Global Roundup: Azerbaijan Queer Sex Workers, Uganda Non-Binary Photographer, Black Sexual-Wellness Platform, Malaysia LGBT Discrimination, Palestinian Woman Preserves Historic Embroidery
Curated by FG contributor Samiha Hossain
Illustration: Mofu/OC Media
Queer sex workers in Azerbaijan face systemic discrimination by national and law enforcement agencies, while also struggling to find acceptance within the larger queer community.
Matan, 19, was forced to resort to sex work at the age of 17 to make ends meet. They describe how many of their peers struggle to find a place in the larger queer community–so they only have each other to rely on. Once a sex worker acquaintance of theirs received counterfeit money from a client and when he took the money to the bank to convert into the national currency, he was detained by the police, demanding money to release him. Other sex workers banded together and saved him by paying ₼5,000 ($2,900) to the police under the guise of a fine.
Small groups of sex workers are often in close contact with each other and they represent the first line of support for members of their community, especially in emergencies. However, these communities are still barred from accessing legal, social, or psychological support due to their professions, gender identities, or orientations. These tight-knit groups have developed separately from Azerbaijan’s broader queer community due to the stigma surrounding sex work.
Sanan, a university student by day and sex worker by night, believes he was unable to find a place in Azerbaijan’s queer community due to his profession, often finding himself forced to remain silent about what he does for a living.
Because of my job, I can’t spend enough time with people in the community. In general, I don’t even tell people about my job. I am strangely alienated when I do mention that I am a sex worker as if [it will] create a risk of exposure to them. -Sanan
Queer sex workers are often prime targets of police stings and are often detained and arrested for solicitation by undercover police officers. As a result, queer sex workers are reluctant to seek help from the police, even when faced with life-threatening situations. Azerbaijan’s queer community also remains unrecognized by the state, making them open and valid targets for discrimination. The discrimination is exacerbated by smear campaigns in the media that make them easy targets for extortion and bribery.
Radical nationalist and religious groups spread the personal information of sex workers and marginalized people…You can see thousands of articles, news, and video content in the headlines targeting sex workers. In the eyes of the people, sex workers are portrayed as monsters to be isolated. -Matan
DeLovie Kwagala takes a self-portrait at their home in Johannesburg, South Africa. | DeLovie Kwagala for Global Citizen
DeLovie Kwagala is Uganda’s first openly non-binary photographer and an activist. Now based in South Africa, they reflect on their experience of being queer in Uganda in Global Citizen.
Kwagala talks about being in a position where they were desperate for a job, so they took a job as a hotel hostess. They say they are very masculine presenting, but the people that hired them required them to be more feminine. Their manager took them shopping with their own salary and bought them skirts, heels and makeup and they ended up removing their locs. Kwagala describes the job making them feel “empty inside,” leading them to decide they were never going to work for anyone again. They decided to pursue photography.
When I grabbed the camera, I was thinking about how I could use it as a tool to defy the odds. I knew that not seeing people like me was not normal and didn’t have to be a reality. I started seeking out my community and doing work that I felt represented me and that community because, growing up, I never had any representation in my career or my gender identity. -DeLovie Kwagala
As the first openly non-binary photographer from Uganda, Kwagala wants to use the title to create access and “let people know that if they want to try and do this work that [Kwagala] can be their access point.”
In South Africa, activism and community remain important to Kwagala. They work with a shelter (Turning Tides) where they have a camera dedicated to everyone who wants to learn or practice and also use their home set up as a studio space. This work is derived from a bigger project, which is the mobile queer hub, where they travel and meet queer people in their countries, cohort for a month of photography skill share and movement therapy as a coping mechanism, and outlet for mental health in hopes that they get enough funding for the travels. They also leave cameras for each individual to continue to have control over their narrative and being. They hope to receive enough funding one day to expand this project beyond South Africa.
I think we need to also amplify the voices of those that come up with a new narrative, giving room for more resonance and different approaches that actually make a difference, instead of sticking to the same ones that have been used for generations and generations. -DeLovie Kwagala
Image Source: Kimbritive/Jalese Ayana via Pop Sugar
Kimberly Huggins and Brittany Brathwaite are the founders of Kimbritive, a sexual-wellness platform reimagining the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Today, they have 10 signature workshops for sixth to 12th graders, covering topics like sexual identity, puberty, body liberation, and more. The motto they swear by is “Black women deserve great sex,” which means introducing accurate and holistic education to young Black girls at an early age so they grow up to be educated Black women who know what great, safe sex feels like. Kimbritive also has classes for adults and professionals looking to reclaim their sex-ed experience and become "askable and affirming" adult allies to young people, as Kimbritive calls it. They offer "Curls and Condoms: What's Your Sexual Wellness Regimen?," "Liberating Sex Ed: Towards Equity & Inclusion," or "Incredible Bodies: Reproductive Health 101," among other options.
We want you to understand that having great sex means knowing what your desires are, knowing what you want to experience, and being able to voice that to your partners. -Kimberly Huggins
Prior to the Kimbritive, Huggins was working as an adolescent sexual-health educator and recalls feeling limited by the curriculum, as most of it was focused on disease prevention, rather than topics such as abortion, pleasure, consent and sexual violence. Brathwaite was working for a community organization supporting the lives of young women of color and trans and nonbinary youth.
