On a rainy July evening a few years ago, I entered the now-defunct Amra Odbhut, a pop-up café and community centre for and run by queer people in Kolkata, to witness a belly dancing performance by Shrouk El-Attar, who had traveled from the United Kingdom.
I waited to speak with her in the spacious room where she began preparing for the performance. She adorned herself in front of a full-length mirror with a fitted top embellished with circular metallic rings on the strap, a hip belt, and harem pants. She completed her ensemble with jewelry – a chunky necklace and large earrings hidden beneath her curly, wiry hair.
She diverged from the conventional makeup routine expected of a female belly dancer. She reached for a box of solid kohl and smeared it on her face, starting with her chin, to craft a beard. After achieving the desired effect, she defined her beard with a black pencil.
Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, where homosexuality is taboo, El-Attar initially repressed her true self. Later, she embraced her identity and started writing blogs about being a queer person in Egypt. One of her writings, published on a friend's blog, garnered significant attention.
"My friend ended up being imprisoned for two years because of that blog," she says.
In addition, numerous people called her home to complain about the blog, leading El-Attar's family to discover her queer identity. In 2007, she, her mother, and siblings sought asylum in the UK.
Despite their initial rejection and subsequent deportation back to Egypt, El-Attar was eventually granted asylum due to her LGBTQ status.
Connecting to her roots for a cause
El-Attar loves belly dancing as it connects her to her Egyptian roots. She engages in belly dancing in drag as a form of protest against the global persecution of the LGBTQ community, as well as her country's mistreatment of LGBTQ individuals, who face imprisonment and confinement to mental health asylums. She has performed in many countries, from Europe, including the UK, Japan, and India. The proceeds from these performances go towards supporting LGBTQ+ campaigners in Egypt.
Unlike traditional belly dancers, she feels uncomfortable shaving her body and wears a fake beard for her performances.
Initially, she did not identify as a drag artist.
"I was just doing it because I felt it," she explains.
Subsequently, El-Attar received invitations to Drag King nights, using this platform to create an act called "Dancing Queer" aimed at protesting the persecution of the LGBTQ community and raising funds for the legal defense and relocation of Egyptian citizens at risk due to their sexuality or gender identity.
However, she did not seek any donations in India for her cause.
"Queer people in India are already at a significant disadvantage due to colonialism. I avoid seeking donations from people or countries affected by colonization," she says. Instead, she focuses on building networks and learning more about the native queer communities in these countries.
Typically, belly dancing is sexually charged entertainment for men. That is one of the reasons why El-Attar loves performing in drag.
"Because if it's for men, it's not for straight men anymore," she chuckles.
Colonial legacy of anti-LGBTQ laws
The anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Egypt have their roots in Egypt's colonial past. These laws, which are currently used to penalize LGBTQ+ individuals in Egypt, were drafted under colonial influence before the establishment of the Republic of Egypt in 1953.
Egypt criminalizes same-sex relations through laws related to anti-prostitution, telecommunications, and cybercrime at present. Penalties include up to three years imprisonment and a fine.
While these laws do not explicitly state that same-sex activity is illegal, individuals from the LGBTQ+ community are often charged with offenses such as debauchery, incitement to debauchery, public indecency, misuse of telecommunications, or violation of family principles in Egyptian society.
Since 2013, under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, authorities have actively pursued arrests and prosecutions against hundreds of people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Human Dignity Trust, an international organization advocating for the legal rights of LGBT people, has documented numerous human rights violations in recent years.
Law enforcement in Egypt employs various methods, including dating apps and social media, to covertly target and apprehend members of the LGBTQ+ community. Those who are arrested often face ill-treatment, including beatings, sexual violence, forced anal exams, and virginity tests while in police custody.
Throttling support for the community
Foreign LGBTQ-supporting organizations have stepped in covertly to help in any way they can, given the delicate situation on the ground.
Rainbow Railroad, a North American organization that helps at-risk LGBTQI+ individuals reach safety worldwide, has supported the international relocation of more than 40 individuals from Egypt to countries like Australia, France, Germany, and the Netherlands in the past five years.
"We do not engage directly with the Egyptian government. However, Rainbow Railroad recently participated in the 2023 Global Refugee Forum, where Egypt also participated as a member state of the UNHCR Executive Committee," says Adriana Espinosa, Director of Emergency Travel Support and Cash Assistance at Rainbow Railroad.
Despite their impactful work in collaboration with partner organizations, often comprising LGBTQI+ individuals, the organization faces numerous challenges in helping those who need assistance the most.
"Due to the current criminalization of LGBTQI+ identities in Egypt, activists and community members are at risk of persecution because of the work they do, creating barriers to providing continuous support," says Espinosa.
Many times, partner organizations [in Egypt] may need to pause their operations due to the persecution their staff face.
"If an individual faces imminent danger, we must find ways to support them, which can be challenging if the connecting organization faces operational barriers," she says.
She adds, "Often, the individuals we support would benefit from immediate relocation to a safer country. "
However, Egyptian citizens and citizens from the Middle East and Northern Africa require visas to travel to most transit countries through which they must pass to access countries with legal protections for the LGBTQI+ community, she notes.
According to Espinosa, the biggest challenge is for vulnerable people to obtain such visas and the necessary documentation to arrive in a country where they can legally seek protection.
Funding needed to sustain operations on the ground is also a significant concern.
"As an organization based in Canada and the US, it can be very challenging to quickly and effectively send money to individuals and organizations within Egypt, particularly if there is concern that the money we are sending supports the LGBTQI+ community," she says.
Moreover, additional logistical challenges arise when sending money to asylum seekers in Egypt requesting support.
Pandemic era creative spark
With the limitations on touring due to COVID, El-Attar started focusing on making Dancing Queer bigger. She applied for Arts Council England (or ACE) funding, the UK's largest public funding body for the arts and cultural sectors.
"The application process took about two years and was a significant project that involved hiring queer refugee performers, including musicians, dramaturgs, set designers, and theater producers," she says.
She spent COVID-19 putting that proposal together and successfully securing the funding. The stories of queer refugees will shape this unique belly dancing show.
It's important to her that the people involved have lived the experience of either being a queer person, a refugee, or a queer refugee from any country. El-Attar feels that, too often, shows about refugee stories lack actual refugees. She also wants to ensure that everyone is paid appropriately.
The theatre world, she says, has a history of capitalizing on queer refugee stories without compensating anyone, and she wants to prevent that from happening.
The Dancing Queer project is conducting workshops with queer refugees on how the story should be shaped to find the stories to be featured.
"We now have a large team of queer refugee musicians, and we're conducting story-shaping workshops in January, followed by rehearsals in February. The set design will take place between February and potentially March or April. Then we'll have another round of rehearsals," she says.
The team is working with a dramaturg to realize how belly dancing can convey those stories.
The show will also incorporate robotics into the performances. El-Attar, an electronics design engineer, works with microcontrollers used in automatically controlled products and devices and FPGAs, a device widely used in electronic circuits.
"I felt like that part of me [electronics engineer] didn't come to the stage when I performed," she says.
Although most of 2024 will be spent in development -rehearsals, set design, lighting design, music development, and sound design - she is confident that the show will be ready in 2025.
Historically, Egypt has been quite explicit, even in ancient times, with the very first records of queer people in history involving an ancient Egyptian couple.
"Now we're a country that imprisons and tortures people for waving a rainbow flag. That needs to change, but it won't be overnight. Unfortunately, our response feels like fixing a symptom rather than addressing the cause. I hope that changes one day," she says.