Victory

UPDATE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights tells me (and the newspaper Al Wafd reports tonight) that the prosecution has formally appealed the not-guilty verdict against the 26 men. The prosecution has the right to appeal twice, under Egyptian law — once to an appeals court, and after that to the Court of Cassation. We don’t know whether the appeal will be accepted and a new trial held. Our understanding is that the law requires the existing verdict to be implemented pending the appeal — that is, the men should be freed. But the police will very likely try to find some pretext to keep them detained. What this shows is that the state is still hellbent on persecuting these men to the limits of its power.

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Families and friends celebrate the acquittal of 26 men in the Cairo bathhouse raid trial, January 12, 2015. Photo: Louisa Loveluck on Twitter, @leloveluck

“This court finds the defendants innocent ….” That, or more or less that, was all anybody heard the judge say. The courtroom exploded. Lawyers cheered; journalists stood on the benches and joined the cheering; and the families, manhandled outside by the bailiffs before the hearing began, forced their way in through the doors and shoved the policemen aside in return: brothers and fathers shouting to the cameras that their kids were vindicated, black-clad women trilling the zaghrata — the triumphal ululation heard at weddings. It spilled into the halls outside. At one point the families and a few friends stood fists pumping in a circle, chanting “Our sons are men!” And there were cries of “Put Mona Iraqi on trial!” I’ve never seen anything quite like this in attending countless Egyptian trials over the years. We’d never felt anything like this. No one expected it. No one was prepared.

I didn’t bring a camera. Louisa Loveluck, of the Daily Telegraph, has posted a few seconds’ footage of the jubilation:

You have to understand: acquittals happen rarely in Egypt; when they do it’s generally because of an appeals judge who cares about the rule of evidence, certainly not at the first instance. This is the only high-profile human rights case since the 2013 coup that ended with such a success. Egyptian activists who worked on this case, documented it, and helped mobilize journalists and intellectuals and other activists to express their horror at what Mona Iraqi did — they deserve credit for this. I don’t know exactly what motivated the judge to look at the facts and not the headlines: whether he cared about the public pressure or about his own reputation (at the last session, he called the journalists to the bench to ask why they were so interested in this case) or whether he got a message from above that the state was ready to back down. But it wouldn’t have happened without ordinary people, gay and straight, from the families themselves to bloggers to tens of thousands of folks on Facebook and other social media, in Egypt and abroad, who had the courage and energy to speak out.

Alf mabrouk.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

There’s more to be done. The crackdown must end. I hope this sends a message to the police that judges will no longer rubber-stamp their concocted cases, but the pressure on them needs to keep up. Other journalists need a reminder that the opprobrium Mona Iraqi met can extend to them if they continue their collusion with the surveillance state. Some lawyers are talking about pressing a case against Ahmed Heshad, the arresting officer from the morals police; for faking his testimony in the police report, and for his illegal leaking of information to Mona Iraqi. (Lester Feder of BuzzFeed, who was there with us today, covers the police misconduct in his excellent account of the trial, written with Maged Atef.) Others want to sue Mona Iraqi herself. (Mona is reportedly in Paris this week, having taken a convenient vacation while the consequences of her acts play out.) I’ll write more later today about why this story isn’t over.

Meanwhile, though: the joy left me dazed. I was full of memories. I first came to Egypt in November 2001, for the last session of the Queen Boat trial. When that chaotic, overwhelming hearing ended, a few of us — including Maher Sabry and Hossam Bahgat, both of whom had worked hard to spread the story of the arrests to the world — went to the old Horeya cafe in downtown Cairo. The place was founded in 1937; its name means “Freedom”; every revolution the city has seen was, in some measure, planned there. We drank Stella beer in the slanted late-afternoon light, and felt unsure of how to feel; half the defendants had been convicted, half acquitted. Another colleague frantically worked her phone, trying to find someone to buy her earrings. She needed the money because, though her friend in the case had been found innocent, he faced several days of being trucked from police station to police station in Cairo, while the cops checked whether he had any other charges pending. She wanted cash to pay enough bribes to spare him the ordeal. We didn’t know then that this was only the beginning of a crackdown that, over the next three hellish years, would see hundreds more jailed.

