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“Tests of shame! Till when?” Campaign by the Tunisian group Damj

Join the campaign to end forced anal tests in Tunisia. You can start by posting a message of support, or even re-posting this article, on Twitter or Facebook. Paste in the hashtag #لا_لفحوصات_العار (No test of shame!), or  #لا_للفصل_230 (No to Article 230!); or use the hashtags #TestdelaHonte and #Tunisie.

On September 6, police summoned a young Tunisian man, 22 or 23, in the coastal city of Sousse. One of his friends had been murdered; the man numbered among the contacts on the victim’s phone. Someone in the young man’s circles told me:

A friend of mine was there in the police station to be with him in case he needed any thing. This friend told me that the arrested young man was being beaten as he was interrogated.  Also, he had no legal representation at all. I was told that the police checked Facebook conversation with the murdered man and based on them they charged him with homosexuality. The[y] could not find any links with the murder so they decided to charge him based on the anti-sodomy law in Tunisia.

The young man later told AFP, through the attorney he’d finally been able to reach, that “I do not understand why I have been sentenced … or why I was detained for six days without being allowed to contact my lawyer … I want to get out and resume normal life. I don’t know what I’ll do with my studies and my work. I do not want to be rejected by society,”

Unfortunately, these abuses on arrest are standard practice in Tunisia; the law allows police to hold defendants for up to six days, without access to lawyers, before a judge or prosecutor sees them.  A United Nations expert condemned this in May as “counter to the right to a fair hearing, the right to defence and the right to have access to legal counsel … The excessive length of police custody combined with the fact that a suspect does not have access to a lawyer may create the circumstances for ill-treatment.” On September 11, he was sent to a prosecutor, and four days after that to a judge, who ordered an “anal inspection” — a forensic anal examination, inflicted without his consent. The examination found him “used’; on September 22, the judge sentenced him to one year in prison, under Article 230 of the Penal Code, which punishes “sodomy” with up to a three-year sentence.

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“What are the tests of shame? It is an anal test performed by the forensic doctor on the order of the judicial police. It is practiced on ‘presumed gays’ to verify their sexual orientation.” Poster by Damj.

The story stirred up a storm in Tunisia because it exposes two ongoing scandals. One is the persisting criminalization of private,consensual sexual acts. The other, deeply connected, is the state’s invasion of the body, an incursion of which the anal tests are an extreme but indicative form. As Yamina Thabet, president of the Association Tunisienne de soutien des minorités (Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, ATSM), declared on Twitter, the case sent a citizen to prison “based on a liberticide law and using abusive evidence.”

Damj, a Tunisian NGO fighting to decriminalize homosexual conduct, swiftly launched a campaign to educate the public about the “tests of shame” — which its president, Baabu Badr, described as “a surrealist practice in today’s Tunisia.” The leftist party Al Massar declared the tests “inhumane and unacceptable” and the trial “a danger to the democratic processes of the Second Republic.” ATSM said the exams “recall the practices of the Inquisition.” Wahid Ferhichi, president of the Association pour la défense des libertés individuelles (Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties) complained that “The consent of the accused should be required for this type of test but in fact, the suspect is put under pressure. His refusal is held against him as a presumption of guilt. But the law stipulates the presumption of innocence, and not the opposite.” And Médecins contre la dictature (Doctors Against Dictatorship) called the exams “a blatant attack on physical integrity which falls under the framework of physical torture.” It said they violate Article 23 of Tunisia’s progressive new constitution, which holds that “The state protects human dignity and physical integrity, and prohibits mental and physical torture.”

Un-homosexuel-condamne-en-Tunisie_article_landscape_pm_v8

“Is it possible to refuse an anal test? From a legal perspective: It is possible to refuse an anal test at the time you are confronted with the forensic doctor. The reality is quite otherwise. The victims often ‘consent’ to the test from fear of torture, because of their young age, or because they don’t know their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Poster by Damj.

Unquestionably the exams are torture. They prove nothing and have no medical basis, though their obsessed practitioners try to believe they do. Their only real function is to resemble rape, to hammer home the victim’s helpless abjection before pitiless power. (The fact that, in Muslim countries, prisoners are often told to assume the posture of prayer as the exam is inflicted only lends a blasphemous twist to the humiliation.)

