Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bread & Butter V

Here is a criticism of this article which inspired much fanmail as you can see in the comments made online, sigh.

CAIRO: The feature titled “Honey, I’m homosexual” which ran on Dec 5, in my opinion, perpetuates myths about homosexuality and, in doing so, contributes to the culture of intolerance in Egyptian society.

The tone is set from the angle of the article itself, with its focus on the closet gay men who, unable to resist their desires, break up marriages. While this angle isn’t necessarily problematic, its execution in the article is, as I hope to explain below.

Take for example this reference to Islam Online:

“But a wife with a homosexual spouse is no longer uncommon judging by the frequency of such cases and the scores of Arabic websites, including religion-based ones like IslamOnline, that discuss the issue openly.”

How has the author reached the conclusion that homosexual spouses “are no longer uncommon?” Has he conducted a study of the appearance of “such cases” on Arabic websites? Over what time period? If they are now no longer uncommon, when were they uncommon? Before the creation of Islam Online, for example? We are not told.

The article purports to use “scientific” and/or “expert” opinion to back up its assertions, which is what makes it dangerous rather than merely lazy journalism.

None of the so-called specialists interviewed seem aware of the fact that homosexuality was removed from diagnostic guidelines as a psychiatric pathology in 1973. Psychiatrist Mostafa Hussein, suggests that its replacement with “ego-dystonic homosexuality” was a political move.

Ego-dystonia is the compulsion to perform behavior in conflict with one’s ego, or one’s ideal self-image. The labeling of homosexuality as ego-dystonic is thus political because societal norms are clearly implicit in its categorization as such.

Homosexuality was removed entirely from the WHO diagnostic guidelines in 1987 i.e. it is no longer regarded as an illness by the international psychiatric community.

And yet the bulk of the contributions selected by the article’s author perpetuate the idea that homosexuality is “abnormal”, or a “disorder” requiring treatment without presenting the other side of the argument. While this may reflect attitudes in Egyptian society, it is an inaccurate, or incomplete, presentation of psychiatric approaches. Even worse, it neglects to present the sinister side of the treatments described in the article.

“Treating homosexuality is a black spot in the history of clinical psychology and psychiatry,” says Mostafa. “The behavioral treatment, aversion therapy, is a cruel method that involves — as written in the article — trying to sexually arouse a person with photos of the opposite sex but what is not mentioned is the common use of electric shocks while viewing photos of nude men. Hence the name aversion therapy.

“Military forces in several countries in the 1970s would use such methods for their homosexual soldiers. In Egypt parents still panic about homosexual children and take them to get treatment from psychiatrists who claim that they can treat the condition.”

In addition to ignoring its sinister aspects, the article also fails to point out that such treatment, the attempt to “straighten” gay men, has largely been discredited as ineffective.

“Aversion therapy was used widely in the 70s in the US,” continues Mostafa. “It was later found ineffective. Modern psychological therapy for gay people acceptable by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association is called Gay Affirmative psychotherapy, which helps people with conflicting beliefs towards their sexual orientation to come to terms with it and accept it. I am not sure if it is practiced in Egypt.”

Why was this crucial point left out of the article? The fact that homosexuality is rejected in Egypt is no excuse for such an oversight. Efforts should have been made to find Egyptian psychiatrists who do not endorse the idea of homosexuality as a disorder in order to give some balance to the article. The exclusion of the role of societal norms in defining psychiatric attitudes towards homosexuality is inexcusable.

In a previous article that ran in Daily News Egypt, psychiatrist Nasser Loza’s says: "Is this still being debated? We're in 2006. Homosexuality is not a disease.”

If you chose to run this story because you wanted a “fun” peek into the strange world of homosexual men and their “red underwear” then I suggest the pseudo-science should have been left out. Its inclusion is damaging.

Egyptian society’s rabid attitude towards homosexuality (which the media seems to do all in its power to stir up) results in incidents such as the Queen Boat case, when gay men were rounded up and tortured because they were gay or assumed to be gay, and in the persecution of a group of men living with HIV/AIDS convicted of “debauchery”.

“Honey, I’m homosexual” contributes to the myths surrounding gay men, encourages their exclusion/isolation and “backs up” its ideas with allegedly expert opinion.

Note that the basis of my criticism of this article is not that its author, Daily News Egypt readers or Egyptian society should accept homosexuality. The author’s own attitude towards homosexuality should have been irrelevant, but alas was made all too clear in the moralistic and extremely subjective tone of the article.

Originally published in Daily News Egypt on 9/12/2008, my sodding birthday.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Cops and bloggers

While surveying the latest developments on Fartbook this morning in an attempt to put off doing any work, I saw that someone had very usefully used his status to report that there were rumours that a blogger*/journalist had been arrested by the police.

Further enquiries revealed that the blogger was Ahmed Abdel Fattah, that he was being held in Doqqi police station, and that he had been arrested while covering the (aborted) departure of an aid caravan to Gaza. (This is the second time in as many months that activists attempting to deliver aid to Gaza have been prevented from doing so. The Egyptian authorities are (inexcusably and stupidly) super sensitive about anything Rafah Crossing-related, having been caught with their pants down in January).

I went to the Doqqi police station. Dr Moftases was already there, as were two lawyers from ANHRI, hanging around in the vestibule area of the police station’s first floor.

Dokki police station is partly housed in a converted villa which, in its prime, must have been slightly fabulous. All high ceilings and wooden floors. It is, of course, in a lamentable state now: dirty, exhausted and sinister - a bit like the Egyptian police service itself.

