Homoeroticism in Homophobic Islamic Countries: Egypt as a Case Study

“Islam has ended homosexual practices, not homoerotic sentiment” – Homoeroticism and homosexuality in Islam, Sabine Schmidtke

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In this paper, the relationship between homoeroticism and homophobia in Muslim countries will be explained while mainly focusing on Egypt, through mentioning a brief introduction about Egypt’s history and the rise of Islam, and reflecting the differences between the past and the present in terms of culture, terminology, laws, politics, literature and discourse that are historically specific and culturally created.

First, we have to define what we mean when we mention “Homoeroticism.” The term was coined by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and is closely tied with other phrasings such as “homosexuality”, “homoaffectivity” and “homosociability”; however, our term is clearly distinct and specific. Homoeroticism is seen to be the “tendency of erotic feelings between same sex”; thus, it is mainly dependent on emotions of sameness rather than differences between sexes. It is also important to mention that this concept is seen to be “relatively recent but important in the theorization of sex and gender” (Sponsler). It is also important to add that Homoeroticism is highly attributed to art and culture in the Arab region and especially Egypt. “The ability to identify aspects of gender beyond biological sex has made homoerotic and homoeroticism important conceptual terms for the study of sexuality in history and culture.” (Chodorow). Hence, the powerful pattern of identity, the unique lifestyle, and secrecy that is common between these worlds in Egypt. Jeffrey Weeks reflects saying “many western gays, for a long time now, have traveled hopefully to the Muslim world and expected to find sexual paradise.”

Islam as a religion has condemned premarital sex in general, and especially other sexual relationships that include same sex partners. In some countries, long ago there has been a variety of punishments for it; imprisonment, stoning, flogging, corporal punishment, and others. However, the punishment that remains the most used, and the most prevalent, has always been social stigma; including hate crimes, and ostracism. “There has been a growing tendency to repress homosexual practices” (Sofer).

Stephen O. Murray in his “The will to know: Islamic accommodations of male sexuality” puts it simply as “the apparent tolerance of homosexual practices in Islamic societies depends on a widespread and enduring pattern of collective denial, in which a condition of the pursuit of homosexual activity, whether based on age difference or gender definition, is that the behavior should never be publicly acknowledged.”

Although there is a clear distinction between homoeroticism and homosociability, it is almost impossible in certain contexts like Egypt to draw a line that severs between both. The more claustrophobic society gets around sex, the more the lines between these “social” and “sexual” spheres tend to be completely wiped out and this is central to our discussion here. Islamic countries are solely based on building barriers from a really young age, we teach the children shame before they even know how to spell it; parents would be aggressive around their kids when they first discover their genitals, thus, the first attachment to what we call “indecent” towards their own bodies, we teach them to be at unease. To start with, the choice of the very first blue or pink for newborns to what is culturally seen as an “all girl sport” – if there are any sports for girls – till the prevalence of segregated boarding schools. Moreover, the presence of family gatherings, weddings and other celebrations where men do not see the sight of one single woman are crucial into shaping this omnipresent concept of homosociability. Not to mention the famous ‘hamams’ which are the bathing houses that have two spaces for men only and women only, also the Harem for women, which in former times was the place that held Muslim women together in more than one culture, from Ottomans to Asians.

It is quite usual in Egypt for males to walk with their arms locked together, or with their arms around each other’s shoulders, also for men to be touchy in ways that are seen as very “gay” for most people with a Western background, but can pass so easily here in Egypt. Girls grow up having more room for intimacy with fellow girls, they walk together holding hands in the street, they share the same bed, they are very familiar with each other’s bodies, not in a best-friend kind of bond, but rather, in an erotic and familiar way, that makes bodies easily unite under the notion of ‘your body is safe to me’. However, this very large strata of men and women being overly intimate with each other have not heard of the above mentioned terms, in addition, if they were confronted with their tendencies, they would not like it. In other words, Rex Wockner questions this saying “is this hypocritical? Or a different world?” (Masaad)

It is quite understandable to attribute both homoeroticism and homosociability to these segregations, and it is also important to reflect that not only were these spaces meeting points for lovers, but also they were where most of homoerotic Islamic poetry and art emerged. We can see numerous art works featuring ladies bathing, combing their hair, having tea parties, extravagant weddings and so on. Not only was this crucial to our understanding of the Islamic era, but also it was a hidden documentation of this kind of social life, and a vivid portrayal of these blurred lines between these two concepts. Over the years, these segregations have made it extremely possible for homophobic Islamic countries to produce numerous generations of homosexuals that cannot even spell homosexuality, and most importantly, homosexuals that are themselves homophobes.

