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’

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: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English —  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

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.

 

Five arrests for “homosexuality” in Uganda: A fuller story

Demonstrator at 2012 anti-homosexuality protest in Kampala, from www.pbs.org

Demonstrator at 2012 anti-homosexuality protest in Kampala, from http://www.pbs.org

On Wednesday, the Daily Monitor, a state newspaper in Uganda, headlined a story, “Five Suspected Homosexuals arrested.”

Police in Pader district have arrested five people suspected to be promoting the act of homosexuality in the district.

The suspects were arrested in the period of one week after the tip off by the locals, who accused the suspects of moving within the schools in the district, promoting the practice which was early this year criminalized by the Anti-homosexual [sic] Act 2014.

It’s alleged that the suspects have been carrying out clandestine movements in both primary and secondary schools in the district luring the pupils and students into the practice.

The story was foggy, but certainly made it sound as though these were early victims of the country’s months-old Anti-Homosexuality Act. It came only a couple of days after Uganda’s Foreign Ministry had issued a palliative statement aimed at donors, saying the new law had been “misinterpreted as a piece of legislation intended to punish and discriminate against people of a ‘homosexual orientation’, especially by our development partners,” The government “will continue to guarantee equal treatment of all persons on the territory of Uganda,” it promised sunnily. 

The coincidence was too rich and sinister not to stress, “Five Ugandans have been arrested under the country’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act,” said the US-based Advocate magazine.  Somewhat to my embarrasment, I got on this bandwagon myself, at first tweeting:

Ugandaa 1 copy

–then correcting myself a day later, as we heard more from Ugandan activists:

Ugandaa 2 copy

Neither message was accurate. In the last two days, a team from Uganda’s Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) A team from HRAPF and Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)  went to Pader, in Uganda’s north. “The team spoke to the Officer in Charge at Pader Police Station, the District Police Commander of Pader, one of the persons arrested, and visited the school where the incidents of promotion of homosexuality were said to have taken place. ” According to a message from Adrian Jjuuko, HRAPF’s Executive Director, this is what they found:

1. It is true that five people including a minor were arrested in Pader on allegations of homosexuality. The arrests took place on 26th and 27th of June 2014. The five persons are: an 18 year old who was the original complainant, a 34 year old businessman; a 16 year old student who stays with the businessman, and a 21 year old and a 30 year old.

2. The background to the case is that one of the arrested persons, the now 18 year old (who was a minor at the time the case was first reported) was arrested on 10th October 2013 for attempted suicide. When asked about the reasons for attempting suicide, he stated that his employer with whom he had been staying had started acting violent towards him. That they had been living together for sometime as ‘husband and wife’ but he had turned violent after he had accused him of stealing his money. That is why he attempted to take his life by stabbing himself. The Police did not arrest the employer at that point. On or around 25th June 2014 he once again stabbed himself and he was arrested by the Police. He repeated the story and that is when the Police arrested the other four.

3. They were not charged with any offence but statements were taken from them.

4. They were subjected to anal exams which were inconclusive.

5. The file was forwarded to the Resident State Attorney who did not advise on any charge but instead sent the file back to the police commenting that there was no evidence of any offence related to homosexuality.

6. The police released all the persons who had been arrested on Police Bond. The file however remains open and ‘investigations’ are ongoing.

7. On the allegations of promotion of homosexuality, no one was charged with this, and the Headmaster of the school denies that there are cases of recruitment that have been heard in the school. The Police also do not mention any facts on which this [newspaper claim] was based.

Location of Pader district in Uganda

Location of Pader district in Uganda

Three things are noticeable. First: a minor claimed that he was a victim of domestic violence. The legal case started, though, when he was arrested as a result, followed by the alleged perpetrator and others. In other words, the story shows again that even Uganda’s old, colonial-era sodomy law (never mind the new one) denies people accused of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender the basic protection of the law. The rhetoric surrounding the new “Anti-Homosexuality” law was that it was meant to protect “children and other vulnerable groups,” as the recent government statement reaffirmed. That’s nonsense. Children are at threat, deprived of any protection under the law.

Second, while we don’t know what else these people underwent during the police investigation. the “inconclusive” forensic anal exams, while medically valueless, are also an intrusive and abusive form of inhuman treatment that, conducted in carceral conditions, can amount to torture.

Third, the “investigation” continues to hang over the heads of the abused men, with no indication of whether or when they could finally be exculpated and freed from the threat.

Torture, abuse of children, absence of safety or protection, unending and debilitating uncertainty: even without the Anti-Homosexuality Act being invoked, the legal menaces to the lives of LGBT Ugandans are real enough.

Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote – as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com