I’ve studied these tests for more than ten years; the article I wrote on them for the Journal of Health and Human Rights is still pretty much the only historical analysis of them around. They grew from the theories of a 19th-century French forensic doctor, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu. Tardieu studied both prostitutes and “pederasts” through the peculiar lens of a pornographic imagination. He believed that vice left physical evidence on the body — that through these stigmata, doctors and police could detect the adepts of perversion, however cunningly they concealed themselves in urban anonymity and confusion. The “pederast” carried six unmistakable marks: “excessive development of the buttocks; funnel-shaped deformation of the anus; relaxation of the sphincter; the effacement of the folds, the crests, and the wattles at the circumference of the anus; extreme dilation of the anal orifice; and ulcerations, hemorrhoids, fistules.`” Among these the conical anus was “the unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty.” Tardieu launched generations of forensic pseudoexperts on an idiotic quest to detect suspect anuses shaped like trumpets, pyramids, or calla lilies. I first read Tardieu in my room in Cairo back in 2003, like a dirty novel, in a copy downloaded from the digitized collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I shuddered in disbelief that doctors could credit this kind of fantasy; except by that time I’d already talked to the doctors who performed the exams in Egypt, and I knew.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Tardieu’s ideas were discredited in much of the West by the twentieth century — partly on pure scientific grounds, partly because, as the ideal of universal citizenship became an essential prop of government, the idea that certain bodies were palpably, legibly deviant or illegal stopped being a tenable approach to politics or crime. (Two facts can be said to symbolize the qualified victory of that universal ideal, one well-known and one almost forgotten. On the one hand, the slow triumph of women’s suffrage meant that sexual difference cased to be a comprehensive legal disqualification from the public sphere; on the other, the British feminist campaign against forced medical testing of suspected prostitutes — so-called “specular rape” — asserted that the state couldn’t use medicine to winnow respectable from “fallen” women in that public world.) Of course, the belief that some bodies were scientifically identifiable as dangerous never wholly went away. It was intrinsic to fascism. It’s implicit in contemporary American penology, where to be young and black is to have a prison sentence written on your forehead.

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair, 1934

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1934

However, Tardieu’s specific delusions about sex and the body are largely dead in the Europe from which they sprang. They survive, instead, in the countries Europe colonized. In addition to the Middle East, where they run rampant, they’ve been documented across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a reason. The promise of universal citizenship wasn’t valid in all locations. It was fine for the West, but in the subject territories, the colonial powers practiced divide and rule. Their authority was made through measuring and classifying bodies — by race, ethnicity, sex, health, height, malleability, morality, cleanliness. The law against “sodomy” in Tunisia dates back to a 1913 criminal code the French authorities imposed; homosexual acts had been legal in metropolitan France since the Revolution, but in the Maghreb the penalty was resurrected — to segregate immoral elements in the population with a view to purification and control. Public health was another great fixation of colonial authorities, British and French alike. (It was one of the few areas where Victorian British intellectuals were willing to take French tutelage.) Through its emerging discourses, they aspired to disinfect indigenous physical filth with the aseptic, separating order of reason. Exported extensively on French and British warships to the warmer climates of the world, Tardieu’s theories about lily-shaped assholes found room to flower; they gave colonial governments the snug belief they could actually measure native perversions with a ruler — and could subject those bodies to scientific domination. The illusions that powered the colonial state became the post-colonial state’s inheritance. Governments still cling to the strategy of division, the distrust of universality, the corporeal ambitions of authority, and the myths that underpinned them. Under precarious, authoritarian regimes struggling to manage and moralize unruly, prolific populations, Tardieu lives.

“Excessive development of the buttocks”: Saartjie Baartman, a captive Khoikhoi woman exhibited in London and Paris from 1810-1815 as a lesson in physical decadence and comparative anatomy, in a contemporary French print