The vestibule we waited in was empty save for in one corner a huge map on an easel marking out the geographical scope of the area covered by the Doqqi police force, and opposite, a “law7et sharaf” [honour board]. This was a glass case attached to the wall containing a piece of paper on which was printed “el sha3b wel shorta fe khedmet el watan” [the people and the police: in the service of the nation]. I’m unsure why this falsehood was housed in a glass case, like a museum relic – perhaps to stop passersby defacing it?

The lawyers said that they had initially been told that Ahmed wasn’t in the police station, but that they had spotted him inside. This was eventually confirmed by an employee (whose job description I didn’t establish) who said that they were in the process of calling state security investigations to check whether they wanted to interrogate Ahmed or not, and that they would know in ten minutes.

While waiting I wandered into the large balcony at the end of the corridor where on one side there was a folded-up camp bed and on the other three handcuffed men seated on the ground. One of the men was barefoot, his feet black with dirt.

A brusque, aggressive man came out, announced himself as head of criminal investigations, told us that Ahmed would indeed be sent to state security and that we should now all bugger off thank you very much. One of the lawyers requested to see Ahmed, “just for a couple of minutes”. The man said no. She repeated her request. “Do you want to argue with me?” he said. Viva the Criminal Procedures Code.

We went downstairs and waited. Ahmed emerged, handcuffed to a policeman. I took a photo with my mobile phone, semi surreptitiously. One of the bastard policemen ratted on me. A man (who later turned out to be the police station ma2moor or chief), approached me and, bizarrely, told me off for leaning on the police station wall. Another officer took my phone from me. I had by this time turned the camera off. He stared at the phone, then gave it back to me, being either too lazy or too technically inept to check for a photo.

(How do I save a zoomed in picture?)

Ahmed kindly sent me a zoomed-in version

Ahmed, who was in good spirits, was taken to the state security headquarters in a box (pick-up truck is it?). We followed in a taxi and got out near the HQ, which is at the end of a peaceful, leafy suburban street. People are prevented from approaching it by plain-clothed officers stationed at a metal barrier thing on wheels. One of the lawyers, approximately ten metres away from the gate - i.e. in supposedly non-SS territory - was told that talking on his mobile in this area was prohibited. Maybe non-SS territory doesn’t exist.

The lawyers eventually got inside and Dr Moftases, an Ikhwan activist (who had joined us at the police station) and I went to get something to eat, having been forbidden from standing still in the SS street.

ASIDE: In case you care, I was treated to a very nice shrimp sandwich from Semsema (which I wholly endorse) by the Ikhwan activist.

A third lawyer emerged while we were heading back to the SS HQ. All of a sudden Ahmed emerged out of the darkness, to a rapturous reception by the 3rd lawyer and the Ikhwan activist who ran towards him with arms outspread, like when kidnapped children are reunited with their parents in films. It was a beautiful moment which ideally should have happened in slow motion, and sort of did, given that the Ikhwan activist had just consumed a Shawerma fransawy.

We were happy, but it still wasn’t over. Another journalist, Aya Youssef, had been detained with Ahmed at the same time and was still in Doqqi police station. Back we went.

Aya was being held downstairs, in the area designate for inmates. She was sat, looking a bit wan, in a cage which contained her, an old man in a gallabeyya sitting on the ground, a young man with a big bandage on his head and other women (from what I could see).

ANOTHER ASIDE: For those of you who have had the misfortune to see Heyya Fawda, the room was identical to the set used in the film, and the ma2moor looked a bit like whathisname who played the dirty cop, as it goes.

The ma2moor and approximately ten other policemen stood around outside the cage, looking intimidating. The lawyer was told that Aya would be taken to the public prosecution office. Ahmed said that she had been questioned about leaflets found in her possession when she was arrested during the caravan debacle, but didn’t know what was written on the leaflets.

The lawyer said that the ma2moor “just wanted to get rid of” as many of the people in the police station as possible, because the cage was getting crowded. Ahmed later told us that many of the detainees had been brought in from a local slum area where there had been a fight. What looked like the relatives of these people were sat opposite the police station. Women and children, one of whom was asleep across his mother's lap. They were camped out under the huge, imposing tower of the Islamic Bank.

Ahmed also said that he had been held with men who had been in the police station “for five days without charge” and that they were beaten on a daily basis and generally kept in deplorable conditions. He said that one of these men lifted up his shirt to show him cigarette burns on his torso, inflicted by the police.

Ahmed was particularly moved by the plight of a female detainee was being held inside the police station with her 2 year-old daughter. The child was hungry, and Ahmed gave a policeman 20 LE to go and get her some food.

Aya’s release was ordered by the public prosecution office at around 9 p.m. The latest is that she'll be released at midnight. I had to leave at around 6.30 p.m., three and a half hours after I arrived. Not that long, but it felt like years. I left with renewed respect for the junior lawyers who put in the leg work running from police station to police station after detainees, trying to prevent them disappearing into the system. They’re the unsung heroes who rescue the soldiers on the frontline after the world has forgotten about them.

*Bloggers seem to be a favourite target at the moment. On a related note, CPJ report that more internet journalists are now imprisoned than journalists working in any other medium. So as a journalist working in print and a blogger who links to my print articles on my blog and who references other people's blogs a lot in my print articles perhaps I should just turn myself in now? Or self-combust? Or what?