The Islamic culture is highly phallocentric, and deeply dependent on the ‘who is on top’ kind of acclaim. Thus, if you are the penetrator, rather than being the penetrated, does that really make you a homosexual? In a culture that celebrates masculinity on any price, the answer is probably no. Moreover, like most religions, Islam has completely and absolutely neglected any mention of female sexuality, because it is seen as “less dangerous, less sacred” (Bos). Also, because in Muslim societies, where virginities are so important, it is always seen that there is no threat for hymns when it comes to a lesbian relationship. Moreover, in general there is no or little mention of female sexuality, and in Egypt, because of the powerful presence of religion and the traditions of hushing women’s bodies, it is very hard to document these desires and voices. As the gay scenes in both Cairo and in Alexandria are highly male dominated, hence, there is also very little mention of female sexuality in this research, for the above stated reasons.

The female presence only peppers these kinds of spheres, which is very evident in more than one occasion. Gay bars in Egypt have more straight women then lesbians, applications like Grinder, Hornet etc. also feature very little women usage, even groups on Facebook that are all LGBTQ friendly rarely include women, not because they are uninvited, but because their sexuality in many cases is not threatened, and not thriving to be and not incumbent on representation as gays in Egypt. Thus, it can easily be explained as that the less violent attack on female sexuality, whether it was gay or straight in Egypt, made it easier for Lesbians to exist calmly or to be more specific, less obviously. When one comes to think of it, if one is not urged to justify one’s being and one’s life, it is easier for one to get by. However, this is not a privilege, but rather another kind of ignorant oppression that just happened to be in favor of the oppressed.

Thus, “The creation of homosexual networks, and the formation of groups and subcultures, are well attested to various times and places in the Islamic world” (Schmidtke). This art presented to us during the Islamic era not only helped us to understand, but also was a corner stone to white western scholars to portray the “exotic” east and as Said would phrase it “orientalize the orient”.

Abu Nawas, known as the Islamic poet of male love, in most of his poetry explicitly describes his male encounters and vividly portrays the beauty of young boys and wine and he celebrates life in the most sensual ways through his words. In his revealing poem “In the bath-house” Nawas says:

“the mysteries hidden by trousers

are revealed to you.

Feast your eyes without restraint! (Nawas)

In his poem “A Boy is Worth More than A Girl”, Nawas mentions the great admiration he has for someone and intertwines it with his fear of the Imam, the religious symbol of mosque, and the Muezin, the man who calls out for prayers:

“How I wish he would come

Return my greeting.

I reveal to him all my thoughts

Without fear of the imam, or of the muezin.”

This leads us to a very crucial point of homosexuality in Islam, for many scholars it is not clear when it comes to the divine punishment of the People of Lot. The question that always arises is “did the people of Lot receive this punishment for being homosexuals or for attacking Lot and his heavenly guests?” As Turkish writer and scholar Mustapha Akyol phrases it in his article “What does Islam say about being Gay” (Akyol). However, it is crystal clear in the Quran that God has condemned any “desire” that is attained for men without women; it is a sin according to this text and many others. However, we are left with no explanations or mentions of female homosexuality; thus, what does the Quran really say about being a Lesbian?

The existence of public spaces that are exclusive to men and others that are exclusive to women, such as cafes which are only male-friendly and women-only tram and metro cabinets, emphasize the fact that that segregation is cultural and social rather than law-enforced.

One also has to bear in mind the zero sex education that is provided along the lines of these upbringings, no public/ private/ international schools or universities offer any kind of sex education, other than biology classes; not to mention homes and parents as well. The only method of talking about sex in most of these entities mentioned, is absolutely not talking about sex. Thus, the country helps in growing up generations and generations who do not understand the basic concepts of sex/ gender/ orientation/ body/ consent/ orgasms and more. Moreover, how does one explain sex to people who are ashamed of saying the three letters s.e.x out loud? The justification is always something along the lines, “no sex education please, we are Muslims”. But what does that mean?

