Thursday, March 1, 2007

Editor's Introduction - March 2007

“Prisoners of Sex” by Negar Azimi. New York Times Magazine. December 3, 2006.

An Annotation:

Through conversations and story-telling, Negar Azimi details the plight of homosexuals in Egypt, while placing this struggle in the larger context of human rights in the Muslim world. With horrific description of the infamous Queen Boat raid of 2001 (detailed here in a Human Rights Watch report), and its patrons’ subsequent detention and torture, the issue is presented very clearly: an anti-Western attitude toward homosexuality set against the rising tide of individualism. So, while gay rights are brought to the fore in this article, these issues are emblematic of larger tensions as traditional societies are confronted with the encroachment of modernity.

“It’s a luxury to talk about gay rights in Egypt.”

How do human rights advocates prioritize their efforts? Are democratic rights or women’s rights more important than gay rights in a country like Egypt, replete with repression of all kinds? It is one thing to be able to point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enumerate its catalogue and assert the indivisibility and interdependence of these rights; it is quite another to make decisions of primacy when resources and, more importantly, tolerance are limited. To be sure, human rights progress is incremental and is not made with one broad stroke. However, having to make conscious choices in activism entails the knowledge that some vulnerable populations will continue to suffer.

“The problem is not the punishment, it’s the scandal.”

While homosexual acts are not illegal in Egypt, as they are in other countries (such as the recently notorious laws passed in Nigeria—detailed here in an article from, the image and perception of the homosexual lifestyle is as offensive to their detractors as the acts themselves. Fueling this repulsion is the link drawn between homosexuality and the secular, decadent cultural imperialism of the United States and the West. Complemented by the military misadventures of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and its uncritical support for Israel, Western values and principles are discarded wholesale and written-off as yet another manifestation of this paternalism. As traditional societies become increasingly hostile to foreign elements within their borders, the project of universal human rights may continue to be dealt severe setbacks because of its Western origins.

All these questions and many more are thoughtfully raised in this month’s Roundtable.


Cultural Rage: A Severe Threat to Gay Men

by Rhoda Howard-Hassmann

"In the past many Islamic societies tolerated men having sex with men. In some societies, men who took the 'active' as opposed to the 'passive' role in sex were not considered to be homosexual."

Men who have sex with men have become a world cultural flashpoint. Fomenting and exploiting cultural rage at the West is a useful way for Islamists to gain electoral and other types of support, even though the motives of the Islamists may have more to do with the drive for power, regional influence, or economic benefit. But not only Islamists object to men having sex with men. The Roman Catholic Church still opposes equal marriage rights for gays everywhere, as well as ordination of openly gay priests, although it has—at least in Canada—somewhat modified its hostility to homosexuals by asserting that, in general, they should be treated respectfully. The world Anglican (in the U.S, Episcopalian) religion is split over rights for gay men. Anglican bishops in Africa are uniting with socially conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians in both Canada and the United States to oppose ordination of gay priests. Recently, there have been proposals in Nigeria to make it illegal even to communicate with a homosexual. These Nigerian proposals to socially isolate male homosexuals resemble the first steps made against the Jews in 1930s Germany.

In the past many Islamic societies tolerated men having sex with men. In some societies, men who took the “active” as opposed to the “passive” role in sex were not considered to be homosexual. Indeed, male prostitution (especially with Western sex tourists) is still not considered to be homosexuality in some Islamic societies, as long as the prostitute takes the active role. A man temporarily engaging in sex with another man could still be considered a socially-conforming heterosexual, as long as he contemporaneously—or at the appropriate age—married and had children.

Nowadays, one of the problems is that men who have sex with men assert themselves as “gay” men. They assert a new identity that flouts cultural norms of sex roles and marriage. The worldwide movement towards liberation of homosexuals, their demand that their sexual activity be recognized, even honored, is deeply offensive in many traditional societies. It is offensive in part because it rejects traditional sex roles and the traditional procreative function of marriage. In the modern West, traditional sex roles have changed; marriage is no longer socially mandatory and its purpose is considered to be for companionship as much as for reproduction. These normative changes have not permeated the non-Western, Islamic or African worlds, however. Yet gay activists, in the West and increasingly elsewhere, want to be socially recognized. They want their relationships, and their sexual practices, to be honored, and to be considered as socially valid as heterosexual relationships and sexual practices. They want formerly shameful, hidden practices to become honored and public.