Egyptian justice hasn’t changed — it’s still unjust. The courts are still chaos, these men’s lives are still wrecked. Yet there’s a bit of hope. Today we went to the Nadwa cafe, around the corner from Horreya, and sat in the canted winter light and tried to collect our thoughts, which were scattered around like dreck and cracked sunflower seeds. I don’t like selfies much, but here’s one we took, with me and Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Ramy Youssef, a law student and human rights activist, both of whom have been fighting this crackdown from the start.

10420080_10152604675592876_8045764159042164423_nThey’re only two of the many people who labored to see this victory, without expecting it. We look really happy. I hope lots of others today are feeling happy too.

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

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The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

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Update: Film festival fires Mona Iraqi

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit's "Cairo Playground"

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit’s “Cairo Playground”

Shnit, the Swiss-based international short film festival, posted this on its website today:

As of its annual Council meeting on December 22th in Bern, the Board of Trustees of the shnit FOUNDATION, in accordance with Festival Director, has decided to exclute Mona Iraqi from the shnit International Shortfilmfestival immediately. shnit International Shortfilmfestival completely distance from and condemn the practices – professional and ethical – employed by Mona Iraqi as a TV reporter in the events of December 7th in Cairo. These practices are at utter odds with the principles of the shnit International Shortfilmfestival.

The Board of Trustees believes it is of great importance, however, to continue the shnit PLAYGROUND in Cairo, under new management and in line with the values of respect, tolerance and artistic expression without prejudice for which shnit has always stood. Commitment to these principles is a foundation of each and every PLAYGROUND and shnit’s management team around the world.

We thank again those who brought the issue to our attention, and to those who allowed us the due process to make an informed and considered decision.

Kudos to Shnit for doing the right thing, and rejecting Iraqi’s excuses and lies. Thanks also to all the people, in Egypt and beyond, who wrote to Shnit to complain about Iraqi’s unethical and immoral participation in gross human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, her victims are still in jail. It’s imperative to keep up the pressure on Iraqi. She has no place on the international cultural or journalistic scenes until the men she imprisoned are freed; until she apologizes for her role in this disaster and for her misrepresentations; and until the mass arrests targeting gay and transgender people in Egypt, which she’s done so much to further, stop.

Day one of the trial: What Mona Iraqi accomplished

Justice, surrounded by paparazzi: Standard courthouse art from Cairo

Justice, with paparazzi: Standard courthouse art from Cairo

Este artículo se publica en castellano aquí.

Today I went to the trial, with two Egyptian human rights activists — Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Ramy Youssef, a law student and anti-violence campaigner. El Galaa courthouse, on a grey street in Azbekeya in central Cairo, held the first session in the trial of 26 men, all picked up in journalist-informer Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid. As we took a taxi there, a friend phoned with a rumor that Mona Iraqi herself was in the court. She wasn’t. She hasn’t enough courage to confront the victims, the families, the destruction she’s accomplished.

I’ve always said human rights work is nine-tenths waiting. Today, too. You stand in a decrepit hallway while a crowd grows: lawyers in dusty robes, the families — mostly women, mostly old, each in a black dress and severe hijab – and, to let you know something prurient is up, the camera crew setting up a tripod in a corner. There were security agents too, in unusual numbers, in sunglasses and cheap leather jackets. 82 cases clogged the judge’s docket. The bathhouse trial came last, in acknowledgment of its special status. It tells you something about Egyptian justice that the other 81 took just two hours.

Azbekeya courthouse (press photo from El Watan)

El Galaa courthouse (photo from El Watan)

By the time the case finally came the crowd had swelled to fill the hallway. Police opened the courtroom doors at about 1:40 and let 60 or 70 people press through. The next twenty minutes were pure chaos. Guards hustled the cowed defendants in, bowed and chained in a line at the wrists, while the bailiff at the door beat them over the shoulders. The men were locked in the courtroom cage. Then, having admitted the families to see their sons humiliated, the guards decided to throw them out. This I remember from the Queen Boat trial in 2001 — the first time I ever attended a court in Egypt: in high-profile cases, the families are brutally barred from the hearing, while journalists are let in, as if the state wants to show off its achievements. The screaming and wailing were unbearable. To call the scene heartrending gives life to the cliché. Even my old heart, ragged as an ancient land deed, was shredded to scraps and kindling. One mother, while the cops forced her out of the room, shouted to her son in the cage: “Remember you’re a man! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of anyone except God!”

Another woman had come with a daughter and a boy of about 10. The child cried uncontrollably as he crouched on the benches, and he cried still more as he watched his mother manhandled and thrown out just before he was.

