The Nile Valley area of Egypt and Sudan is not often thought of as a place where LGBTI persons can find support and build community. The cultural and legal restrictions around sexual orientation and gender identity make the work of education and organizing dangerous. And, in such contexts, the support of international NGOs to empower local communities often brings with it a level of scrutiny making the programs impossible to sustain.
These challenges form the environment in which Mesahat Foundation for Sexual and Gender Diversity works in the Nile Valley region of Egypt and Sudan. “Mesahat plays a great role in identifying and reducing security risks and eliminating the social and cultural obstacles faced by sexual and gender minorities in the Nile Valley Area (Egypt & Sudan). Mesahat also helps create appropriate means and tools for LGBTQI Activists to carry on their work safely and contribute to creating nourished and effective Queer societies in the region,” according to its founder Azza Sultan.
Azza identifies as a Sudanese lesbian, Muslim, Nubian feminist who finds inspiration in the many intersections of her identity. She began her activism in 2007 using social media and blogging queer poetry and short stories to raise awareness around sexual orientation and gender identity issues among lesbian and bisexual Arabic-speaking women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In 2010 she co-founded Bedayaa, the first LGBTI rights organization in the Nile Valley focusing on reporting human rights abuses of LGBTI people. Finally, in 2015 Azza founded Mesahat (Spaces) to build community through storytelling and documentary filmmaking.
Mesahat has produced a handbook – LGBT Voices From Sudan – which includes the personal stories of 15 members of the LGBTI community in Sudan along with a short documentary “Queer Voices from Sudan.”
The necessity to shield the identity of participants is created by the threat of “…arrests by local authorities, restrictive laws (including sodomy laws), street attacks and hate crimes, systematic elimination of cultural and social life, not to mention disowning by family and the loss of reputation in the society,” explains Azza.
In both Egypt and Sudan the violation of LGBTI human rights is common and goes largely undocumented making it difficult to know how many people are victimized each year. In Sudan this routine abuse is exacerbated by growing Islamization and the possibility of a death sentence for same-sex sexual activity. “In the absence of local support for these vulnerable populations a strategic plan to build the capacities of LGBTI leadership to fight for rights and mitigate the threat of widespread violence, as well as, providing appropriate support to individual activists and groups working on the issue is strongly required,” says Azza.
Challenging gender and sexual-orientation norms in traditional cultures is always difficult. Doing this work in places where even small differences are amplified by growing fear and religious intolerance can be very dangerous. Azza and her colleagues are determined to create greater understanding and acceptance for LGBTI people in Egypt and Sudan one of the most dangerous environments on Earth.