Sarah Hegazy was a leftist and queer activist who was arrested by Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime for raising a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in 2017 in Cairo. She was tortured and harassed in jail and eventually sought exile in Canada where she ended her own life in June 2020.

Sarah Hegazy at a protest in Canada. Photo courtesy of HuMENA. [Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0.]

The tremendous response to Sarah Hegazy’s passing, both negative and positive, demonstrates the definitively changing reality of life in the Middle East and North Africa. Vigils and commemorations were organized across the world by many in the diaspora, while queers in the region mourned for the most part in secret or privately, with a few notable exceptions in Lebanon and Palestine.

These responses reflect a significant transformation in the desire and boldness of individuals in the region to claim queer identities. Activists continue to vehemently frame their struggle for freedom and social justice as inherently intersectional, and thus inclusive of sexual and gender rights and freedoms, even amidst the tremendous backlash and securitization that continues to ripple through the region in response to the 2011 Arab uprisings or Arab Spring.

A public statement from the Women Human Rights Defenders, MENA Coalition mourning Sarah’s loss notes that “Sarah’s departure will remain a witness to the crimes of the Egyptian regime and the courage of the meem community in Egypt that continues to resist.”[1] As Tareq Baconi, a writer and researcher based in London, stated: “Why does the idea of a communist, atheist, lesbian invoke state violence, religious condemnation and patriarchal hate?”[2] Baconi asks difficult questions that reflect the multilayered challenges LGBTQ folks confront at the state and societal levels, from patriarchal and sexist regimes, to rigid religious structures, to homophobic elites and middle classes, to simplistic Orientalist and counter-Orientalist and post-colonial perspectives among scholars, writers and so-called progressive intellectuals. It is these multilayered challenges confronting queer communities in the region that make them sometimes easy targets for attack on multiple fronts and enable reductionist politics. Sarah and many radical queer activists see how identities are created and experienced at the intersection of these various forces of political, social and, economic oppression but they also see the potential for liberation. Sarah’s own words point to the historic loyalty of the middle class to the regime in power as it safeguards the privilege of their heteronormative, patriarchal and affluent lifestyle.

Sarah’s queerness cannot be separated from her revolutionary politics and it is that intersectionality that posits a challenge to the traditional left, with its focus on class, and to the liberals, who tend to focus on identity alone, and is also a threat to the patriarchal state and its affiliated institutions.
Sarah’s queerness cannot be separated from her revolutionary politics and it is that intersectionality that posits a challenge to the traditional left, with its focus on class, and to the liberals, who tend to focus on identity alone, and is also a threat to the patriarchal state and its affiliated institutions.

Sarah did not seek to be a hero, nor did she see herself as such. She often rejected the label, as many of her close friends have stated over the past few months. While some gave her heroic status for lifting the rainbow flag, many others (especially within Western academic circles) saw the act as complicit with Western imperialism and a right-wing discourse inciting opposition and violence to those the rainbow flag is meant to represent. Sarah’s actions, practices, and death can be better understood in the context of social movements and their trajectories. After all, as Ismail Fayed, an independent writer and researcher based in Cairo, wrote: “Every one of us, whether feminists, leftists, opposition, or members of the LGBT+ community, who are still living in Egypt and choose to fight and speak, are risking a fate very similar to Sarah’s. Some already have faced that fate, some died in prison, some had to flee, some are still in prison.”[3] Paying respect to all these lives, living and lost, puts academics and knowledge producers face to face with their responsibilities, the responsibility to lives “that matter beyond the jargon of authenticity.”[4]

As someone who joined movements and worked for change, Sarah’s trajectory can be situated within feminist and sexual rights movements as intrinsic components of social justice movements. The focus of scholars and activists should remain on the movements and not on heroes or the process of valorizing certain people, particularly after their death or when their tremendous pain and trauma is made more visible. These individuals usually see their work as an integral part of a movement rather than exceptional. I take this invitation to heart and examine these movements and political activism within the larger context with an eye on continuities and ruptures.

