I followed the emotions triggered by Sarah Hegazi’s death across the world. I felt the shock and pain. I read the comments of hate and condemnation on social media platforms. On a rainy day in Berlin, I felt the embrace of solidarity with those who came in hordes to mourn her. I saw photos of vigils and candles lit up in different cities around the world. I was reminded that we can bear almost anything when it is worked through collectively. Still, Sarah’s last words stick with me; why was your last message one of forgiveness, dear Sarah?
Sarah’s departure exposed the plight of queers from Egypt, whether at home or in exile. Sarah endured great cruelty: News outlets reported that Sarah’s crime was raising the rainbow flag at a music concert in 2017, but she also had to face arrest, solitary confinement, physical and sexual violence, and exile for living her truth.
Sarah belonged to the generation of the 2011 Revolution. This is a generation that was filled with hope, and paid at the expense of their bodies and minds a high price for daring to say no. This was a generation born and raised under the 30-year-long Mubarak regime, and endured its limited political landscape until they decided it was enough. It is often said that our generation is best at criticizing and saying no, but didn’t stand up to engage in “real politics”. Sarah defied this and was active in leftist political organizing. She spoke openly about her sexuality and fought ceaselessly to be herself. To live our truth is the ultimate revolution; justice meant justice for everyone.
Queers are persecuted for simply being ourselves, for loving or moving in a particular way. But how many times must queers be exiled from friends and families, villages and homes, from our comrades of the revolution? How many times must queers be exiled from our bodies, our mother tongues, or from love?
We are told that queers are supposed to be free and safe in “the West,” or they will find salvation there. Sarah’s death goes against the narrative…
It was not supposed to be this way. We are told that queers are supposed to be free and safe in “the West,” or they will find salvation there. Sarah’s death goes against the narrative: Sarah did not break free from suffering when escaped to Canada, nor did she find refuge or heal, nor did her pain dissipate; it was not her utopia. On the other hand, Egypt was not merely a homophobic place, but also one where people fought for change, celebrated and sang. Sarah’s story breaks the binaries and reveals that the oppression of queers is beyond East and West.
Why was forgiveness your last word, Sarah?
In her suicide note, she asked forgiveness from her siblings and friends, a wish that is not uncommon for those who die by suicide. “To my siblings, I tried to survive but I failed, forgive me.” They also lost their mother while Sarah was in exile, and she did not get to say a proper goodbye. She was the eldest. Sarah then turned to her friends, “To my friends, the trial is too cruel, I am too weak to resist it, forgive me.” Close friends, often burdened by shame and or a sense of responsibility, are especially likely to be traumatized by the loss of a loved one to suicide1. Sarah seemed aware of this, and reminds us that even if she had to exit life, there is a road for healing. Sarah finally expressed a unique sentiment, “To the world, you were greatly cruel but I forgive.” She offers the world forgiveness despite all the cruelty.
In response to Sarah’s death, some queer comrades responded with the slogan: “Sarah forgave but we will not.” In moments of shock and pain, we respond with anger and rage. There is a tendency to turn our mourning and grief into anger. We channel our energy into naming the systems of oppression and institutions that were complicit. Anger can be useful, or as a positive catalyst for social change. As black feminist author Aude Lorde wrote, “I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter.”
In this case, however, I left thinking of Gloria Joseph’s question: “Where does the pain go when it goes away?” When we rush to mobilize anger, we bypass mourning. Perhaps we bypass the painful recognition that we might meet the same fate. Perhaps we bypass the guilt that we could have done more. Sarah asked for forgiveness in non-ideal circumstances. Sarah’s death was met with homophobic outrage and moralist censure of her and those who mourned her, and spurred a virulent online and offline discussion on the sensitive topics of suicide, homosexuality, and her relentless activism. Wikipedia Arabic page editors wouldn’t even let a page on Sarah stand. Even in mourning, queers are not allowed to claim proper space. In the face of such dehumanization,. But in the face of it all, people continued to grieve publicly and anonymously.
Forgiveness may sound like a naive and obsolete notion, derived from religious convictions, one that perpetuates subservience and maintains the status quo. Ideally, forgiveness requires an apology and a promise that whatever “it” is won’t happen again. Feminist author bell hooks noted that, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” She tells us that forgiveness and compassion help us understand our fellow humans and see perpetrators as people who have lost touch with their minds and hearts as a result of systems of oppression. This is the same oppression that Sarah has fought against.
Sarah’s forgiveness is also a condemnation. To forgive is not to accept or to reconcile, but a path of compassion that allows us further understand dynamics undergirding gender and sexual oppression. We cannot address these issues until we understand their roots.
We need to reflect on what is preventing us from forgiving. It can help us redefine ourselves in relation to ourselves and others, and offer a space of autonomy in a time when queers are increasingly able to only understand themselves as wounded victims. Is it that our sense of identity can be too attached to our pain and trauma? Who are we without our trauma, and how can we release ourselves from it so it does not dictate our every move? What happens if we forgive and unhinge ourselves from those who caused us pain? Might a victimhood or resentment transform into agency or mutual recognition?
Sarah continued her vision in her final act: she wants us to be transformed, and to recognize ourselves as agentive and courageous to be who we are and to continue to love and feel. If we hold on to pain, we risk hardening and becoming oppressors ourselves. I wish we could have loved you better, Sarah, and hope you can see us wherever you are and witness how you continue to impact and move us.