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A prison within a prison

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

"To my brothers... I tried to survive and failed, forgive me. To my friends... the experience is harsh and I am too weak to fight, forgive me. To the world... you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive." That was the final message of Sarah Hegazi to the world before she took her life in Canada, where she sought asylum after being released from prison in Egypt on charges of promoting "homosexuality and sexual deviance”. Sarah was a lesbian activist who identified as a communist and was a founding member of the Bread and Freedom Party. After leaving Egypt for Canada, she joined the Socialist Spring Network there. The Egyptian authorities arrested Sarah and Ahmed Alaa, a law student, in October 2017 after they waved the rainbow flag at a concert by the Lebanese band "Mashrou' Leila," which supports the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, in September of the same year. The Egyptian state had accused her in what was posthumously referred to as the "Rainbow Flag case" of joining a banned group promoting "deviant ideology." However, she denied these charges and said that she had waved the flag in solidarity with the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. She was released on bail in January 2018 and travelled to Canada, where she announced news of her suicide on May 13, 2020. The suicide of Sarah was not an ordinary incident in Arab circles, but despite its bitterness, it ignited a flame that spread across social media platforms in the Arab world, and Syria was no exception. Since the news of her suicide spread, many Syrians declared their solidarity, and have spoken out about the discrimination and persecution that LGBTQ+ individuals suffer in Syria. They saw a significant similarity and a shared experience between their own struggles in a society that rejects them and what Sarah endured in terms of significant persecution and bullying. Many Syrian LGBTQ+ individuals have been struck with the fear of meeting the same fate, especially those who have recently discovered their sexual orientation. They find themselves struggling with the internal conflict between their past selves and newly found identity on one hand, and between their families, society, and religion on the other. The news of Sarah's suicide forced many to wrestle with the question of their destiny in societies that still criminalise sexual and gender differences. It should make us feel more concerned when we identify similarities in our social and political circumstances with what she experienced in her homeland, as well as the loneliness and feeling of alienation she endured in her country of asylum. It is not easy for a person to reach the point of suicide without having first exhausted all their resilience, lost their family and friends, and all sense of belonging and security. The internet has played a significant role in connecting LGBTQ+ individuals inside and outside of Syria through social media platforms. This has also allowed them to organize meetings, parties, and shared trips under covert names to avoid surveillance.

The increasing presence of LGBTQ+ individuals in both physical and virtual spaces seems to have had no tangible effects on their social perception, however. Socially, homosexuality in Syria is still stigmatised as a "social phenomenon." Some classify LGBTQ+ individuals as criminals who must be punished with imprisonment and more, while others consider them as mentally ill individuals whose deviation needs to be treated by competent authorities. Some do not hesitate to assault them if caught in “suspicious” situations. Religious leaders always emphasize that Syrian society is Islamic and conservative, and there are no Quranic texts that call for tolerance towards LGBTQ+ individuals, suggesting that they deserve punishment.

In line with societal attitudes, the authorities do not protect LGBTQ+ individuals from the pressures and repeated humiliations they face. For example, it is not uncommon for police patrols to raid places where they hold private events and detain them. As they are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, members of the community are subjected to extortion by individuals affiliated with Syrian intelligence agencies. This can involve surveillance, threats of publishing private photos or disclosing secrets that could potentially threaten the lives of many LGBTQ+ individuals in Syria. Ali from Damascus shares his story about the Syrian regime's thugs who kidnapped him from the heart of the capital, Damascus, specifically from Al-Rawda Park.

He says: "I was sitting alone on one of the benches in Al-Rawda Park in Damascus when a car approached, and a security officer got out of it. He was wearing a military uniform and he asked for my ID, I handed it to him. He proceeded to ask me to get into the car with him. There were three security officers carrying guns. They blindfolded me, and I couldn't see where we were going. Later, I discovered that we were in Daraya, within one of the security detachments. They assaulted and humiliated me, and stole the money I had with me. They also took my mobile phone and read my conversations with my gay friends.

“After hours of intimidation, assault, insults, and humiliation, they demanded a ransom of one million Syrian pounds, threatening to harm me if I didn't comply. They kept my phone and gave me a contact number through which to arrange the handing over of the money. It was a harrowing experience. They eventually brought me back to Damascus. I returned home and decided to file a report with the police. I went to Arnoos Police Station, but they ignored my request and treated me with disdain. They bullied me and eventually closed the case, labelling it as a false report. Following that, the kidnappers continued to threaten me. They threatened my sister, and she had to change her phone number. They then informed my mother about my sexual orientation. Finally, they contacted my friend Rama after discovering that she is also a lesbian. Those were extremely challenging days. I cannot adequately describe the amount of psychological pressure and exhaustion I experienced during that time."

