On Sunday, June 14, thirty-year-old queer feminist Sarah Hegazi took her own life in exile in Canada.
A short letter attributed to Sarah, written in Arabic, circulated on social media days after her death. The letter read: “To my siblings—I tried to survive and I failed, forgive me. To my friends—the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world—you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”
Three years ago, Sarah had attended a concert in Cairo featuring a Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Filled with joy at the event, Sarah waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride used by LGBTQ movements around the world.
Little did she know that it would forever change the course of her life.
About a week after the concert, Egyptian authorities arrested and imprisoned Sarah on charges of “being part of a banned group that aims to interfere with the constitution.” They also arrested several other concertgoers based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. Sarah was released on bail after being imprisoned for three months.
Sarah, an Egyptian national, was a self-proclaimed lesbian and feminist. She was an activist for both causes long before the Mashrou’ Leila concert.
Sarah also identified as a communist and became involved with the Spring Socialist Network once in Canada. In Egypt, she was fired from her job for her political views. In her articles, Sarah openly discussed her opposition to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military general, who took over the Arab world’s most populous country in 2013.
In prison, Sarah was tortured by members of the Egyptian police and subjected to solitary confinement during detention. Authorities also encouraged female inmates to torment her.
“I have not forgotten the injustice which dug a black hole into the soul and left it bleeding, a hole which the doctors have not yet been able to heal,” Sarah said in an article published in 2018 with independent online newspaper Mada Masr.
“I became afraid of everyone. Even after my release, I was still afraid of everyone, of my family and of friends and of the street. Fear took the lead,” Sarah wrote.
Sarah’s story has ignited an awareness that cannot be stopped around the world. She has brought focus to the maltreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Egypt and the Middle East.
The trauma that minority communities face is often reflected in higher death and suicide rates resulting from both mental and physical illnesses. Many people underestimate the harmful impact of bullying and hate speech. Such hate is even more detrimental when supported and endorsed by the state, which is the case of Egypt and many countries across the Arab world.
In her 2018 article for Mada Masr, Sarah openly discussed that she was struck with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the persecution that she faced for simply waving a symbol of queer pride.
She developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually, she was forced to leave Egypt out of fear of being arrested again. While in exile, Sarah’s mother passed away in Egypt, adding to her grief and trauma.
To face such persecution is one thing, but to live with painful memories that haunt you is another. Sarah wrote that she lived in terror, stuttered when she spoke, and even had trouble being around people or speaking in the media. She had also attempted suicide twice.
“We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.” — Hamed Sinno
Her death has opened the door to a much larger discussion on Egypt and across the Middle East. For far too long, Egyptian authorities have stifled and threatened the lives of minorities, vibrant and creative youth, women, and members of the LGBTQ community.
“That is what trauma does to the body. That is what hate does to the body,” Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, said in response to Sarah’s death.
“The thought that someone can leave a society that keeps trying to kill them, and still carry that society inside them, still be moved to taking their own lives, chills me to the bone, as I reflect on my own exile, and the exile of the people I love,” the New York-based singer-songwriter wrote. “We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.”
The band also paid tribute to Sarah on their official Twitter account.
In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in jurisprudence, but detention and charges are still made on the basis of laws combatting “debauchery” and prostitution.
Some of the kindest souls and brightest minds of Egypt and the Arab world have been sent into self-imposed exile due to such vague interpretations of the law that allow for oppression, violence, and intimidation.
Sarah’s tragic death has shed light once again on these repressive crackdowns and the persecution of women and the LGBTQ community in Egypt. It is also another reminder that “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” as Pope Shenouda III once said.
Reem Abdellatif is an Egyptian international freelance journalist and editor. She writes about women’s economic empowerment, environmental awareness, energy, business news, travel, and geopolitics.