In an article titled “Egypt is in dire need of sex education” published outside Egypt by an Egyptian American, Angela Fanous, she says “In 2010 the government dropped all sex education, the bare minimum requirement for reproductive health, because teachers were shyly skimming the curriculum anyway” (Fanous). In addition, the Arabic language is not only unfriendly towards these notions and concepts, but it is also unaware of these kinds of issues. Arabic disregards Homoeroticism or Homosexuality and most. if not all, of these sexual identities. If we want to explain these concepts to Arabic speaking people, we do not have terms; however, we might resort to explanations or we translate or transliterate what is already foreign to the Arabic language, and words like homosexuality and few other cases have very recently been introduced to Arabic. Moreover, language is culture, and if one’s mother- tongue tends to exclude these terms, and deny one’s own identity by the name of linguistics then we might be facing even a bigger problem.

The lack of sex education, segregation, and many other techniques that are propagated by the state tend to make the lines between homoeroticism and homosociability very blurred, and there lies a new dictation of sexuality that is based on culture that will be examined further.

This segregation has paved the way for societies like Egypt to have a huge community that is ardently rising and rising while being hidden. Not only that, but they are also stuck in the “Oppositional pairing” that David Bos phrases in his essay “Religion and Same Sex Sexualities” which brings us to a very important point. Bos writes: “Is it difficult and virtually impossible to be truly gay and a “true believer?”

If we lend the same reasoning to the Egyptian society, we get to understand why most of the homosexuals in Egypt are themselves the Homophobes. It is very prevalent for someone to engage in a sexual activity with someone of the same sex, and this same person would end up calling him/her a faggot. Homosexuals in Egypt might also engage in hate crimes against other fellow homosexuals. This is also why sexual minorities in Egypt find it extremely hard to fit in and find a safe haven even within their own community. Homophobic Islamic societies ask people to only have one identity, it is either you are a Muslim or you are gay. Needless to say that these adjectives are way more than just names, because if you choose “Muslim”, consequently, you are the chosen, the unproblematic, the right and the one who goes to heaven eventually. Moreover, if you choose “gay” then you inevitably will be all the opposite of the above mentioned. The question is, can’t a person be both?

Homophobia is heavily attributed in some scholarly arguments to colonial encounters. Human rights Watch issued a 66 page report in 2008 titled “The origins of “sodomy” laws in British colonialism.” In this report, that is related to India and the Asian area, Scott Long, the renowned LGBTQ activist says that “half of the world’s countries that criminalize homosexual conduct do so because they cling to Victorian morality and colonial laws” (Long). In addition, we have to understand that in so many cases colonial history is actually a key in understanding our present day sexuality.

In Egypt, however, although the British took over the country for more than eighty-five years, it is hard to say that homophobia is directly linked to them as much as we can easily attribute it, in this case, to Islam. Islamists, religious leaders, the patriarchal society, the state, the Quran and the Hadith have been toyed and shaped over the years for one specific target, which is to create a We and a Them. Unfortunately, homosexuals have been placed as a Them all the time. In the book “Homosexuality in Islam” Kugle phrases it as a “politicized Islamic community that stands against the “outsider” colonialism, Christianism, Zionism, communist atheism, secular modernity”.

The political climate in Egypt and the Arab region has changed drastically over the times of Nawas and others: it has grown to be more hostile when it comes to homosexuality, and this is crucial to their stance in Egypt. Art has been peppered by mentions of homosexuals, mostly males of course. The characters were depicted variously according to class and their stories; however, they share the same ostracism, the same oppression and the same negotiation of struggle. In the early 2000s, the Queen Boat case erupted and it has made a huge hassle both nationally and internationally. In this incident, more than 70 men were arrested for a boat party that was perceived as ‘gay’ in Cairo.

Documentation of this incident is skillfully described in Mohamed Abdelnaby’s novel “In the Spider’s Room” through a limpid language that is very much accessible to all readers. It is important to state that “It is not a Queen Boat novel, it is a novel about a person called Hani Mahfouz”, writes Ahmed Shafei for Mada Masr. However, the novel vividly portrays the aftermath of what happens to these men after the arrest. In one scene, a police officer who is just done with sabotaging, piercing, electrifying, and burning one of the people who were accused of being gay of the boat, asks “and what do you exactly do in bed? Do you give or do you take?” in poor colloquial Arabic that reflects the ignorance around this whole act altogether. It stresses how masculinity is only seen through the tiny scope of penetration.