Social movements not only aim to transform the political landscape, they also work to transform culture and meaning. Movements go through ebbs and flows in their ongoing efforts to build, create and transform. Moments of escalation (revolutions in the making) reveal opportunities to push forward what is possible. Rather than seeing failures or ruptures (as in labeling the Arab uprisings a failure) observers should shift their view to witness how subjectivities have changed and how people carry these changes with them and into the next escalation.


Three Waves of Sexual Rights Movements in the Middle East


Many researchers and activists agree that the beginning of the sexual rights movement in the Middle East and North Africa began to take shape in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which can be seen in an increased level of politicization and public engagement around issues of gender and sexuality.[5] A range of sociopolitical transformations in the region and globally allowed for these movements to take shape, such as growing economic inequality, the rise of Islamist movements with right-wing conservative social agendas, increased war and militarization, the expansion of a global human rights discourse, developments in communications technology and increased feminist organizing.

Sexual rights movements in the region can be grouped into three waves.[6] The first wave arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s and ushered in a more explicit public engagement with questions of sexual rights historically along with a focus on personal freedoms and choices. As feminist and other organizations pressed issues of bodily autonomy and freedom from violence (including as it relates to sexual rights), leftist groups were also speaking about personal freedoms including sexual freedom, and public health folks raised issues of sexual health—in particular with HIV/AIDS work focusing on MSM (men who have sex with men) communities. This period brought forth new collectives and projects to grapple with these issues, such as Club Free and Hurriyat Khasa in Lebanon and a youth-led group working on HIV/AIDS in Algeria.

The second wave started with the creation of organizations explicitly addressing questions of sexual and gender diversity beginning with Lebanon’s Helem in 2004 and Aswat in Palestine (the latter existed as a loosely organized online platform since 2000 but adopted a more organized structure in 2005).[7] This period is characterized by a growing sense of intersectional politics as movement organizers grounded themselves in anti-imperialist and de-colonial struggles. The absence or weakness of the state in its formalized institutions and authoritarian arm in Lebanon and the history of organizing from the first wave meant that activists found space to meet and somewhat escape heavy handed scrutiny. Palestinian activists, primarily from within Israel but then quickly spreading to the West Bank, also found spaces to maneuver and support from feminist organizations. Aswat in particular initially framed their formation as grounded in their experiences of alienation and discrimination as women, as Palestinians and as lesbians. Other collectives emerged informally, working to create safe spaces for conversations and discussion around identities and related challenges. These groups include Al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, which was founded in 2007 and Mantaqitna, a regional coalition and organizing camp that played a significant role in birthing additional organizations like Bedayaa Organization for LGBTQI of the Nile Valley Area.

During this period, activists struggled with questions of visibility and viability. They also struggled with accusations of imperial complicity and were frequently derided as conspiratorial agitators. They worked toward strategic visibility, promoting the work itself more than individual members and activists. Embracing this strategy was intended to protect people from physical harm or social repercussions from their families, school and workplace. It was particularly appealing to women activists who did not see the need to “come out” or adopt “Western liberation practices.” Instead, women were more invested in creating spaces where they could feel safe, share their struggles and quietly (though persistently) encourage their families to accept their choices—not only their sexual choices, but also those that might provide them with more freedom to maneuver and successfully negotiate their society’s heteronormativity.

Nonetheless, invisibility (or the ability to move through daily life without eliciting a violent response to their physical appearance) remained a privilege of cisgendered women who presented as feminine. The same freedom was not extended to their masculine-presenting or transgender friends and partners. While it sometimes made life easier, this invisibility also made some of their work more difficult. For example, Israel’s pink-washing strategies rely on tactics and visuals that claim Israel is the only country in the region where gay people can live and love and that it is a safe haven for Palestinians who are targeted and killed by Palestinian culture, family, society, and state. Countering those narratives without being visible as Palestinian queers is incredibly challenging.