Tunisia was, of course, where the Arab Spring began. It’s still the one state that’s stayed, however haltingly, a democratic course while the others lapsed into civil war or the Ice Age. Lisa Hajjar argues that a “torture trail” ran through the 2011 revolutions: people came together in revolt partly because they shared a loathing, cutting across classes and identities, for regimes that secured their rule by brutalizing and destroying bodies. Resisting state power over the individual body was a key flashpoint in many countries: in Egypt, for instance, the “We Are All Khaled Said” movement roused people in transformative solidarity with a single middle-class youth tortured and murdered by police. Tunisia was at the heart of this. Its revolution ignited when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, put his body literally on the line against the state by burning himself to death, to protest police violence and bureaucratic indifference. The question of corporeal resistance, freedom in the bone, has remained central in Tunisia since. It underlies the controversy over society and state’s collusion in enforcing women’s virginity before marriage — the splendid film National Hymen makes clear how this isn’t just a question of “individual freedom” in the abstract, but of the nation’s claim to illegitimate rights over the body. It’s not surprising that progressive activists in Tunisia should understand the forced anal exams — an assertion of the state’s power over every carnal crevice of your person — as a crucial battle in this elemental war.

It’s sad and telling that the young man’s ordeal began with the police searching through Facebook messages — that technologically modern method of rooting out private evidence. In his misery, two forms of surveillance met. Like Tardieu’s theories, Facebook claims it can make social networks legible. The fear that haunted Tardieu was people copulating secretly, flouting class and status, outside society’s panoptical scrutiny, promiscuous and unrecorded. As I wrote in 2004:

To Tardieu, “habitual pederasty,” a tendency outwardly often undetectable, had infiltrated all social classes. His aim was to help justice “pursue and extirpate, if possible, this shameful vice.” His obstacles were the slippery masquerades in which a protean pederasty hid. He warned of “habitual pederasty among married men, among fathers of families.” The treacherous skill by which pederasty concealed its public marks lent urgency to the “precise and certain declaration of the signs which can make pederasts recognizable” – pinning down the tendency’s spoor upon the skin itself.

That’s what, in a very different register, Facebook promises: to reveal selves and networks. It will render your desires and connections visible, to your friends but also — the fine print of the bargain — to companies hunting customers, and to governments tracking crime.

The cops start with trailing you in the cyber placidity of Facebook. But there’s an Anusbook they want to study, too, and it’s violent, not virtual. Surveillance begins by intercepting words; it ends by invading bodies. The state monitors messages at first, but only the better to torture their makers. Knowledge is the means, but the goal is pain. Social media make up a dull, expository prologue. The intricate exposed agony of your wounded body is what the police really long to read.

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Also, bend over. That thumb is waiting.

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Why the crackdown in Egypt isn’t over, and what to do about it

Covering their faces, shackled defendants are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

Covering their faces, shackled defendants in the bathhouse case are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

It’s like watching a whole ramshackle building totter when a single brick is pulled out. That’s how it felt, a week after the government’s case against the 26 victims of Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid collapsed. Practically every day since, the Egyptian media has carried some new, damaging revelation about how the criminal-injustice system works.

1) The press headlined the allegation, first reported in BuzzFeed last week, that at least one of the 26 men was raped in detention, with the encouragement of the Azbekeya police station guards. Mohammed Zaki, one of the defense lawyers, said the cops offered the men – hauled from the bathhouse naked except for underwear or towels – “as a gift to the prisoners,” with one officer pushing the victim into a cell and telling inmates, “Today’s your lucky day. Enjoy.” The man was “stripped of his towel, pushed to the floor, and raped, while police ignored his cries for help.”

2) The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm posted a filmed interview with one of the 26 victims: “The police treated us like animals,” he said.

 Interview with “Ahmed,” a victim of the bathhouse raid

The newspaper summarized his story:

Ahmed, a young man in his thirties, comes to Cairo from his city in the Delta once or twice every week for a day trip of a few hours, to buy clothes on Clot Bey Street and return to the workshop in his city. On December 7, in his last visit to Cairo, Ahmed thought of going to one of the public bathhouses in the only district he knows. “The door of the place was open for anyone who wanted to cleanse himself,” says Ahmed. …

“Suddenly, the police raided the bathhouse and ordered us not to move. Some policeman started removing the towels we were putting on, while the TV host filmed those there,” Ahmed added. “When the owner of the bathhouse said she couldn’t film and asked who she was, she said she was from the government.” …

[At the Azbekeya station], a police assistant named Khaled put handcuffs on Ahmed and chained him to the iron gate of the jail and kept hitting him with a baton, and then shoved it in his behind. … Ahmed says the suspects were treated badly at the prosecution, but much worse in detention. “Despite the humiliation, no one [at the prosecution] ordered us to pretend we were dogs and bark, or lie on our stomachs while police officers passed by. It was like that every day in the jail.”