It is ironic, however, that some Egyptians think gay liberation is part of the American imperialist agenda. The United States is quite regressive in its attitudes toward gay rights, as compared to other countries such as Canada, where gay marriage is legally recognized at the national level. The strong conservative movement in the United States, rooted in part in evangelical Protestant fundamentalism, is one reason why gays still live a precarious existence in many American states, not even enjoying rights to non-discrimination in employment.

Gay men (and to a lesser extent, lesbian women) are one of the most vulnerable groups in the world today. They are a symbolic flashpoint for much of the cultural rage against the West. Yet their rights are barely protected in international human rights law. Although the few legal cases that have been taken to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (such as the Toonen case) have resulted in greater protection of their rights, and although the European Union strongly protects their rights, it is unlikely that any international treaty to protect them will be proposed, let alone approved, at the United Nations in the foreseeable future. If such a treaty is ever proposed, it will probably be subject to far fewer ratifications and far more reservations, just as the Convention on Women’s Rights was considered a cultural flashpoint 20 years ago.

Faced with the rise of anti-homosexual ideologies, policies and activities in Islamic and Christian-dominated societies, the international human rights community must make protection of the rights of gays and lesbians a top priority. Some human rights activists still seem to think gay and lesbian rights are of peripheral concern, while the right to eat, or women’s rights to equality, are far more pressing. Some older human rights scholars and activists, I suspect, are still uncomfortable with overt support of homosexuals. Yet what will we call it if someday gays are subjected to more than massive discrimination, social isolation, torture, and execution? We will need a new word for a new type of genocide: mass murder for reasons of sexual orientation.

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann is Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she is affiliated with the Global Studies Program and the Department of Political Science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She has published on human rights in Africa and Canada, on women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights, on economic rights, and on various theoretical and methodological aspects of international human rights. Her current research project is on Reparations for Africa. She has also established a website on political apologies and reparations.


Exporting and Negotiating Human Rights

by Randall Kuhn

"While we can debate this within our own society, one could argue that the effective exertion of positive influence abroad begins with the consistent and self-conscious promotion of values and human rights that are truly universal."

In 2000, renowned Egyptian activist-sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and 27 colleagues were tried, convicted and imprisoned by the Egyptian government on a range of politically-motivated charges. In 2003, Ibrahim was released after three years of imprisonment and torture and a concerted campaign to secure his release by concerned academics, activists, and political leaders. Two years later, physically weakened but morally indefagitable, he visited colleagues at the University of Colorado and talked about his experiences as an academic and activist. At the end of his talk, I asked Dr. Ibrahim how he intended to contribute to the upcoming Egyptian presidential elections. His response, which took me completely by surprise, was that he intended to stand in the election. In the event, Dr. Ibrahim was not allowed to run and Ayman Nour, a more mainstream progressive politician, finished second with 7 percent of the vote. Such dispiriting returns for progressives are common throughout the world, in developed and developing nations, in elections fair and not so fair (e.g., Ralph Nader in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election).

I could not help thinking of underappreciated political martyrs like Saad as I was reading Negar Azimi’s thoughtful review of the detention and torture of the Queen Boat 52 in Cairo and the subsequent entrapment and torture of homosexuals throughout Egypt. Who could begrudge a man who was tortured, abused, and wrongly imprisoned—just like you or so many of your friends and relatives—simply because you do not share or understand his cause, or because her cause is shared by Westerners?

And yet, as Azimi chronicles, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups faced just this situation in facing down both these injustices and the ensuing public hostility towards its victims. Instead of basing its appeal on “gay rights,” HRW situated its advocacy “in the larger context of torture.” This seems a novel and useful approach to addressing an issue that, whether correctly or not, is identified as being of greater concern to Western activists than those in developing countries. Rather than advocating in support of a “universal right” that is in fact still subject to angry debate even in the West, HRW chose to focus on the right to equal protection under the law.