Activists in this period had to consider the very real dangers inherent in inciting violent backlash when engaging in public conversation and increased visibility but they also had to take into account the harm and power dynamics that invisibility often masks.
Activists in this period had to consider the very real dangers inherent in inciting violent backlash when engaging in public conversation and increased visibility but they also had to take into account the harm and power dynamics that invisibility often masks.[8]

The third wave, flowing from the activism of the Arab uprisings beginning in 2011, ushered in a growth of spaces and organizations. Many of these groups are populated by the generations that have come of age in an internet saturated world where Western sexual and gender terminologies have become dominant and the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity (SOGI) human rights framework is hegemonic. This generation is nimbler in the language of human rights and international frameworks and mechanisms and thus more steeped in the language of identity. There was a tremendous growth of groups in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere (some public and others not so much). Groups working regionally also expanded their efforts and training like the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality. Most noticeable is the rise of transgender focused groups like Trans Homo and Qorras.

While this periodization creates separations and imposes a somewhat rigid chronology, using the analogy of waves allows for a visual and analytical relationship between them that accommodates the ebbs and flows, or breaks and continuities, that arise from confronting challenges and setbacks. Activists are engaging with a changing world and learning and refining their strategy and ideology through their practice. Many groups that formed in the early days of the Arab uprisings were heavily invested in an identity-based politics. Activism for others came from a revolutionary vision for the whole of society that aimed to create a world where all who are marginalized and excluded can flourish and live in dignity as their fullest selves. The backlash and repression following the Arab uprisings did not entirely disrupt existing movements, and this continuity meant that over time identity-based projects once again became more revolutionary and thus intersectional. Learning through these repeated interactions and cycles of repression enabled activists to identify and challenge the systems that perpetually sidelined the poor, the women, the workers, the queers, the refugees, the darker skinned and black, the disabled in favor of heteropatriarchal capital and the imperial connections that maintain it in power.


Openings and Closures


Moments of social and political upheaval often create spaces where transgressions become more acceptable and new possibilities emerge. One example is when women organized to carve out new roles and meanings of motherhood and womanhood during national liberation movements against colonialism.[9] New possibilities also emerge in periods of war and political unrest. By contrast, conditions of emergency, martial law, quarantines and similar lockdowns can have the opposite effect. For example, the state of emergency brought about by the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon foreclosed some existing organizing spaces, while at the same time it created new openings.[10] The society under attack closed its ranks and enforced discourses of unity, but efforts to redefine the meanings of family and sect also emerged: “This state of emergency also set in motion new forms of organizing, outreach, collaboration, visibility, and legitimacy. [T]he state’s abandonment of responsibilities allowed previously marginalized groups to move into state territory so to speak and gain new visibility and legitimacy.”[11]

HELEM, the first Arab LGBTQ organization, was part of relief efforts (such as the Samidoun campaign) to support refugees and internally displaced people from south Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli attack.
HELEM, the first Arab LGBTQ organization, was part of relief efforts (such as the Samidoun campaign) to support refugees and internally displaced people from south Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli attack. Its offices and phone lines became well known throughout the country as a place of refuge, support and donation collection. Mobilizing during crisis gave activists (including many who diverged significantly from dominant gender stereotypes) an opportunity to engage with people in various parts of Lebanon over a period of several months. This sustained interaction around issues not directly framed in relation to LGBTQI rights allowed activists to expand their own intersectional politics and also create a new normal in other communities.

The Arab uprisings of 2011—revolutionary moments or escalations of varying lengths in various countries—left an important imprint not only on the political landscape of the region, but also on the cultural, social and psychic ecology or ecosystem. In Tunisia, where independent organizing had been limited to two or three struggling feminist, labor and human rights entities, the number of new formations skyrocketed. Many, such as Chouf, Mawjoudin, Damj, Kelmty and Shams, are youth based, highlighting conversations about bodies, sexualities and freedoms.