3) Al Masry Al Youm also interviewed neighbors of the bathhouse who condemned the raid as an “attempt to tarnish the area’s reputation.” One shop owner said, “Those are very good people. We and our ancestors had our shops next to that bathhouse and we have never seen anything wrong from them.”

4) Finally: Mona Iraqi herself may lose her show. A source inside the Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) TV channel said she faces cancellation, because she’s put her employers in “an awkward position.” It’s not just the ethical monstrosity she committed. It’s that the defendants’ lawyers are threatening libel suits against the channel for 10 million LE ($1.4 million US) each.

"She said she works for the government": Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

“She said she was from the government”: Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

In this one case, the regime and its lackeys are red-faced and in full retreat. That doesn’t mean, however, that the crackdown against LGBT people in Egypt is over. Remember:

  • Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison.
  • Egypt’s prosecutor general has appealed the acquittal in this case, with a first hearing scheduled for January 26. The move shows a government still bent on putting LGBT people in prison. New arrests can start at any time.
  • What happens to Egyptians accused of being gay, or transgender, or lesbian is part of the overall human rights situation; and that is appalling. As the Revolution’s fourth anniversary impends, the counterrevolution is in charge. The government menaces human rights activists with possible life sentences. More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps without trial. My friend Yara Sallam and 23 others are serving two years behind bars for a peaceful protest march. Security forces persecute everyone from alleged “atheists” to street merchants. Until real rule of law restrains police power in Egypt, anybody different will be under threat.

Domestic and international pressure helped bring justice in the bathhouse case, but the work must continue — not just for LGBT Egyptians, but for all victims of human rights abuse. There are two important pressure points in coming months.

FIRST: The US gives over $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt annually. Nearly all is military assistance: economic aid makes up only around 15% of that total, and has been shrinking for more than a decade. No one in Egypt wants the remaining economic aid slashed – there’s no reason the rulers’ malfeasance should rob the poor of their last scraps and crumbs. But the military aid keeps the military dictatorship going. Cut it.

From "Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations," by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

From “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf. IMET = International Military Education and Training Program.

Since 2012, Senator Patrick Leahy has kept up the good fight to condition military aid on Egypt’s progress toward democracy. When the US Congress passed an appropriations bill last month, it included a long list of conditions: “holding free and fair elections, allowing peaceful assembly, due process for detainees.” But the law also “includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore the preconditions for national security reasons.”

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Will Kerry invoke the waiver, and keep the aid spigot on? The State Department is likely to start the internal debate next month. Powerful constituencies support Egypt. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) money must, by US law, be spent on US-made armaments. Egypt’s aid bonanza thus funnels back to the US defense industry, which slavers to keep the money flowing. Yet even if the US lacks political will to end its gifts to the generals completely, it could still show displeasure. It could stop offering Egypt two forms of undeserved special treatment: early disbursement and cash-flow financing.

“Early disbursement” of military aid is a privilege the US State Department gives only to Israel and Egypt. “At the beginning of the year, U.S. funding is deposited in an account at the New York Federal Reserve, and Cairo is allowed to use the interest accrued on these deposits to purchase additional equipment.” The interest gives it tens of millions extra to spend.

“Cash flow financing” is also a special privilege Egypt shares with Israel. It allows Cairo to purchase weapons even beyond its yearly aid allotment, using the promise of the money the US is due to give it in future years. Essentially, Egypt can buy on credit – and the US government is liable for any payments it fails to make. (Clearly, a special favor to the American weapons industry as well.) This accounting trick radically ramps up the Egyptian military’s purchasing power. In most years, Egypt contracts to buy over $2 billion in American arms. That’s about 50% more than what its actual American-aid budget should allow. Cash flow financing makes the difference.