The novel raises many questions about desire, about oppression, about the state, the so called Islamic Egyptian society being dragged by its own doing and getting placed in front of a mirror to face all the horrors that are rising and will still arise from the hushing down of minorities that are in dire need of representation and coming out. However, the most important question that the novel raises is “Are we ready to see?” (Shafei)

Recently in Egypt, in 2013, a TV host Mona Iraqi gets a police warrant and raids a public bathhouse in old Cairo. According to the Human Rights report, the men were “loaded on police trucks and stripped naked” (Mezzofiore). They were taken to jail under the crime titled ‘Debauchery’ or ‘Perversion’ because at that time, this was the blanket legal term for accusing homosexual activity. This incident has disrupted international and national organizations to speak out against the atrocities of the Egyptian government towards these minorities. Consequently, Iraqi was sentenced with six months of Jail, or a bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds. However, not for humiliating over 40 men and putting them in jail, not for spreading false news, not for jeopardizing the lives, families and jobs of these accused men; this sentence was because Iraqi posted sexually explicit verbal content on a channel that is known to be family friendly.

Later on in 2017, the famous rainbow flag incident in a concert in Cairo started the Be all and the End all of the LGBTQ community in Egypt. Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band famous for its lead singer Hamid Sinno, who is openly gay performs in Egypt. The venue of this concert holds around 35,000 people; in this concert several rainbow flags were raised. Those flags were not only a stance of support for Sinno, it was also a declaration of the LGBTQ community in Cairo, that they are present, that they are not afraid and that they will rise.

The next day, the hassle in the city after the concert was louder that anything Egypt has ever perceived when it came to LGBTQ issues. Over 75 men and women were taken from their houses, and the crime this time was not because they were seen as homosexual suspects, but because they raised rainbow flags in a city that happens to be colour blind. The same month, the Egyptian parliament passed a law that any person who engages in a homosexual activity will be sentenced for three years in prison. If this act was followed by another one, the same person gets another five years. Thus, the call for representation backfired heavily, which made the situation very sensitive for any kind of international intervention.

The gay subculture in Egypt, their meeting points and their closed societies are very much known to the police and to the government. However, it is indeed a kind of system that might be in their favour. I once asked a friend who told me about being stopped by the police after stepping out of a club on a Thursday night which is known to be the “gay night” in Alexandria, “doesn’t that threaten you?” The answer was “No, it is just politics, but if they want us they know where and how to get us.” This makes sense in terms of the state wanting to give the citizens the space to make these kinds of ‘mistakes’ against the law, in order to know how to use them in their favour later on. Meaning “you were here last night in that gay event at this particular place, and we assume this will not stop you from voting for our chosen guy in the parliament, or doing this business, or being on our side in general, will it?” And other subtle harassments made by the state to secure itself. Thus, these elastic laws are only intended to serve one side of the story.

To reason from this climate in Egypt and in many of the Arab countries concerning issues for sexualities and identities, I am not on the same side with Masaad and his attack on the universalization of gays and lesbians and their rights that he represents in the third chapter of Desiring Arabs. Masaad basically attacks the western hegemony over Arab and Muslim queer identities, and he describes it as “an aggressive universal campaign” because he thinks that there is an “Orientalist impulse” that guides all these movements/organizations and the notions of universalizing the Arab Muslim gays and lesbians. Which can be true, my argument is not against that, and of course, I strongly disagree with a white western man in a suit – or anything else – to sit down and decide to write about me and give me a label, and decide what I should look like, what I should love, what I should call myself etc. for many reasons. The most obvious one, that in many cases these men writing my present and my future have not stepped foot into my present and will never experience this future of mine. Also because I have a voice and it sounds nothing like theirs.

However, at this turn of events that we are witnessing in the Arab region, especially in Egypt with the rise of homophobia, the backlash from the government and the hateful laws against it, wouldn’t it be actually a good idea to consider that sexual freedom and identity transcends the importance of culture and language? The statements have changed over the years and it is not a matter of “I do not want to be orientalized” or “I don’t want to be called exotic”, it is a matter of “I don’t want to die because of what I love”. Therefore, we should consider universal movements that claim the rights of gays and lesbians in Egypt. The longing to belong, to feel safe, to feel represented, and to feel accepted is universal and constant, it does not know race, religion or language, and this is why it should be global and should be addressed universally.