Egypt ’s official politics are democratic only in name, yet active political discourse and civil society act as both a check against and a barometer of the shrinking legitimacy of the Egyptian government. In such a political atmosphere, progressive candidacies may wither on the vine even when those candidates’ views on human rights are shared by the majority. We can debate or inquire as to which rights are viewed as inalienable in any society, but a “short list” would probably include equal protection under law, freedom of movement, freedom of speech—though what is meant by each of these values could still engender years of argument. Two things should be clear, however: there is far greater variation from society to society with regard to sexual freedom than freedoms that might be considered more basic, and even in the most progressive societies a less substantial majority is committed to sexual freedom.

We should not forget the multiplicity of reasons why sexual freedoms may be lower on some societal agendas. It may be true that some societies, due to economic or political underdevelopment, are not yet ready or able to discuss, much less guarantee, such rights. On the other hand, the priority given to certain human rights does not cascade like a waterfall in a clear ordering of importance; rather, for a number of reasons, some rights may be more important to some societies than others. Perhaps a society simply does not place as much emphasis on sexuality. Or perhaps, as Azimi suggests for Egypt, a society feels successful in integrating alternate sexualities in a manner that is less noisy, still repressive, yet in some ways efficacious. Today such societies are confronted with Western societies which, having overcome a repressive and repressed approach to sexuality to the point where gay marriage is legal in many nations, would like to share—or spread, to be less charitable—that notion. Rather than accept this progressive wisdom, some societies reject it, associating the message and the messenger with other, more insidious forms of Western intrusion, and, worst yet, crack down in ways they never had before.

This story could serve as a wake-up call for Western activists and citizens. In a world where U.S. foreign policy is driven by narrow political economic concerns at best, and grabbing oil at worst, the perceived export of a “homosexual” agenda or any other agenda rooted in a particularly Western understanding of rights can be pegged as imperialism. But this becomes more likely when our approach to “diplomacy” reeks of racism, paternalism, hypocrisy, or self-indulgence.

While we can debate this within our own society, one could argue that the effective exertion of positive influence abroad begins with the consistent and self-conscious promotion of values and human rights that are truly universal. The promotion of rights that are already regarded as universal will find purchase even in undemocratic societies: witness the Egyptian government’s tepid but largely positive response to HRW appeals. Second, compassion and empathy towards those who do not agree with us, rather than acting out of hatred and exclusion, is an altogether more appealing message that is too rarely practiced by American activists, much less governments. Most important is a consistent approach to both universal and non-universal human rights: unbending, unconditional, and honest commitment to those that are most universal, no matter that strategic or economic importance of the country, and a humble and open debate about those that remain subject to debate.

Azimi closes his article with a potent reminder of the plight of those who are caught in the middle; those who, as one of his informants put it, “get branded as Western, fifth columnists” (§ 40). Can the West provide constructive support to these “prisoners of sex?” To say yes we need only look to figures who have spoken out against systematic human rights failures even as they acted to alleviate the suffering of those who bore the brunt: Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Yunus come to mind, as do academic/activists like Saad Ibrahim. For these revolutionary individuals, pointing out systemic injustice does not require that they take up arms, but it also does not obviate the need to ease individual suffering. For those in immediate peril, we may offer asylum. For those in less imminent danger, we can offer support, accompaniment, resources, and a constant reminder of what we have achieved and have yet to achieve in our own struggles.

Randall Kuhn is Assistant Professor and Director of the Global Health Affairs Certificate Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. A demographer and sociologist by training, Randall's research focuses on the impact of kinship, socio-demographic change, migration, and community on health and well-being in disadvantaged communities throughout the world. His key projects presently focus on the impact of migration on health in migrant-sending communities in Bangladesh and Indonesia, and on the impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami on community health and well-being in Sri Lanka.


Human Rights and Personal Stories

by David L. G. Rice

“...the 'activists, queens, anything…who do not fit the norm' are not safe in the West. Torture, illegal detainment, surveillance of peace activists, and sexual discrimination do not just happen in Egypt or the Middle East.”

Negar Azimi’s “Prisoners of Sex” is a welcome reminder that human rights discourse should always keep its subject, “humans,” firmly in view. The stories she tells of death, torture, hope, and survival bear witness to the challenges and dangers faced by gays and lesbians in Egypt. The need for such personal stories is powerfully expressed at the conclusion of her article in the quote from one of the anonymous interviewees arrested in Egypt for homosexuality, and that the reader knows only as “M”:

…Americans talk about something called Islamic fascism, the Arabs go on about their values. All of us, and I don’t mean gay men, I mean all of us who don’t fit the norm—democracy activists, queens, anything—it’s us who get branded as Western…We pay the price
(§ 40).