The crackdown on LGBT Egyptians is only one human rights issue that should weigh against full military aid to a deeply dictatorial regime. But it should be weighed. Kerry should cut the gun-filled gift baskets — or, at the minimum, end the accounting legerdemain that augments Egypt’s largesse. And if he refuses, Leahy and Congress should make plenty of noise. The time to start pressing the State Department is now.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

SECOND: On March 13-15, the regime will host an “Egypt Economic Development Conference” in the posh resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. President Sisi himself will launch the gathering. The meeting is central to Sisi’s strategy to resuscitate the  economy. The idea is to get a group of powerful private investors together, and woo or cajol them to sink their money into Egypt. An array of infrastructure projects will be on offer; infrastructure is the core of Sisi’s revitalization plans. After all, the regime’s rich supporters – mostly the same well-connected crony capitalists who propped up Mubarak’s sclerotic rule – cluster in industries like cement, construction, and communications. “Economic growth” by and large means fattening their portfolios with pointless projects, not feeding the poor.

Sisi’s government has been promoting this summit for months. The figures keep flowing from the Ministry of Investment: 120 countries and 3,500 companies invited, 42 big investment projects up for grabs. Yet they’ve postponed the conference repeatedly, reflecting a lack of international enthusiasm over Egypt’s limp prospects. So they’ve hired not just global banking maven Lazard to rope in participants, but also the International Man of Mystery, Tony Blair.

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair on July 12, 2014, two days afterhyyyy

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet, on July 12, 2014. Just days earlier, news of Blair’s sinecure to “advise Sisi on economic reform” was leaked to the UK press. Photo by Reuters.

All that suggests the significance Sisi’s government hangs on the summit. The conference website is here; some speakers already are signed up — the chairs of GE and BP, and the head of the WPP Group, Britain’s mammoth advertising and media agency. I’ll be posting more about the meeting soon. All the participants should face one question back home: How will they use their leverage to improve Egypt’s dismal human rights record? And they might also be asked: How do they think their gay or lesbian or transgender employees in Egypt will fare? The time to pose these questions is now.

FINALLY: You want to know why all this is important? Don’t listen to me; listen to some of those whose lives the continuing crackdown wrecked.

I’ve interviewed two people arrested in two separate cases, when police raided private apartments in the spring of 2014. They were convicted, but appeals courts overturned their sentences – mainly because the original judges handed down verdicts even before sending the victims to the Forensic Medical Authority for anal tests.

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: "End the tests of shame"

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: “Together against the tests of shame”

The anal tests are usually inflicted on all prisoners accused of homosexual conduct. They’re bogus, and an invasive form of torture – but at least they provide the spurious semblance of evidence. Yet in these cases the lower court judge didn’t need “proof”; one look at the defendants, who were mostly transgender, and he found them guilty. When they filed appeals, though, they endured the tests; and doctors declared them “unused.” (I think I know why. To find the victims “used” so long after the fact, the medics would need either to claim the exams can detect homosexual sex months later – which makes the test look even more absurd; or to admit sex takes place in Egyptian prisons, where the men had been kept since arrest.) Unlike most of the crackdown’s victims, they can tell their stories.

These are accounts of torture and sexual abuse; of judges who sentence people based on their looks alone; of transgender convicts trucked from prison to prison because the keepers wouldn’t take their “pervert” bodies. You’ll find Ahmed Hashad — who was also the arresting officer in the bathhouse case — watching while his victims are tortured. I’ve changed all names and left out identifying details.

1) “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people”

Nadia is a transgender woman in her early twenties. She’s had silicone implants in her breasts, and hopes someday to leave Egypt to have full gender reassignment surgery. She and three friends – two other trans-identified women and a cisgender man – moved into a new Cairo apartment. That very day, police raided it. They believe they weren’t targeted specifically: “The cops seemed to be doing a general search of apartments on that street. But as soon as they saw us they knew they had hit gold.”

It happened at noon. All four of us were in the apartment, two of us asleep, two of us awake. There was a knock on the door and when we opened it, four police broke into the apartment, with three informers. [By “informers,” she meant plainclothes as opposed to uniformed police.]

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” He found girls’ dresses and one wig. We asked why he didn’t have a warrant, and he said, “None of your business. Shut the fuck up, bitches.” An informer said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat” [faggots]. The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

Egypt's finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading "Glory to the Unknown," November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

Egypt’s finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading “Glory to the Unknown,” November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes. “

They took the phone of Laila [one of the roommates] and showed us photos of trans people on it. “Do you know these?” they demanded. I said all the pics were of people outside Egypt. They asked, “Do you get fucked? Are there many people like you?” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently. Laila infuriated them by not saying anything, so they hit her especially. A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

They started to write up a report. We denied being khawalat. I said, “Is every person who has long hair a khawal? You can’t judge us by labels. If we are khawalat, you would have caught us in the act.” But they said, “It’s already in the report that you were caught in the act.” I claimed that we were sexually frigid and we could not have sex. But the officers and the informers all said, “If you look like this, you are doing that.”