In Egypt, where groups were heavily burdened by constant negotiations with a corrupt authoritarian regime, a wave of new collectives, political parties and organizations formed, also largely led by youth. These include Bussy, OpAntiSH (Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault), Ganoubiya Hora, Bent El Neel (no longer active), I Saw Harassment, Harassmap, Bassma (Imprint) Movement and Ikhtiyar among others.[12] As Cairo University professor Hala Kamal writes, “The younger generations of Egyptians are coming to age now in a post-revolutionary setup that acknowledges women’s rights to the public sphere and tries to safeguard these through civil society initiatives as well as government policies and media discourses.”[13] Focusing particularly on women’s rights, Kamal sees this period as constituting a fourth wave of the feminist movement in Egypt. An important characteristic of this period is the unapologetic focus on bodily rights that is reflected in all sorts of artistic cultural productions (graffiti art, music, theater, oral history archives) and in collectives that were formed to combat the resulting repression in the form of sexual harassment and state and public violence. There was then an opening up of spaces for more assertions along the lines of sexual rights movements and gender and sexual diversity. This opening led to the further growth of new groups and expanded visibility.

The closure of spaces was also apparent after 2011 in many countries including Egypt: Numerous reports detail violations of human rights by the regimes after the Arab uprisings.
The closure of spaces was also apparent after 2011 in many countries including Egypt: Numerous reports detail violations of human rights by the regimes after the Arab uprisings. A large number of activists and political dissidents have been harassed, silenced, killed and jailed in Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. The well-known Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights detailed the systemic targeting of sexual difference by the Egyptian state and security apparatus. Other research has also outlined the ways in which individuals (particularly those with non-normative sexual and gender identities and practices) are being targeted across the region. Despite supposed legal progress in Tunisia, harsher sentences are being handed out for “homosexuality.” Violence and repression do not come only from the state, but also from the ranks of self-proclaimed progressive and leftist circles deeply embedded in the status quo of patriarchy and heteronormativity, as well as from Islamist forces and the institutions where they are in power.


The Struggle Continues


Amidst tremendous challenges, those who assert revolutionary projects of social justice and liberty for all are clearly visible and vocal. In fact, many of these activists have pushed for centering the experiences of the most excluded individuals in society, arguing that for all people to be free, those at the margins of the margins have to be free also.

Is it possible to think of this current moment as the beginning of another wave as newer mass political movements signal their desire to center the margins in powerful and visible ways?
Is it possible to think of this current moment as the beginning of another wave as newer mass political movements signal their desire to center the margins in powerful and visible ways? Queer activists and foreign domestic workers are working together to lift up their struggles in Lebanon. A new wave of the #metoo movement is growing in Egypt, uncovering possibly shifting dynamics around sexual harassment and opening up even more vaults. Activists are reimagining futures and working diligently to realize them. To be sure, as the writer Fayed suggests: “We were not just subjects to be looked at, from afar, judged as ‘lost’ and ‘uprooted,’ implicated, accused of ‘disloyalty’ and servitude to the West. We are part of a much larger struggle to reimagine politics beyond capitalism, to shatter patriarchy, to achieve radical justice.”[14]

There were a number of notable themes among the personal comments and public statements commemorating Sarah Hegazy’s life that shed light on the significance of this moment and its link to the movements in motion. One theme was the deep connection that many folks from different walks of life had to her: “Sarah was us and we were Sarah.” Hamed Sinno, the lead singer in Mashrou’ Leila, wrote: “Many a queer Arab has lost lovers, chosen family, friends and comrades. But Sarah’s death cut differently. Grief swept through the queer community and the diaspora faster than the pandemic, and we took to doing what we’ve done for generations: we mourned.”[15]

