How one gay Egyptian woman stood up to homophobia and paid the ultimate price

Sarah Hegazi was both an icon for Egypt's gay community and a target of homophobic violence.

(CNN)In 2017, Sarah Hegazi was arrested and said she was tortured for waving a rainbow gay pride flag at a concert in Cairo. Last weekend, the 30-year-old died by suicide in Canada.

Hegazi's friends reported her death, circulated a suicide note and shared an outpouring of messages of solidarity, grief and anger. Their mourning was soon hijacked by hateful messages. 
On social media, posts about Hegazi that ended with the traditional condolences, "May God Have Mercy on her," were followed by comments saying "she is not worthy of His Mercy," and a torrent of expletives targeting her sexuality. 
    These bitter exchanges echoed a long-running clash between Egyptian progressives and conservatives that haunted Hegazi's life. She was a software developer, a "feminist, interested in politics and a queer activist," fellow LGBTQ activist and friend Malak Elkashif told CNN from Cairo. 
    By waving the flag, Hegazi became an icon for the gay community and a target for state violence.
    Analysts say that Egypt's government often enforces conservative values by imprisoning, torturing and silencing women, members of the LGBTQ community and other citizens who don't conform to its social norms.
    Earlier this year, Egypt told the UN Human Rights Council it has "vowed to safeguard human rights, ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all citizens without discrimination," and it has "thoroughly" investigated all "individual" cases of torture. 
    After conservatives criticized and filed complaints against two women for posting dancing and lip synching videos on TikTok that got hundreds of thousands of views, authorities last week charged them with the vaguely worded crime of "violating family principles and values." 
    "The regime uses its tools -- such as the media, and mosques -- to tell Egyptian society, which is understood to be 'religious by nature': We too protect religion and social morality, so there is no need for Islamists to compete with us!" Hegazi wrote in an article published by local independent platform Mada Masr in 2018.
    The Egyptian state and the proponents of political Islam had put aside their long-running animosity, agreeing on using hate and prejudice to curb individual freedoms, she argued. Her writings weaved political critique into her struggle as an openly gay woman. 


    When Hegazi and her friends raised the rainbow flag at the September 2017 concert by Mashrou' Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay frontman, she was hailed by allies for "breaking many barriers of silence," said her friend Tarek Salama.
    "To see someone who publicly say they are leftist, that they are against state violence and that they are queer, made me worried about her. But I was also fascinated and humbled," Salama told CNN. 
    Photos of the colorful flag fluttering under the spotlights enraged talk show hosts and newspaper columnists. Days later, Hegazi and her friends were arrested. Police ultimately detained at least 75 people in the month following the concert in what one Egyptian rights group called an "unprecedented upsurge in security crackdown targeting gay and transgender citizens or those believed to be so." 
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