The police said that only lawyers and “licensed journalists” would be allowed in the room, but they checked press cards only desultorily in the chaos. What mattered was looking middle-class and respectable, or poor and powerless. The defendants are mostly working-class men, their families scared and defenseless before the authority of injustice. (A lawyer told us one of the men was due to be married the day after the raid. He had come to the bathhouse that night to cleanse himself before his wedding.)

The hearing was brief. More than a dozen defense lawyers crowded in front of the bench. One lawyer warned us he was afraid the judge might deliver a decision that day — the state was visibly anxious to move this forward; a quick guilty verdict would give Mona Iraqi a defense against the furious criticism she’s encountered in Egypt. After ten minutes the judge retired to his chambers. A few attorneys pushed in after him. The defendants were crying in their cage. A lawyer emerged to shout that they’d presented the judge their requests, and started to list what they’d asked for, including the defendants’ release. In the confusion the crowd took him to mean that the men were actually going to be freed. People rushed to tell the families outside, who gasped exultantly. Other lawyers screamed contrary stories. The false news of the men’s release hit Twitter in a few minutes.

In fact, the judge postponed the next hearing till January 4, and the men will stay jailed until then. In a bad but predictable sign, he rejected defense lawyers’ requests to call Mona Iraqi and the head doctor of the Forensic Medical Authority as witnesses.

A few points:

1) The lawyers still hadn’t seen the prosecutors’ or police reports, so we don’t know definitely what the charges are. It seems likely, though, that 21 men were customers at the bathhouse; they will be charged with the “habitual practice of debauchery” (article 9c of Law 10/1061), or homosexual conduct, facing up to three years in prison. The owner and staff probably make up the other five prisoners. They’re likely to be tried for some combination of:

  • keeping a residence for purposes of debauchery (article 9a, three years),
  • or facilitating the practice of debauchery (article 9b, three years),
  • or profiting from the practice of debauchery (article 11, two years),
  • or “working or residing in premises used for debauchery” (article 13: one year).

That could add up nine years in prison. Contrary to Mona Iraqi’s lies, there was no mention of “sex trafficking.”

His anus was this big: Hisham Abdel Hameed of the Forensic Medical Authority

His anus was this big: Hisham Abdel Hameed of the Forensic Medical Authority

2) The state paper Al Ahram reported last week that forensic anal exams were inflicted on 21 of the prisoners, probably the alleged customers. 18 were apparently found “unused,” while Hisham Abdel Hameed, the spokesman of the Forensic Medical Authority, claimed that three were discovered to have been sexually assaulted.  Mona Iraqi promptly advertised this result, claiming that she had saved rape victims. The allegation is horrifying and demands investigation, but there is no indication of any investigation. Neither the news story nor the hearing offered any suggestion that the men had actually said they were assaulted. The assault was not mentioned in the hearing at all, and there was no hint why rape victims should still be jailed and facing trial. Nor was there any indication of where the assault happened; it could well have taken place in the police lockup, where prisoners accused of homosexual conduct regularly face sexual abuse.

In 2003, Hossam Bahgat (founder of the EIPR) and I interviewed Dr. Ayman Fouda, then deputy director of Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority (he later rose to head it). Fouda was genuinely obsessed with anuses, and he spent hours explaining the theory behind the anal examinations. Homosexual sex, he told us, is always rape. When a penis nears an anus (he illustrated this with spontaneous hand puppetry), the anus clenches in instinctive rejection of the unnatural intrusion; hence the penetration is always violent, and leaves the same marks as an assault. The violence makes the breached anus funnel-shaped. Even if the pervert consents, his anus doesn’t. We inquired whether a person inserting a dildo into himself would leave the same traces. No, Dr. Fouda said gravely. “The anus recognizes a friendly object, and unclenches itself.”

This might be funny, if it weren’t for real. Fouda’s examiners constantly claim that they can detect anal deformities as “evidence” of consensual homosexual sex, even weeks after it allegedly happened — complete medical humbug. But this official understanding of anal sex fosters doubt whether the Forensic Medical Authority can detect the evidence (or bothers to) when a man has actually been raped. In this case, there’s been no attempt to treat the alleged victims as victims, to exonerate them from charges of consensual sex, or even to obtain their stories. It sounds suspiciously like a state attempt to produce a justification for Mona Iraqi’s raid.

