and corporatization, symptoms of a movement demobilized. For “corporate and state institutions,” Pride’s an opportunity. The “’visibility’ of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon.”

Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

We’re here and fuck you: Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

It’s equally sensible to see in the cops’ presence a more precise historical wound: an insult to those who preserve the memory of police violence, whether against an Abner Louima in New York or a Jean Charles de Menezes in London, or the many others whose unreported stories they represent; or a white- or pink-washing of the ways security forces deal with less anodyne demonstrations. Faced with gatherings more militantly “diverse” than Pride and more impelled by politics than pleasure, British police crack down hard. They routinely “kettle” or encircle any nonviolent protest, isolating it from public view, enabling brutality, dangerously crushing the participants. The Guardian calls this a method for “authoritarian governments” that “brook no opposition and contrive a compliant society.” Since I haven’t been to a demo in London since 1993, I’ve mainly seen the practice in open, diverse, democratic Egypt, where twice I was almost trampled to death in a protest constricted by a tightening security cordon. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has bought three watercannon for his city this summer, to soak menacing subversives who cannot make it to the beach.

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

Since in New York or London (like so many other patrolled and guarded cities) victims of state violence tend to be people of color or other marginalized minorities, critiques of the police presence also resurrect suppressed questions of identity and justice within queer communities themselves. When “law enforcement become[s] part of the corpus of Pride,” Lemmey writes,

other bodies are necessarily erased. …  how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? …. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.

There is a fourth issue, which also grows out of the troubled history of LGBT people with policing. As long as the police are around (and, as Raymond Chandler wrote, no one has figured out how to say goodbye to them yet), they’ll be called on to protect LGBT people against violence, as well as to eschew homophobic violence themselves. All the sensitivity trainings and diversity hires and appearances at Pride serve this end: opening the institution to the benefit of people it’s supposed to serve, but hasn’t. The ability to claim the state’s protection when you need it is a constituent part of citizenship. But protection against whom? When these establishments promptly move on to identify other enemies, other aliens, new outsiders, new victims, are these vaunted openings also making LGBT people the privileged clients of repression? And when does a client become an accomplice? “I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” Judith Butler, declining the “Civil Courage Prize” she was offered at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day in 2010, said: 

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no?

That’s still a question.

Police raid a migrants' camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

Police raid a migrants’ camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

World Pride, a putatively global confab, has been going on in Toronto, Canada this week.  Although people can attend panels to hear about particular abuses by particular police forces in, say, Uganda or Russia, one subject that’s unlikely to come up is how security techniques, surveillance, and control have gone just as global as Pride has. Yet Toronto’s cops learn from Giuliani’s how to deal with the intrusive and unwanted, and a rich cross-fertilized discussion of how to round up people and neutralize or kill them goes on between those enlightened cities and Cairo or Sao Paulo. Mike Davis warned a decade ago that the defining question of the twenty-first century city will be how to police the poor. This is ever more evident. Queer Ontario has put out a “Statement of Concern Regarding the TAVIS Policing of the Downtown Eastside during the World Pride Event,” and I will reproduce it in full:

Queer Ontario is very concerned about the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) policing initiative of the downtown eastside scheduled to coincide with the World Pride (WP) event. As many visitors to Toronto are expected during this major tourism event, we are concerned that the police are stepping up their intervention and surveillance of marginalized and vulnerable downtown eastside residents. We are concerned that the police are using a global tourism event as a pretext to crackdown on the area’s poor residents, the homeless, street-based sex workers, drug users, and others essentially engaging in an “undesirables cleansing” of the area.

