In a 2014 impromptu 1-minute interview with Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen, a prominent Egyptian Islamic preacher, regarding the -reportedly admirable- efforts of Egyptian security forces in taking down a militant Islamic group that goes by the name of ‘The Helwan Brigades’ (HB), Shaheen dedicates about 50-60% of his interview time to revealing an “eye-catching” factoid about the HB leader’s sexual orientation. A crude translation of part of Shaheen’s statement follows:
“What I find interesting (eye-catching) about these ‘brigades’, as they are referred to, is that their leader, whose name was revealed to be Magdy Funia, is sexually deviant…they pretend to be men, yet they are led by a sexual deviant! What is one to say (to them) in this case? Go get cured first and find a man to lead you, a normal man…Egypt is not scared of perverts, or of the supporters of sexual jihad (Jihad Al-nikah) or anal jihad (Jihad Al-dobor) like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). This is, in fact, the nature of all Muslim Brotherhood members. Some of them are anal jihadists, some are sexual jihadists, and you’ll find that all their leaders are exactly like Funia, the same faction…”
Several things to talk about here:
- You can google ‘Jihad Al-nikah’ or ‘Anal Jihad’ if you’re interested in knowing more about them. I’ll only explain them very briefly as I don’t think they relate to my main argument here. Both are highly contested religious rulings (alleged privileges bestowed upon men by god). The former allows (unmarried?) women to have sex with Muslim warriors (i.e. men) as a means of performance enhancement (in a way it also believed by some to be one of the religiously assigned roles for women during times of war). The latter allows warriors to practice anal sex with one another when they are away from home at a time of warfare.
- (I would like to repeat that both are highly contested ‘privileges’ and are opposed by most followers of Islam in Egypt, if not the majority of the Muslim world.)
- How does a question about the accomplishments of the Egyptian police lead to the discussion of sexual deviance? What is actually meant by sexual deviance? How did it come to be the more “eye-catching” aspect of a story about a militant group of Islamists?
I think it makes more sense to tackle the 2nd part of that question first.
What is “sexual deviance”?
‘sexual deviance’ or ‘sexual perversion’ are terms that are widely accepted to be the Egyptian equivalents of the English terms ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’. However, it is important to note that the term has also been used in other Arabic news sources to describe pedophilia (here and here) and is used here in a popular Egyptian newspaper to describe anal sex between a married heterosexual couple. Hence, the term can also be used to describe all forms of socially-unacceptable sexual encounters.
Shaheen’s reference to manliness in his statement suggests he means to use the term in its standard sense (i.e. as a reference to ‘homosexuality’).
But how did the negative correlation between homosexuality and masculinity come about?
- It might be a broad generalization based on the fact that some queer men exhibit feminine behavior. Gender non-conformity, therefore, becomes a central/defining characteristic of male homosexuality
- Some people actually think there’s a solid connection between the practice of anal-sex and masculinity… I don’t know how to explain that. It might have developed out of a belief that only women are made to be penetrated.
- It can be explained by the deeply-rooted belief that all sexual/romantic relationships occur between masculine and feminine individuals. Many believe that even non-heterosexual relationships follow the same template (e.g. wondering which of the 2 men in a homosexual relationship is ‘the man’!).
- I know this’ll sound ridiculous, but it might have something to do with our colonial history. Colonial powers had a knack for portraying their subjects as incapacitated and feminine. They would -more or less- highlight the cultural differences in each country they wanted to occupy and attribute the country’s inferiority (to Europe) to those variances. Some of those variances were related to sex/sexuality, where (surprise, surprise!) the Middle East was known to be more liberal. Our ‘promiscuity’, which included same-sex sexual relations, was one of the reasons that we were thought to be backwardly and incompetent by European intellectuals…At some point, we got to the point of thinking that the only way forward is to abandon our ‘licentious’ practices and adopt the Victorian family values instead. These values would soon become entangled in the Arab nationalism movement as the Arab world ‘united’ and took a stand against the abuse and humiliation brought about by the colonizers.
- Most convincingly, the practice of homosexuality prevents males from realizing their state/god-given roles as husbands/fathers, thereby losing their status as men. If men are not fit for reproduction / fatherhood, they no longer satisfy the society’s definition of maleness/masculinity. They do not procreate and ,therefore, do not participate in the process of nation-building either.
Note I: This logic not exclusive to homosexual men, Inhorn’s (2007) study shows a similar link between masculinity and infertility, which leads to the conclusion that the mere inability to live up to the heterosexual standards of life is equivalent gender failure.
Note II: This might explain why anal-sex has come to be perceived as emasculating behavior. Since male homosexuality is -all too often- reduced to anal-sex and is also thought to correlate to a loss of masculinity, then…voila?
About the Segue
To me, the -somewhat awkward- segue serves -primarily- as a penis-measuring contest. Not unlike the all-too-common use of homophobic slurs in Egypt (and all around the world, really) as a means of asserting the user’s heterosexuality (and, hence, masculinity), Shaheen’s focus on sexuality is not so much done out of actual concern for his subjects’ sexual orientation or sexual practices (duh!…I know). It is more of a blow to their masculinity. Their alleged sexual orientations are “eye-catching” because, according to Shaheen’s bigoted views, they ‘prove’ their inferiority. If the MB, often portrayed to be present-day Egypt’s biggest enemy, are ‘gay’ —> They are, therefore, not real men, since, as we’ve established, homosexuality is the antithesis of masculinity —> They are, therefore, inferior and incapable of intimidating/standing up to the powerful/masculine Egyptian state; one that is especially masculine under the administration of current president Abd-Alfattah Al-Sisi.
My problem with this isn’t so much the completely unnecessary queer-bashing. This is more about an extremely irresponsible comment that is delivered by one of the country’s most prominent and -supposedly pragmatic- Islamic preachers; the “preacher of the revolution.” Is queerness really being used to insult a group of armed militants? How? When does consensual sex between adult men become more frowned upon than murder? Why?
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a pretty useless rant….i realize that now. I’m glad I got it out anyway.
I guess the moral is…try to be more rational with your hatred
Inhorn, M. (2007). Masculinity, Reproduction, and Male Infertility Surgery in the Middle East. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, [online] 3(3), pp.1-20. Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/journal_of_middle_east_womens_studies/v003/3.3inhorn.html.