Global Roundup: Egypt TikTok Celebrity Arrested, Uganda LGBTQ Activist, Mexico Feminists vs the State, China Feminist Calls for International Action, Queer Muslim Spaces Online
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
A screengrab from Salma Elshimy's Instagram account featuring photos of the Egyptian model and influencer. © almaelshimy, Instagram
Last week, Egyptian TikTok celebrity Salma Elshimy became the latest in a growing list of women to be targeted by the authorities over social media posts. Since 2020, Egyptian authorities have been carrying out a campaign to silence women social media influencers, using a cybercrime law to detain them on vague charges such as violating “public morals” and “undermining family values.”
Elshimy was arrested on April 3rd, when she had just landed at Cairo International Airport, on charges of inciting “debauchery” and “violating family values” through her social media posts. The model and influencer with an audience of 3.3 million TikTok followers was returning from a trip to Dubai, where she filed a residency application ahead of a planned move.
Lawyer Hany Sameh, a member of the Lawyers Syndicate’s committee on freedoms who has worked on similar cases in the past, described the accusations against Elshimy as “vague.” He also said they stemmed from “vestiges of regressive male chauvinism that is uncompromising against women.” Such arrests are increasingly common in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, according to Amr Magdi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Elshimy was jailed for a month in 2020, and later released on bail, after taking part in a photo shoot outside the Saqqara necropolis, near the ancient capital of Memphis. The fashion blogger was denounced to the authorities for posting photographs of herself in ancient Egyptian dress in front of the Pyramid of Djoser, one of Egypt’s most iconic monuments. Local media accused her of “exploiting the cultural value of the antiquities in inappropriate Pharaonic clothes.”
Arresting women and girls on very vague grounds simply for posting videos and photos of themselves on social media sites is discriminatory and directly violates their right to free expression. -Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at HRW
If she is found guilty, Elshimy faces up to five years in prison and 8,000 euros (8,700 dollars) in fines for “violating public morality,” and a further six months in jail and up to 3,000 euros for “infringing on family principles and values in Egyptian society.”
Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha poses for a photograph after a Reuters interview in Makindye, suburb, of Kampala, Uganda March 30, 2023. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa
Frank Mugisha, 38, is one of Uganda’s most prominent LGBTQ rights activists and he is ready to fight against the country’s new bill that would criminalise even identifying as LGBTQ.
The Ugandan population has been radicalised to fear and hate homosexuals. If I was seven, nine, twelve, fourteen, I don’t think I would tell anyone I am gay right now. -Frank Mugish
The bill passed with near unanimous support in parliament. If President Yoweri Museveni signs it – as he is widely expected to – Mugisha’s work could land him in jail under a provision that punishes the “promotion” of homosexuality with up to 20 years in prison.
Mugisha said he feels an obligation to fight back on behalf of LGBTQ Ugandans, many of whom have left the country or fled their homes for safe houses since the bill was passed. In 2007, Mugisha took over leadership of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an advocacy group he had earlier joined as an activist. In the following years, he saw a hardening of anti-LGBTQ views, which he attributes to campaigning by ultra-conservative Christian groups, some from the United States.
Mugisha’s friend Kato was killed in 2011 months after a local newspaper printed the names, photographs and addresses of him and others in the LGBTQ community and called for them to be hanged. The police said the murder was unconnected to his sexual identity, but Mugisha is certain that it was. He considered leaving Uganda then, but he stayed and led the campaign against a law enacted in 2014 that stiffened penalties for same-sex relations. That law was ultimately voided by the courts on procedural grounds and Mugisha is hoping for a similar outcome this time.
Many people are going to … challenge this law. Looking at this legislation, I do not think it will survive. -Frank Mugish
Demonstrators in Guadalajara gather on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019. (Miriam Jiménez / YoVoy8deMarzo)
Investigative journalist and author Dawn Marie Paley wrote about how Mexican feminists have become enemies of the state. A list of groups that could pose a threat to the operations of the International Felipe Ángeles Airport in Mexico City, drawn up by the Secretary of National Defense was leaked and it includes the names of several feminist groups. Paley notes how this only confirms how the state has their eyes on the feminist movement.
Women in Mexico are organizing and joining forces against all of the violences we face, from homes to the streets, from schools to hospitals and other institutions, as well as in our workplaces and in mixed spaces. Beyond naming and protecting others from the aggressions of violent men, our unity and presence in the streets give us tools to break the patriarchal pact that is so present in daily life and politics. - Dawn Marie Paley
Paley spoke with Alicia Hopkins in Mexico City and Lirba Cano in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco. Hopkins helped cofound the Comuna Lencha Trans (Lesbian Trans Commune), where she now lives and works together with others on building autonomy in Mexico City. Cano founded Cuerpos Parlantes, a feminist space in Guadalajara, 10 years ago.