Dr. Ayman Fouda of the Forensic Medical Authority, clutching a friendly object

Dr. Ayman Fouda of the Forensic Medical Authority, clutching a friendly object

Outside the courtroom, a younger woman holding a baby approached my colleague Ramy, desperately. She may have been the sister or wife of a defendant. She wanted to know what the forensic exams had found. She wanted, in other words, to know: will he be found guilty? He told her most of the defendants were “unused.” We didn’t have the heart to say: the state will probably convict them anyway.

We left in the late afternoon. In the street, supplicants in other cases thronged helplessly. Does Mona Iraqi have any idea of the horrors she has caused? Across from the courthouse, a parking lot holds neat ranks of yellow motorcycles; it’s the distribution center for Al Ahram, and the bikes deliver the city’s kiosks their daily supplement of lies. When I was a child, my mother sometimes read Lord Byron’s lines to me:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand …

— telling how power and degradation are in perverse proximity: Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. In Egypt, it’s the police and the press who copulate perversely. Justice and deceit bed down together. The prison and the publicity machine go hand in hand.

Egypt: Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia

Stop informer journalists

Stop informer journalists

Tomorrow, December 21, is the first hearing in the trial of men arrested in Mona Iraqi’s December 7 bathhouse raid in Cairo. I will post updates here. Meanwhile: Protest this horrendous human rights abuse. Some very brave Egyptian activists are calling for a campaign on Twitter and social media — starting tomorrow, but continuing after. You can tweet using the hashtag #مخبر_اعلامي : in English, #StopInformerJournalists. You can also copy in @Mona_Iraqi and @MonaIraqiTV. The event page is here, and the call to action is below, in Arabic and then English:

يوم للتغريد و التدوين ضد اللإعلاميين المخبرين و الإعتقالات بناءاً على الهوية الجنسية

في هذا اليوم سيتم التدوين و التغريد من خلال كافة أدوات التواصل الإجتماعي كنوع من التظاهر ضد تعاون مني العراقي اللا أخلاقي مع جهاز الشرطة القمعي، و الذي أدى إلى أكبر حملة اقبض في التاريخ المصري لأشخاص بناءاً على على ما يعتقد أنه ميلهم الجنسي منذ حادثة كوين بوت في مطلع الألفينات. لم تكتف منى بإرشاد الشرطة إلى اعتقال ستة و عشرين — مع الوضع في الإعتبار أنه تم إبقائهم عراة بينما قامت هي بتصويرهم بهاتفها المحمول — بل روجت أيضا – بسوء نية- لفكرة أن الإعتقال سببه السيطرة على انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة البشرية و الدعارة! نحن نتظاهر ضد الانحطاط الحقيقي الذي تمارسه منى عراقي و أمثالها. نحن نتظاهر ضد الإعلاميين الذين أصبحوا مخبرين لصالح الشرطة بدلا من ان يكونوا ناقلين مهنيين للحقائق. نحن نتظاهر ضد عنف الدولة و انعدام العدالة ضد كل من يشتبه في كونه مثلي أو متحول جنسي

كيف يمكن أن أشارك؟

في هذا اليوم — غداً الأحد — دون\ي، إكتب\ي، غرد\ي على أي من مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي معبراً عن رأيك في هذه الأحداث المشينة مرفقة بالهاشتاج الآتي: #‏الاعلامي_المخبر

Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia:

Contributions will be made through all social media to protest Mona Iraqi’s unethical cooperation with oppressive police forces, which led to the largest crackdown on people based on their assumed sexual orientations in recent Egyptian history. Not only did she lead the police in arresting 26 people — men kept naked while she filmed them using her camera phone like a bounty hunter – she covered her tracks with a media campaign spreading the idea that this is about HIV and prostitution. We protest the real perversion practiced by Mona Iraqi and her like. We protest the journalists who become informers rather than neutral transmitters of fact. We protest the state brutality and extreme injustice against people suspected of being gay or transgender in Egypt.

How can I contribute?

On that day, here’s what we will do. Go to any of your social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or your own blog. Write a post or share a picture that expresses your opinions on the matter. Attach it with this hashtag: #المخبرـالإعلامي

 

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:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.47.07 AM

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:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 3.32.40 AM

 

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

1012967_10153432799611111_4581168935546970885_n-1

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

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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

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* 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.