“M” insists on “us”: nonconformists and dissidents of various stripes who are assaulted legally, politically, and physically by those who dismiss them as “Western,” folding their physical and emotional pain back into a discourse of rhetorical abstraction. The language of “East” and “West,” “Islamofascism” and “Islamic values,” glosses over particular people in favor of shallow ideological rhetoric.

“M” calls attention to two challenges for any advocate of human rights. First, just as the ideological rhetoric of “Islamofascism” or “Muslim values” distracts attention from real, human suffering, activists and queens can just as easily disappear under an abstract conception of right. As proponents and critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East mobilize the rhetoric of “human rights” and “democracy,” these terms are too often associated with ideals, institutions, or policies rather than with people; these include terms such as: scared, laughing, ill, playful, beaten, beautiful, or dead.

Supporters of the Bush administration like to talk about women as voters in Afghanistan. Detractors mention “refugees” or “civilian casualties.” In both cases, people become nameless symbols paraded out to lend weight to this or that side of an argument, often expressed in numbers: women are “41 percent of registered voters” in Afghanistan; civilian casualties in Iraq number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Such statements express part of the truth while masking other truths. When the President takes women voter participation in Afghanistan as a sign that “women are free,” that claim needs to be answered by stories about death threats against women’s rights activists that continue in the same country. And arguing over the exact number and significance of the body count in Iraq needs to happen with an acute awareness of nine year old Amir Ahmad’s death in a cluster bomb strike.

In contrast to this abstraction of ideology, Azimi provides personal stories, from university students Hassan and Mo who argue interpretations of the Qur’an over lunch, to gay men like “M,” who are arrested and beaten into submission by uniformed authorities, to the parliamentarian Mostafa Bakry, who worries that “the American agenda is promoting the rights of homosexuals.” It is just as important to keep the opponents or abusers of human rights visible, to remember that they, too, are motivated by personal interests and fears. Rather than pontificate about such themes as political culture or the tension between democracy and rights, Azimi keeps attention squarely on the stories of the people she encounters.

“M” raises a second issue for human rights activists in his allusion to the malicious characterization of activists as “ Western.” I like to respond to concerns about the “Western” origins of human rights by pointing out the irony of ardent human rights advocates in the “East” who are called “Western” by governments that are themselves organized along the lines of the “Western,” sovereign nation-state. However, the real irony of characterizing human rights or democracy as being born of “Western values” is that these values are contested, as well as routinely violated, in the West. To put it another way, the “activists, queens, anything…who do not fit the norm” are not safe in the West. Torture, illegal detainment, surveillance of peace activists, and sexual discrimination do not just happen in Egypt or the Middle East.

To illustrate this, I’ll offer one story about a victim of human rights abuse in the U.S.: while arguments about the status of Guantanamo “detainees” continue, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi has been held there for 5 years without charges. He was picked up for a sizeable bounty in Afghanistan, where the military distributed thousands of leaflets promising huge cash payouts to anyone who could identify murderers or terrorists—a method practically guaranteed to result in wrongful detentions. Al-Ghizzawi has contracted tuberculosis at Guantanamo, but the U.S. army refuses to treat him for it. This is the sort of account that should stay in the front of our minds during any discussion of the detention of hundreds of such individuals at Guantanamo Bay. Many more stories need to be told about the torture of terrorist suspects, the harassment of peace activists by U.S. government agencies, and the regular hostility experienced by gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans.

I applaud Azimi’s storytelling, and I take “M’s” concerns seriously. When the abstraction of ideology threatens to make humans invisible, it is urgently necessary to tell stories about particular people who are the real and proper subjects of human rights work and discourse.

David L. G. Rice is a graduate student in political theory at Duke University, where he has worked on campus labor issues with the community organizations Duke Organizing and Durham CAN. He was a volunteer human rights monitor for the Guatemala Accompaniment Project from ’03 -’04, and returned to accompany genocide witnesses and case lawyers in the summer of ’06. His dissertation is on nonviolent and peacemaking practices.