We are concerned that the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be violated during the TAVIS policing effort as its policy of targeted ‘prevention’ of crime does little to address the social and economic marginality that the area’s residents face — a social and economic situation marked by poverty, racism, gender violence, homelessness and discrimination. Especially vulnerable are the area’s female and female-identified transsexual and transgendered street-based sex workers and the local drug-using population. Adding to the problem is the fact that the downtown eastside is where many of the social services that the residents rely on are located – forcibly displacing local residents would thereby compound their difficulties.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

As the TAVIS policing effort is contemporaneous with the World Pride event, we are especially concerned that the World Pride Committee not remain silent on this issue facing our poor and disenfranchised residents of the downtown eastside, and area which is adjacent to the Church Street Village and which is home to many of the city’s LGBTQ population. We are asking the World Pride organizers not to remain silent on this issue and to remember the history of policing in our LGBTQ communities. Heavy-handed and discriminatory practices by the police are not unknown to LGBTQ folks, past and present. Everyone has a right to the city and to unhindered access to the services many need to survive; not a few of whom will be directly affected by the TAVIS effort will themselves be LGBTQ people, and are, by and large, unable to afford many of the events WP has to offer.

We at Queer Ontario urge you to take this issue seriously as there are many people in our communities and beyond who are expecting World Pride organizers to remember our queer history and to act accordingly, working with the police to temper their activities during this time. We hope WP does not choose to engage in a shameful silence when the cops do the work of violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the public and our poor citizens. We urge you to consider your role, as leaders of global events attached to a Human Rights Conference to not become a force for denying the same rights that queers/trans folks have had to fight for decades to obtain.

This is a very important issue for how events are going to be organized in this city now and for years to come. We ask that WP organizers step up and make their voices heard for the more marginalized citizens in the downtown area. We request that they not let a major global event become a handmaiden of short-sighted policing efforts and the displacement of the poor and marginalized, which have often accompanied such global entertainment and sporting events worldwide.

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

TAVIS, a “police unit that swoops into violence-prone pockets of the city to gather intelligence and connect with regular people,”  has severely “strained relations with heavily policed communities,” the Toronto Star phlegmatically reports:

TAVIS officers stop, question and document citizens at the highest rate of any other police unit, as they are expected to do. They also have the highest degree of carding of blacks, which, to be sure, is partially a reflection of the demographics of where they are most often deployed. …

With 22,000 arrests to its name in five years, TAVIS scares a lot of people — although not the city’s white, rich, criminal, drug-smoking mayor. But the anxieties about World Pride also draw on events like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where police sweeps and harassment drove sex workers and other undesirables out of their neighborhoods, doing serious harm to their livelihoods and (by limiting their access to health services) lives.

From ‏@stonewalluk  , 2013: "London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne's Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!"

From ‏@stonewalluk , 2013: “London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne’s Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!”

Large urban Pride fests like New York’s or London’s are not just celebrations for LGBT communities, or for their host towns. They’re tourist events, chances for neoliberally refurbished cities to show off their vibe and neutered variety to a consuming world. Queer Toronto gets the broad point right: Prides are now in the same class as giant sports carnivals — which, as I’ve written before, always feed fears of alien identities tarnishing the urban image, and always lead to policing the unwanted into either prisons or invisibility, the latter sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting. Among folks expelled from view when Pride comes to town may well be many ostensibly fitting into the LGBT lineup, but in practice not: sex workers, migrants, people of color, the poor.

There’s a growing number of studies of how sports events provide pretexts for social cleansing, from the London Olympics to the Rio World Cup. So far as I know there have been no similar investigations of how Pride is policed: who benefits from “protection,” and who are its victims. Absent such knowledge generalizations are irresponsible, but it needs looking into. (As one starting point, note this statement from the North Star Fund in New York, highlighting the coalition work of three of its LGBTQ grantees — the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and Streetwise & Safe — to combat discriminatory policing.) The police presence at Prides is hardly just the nice symbolic gesture of marching and carrying flags. The logic of security forces does not brook their being decorative. Police also intervene in the layout and life of the city, to mold them to the Pride image; their appearance among the marchers promotes a certain apathy toward what they may be up to at the margins. How much violence happens in the name of safety? Look at that picture of Stonewall at the top. Then, next time you’re at Pride, ask yourself: Which side of the barricade are you on now?

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

 

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012