Sexuality, Development and Non-conforming Desire in the Arab World: The Case of Lebanon and Egypt
IDS Evidence Report 158
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[W]e have a lot of problems here – torture, violations against street children, we are full of problems… To come in and talk about gays and lesbians, it is nice, but it’s not the major issue. It’s like I’m starving and you ask me what kind of cola I want. Well, I want to eat first. Then we can talk about cola! It’s a luxury to talk about gay rights in Egypt.
(Negad El Borai, in an interview with Azimi 2006)
In many developing countries, sexual rights are commonly depicted as trivial concerns pertaining to wealthy citizens of a ‘developed’ Western world. The ‘developing’ world is often thought to have more pressing problems to deal with, such as poverty, violence and corruption.
As the prominent Egyptian attorney and human rights activist, Negad El Borai, pointed out in the preceding statement, it is ‘nice’ to talk about gay and lesbian rights in Egypt, but the matter is ranked low in a hierarchy of critical human rights issues. Indeed, it is sometimes not considered to be a human rights issue at all. While it is important, when analysing Borai’s statement, to consider his precarious position as a human rights activist in what was, at the time, a long-standing dictatorship, such skeletal/unfamiliar representations of sexual rights risk obscuring the gradually emerging links between sexual rights and other aspects of human development.
In his statement, Borai does not reject the pertinence or question the efficacy of a ‘globalized narrative on sexual identity’ in Egypt (Cornwall 2014: 427) – something we discuss in the report. Rather, he attempts to play down the gravity of the Egyptian state’s acts against ‘sexual perversion’ by dissociating it from other ‘major issues’ in the country. Providing an alternative perspective on the matter, Armas (2007) elaborates on the links between sexual rights and development by examining the relationships between sexual rights and the right to health (mental and physical), education, political participation, work, and migration. He argues that their interdependence is testament to their indivisibility as basic human rights.
Subscribing to the latter perspective, this report focuses on the rights of sexual and gender nonconformists in Egypt and Lebanon. It explores the somewhat similar social attitudes towards sexual and gender nonconformity and follows the divergent trajectories of both countries with regards to sexual rights activism. The report attributes this divergence to differences in socio-political conditions in each country that have allowed for the development of a somewhat organised, selectively functional sexual rights movement in one context, while encouraging the open oppression of almost all forms of sexual dissent in another.