They put us in a small cell away from the regular detention area. The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” …

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt's police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt’s police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

The next day we went to the niyaba [prosecutor]. We got four days’ detention, and went back to the police station, and then they took us back to the niyaba again. At the niyaba a lawyer told us the police claimed they had been watching us for a week. But we had just taken the contract for the apartment the day we were arrested! The wakil niyaba [deputy prosecutor] told us, “Call the Perverts’ Human Rights Association and they will get you out.” And there was a journalist taking pictures of us at the niyaba. One of the informers took the woman and took the phone and downloaded things from it, and told her to get the fuck out: he said the wakil niyaba prohibited taking photographs. But the guard there didn’t care, he said, “Fuck you and your wakil niyaba.”

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features; the newspaper didn’t.

Just six days after we were arrested, they took us before a judge. A journalist took our pictures again at the court. The judge called us names and didn’t even look at us. Three of us got three years in prison, and the one whose name was on the rental contract got eight.

On the second day after that we were sent to prison.

In the van to the prison, the officers kept telling us we would be beaten and raped. … At the prison entrance, the guards shouted, “Where the hell do these come from? They can’t be in this place. You can’t put such cases in this institution!”

The father of one of the victims “was an officer in the police. And the prison guy became more polite when he learned this. We asked to be put away from the other people in prison, and he said he would. He was the prison commandant.”

The guards went past all the cells saying, “Now you have women in the prison.” But we were put in an isolation cell for highly dangerous people.

Then because there was an appeal being made for us, we were taken to the Estinaf [appeals] prison … We were all four put together in one cell there, though one guard went to the straight-looking guy among us and said, “You are not a khawal, what are you doing here?”

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No pinkwashing these walls: Wadi Natroun prison in the Delta, from ElSaba7.com

After a few months they sent us to another prison. It rejected us. When we entered, guards beat us and told us to take off our clothes. “Open up your ass! What’s in there?” They got us naked and made the whole prison watch us. … The guard took off my T-shirt and looked at my breasts and said, “What is this? I am responsible for this prison!” He said to the commandant, “They sent us monkeys!”

There, we were separated, one to a cell. “Because they are sick,” the commandant explained, “And I don’t know how to treat them, I can’t have them in this prison.” He tried to transfer us to Tora Hospital [at the main military prison complex outside Cairo]. …

There was a lot of sexual harassment. People taking off our clothes. There was only soft sex, though. No one penetrated us. In prison, they had cameras everywhere – but no one cared.

They were sent back to the appeals prison.

A doctor in the prison kept asking us, “Are you a pervert? Do you sleep with men?” We said no. “Do you have erections?” No. He wrote a false report and said we asked for sex reassignment surgery. He told us, “If we give you the surgery we can put you in a women’s prison.” I said, “Are you crazy? I will not do this in prison!”

We were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority. They had forgotten to do this at the first trial because they were in such a hurry to convict us! The trial judge should have asked for the Forensic Medical Authority result, but he didn’t want to because there was press there, and he wanted to give the sentence quickly.

We went three times to the Forensic Medical Authority in Ramsis [the Cairo neighborhood near the main train station]. But each time, the police didn’t bring an order from the niyaba to do the test, so they wouldn’t do it. So the appeals judge kept postponing the decision – for one month, then another month, then for three months. Basically, he and the niyaba and the police wanted to keep us in prison, not let us out. It was 40 days after the niyaba asked for it that they finally did it. Even the doctor was astonished. …

And the anal test happened five months after our arrest. The doctor said: “You are fucking each other,” even before the test started. We said no, and told him the whole thing. Then: ”Take off your clothes: kneel over the chair and hug it.” He pushed our butt cheeks aside and looked. The report found us all unused.