As for Rama, Ali's friend, and one of the victims of the kidnappers, she is a lesbian from Damascus. The kidnappers found conversations with her on Ali's phone. Despite taking extreme precautions to hide photos, disguise conversations, and use pseudonyms, the officer managed to identify her number and learn her identity. Rama says: "It was painful. I felt like my life was crumbling before me. A feeling of sheer horror took hold of me when the security officer threatened to expose me and insulted me and my family. At that moment, all I could respond with was: “As you wish, sir.” Although I had committed no crime except for having some conversations with my gay friend, he shared my number with the regime's thugs, who continued to harass me for several days, sending explicit sexual messages. I had to change my phone number. I recorded the calls at the time, and now when I listen to them, I feel nothing but trembling and fear. I also experience numbness in my limbs just from the memories alone, especially since I have special health conditions".

Under Syrian law, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. Any non-heterosexual sexual activity falls under the provisions of Articles 517, 518, and 520 of the Syrian Penal Code of 1949, which explicitly criminalise homosexuality in any form.

The law also criminalises behaviour that violates public morals and considers same-sex relationships a breach of public decency. It is unsurprising that Syrian law is strict in its provisions regarding LGBTQ+ rights for several reasons, including social and religious, as state law is derived from Islamic jurisprudence, and Sharia is the primary source of legislation. In previous years, the police in Syria have used charges related to homosexuality to prosecute members of the LGBTQ+ community. According to reports from organizations such as the Dutch Council for Refugees and the Center for Refugee Research, LGBTQ+ individuals believe they cannot seek protection from the regime. Non-governmental organizations have reported that the regime has arrested dozens of LGBTQ+ individuals since 2011 on charges such as insulting social values, buying, selling, and consuming prohibited drugs and organizing and promoting "indecent" parties.

Human Rights Watch has also reported increased and intensified violence against LGBTQ+ individuals based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. This violence includes rape, sexual harassment, genital mutilation, threats of rape against LGBTQ+ individuals or the rape of female family members. It has occurred in many places in Syria, from regime detention centres and prisons, all the way to the ranks of the Turkish-affiliated ‘Syrian National Army’. Even though there are no well-known local non-governmental organisations focusing on LGBTQ+ issues, for obvious reasons, there are multiple online groups, including a magazine dedicated to LGBTQ+ affairs called "Mawaleh".

Human rights activists therein have noted visible societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.

Recently, there has been a spike in violence against LGBTQ+ individuals by members of the Syrian regime, especially after Bashar al-Assad's speech at the Othman Mosque in Damascus in 2020. Since the speech, hostility towards LGBTQ+ individuals has intensified in pro-regime, official, and semi-official media outlets, alongside increased security measures against those suspected of being LGBTQ+. Many LGBTQ+ activists believe there may be official directives from the presidential palace or the Ministry of Information regarding the mobilisation against LGBTQ+ individuals, not only within Syrian society but in general. Sexual freedoms have become a sole entry point for attacking “Western liberal values”, which Assad clearly emphasised in his speech, openly declaring the Islamic nature of his state and presenting a distorted, farcical depiction of secularism, which apparently does not mean the separation of religion and state as advocated by "modern liberalism" but rather respect for religions as dictated by Islam.

The Syrian regime follows this strategy in order to appeal to the Sunni majority, especially during times of crises between the Alawi regime and that majority in areas such as Damascus. For the regime, the support of Sunnis in the capital represents a symbolic indicator of its stability and strength. This does not only involve individuals, but also includes the various classes and members of society such as traders, businessmen, and religious figures. Consequently, LGBTQ+ individuals are an easy target through which the regime attempts to curry favour with Sunni residents. As for areas outside the Syrian regime's control, the situation is no better. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been known to detain, torture, and kill members of the LGBTQ+ community in areas under its control. Human Rights Watch has also reported cases of extortion and harassment targeting the LGBTQ+ community. This comes after the execution of at least 30 people on charges of homosexuality by ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups, according to testimonies from refugees and displaced individuals from the war in Syria and Iraq. These testimonies were heard by the United Nations Security Council in August 2015 during a session dedicated to the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, sponsored by the United States and Chile. Despite extremely difficult circumstances, LGBTQ+ individuals in Syria are struggling to be accepted in a society that rejects them and under laws that criminalize their existence, while also being exploited and blackmailed by those in power.

Consequently, many in Syria often marry in secret with the blessings of their close friends, challenging customs, traditions, and laws. "Our relationships are not different from traditional relationships. We love, miss, feel jealous, and dream of raising children", says Hassan, from Aleppo.

Despite not believing that he will be able to publicly declare his love for his partner Ahmed in front of his family, relatives, or even on social media, Hassan adds: "Our struggle is parallel to the struggle for political and religious freedoms. The persecution LGBTQ+ individuals face in Syria cannot be separated from the struggle for political and religious freedom." Furthermore, a psychiatrist in Damascus has pointed out that LGBTQ+ individuals in Syria are at a much higher risk of suffering from mental health issues. He states, "In addition to the suffocating living conditions that Syrians, in general, suffer from, LGBTQ+ individuals face tremendous pressure and extremely harsh living conditions. This creates a constant sense of guilt for them, in addition to problems related to accepting their sexual orientations, as well as feelings of despair and hopelessness."

This reality has led many in Syria to desire to leave the country, which has become akin to a large prison.

"How can I create a beautiful flower from my suffering? How can I forget what an entire regime and society have done against me?" - Sarah Hajazi


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