Having great sex also means knowing what your options are when sex results in an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy. Kimbritive has been giving a percentage of its profits from workshops to abortion funds for years. And even prior to the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, they had been talking about introducing curriculum around self-managed abortion, how to get an abortion out of state, and how to support someone who has had an abortion, Brathwaite says.
We are committed to using our platforms to call out any system that threatens the health and wellbeing of our communities. We are working to provide Black-led sexual wellness education and community for all Black women — that supports our self-determination to lead sexually healthy and pleasure-filled lives and that always includes abortion! -Kimberly Huggins and Brittany Brathwaite
In 10 years, Huggins and Brathwaite hope Kimbritive will be a full-service physical place where Black women can receive sexual education and reproductive healthcare from Black practitioners including Black physicians, Black social workers, Black doulas and Black midwives.
An illustration depicts queer people in Malaysia, who face widespread societal pressure to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.© 2020 Row Yow via Human Rights Watch
According to a report released by Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters, persistent Malaysian government-sponsored discrimination threatens the rights of LGBT people in Malaysia. The 71-page report, “‘I Don’t Want to Change Myself’: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia,” documents that government officials have fostered a hostile climate in which LGBT and gender diverse people face discrimination and punishment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters examined how criminal penalties, conversion practices that seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and anti-LGBT rhetoric from government officials all undermine LGBT people’s basic rights.
Malaysia’s current rehabilitation and criminalization approaches to LGBT people are based neither in rights nor evidence. The programs, while framed as compassionate, internalize societal and structural discrimination and foment self-hatred among LGBTQ and gender diverse persons and hostility among the rest of the population. -Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of Justice for Sisters
Malaysia’s federal penal code punishes oral and anal sex with up to 20 years in prison, with mandatory whipping. Each state and the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya also have Sharia codes in place that typically criminalize same-sex activity as well as gender nonconformity via laws that prohibit “a man posing as a woman.” The government has also funded retreats, known as mukhayyam, that aim to “rehabilitate” or change LGBT people. As of June 2021, at least 1,733 people had attended these programs.
In recent years, the government has shut down events and programming designed to promote LGBT rights and has censored content about LGBT people in music and films. Universities have also stifled LGBT awareness raising programs and have provided platforms and support for anti-LGBT messages and programming. LGBT people interviewed for the report said that the environment in Malaysia was becoming increasingly hostile.
Scapegoating transgender persons has become a tactic applied by ultra conservative and nationalist politicians. The exploitation of societal homo/transphobia has proven a convenient way to divert public attention away from government failure to address pressing social issues and rising inequalities. -An activist in Kuala Lumpur
Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters say that same-sex conduct and gender diversity needs to be decriminalized at the federal and state levels. They also say that officials should immediately stop supporting programs that seek to “rehabilitate” LGBT people and should publicly affirm the equality and dignity of LGBT people.
Wafa Ghnaim, a Palestinian woman, works with museums to preserve the historic craft of Palestinian embroidery, known as tatreez.
Ghnaim’s mother was forced into exile from her home in Safad in historic Palestine at the age of three. To keep the ties with her home region alive, she taught herself the art of tatreez, a form of folk embroidery popular among women in rural Palestinian villages. As a young girl, Ghnaim spent hours trailing after her mother, watching her hands as they meticulously stitched coloured threads, fascinated by the motions. Like many tens of thousands of others, Ghnaim’s parents were forced to leave behind all of their possessions, including their finest clothes and personal belongings, during the Nakba of 1948.
As Ghnaim grew older, she became more interested in tatreez and how it kept her connected to her ancestral home. Initially, she chose to study business, but over time her interest dulled and she decided to pursue the study of tatreez full time.
I saw a lot of Palestinian embroidery books that didn’t really talk about the meanings behind tatreez and the different motifs, but my mum always described the different symbols and patterns and would explain them through stories. -Wafa Ghnaim
Ghnaim has since authored a book, Tatreez and Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora. As a researcher, she works on identifying different tatreez styles and gathering as much information as possible about them so that they can be preserved for future generations. The book also describes how she learned to embroider from her mother, often while sharing cups of tea and listening to stories passed down over the generations.
For Palestinian women, tatreez is a way of documenting history, as well as the life of the person wearing the designs. Designs often include themes and symbols relevant to the Palestinian experience today, such as resistance to Israeli occupation. A carefully crafted tatreez-embroidered thobe can take months to make and is often bespoke to the wearer's personal story and ancestral origins.
Palestinians have spent their whole lives fighting the erasure of our culture, so how can you blame them for wanting to protect it? I felt like the best way to do that is through education. -Wafa Ghnaim
Ghnaim works with a number of museums in the US to help them gather information on garments and identify tatreez styles. One of her key objectives is ensuring the documentation of such garments is as specific as possible, and they are cataloged correctly. She explains that over the years, many Palestinian garments have ended up in European museum collections which have little information about the objects they are exhibiting.
For Palestinians living in the diaspora, learning the craft can also be a form of defiance, by staying in touch with their homeland and its traditions. Tatreez is also being taken up by non-Palestinians, as a way of showing solidarity with their struggle. On her Instagram page, Ghnaim regularly hosts live sessions, teaching her followers how to stitch in different styles. She also runs in-person tatreez workshops in the US, hoping that by teaching others, she will make the craft more popular.
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.
Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.