Content Warning: Suicide, abuse, homophobia
About 30 kilometres east of Toronto is a cemetery.
Within it is a plot of flowers: red geraniums, white pansies, pink celosia, all planted with love for a queer woman who was born in Egypt, but died in Canada last year. She waved a rainbow flag at a concert in 2017 because she was brave enough to fan a flame meant to ignite change, but in turn, she was punished by the Egyptian state with such homophobia and state violence that her life was never the same.
Sarah Hegazi was an Egyptian writer, sister, daughter, friend, socialist and queer rights activist. She worked as a software developer and grew up in a middle class family, helping her mother raise her three younger siblings after her father died.
She came out as a lesbian in 2016 in Egypt, where, at the time, it was not explicitly illegal to be gay, but laws against ‘debauchery’ led the Egyptian state to “arbitrarily arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and detain them in inhuman conditions, systematically subjecting them to ill-treatment including torture, and often incite fellow inmates to abuse them,” according to the Human Rights Watch, and international organization that conducts research on human rights abuses around the world.
On September 22, 2017 Hegazi attended a Mashrou' Leila concert, a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly queer. That night 35,000 people came to see them play. Videos from the concert show a vast sea of cell phone lights swaying, as the musicians created an enclave of community for LGBTQ2IA+ fans to have a moment of feeling recognized and connected. Haig Papazian, Mashrou' Leila’s violinist, described the band’s goal of creating a safe and communal space for their fans for the duration of their concerts. “Class, race, sexuality, gender, politics and religion all fade away for two hours,” Papazian wrote for the New York Times in a tribute to Hegazi last year.
For a moment, Hegazi felt safe enough to raise a rainbow flag. Her expression is of pure joy. In that moment someone took a photo of her and posted it online. It changed everything.
At first, Hegazi’s brave act was seen as a triumph for the queer community in Egypt, but it quickly turned into a state-enforced mass persecution. Egyptian police detained over 75 people who attended in the days following the concert, including Hegazi and her friends.
In an article Hegazi wrote for Mada Masr, a progressive media outlet in Cairo, she describes being arrested in her home in front of her mother and younger siblings. “The officer blindfolded me in the car that took me to a place I could not know. I was led down a stairway, not knowing where it would take me.”
Hegazi was detained for three months. She experienced torture and abuse, as well as solitary confinement for “days and days.”
When she was released in January, 2018 she experienced severe depression and PTSD. Two months later she sought asylum in Canada and moved to Toronto. Her mother died a month after she arrived.
In Toronto, Hegazi was deeply homesick. Her close friend, Omar Ghoneim, wrote in an article for Reuters last year that she “felt helpless in the face of complex bureaucratic procedures that accompanied asylum and her new life.”
Hegazi “struggled to find a suitable psychiatrist, one in whom she had confidence, and who understood her trauma and could help treat it.” Ghoneim wrote. She felt financially strained and had a hard time maintaining work because of her anxiety and PTSD. Though she had financial assistance from the Canadian government “it was not enough to sustain a dignified life.”
On June 14, 2020, Hegazi committed suicide. Even in her last moments, she was honest and true to herself. She left these words for us to learn from, keeping the fire of change alive:
"To my siblings, I tried to survive and I failed, forgive me. To my friends, the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world, you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive."
These layers of oppression are the lived experiences of millions of people in Toronto and beyond, who suffer in silence, survive in silence, resist in silence, all while going without institutional infrastructures to support their mental health, financial stability, or identity expressions.
In the short time that Hegazi lived in Toronto, she got involved with the activist movement and made new friendships.
Alaa Soufi met Hegazi at a rally in Toronto where Hegazi was speaking out for political detainees in Egypt. She asked them to join the rally, and afterwards she thanked them with a big hug. They became close friends.
“She was just very pure and sweet,” Soufi said while holding back tears.
To mark the anniversary of Hegazi’s death, Soufi and their community commissioned a mural of Hegazi painted by Anishnaabe muralist Keitha Keeshig-Tobias. The mural stands 20 feet high in Toronto’s Gay Village across from the 519 community centre on Church St.
On June 14 Soufi and their community held a gathering in her memory, with community speakers and those who knew her well.
Miral Mokhtar, a refugee and lesbian also from Egypt, spoke about how hard it has been for she and her wife to settle in Canada.
“I knew Sarah Hegazi from Egypt. We were somewhere else, united in determination to defend all human rights. Sarah and I shared a lot of similar hopes for the future. And we went through similar struggles in Egypt. And then also here in Canada.
“Being a refugee in Canada is not a bag full of roses. There are so [many] barriers a refugee faces on a daily basis,” Mokhtar said.
“We have [had trouble securing] legal employment, being treated with dignity in the health care system, [getting] access to education...and for many refugees, including Sarah Hegazi, facing obstacles like this without enough support is traumatizing, and creates anxiety and depression and fear and suicide.”
After Hegazi’s memorial Soufi organized a convoy of cars to make the 45 minute commute to Hegazi’s resting place. That Sunday evening, about 15 of her close friends travelled to her resting place, far from where she grew up, far from people who could memorialize her from having spent childhoods together.
I accepted the invitation from Soufi, and on the day our car arrived first. Three of us were press and none of us knew Hegazi personally, but we’d all been deeply moved by the ongoing international oppression of LGBTQ2IA+ folx, as well as to honour Sarah and her legacy personally. We were given the number of her plot, but we wandered around in the vast cemetery for about half an hour until we found it.
When Hegazi’s friends and community arrived they formed a circle around her plot of rainbow flowers. Though the day was hot and the cemetery was very still, a cool breeze drifted through like a welcomed comfort. A speaker played her favourite Umm Kulthum song, and people swayed and cried and held one another as it filled the space.
It was serene.
Majd Al-shihabi spoke at Hegazi’s memorial earlier that day. He works for an organization that advocates for Wikipedia articles around the world that are arbitrarily taken down because their administrators deem them too radical under the guise of ‘misinformation.’ Shortly after Hegazi’s Wikipedia article was published in Arabic, it was flagged as misinformation and taken down by Egyptian Wikipedia administrators.
“[The Administrators] set the rules and they judge based on the rules, so there's a conflict of interest, right? They very promptly deleted it, without listening to our arguments. But in the meantime, the English language Wikipedia article kept growing,” Al-shihabi said. Last he’d checked Hegazi’s English Wikipedia article had received 47,000 views in the last year, which is a lot for Wikipedia standards.
Today Hegazi’s Arabic article is still down, but it exists in 18 other languages. It’s a testament to how prolific Hegazi became as an Egyptian lesbian in her fight for human rights and freedom of expression. She is remembered as a martyr for the freedom she believed in vehemently, with heart and might, as well as a pure soul with an infectious laugh, bright smile, and unwavering belief in a better way forward.
The Crisis Services Canada suicide prevention hotline is open 24/7, every day of the year. 1.833.456.4566
Naseeha is a Mental Health Hotline that offers support from 12pm to 12am seven days a week. Call 1 (866) 627-3342 or visit http://www.naseeha.org/
NISA is a Muslim Women’s helpline, it is open Monday to Wednesday, from 7-9pm, and Thursday and Friday morning, from 10-12pm. It can be used by anyone in Canada. Call toll free 1-888-315-NISA.
If you would like to help Miral Mokhtar and her wife secure stable housing and pursue their education, you can contribute to their Gofundme. They’re in the midst of raising $8,500.
Alaa Soufi started a Gofundme for $10,000 to help pay for Sarah’s mural and a headstone. They are still accepting donations.