Inconvenient Rights

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine includes a thoughtful piece by Bidoun editor Negar Azimi on the (lack of) gay rights in Egypt. I find myself in agreement with her when she points out that the recent persecution of gays in Egypt and elsewhere is a result of a policy of appropriation of ‘morals’, in the sense that homosexuality is presented as a Western invention, despite all evidence of thriving gay subcultures in many parts of the Arab world. Therefore, any attempt at handling gay issues from a purely civil rights perspective is perceived as coming from traitors. To complicate matters, foreign human rights organizations can–willfully or witlessly–play a role in escalating the situation:

When the raid on the Queen Boat occurred, much of the human rights community declined to take the case on, Al Boraei included. (Some activists even attacked those who met with the defendants.) Hossam Bahgat, a young Alexandrian working at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told me he was quietly dismissed after he wrote an article calling upon the human rights community to overcome its fears about working on the case. In the West, however, the Queen Boat became something of a cause célèbre. Amnesty International supported protests in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London. A Web site called GayEgypt.com called on Egypt’s homosexuals to wear red on the two-year anniversary of the Queen Boat raid (an invitation to be arrested, it seems), while 35 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, asking for a stop to the anti-homosexual crusade. It was no wonder that amid this, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram al-Arabi proclaimed, “Be a pervert and Uncle Sam will approve.”

“This was framed locally as an attack from the West,” says Bahgat, who eventually collaborated with Human Rights Watch on the case and later opened his own organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It was important to show that working for the rights of the detained was not a gay agenda, or a Western agenda, that this was linked to Egypt’s overall human rights record. Raising the gay banner when most sexual and other human rights are systematically violated every day is never going to get you far in this country.”

In the end, Human Rights Watch avoided laying itself open to easy attack as the bearer of an outsider’s agenda, packaging Queen Boat advocacy in the larger context of torture. Many of the arrested men were tortured, and torture is something that, at least in theory, most people agree is a bad thing.

You can read the rest of the article here. A fine piece.

(link via The Arabist)

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