The burden of being different in Middle East and North Africa

In all MENA area, homosexuality, as well as any other non-compliant sexual orientation or gender identity, are considered illegal and/or against nature, with the risk of being jailed or sometimes murdered.


The story of Sarah Hegazy
On June 15th, 2020, Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy took her own life in Canada, after suffering violence in her home country, Egypt, guilty of having waved the rainbow flag during the concert of the famous Lebanese music band “Mashrou’ Leila” (whose singer is openly homosexual). On the 22nd of September 2017, in fact, at least 11 people were arrested in Cairo following the aforementioned concert, guilty of being “different”, Sarah Hijazy was one of them.
However, let us go into the legal systems of the MENA countries and how the different laws are applied to criminalize relationships with people of the same sex.

Legal systems criminalizing homosexuality

We could divide the different legislations – regarding the criminalization of homosexual acts – in MENA countries[1] according to various parameters; in this case, though, we will highlight their differences based on the expressed mention of specific words. First of all, we have to say that we will not find the word “homosexual” as well as “gay” ore also “heterosexual”, considered new terms introduced in their vocabulary. We may seldom find expressions such as “same sex relations”, “sodomy”; sometimes, instead, will find none of them.

Tunisia, for instance, in its article 230 of the Penal Code[2] uses the words liwāṭ and masāḥiqa, whose meaning is respectively «sodomy, pederasty»[3] and «tribady, Lesbianism»[4]. Nevertheless, Algeria and Morocco both use the same wording which differs from the Tunisian one. Article 338[5] of the Penal Code of Algeria and article 489[6] of the Penal Code of Morocco criminalize acts committed by ’af‘al al-shudhudh al-jinsy ma‘a shakhs min nafsi jinsihu (literally “acts of sexual anomaly with a person of the same sex”) . Yemen, as well as Tunisia, in its Penal Code uses the words liwāṭ in the article 264 as referring to the sodomy between men, while in the article 268 the term used is siḥāq, which indicates Lesbianism[7].
Different is, instead, the case of countries like Lebanon and Syria whose Penal Codes at the article 534[8] (the former) and article 520[9] (the latter) mention kull majāmi‘a ‘alā khilāfa al-abī‘a which means literally “every sexual intercourse against nature”.

The case of Egypt

What emerges from this first analysis is that Egypt, Sarah Hegazy’s birthplace, does not appear among the countries listed above, despite being one of the strictest in the MENA area in dealing with LGBT + people (if countries of the Arabian Gulf are taken into consideration). In Egypt, in fact, there is no real law that punishes “unnatural acts” or sexual acts with people of the same sex – as is the case in the countries already mentioned; for this reason, we speak of de facto criminalization, which through the use of laws against prostitution and against debauchery aims at sexual orientations and gender identities not conforming to the norm.

In fact, Article 278 of Law No. 95-2003 states:

»كل من فعل علانية فعلاً فاضحاً مخلاً بالحياء يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تزيد على سنة وغرامة لا تتجاوز ثلاثمائة جنيه.«

Litterally “whoever commits in public a scandalous act against shame shall be punished with detention for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding three hundred pounds”[10]. This article has to be added to Law No. 51 of 1951 modified by Law 10/1961 which states: “Punishment by imprisonment for a period not less than three months and not exceeding three years[…], whoever habitually engages in debauchery or prostitution.”. But what catches the eye is the presence of “debauchery” and “prostitution” in the same article, so how can they be linked?

If you look at the original text in Arabic

» كل من اعتاد ممارسة الفجور او الدعارة «

 “Kullu man i‘tāda mumārasatan al-fujūrin au l-da‘āratin”, the word fujūr means «immorality, iniquity, depravation, dissolution, debauchery, licentiousness, profligacy, dissolute life, fornication, whoredom»[11]; the word da‘āra (or also di‘āra) means «indecency, immorality, licentiousness, debauchery»[12]. Thus, the question arises: why the Arabic article mentions both words, fujūr and da‘āra? Human Rights Watch’s report “In a time of torture” is clear enough about the use of these two terms: «judicial precedents used di‘āra to refer to female prostitution and fujūr to refer to male prostitution»[13].

Modern application

We have records of arrests for Egypt happened in 2016, as well as in 2017, with the accuse of “debauchery”.«In 2016, it became widespread knowledge that police in Egypt use online dating applications (including Grindr) to arrest and detain LGBT people. While consensual same sex sexual activity in private is not illegal in Egypt, authorities have arrested and detained LGBT individuals under the ‘debauchery law’, whose vague provisions allow for these arrests to happen. As reported in April 2016, 11 individuals were sentenced to a total of 101 years in prison under this law»[14] Same situation occurred in 2017, where people like Sarah Hegazy were arrested for «waving rainbow flags during a performance […] by Mashrou’ Leila»[15]. «On 23 September, a day after the Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo, a 19-year-old man was arrested on charges of “debauchery”. He was sentenced […] to six years in prison, followed by six years of probation. Two other men who were arrested […] are […] detained in Agouza police station in Cairo and are due to stand trial on 11 October. Another two men were arrested on 28 September and are detained in Dokki police station in Cairo»[16]

These two are just the last notorious arrests happened in Egypt in the last years. Before those, we can still find proof of arrests for the past thirty years or more; the worst crackdown happened in 2001 with the arrest of 52 people in a floating night club on the Nile, it is known as Queen Boat case. Baudoin Dupret conducts a precise analysis of the sentence case number 182/2001, Qasr al-Nil, registered as 655/2001 issued by the Court of Misdemeanours (State of Emergency)[17].

«2: All the accused: practiced debauchery (fujur) with men in the way indicated in the investigation. It [viz. the Prosecution] required that they be condemned to [the penalty stipulated in] Article 98/7 of the Penal Code and Articles 9/3 and 15 of Law-Decree 10/1961 on the repression of prostitution (da‘ara
As we already explained in paragraph 1.2.2 of this study, even though the accusation of fujur and da‘ara where originally made for combating prostitution they are actually used to arrest homosexuals in Egypt.
It is therefore because of these laws that young people from the LGBTQI + communities of these countries (and many others not mentioned here) must often keep their different sexual orientation or their different gender identity hidden, in order to avoid arrests and physical and psychological violence.


[1] In this case there will just be mention of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan
[2] {Code of Criminal Procedure (approved by Law No. 68-23 of July 24, 1968)Full text available at}
[3] H. Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Spoken Language Services, Inc., New York, 1976 p. 883
[4] Ivi, p. 400
[5] {Penal Code (promulgated by Order No. 66-156 of 18 Safar 1386 corresponding to June 8, 1966) Full text available at}
[6] {Penal Code (promulgated by Dahir No. 1-59-413 of 26 November 1962 (28 Jumada II 1382))Full text available at}
[7] {Republican Decree Pertaining to Law No. 12 of 1994 on Crimes and Penalties Full text available at}
[8] {Legislative Decree No. 340 of March 1, 1943 on the Criminal Code Full text available at}
[9] {Penal Code (issued by Legislative Decree No. 148/1949) Full text available at}
[10] {The original version of the text is available at English translation available at:}
[11] {H. Wehr, op. cit., p. 697}
[12] {Ivi, p. 282}
[13]{Human Rights Watch, “In a time of torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct, Appendix A: Laws Affecting Male Homosexual Conduct in Egypt”, 2004}
[14] Ivi, p.152
[15] (access 31/01/19)
[17] B. Dupret, Adjudication in Action. An ethnomethodology of Law, Morality and Justice, Ashgate, Farnham, Burligton, 2011

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