Another common theme was the insistence on her intersectionality and thus the intersectionality of this movement. Sarah was lesbian (queer), feminist, socialist (sometimes referred to as a communist) and an activist. She fought for the rights of all those imprisoned because of their faith, race, gender, sexuality and political perspective in Egypt. Her struggle was not one of identity but for a larger political project for social justice and liberation. Rita Slaoui, a young queer Moroccan activist, wrote in Kuhl that “Sarah’s death feels particularly violent and personal as she could have been any of us. Many of us can see ourselves and our friends in her. Her death reminds us of the proximity of danger, which, while deluded by optimism, some of us can sometimes forget.”[16]

Sarah was many of us, in our traumas and pains and in our movements and struggles—another revolutionary dreaming of a more just world. As she wrote from her prison, “despite the disappointments and failures, we continue life” and so the struggle also continues.


[Zeina Zaatari researches sexual rights movements and sexuality in Lebanon and the Middle East and she directs the Arab American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.]




[1] Meem community, or mujtama’a al-meem, refers to the Arabic letter (meem) that constitutes the first letter in most of the LGBTQI terms in Arabic. Collectively, activists and others have started using the term mujtama’a al-meem to refer to this diverse community. WHRD-MENA Coalition, “Sarah Hegazy: An Activist from the Rainbow,” June 16, 2020.
[2] Tareq Baconi, “Our Lives are Not Conditional: On Sarah Hegazy and Estrangement,” Mada Masr, June 23, 2020.
[3] Ismail Fayed, “On Queerness and the Jargon of Authenticity,” Mada Masr, July 22, 2020.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pinar Ilkkaracan “Introduction: Sexuality as a Contested Political Domain in the Middle East,” in Ilkkaracan, ed. Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East (London: Ashgate Publishing, 2008). Sahar Amer, “Political-Social Movements: Homosexuality and Queer Movements: Egypt,” Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Brill Publishing, 2015). Hala Kamal, “A Century of Egyptian Women’s Demands: The Four Waves of the Egyptian Feminist Movement,” in Shahminder Takhar, ed. Gender and Race Matter: Global Perspectives on Being a Woman Volume 21 (Emerald Publishing, 2016).
[6] Zeina Zaatari, “Sexual Rights Movements: Problematics of Visibility,” in J. Michael Ryan and Helen Rizzo, eds. Sexualities in the Contemporary Middle East (Lynne Rienner Publishers, forthcoming).
[7] Ghassan Makarem, “The Story of Helem,” International Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7/3 (2011). Aswat was initially called Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women. They recently changed their title to be more inclusive to Aswat—Palestinian Feminist Center for Gender and Sexual Freedoms.
[8] Wala Al-Qaisiya, Hilal Gaith and Haneen Maikey, “Dismantling the Image of the Palestinian Homosexual; Exploring the Role of Al Qaws,” in Sandeep Baskhi, Suhraiya Jivraj, and Silvia Posocco, eds. Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions (Oxford, UK: Counterpress, 2016).
[9] Zeina Zaatari, “The Culture of Motherhood: An Avenue for Women’s Civil Participation in South Lebanon,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 2/1 (2006). Begona Artexaga, Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
[10] Nadine Naber and Zeina Zaatari, “Reframing the War on Terror: Feminist and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Activism in the Context of the 2006 Israeli Invasion of Lebanon,” Cultural Dynamics 26/1 (2014).
[11] Ibid, p. 101.
[12] Maissan Hassan, “Political-Social Movements: Community-Based: Egypt (Post Revolution),” Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Brill Publishing, 2016)
[13] Kamal (2016).
[14] Fayed (2020).
[15] Hamed Sinno, “On Pride and Mourning in the Middle East,” Frieze, June 26, 2020.
[16] Rita Slaoui, “Mourning Sarah Hegazy,” Kohl 6/1 (2020).


How to cite this article:

Zeina Zaatari "Sarah Hegazy and the Struggle for Freedom," Middle East Report Online, September 22, 2020.

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