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

The Forensic Medical Authority also did a report on our breasts, because the niyaba wanted it! They didn’t know I had silicone boobs; they asked me if I had taken an XY [chromosome] test. I lied, I said “Yes, these breasts are normal.“ They didn’t know the difference.

Whenever we went back to the niyaba, the wakil niyaba kept interrogating us about many different subjects. He tried to accuse us of having sex in the prison, and when we denied it, he told us, “That’s what they are saying about you. I don’t care about your case, I just care about you having sex in the prison.”

He demanded, “Why are you being rejected by every prison? Do you have vaginas? And he told us a story that really upset him: “One month ago, we caught some khawalat from Italy, she-males [in English] on a boat in the Nile. And public opinion approved of that, but Italy interfered, and they got them out.”

Finally, the appeals court acquitted them, after more than six months in prison. They’ve moved to a different city, but they still fear that police may find them and jail them on some new pretext. “I want to get out of this country,” Nadia told me. “I can’t go through that hell ever again.”

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

2) “Look at the faggots in the cage”

Mazen is also in his early twenties. He is a top, and straight-acting. A couple of years ago, he says, “I met some guys from downtown, and one thing led to another, and I admitted to myself that I am gay. Some of these friends told me I should do it in business.” He became a part-time sex worker, and he teamed up with some “she-males and ladyboys” (words he uses in English). “In their case, they simply couldn’t find any other kind of work.”

“We were in our apartment. I lived there with Manar and Hala” –who identify as transgender, though Mazen mostly uses male pronouns for them. Two male friends were visiting that evening, one more “effeminate” than the other, Mazen says. “One of them was not in business, the other one does business from time to time.”

There’s a website for she-males specifically; and Hala had her picture on there with her mobile number. So this man called Hala on her phone and asked for a meeting. But she didn’t accept; she was afraid he was an officer. She was sticking to regular customers because of the arrests—she was afraid the new person would be an informer or an officer or something.

Then after she refused, he called Manar, my lover. Manar showed Hala the number, and talked her into trusting him. And so he came over. And it turned out that man actually was an undercover officer.

When I came in, the man was already in the apartment. I went upstairs to the balcony and sat there watching if anyone else was coming – any police – while the man sat inside with the others. He said he some alcohol in the car and he went downstairs to get it. But we watched and noticed he was calling someone while the car was still running, and he stayed talking about then minutes. Then he came back up, but he said he was going to the bathroom, while holding his mobile phone, and there he talked over the phone some more.

I was on the balcony, checking the area, and the two guys came up and asked, “Is there anything going on?” And then suddenly, two cars came in fast and stopped directly in front of the building.

We knew immediately it was police. Manar went to the bedroom and changed out of women’s clothes. Hala was just frozen. I went to the door to run … The policemen were on the stairs – two officers and a bunch of plainclothes. … Hala went down the stairs and tried to get past them. I went up the stairs. There was a window in the staircase and from it I shimmied down the pipes to the street.

But the officers caught them all.

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog Tortureinegypt.net/

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog TortureInEgypt.net

It was a big operation. Ahmed Hashad, the intelligence director of the Adab [Morals] police, was there, and he was telling the neighbors, “Don’t worry, we are just arresting the she-males of Egypt.” They had two private cars, plus a car like a box for the transport, and a microbus. … Hala was the only one of us wearing women’s clothes, baby doll clothes [Egyptians often use the English expression “baby doll” for skimpy women’s outfits] ….

One of the policemen beat me, and took all my money and two mobiles. There were four laptops in the apartment, two new and two older. The two new ones and my mobiles, the officers took them and shared them out for their own. In the police report they only mentioned the older laptops. In the bag that the officer had used to bring the alcohol, they put some of the baby doll clothes, as evidence.

They took us to the Mugamma el-Tahrir [the huge government building in central Cairo], to the department of Adab. There, three officers beat us, while Ahmed Hashad watched them … They were hitting us on the back of the head, and beating me and kicking me on my legs, and they stomped on my foot and injured it.

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

They tried to recruit Hala to help them: Was there any meeting place for she-males? They said if she told them they’d let her out. She said she didn’t know. Manar was wearing men’s clothes; they told him to take them off, and he refused, so they started to light cigarettes and burn his body with them. They got a baby doll dress and made him wear it.