In addition, Egyptian queer communities over the years have had a subtle and unintentional anti-colonial kind of approach towards the linguists and much more of the western dominance over the Arab queer world. There is a new unique Arabic dialogue and terms that are not included in dictionaries, however, are deeply embedded within the queer dialogue. There are activities and forms of representation, identifications and ways of meeting up that is unprecedented and Egyptian authentic in nature. In addition, the way that Arab Queer Muslim youth choose to represent themselves through dance, poetry, cinema and styles is not western at all; on the contrary, it is fully immersed in identity and struggle and it cannot go unnoticed.

In conclusion, all these factors over the years, whether they were cultural, linguistic or political, have formed a vision, a dialogue and pattern of thinking that has been crucial to the stance of homosexuals in Egypt, their rise and their fall. The Islamic claustrophobic climate together with the perilous political regime has impeded this reality into a nightmare that has helped, unfortunately, influence the whole Arab region, as Egypt has the Azhar, which is the center of Islamic studies. Also geographically speaking, because Egypt is the largest cultural influence in the area. It has been crucial in the understanding of the people to these communities, and also for these communities to perceive themselves. Islam has paved the way for homophobia and on its way it has also made a clear passage for homoeroticism unknowingly, and as a way of trying to cover for its wrong doings, it has made it far worse. Thus, we are in dire need of a local representation that is aided by universal laws that can help make this issue accepted and not just tolerated. We need a dialogue that is Egyptian in nature, that is well read and knowledgeable enough of the struggles of the context. It is a community that is ageless, classless and that is bound by more than one language.

Essay written by Farah Barakat

Artwork by Queer Habibi 

Works Cited

Gale, T. (2007). Homoeroticism, Female/Male, Concept. [online] encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/homoeroticism-femalemale-concept [Accessed 22 Aug. 2018].

Schmidtke, S. (1999). Homoeroticism and homosexuality in Islam: a review article. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 62(02), p.260.

Murray, S. and Roscoe, W. (1997). Islamic homosexualities. New York: New York University Press.

Bos, D. (2015). Likewise: religion and same sex sexualities. In:Hadas Izkovitch & Anya van Lit, I Believe I Am Gay. Amsterdam: Izkovitch & Van Lit 2015, pp.83-90.

profile, V. (2018). Abu Nuwas, Islamic Poet of Male Love. [online] Queerhistory.blogspot.com. Available at: http://queerhistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/abu-nuwas-islamic-poet-of-male-love.html [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Queering the Church. (2018). Two poems of Abu Nuwas, Islamic poet of male love. [online] Available at: https://queerchurch.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/two-poems-of-abu-nuwas-islamic-poet-of-male-love/ [Accessed 22 Aug. 2018].

Kugle, S. (2013). Homosexuality in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld.

Akyol, M. (2018). Opinion | What Does Islam Say About Being Gay?. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/29/opinion/mustafa-akyol-what-does-islam-s

ay-about-being-gay.html [Accessed 25 Aug. 2018].

Fanous, A. (2018). Egypt Is in Dire Need of Sex Education. [online] Vice. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nnqpxx/lets-talk-about-sex-0000572-v22n2 [Accessed 22 Aug. 2018].

hrw.org. (n.d.). “The origins of “sodomy” laws in British colonialism”. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/12/17/alien-legacy/origins-sodomy-laws-british-colonialism [Accessed 25 Aug. 2018].

Shafie, A. (2016). In the Spider’s Room: A counter-oppression novel. [online] Mada Masr. Available at: https://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/06/15/feature/culture/in-the-spiders-room-a-counter-oppression-novel/ [Accessed 28 Aug. 2018].

Mezzofiore, G. (2014). Egypt: 33 men arrested in Cairo’s hammam for ‘perversion’ and ‘spreading Aids’. [online] International Business Times UK. Available at: https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/egypt-33-men-arrested-cairos-hammam-perversion-spreading-aids-1478605 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

Massad, J. (2008). Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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