Hopkins says The Comuna Lencha Trans began as an effort to survive in Mexico City. They started with a community cafeteria in January of 2020, but the pandemic halted a lot of the projects they were planning. Up until May of 2021, they sold takeout to stay afloat. Now, they have a self-managed kitchen in the Comuna, they hold cinema nights, have a printing press and screen-printing workshop, a reading circle, a therapeutic space and more. According to Hopkins, the experience has given them an education in organizing and training.
Cano decided to open Cuerpos Parlantes with the intention of creating links with the feminist movement in Guadalajara.The community faced high levels of femicide and enforced disappearances, as well as gentrification and displacement in the urban center of the city. Amid this context, having a space to organize helped them to feel safer and process what is happening.
Over these years, feminist thinking has allowed us to recognize the need to be connected with people who are organizing. Opening up this thinking for the whole community lets us generate a deeper kind of organization in the face of the problems we’re dealing with, which we do through building a common understanding of the situation. -Lirba Cano
Cano speaks further about how important it has been to take their movement to the streets. Cano mentions how they learned to communicate, make an argument and organize with different people through the process. The activist emphasizes the powerful feeling of taking up space and raising their voice on the streets.
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Activist Zheng Churan, who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2015 and held for more than a year, speaks at a Georgetown University lecture titled “Unleashing the Power of Feminist Activism in China,” on April 8, 2023. Credit: Mia Ping-chieh Chen/RFA
One of China’s “Feminist Five” activists who sparked an international outcry when they were detained ahead of International Women’s Day in 2015, has left the country to take up a position as a visiting scholar in the United States.
Zheng Churan was detained alongside fellow activists Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting and Wang Man two days ahead of International Women’s Day, as they planned a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation, on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” While they were eventually released “on bail” in 2016, they remained criminal suspects under tight police surveillance and under the threat of prosecution, while at least one of them was prevented from leaving the country.
It was a pretty big victory for me that I was able to get out of there in reasonably good health…What activism taught me was how to see new possibilities, how to find hope in small victories and how to keep fighting. -Zheng Churan
Churan gave a lecture at Georgetown University \titled “Unleashing the Power of Feminist Activism in China”—her first public appearance since arriving in the United States a month ago. Her lecture included a call on audience members to pen postcards in support of Chinese women currently detained for their activism, particularly the young women detained in the wake of the “white paper” protests in November 2022. Participants sent postcards to “white paper” movement supporters Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, Zhai Dengrui and Kamile Wayit, and to Wu Yi and other women for visiting “Xiaohuamei,” a woman found chained by the neck in an outbuilding in Jiangsu province’s Feng county last year.
Actions like these are happening all over the world. It will be very heartening [for these women] back in China to know that they haven't been forgotten…The biggest inspiration I get from feminism is its actions. There are various things we can do to change inequality, and action is a very important use of our power. -Zheng Churan
From close communities to queer famous accounts, Amika Moser investigates how LGBTQ+ Muslims have found safety and solidarity on Instagram. Moser says that carving out safe spaces online for LGBTQ+ Muslims is important because of the compounded homophobia and Islamophobia they face.
Moser references how over 32% of LGBTQ+ people of faith are not out and how the inclusion of carceral bodies like the police in Pride events makes those spaces unsafe for Black and brown people.
Over the past few years, queer Muslim Instagram accounts like The Queer Muslim Project and the Queer Muslim Resistance have been popping up online, allowing queer Muslims to share their stories without fear of judgement or harassment. The Queer Muslim Network is one of those many accounts. Summeiya, a 23-year-old from Toronto, Canada, started running the account to bring together queer Muslims within the city, but it has now turned into a global community. They have hosted virtual mixers, partnered with the Toronto International Film Festival and run Iftar Drives to help queer and transgender Muslim people who are spending Ramadan in isolation.
Many of the people who are exploring their queerness online might not feel comfortable publicly displaying their identity, but that shouldn’t make them feel even more alienated. -Amika Moser
Shaz (@mrspotatoqueen), 24, who grew up in India but moved to the UK in her teens, is a content creator who has been sharing her experience as a queer person in a world where she could not find any representation. Through her Instagram and TikTok, Shaz has been able to share how they navigate their sexuality, their relationship with their partner and instances of queer joy in their life.
It can be overwhelming that I have to stay happy for other people, but I don’t have any consequences posting what I post, so I try to be that representation for someone in the future. -Shaz
Maintaining positivity is a hard task, one that the admins of these accounts have learned to master as a means of survival. Shaz began receiving death threats when they started being explicit about their queerness. Summeiya shares custody of the Queer Muslim Network account with other admins who all ensure that hateful comments posted on the page are deleted as fast as possible to maintain a safe space. In order to counter the hate, Summeiya has become their friends’ go-to-person to share positive stories, art or films that uplift queer Muslims.
Social media has allowed queer Muslims to carve out a space for themselves and display their stories, a reminder that they have always been here and that their identity is valid. -Amika Moser
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.