They wrote a report but none of us was talking while they did it – the police wrote the report themselves. They took a photo of all five of us, and they made us sit in a part of the office where there’s no roof, and it was freezing – the weather was cold. They called us names, shouting “khawal” and asking, “What is wrong with you?” …

At 9 or 9:30 AM, they took us out of the Mugamma to go to the niyaba. The square was crowded and while we were walking, an officer hit Hala and she screamed. And everyone was pointing and looking at us and gossiping.

When we entered the office of the wakil niyaba, he started shouting, “You are the khawalat! Why are you doing this?” and so on, with foul language. He wasn’t questioning us, just cursing. ….

Another wakil niyaba interrogated me and the other guy. He started calling the other guy a khawal. The guy denied it, trying to defend himself. But the wakil kept insisting, “Yes, you are a khawal, because you look like one.” And he checked his mobile for messages that could convict him, and checked the pictures on my laptop. ….

The scandal site Youm7 published a photo of Hala in women’s clothes, showing her face clearly. Police or prosecutors had leaked it to the paper. Meanwhile, the prosecutor charged them with “debauchery.” Though they were engaged in sex work, that was legally irrelevant: the provision punishes men who have sex with men regardless of whether money was exchanged.

They brought men’s clothes for Hala and Manar and then they took us to the police station in [our neighborhood], which had jurisdiction over the apartment. … At the police station they put me and the other guy in cells with other prisoners. His had maybe 85 prisoners, and mine only 75. But Hala and Manar and the other one of us were put in a cage “for observation,” next to the visitors’ entrance. And they put them there partly because if they were in a cell with other prisoners, they would be raped or tortured. But also, the cage was directly by the front door: so whenever someone was entering or going out, the police would point and say, “Look at the khawalat in the cage.” They were zoo animals on display.

A defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014: Photo from alamatonline.net

A defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014: Photo from Alamatonline.net

The parents of the guy in the crowded cell paid bribes to get him moved to another cell, for people convicted of stealing public money. It was for 23 people only and was stylish [in English]. My mother pulled some connections and got me moved there too. We told the prisoners we were there because of hash dealing and a fight, so no one bothered us. …

We saw a judge four days after the arrest. We had six lawyers and they were good lawyers but they hadn’t even been shown the court papers. After a week’s delay the court met again … The police reports were all lies. They said that four of us were having sex in pairs when the police came in, two in each room, and I was the one who opened the door. They said we were caught in the act. They didn’t mention the undercover officer at all. The lawyer argued this was ridiculous: “Even if they were having sex, they would have gotten scared and stopped when the police knocked on the door.” The judge took a break for a bit to read the statements. Then he returned and said the verdict. Manar got 12 years; Hala and the more effeminate of the guys got I think 7 years; I got 4 years.

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Eight men convicted in the “gay wedding” video trial leave the courtroom cage, November 1, 2014.

In the reasons for the verdict, the judge mentioned some stuff from the Qur’an about men who resemble women. The lawyers and our parents were shocked; no one expected this. They took us to the waiting room. Manar wasn’t able to move or speak, Hala was crying … For 15 minutes I was thanking God that no more than this had happened; then I turned hysterical. I started screaming and shouting, I don’t even remember …

We went back to the police station. The officers were saying, “You deserve it.”

The appeals process started. They hadn’t given us the forensic medical examination before the first trial … So this time we were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority.

They were found “unused.”

After that, the only evidence left was three guys wearing feminine clothes, and the pictures they got from the Internet or from our mobiles. The lawyer blamed them on photoshop – he said, “You can manufacture whatever you want.” By the time of the hearing, my beard was fully grown. The judge asked the wakil niyaba, “How can you present a girl’s picture and claim it is this guy?”

At the final hearing, the judge “wrote on the case that we were innocent. And he closed the case file and threw it at us, and told us, ‘You are innocent, you khawalat.’”

We spent seven months in prison, total. We were so happy when we walked out. But Manar and Hala are in terrible shape still. They can’t work in any normal job because of the way they look. And they can’t work in business because they are so afraid.

Courtroom chaos after the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12: Photo from yaablady.com.

Courtroom chaos when the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12, 2015: Photo from Yaablady.com.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugandaa 1 copy

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

Ugandaa 2 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location of Pader district in Uganda

Location of Pader district in Uganda

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

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

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

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

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before — the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis