For all the attention being paid to Abu Ghraib, there is a prisoner abuse scandal in the Middle East that has gotten scant attention in America. In Egypt, homosexuals have been arrested and tortured in a campaign against what the government calls “the globalization of perversion,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The testimony of the victims is as harrowing as anything out of the now-infamous Iraqi prison — but no one was taking pictures, so the world has not been forced to notice. Susan Sontag was right: Photographs are more “real” than reality. Witness Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who expressed disgust at the Abu Ghraib pictures, not at the acts.
“They tortured us with whips,” says one of the dozens of Egyptian men arrested and tried in 2001 for “debauchery.” “They burned several of us. They made us strip naked…. And then they burned us with their lighters…. [T]hey burned the anus or the penis, the shaft or the head.” According to another, “They would make us dance for them and ululate, one [prisoner] after another. They’d watch us dance and laugh at us.” Many were forced to masturbate in front of other men and taunted if they could not “get it up.” They also were subjected to months of salacious press coverage, literally demonized with accusations of satanic practices — think “Capturing The Friedmans,” Cairo-style — and of professing allegiance to Israel.
Egypt’s principal motive is political expedience. The crackdown allows it to appeal to the religious by quelling an invented moral threat and then casting itself as the defender of orthodoxy — and thereby, goes the government logic, to lessen the appeal of the ever-present fundamentalist urge.
Despite what many commentators have described as Muslims’ extreme revulsion to sexual humiliation, some seem to make an exception for homosexuals. Why? And why do those of us who believe same-sex sex is as “natural” as any other nevertheless find it especially depraved to force “straight” men into submissive sexual poses that suggest they are gay — or female? Perhaps because same-sex sex has so many meanings of which we are only dimly aware.
In the Middle East, as well as in the Western world, “homosexual” and “gay” are relatively modern words having no exact meaning across cultures. According to an anthropologist of Egyptian culture, “homosexual” describes only the passive sexual partner. In fact, under Egyptian law as enforced until recently, only the penetrated male partner was guilty of a crime. The distinction is time-honored: In Hellenistic antiquity, adult men who penetrated boys were respected members of society. Power, universally respected, is signified by who’s on top.
In “Wrestling With Gods and Men,” Rabbi Steven Greenberg argues from biblical and Talmudic texts that sexual penetration of one man by another — “lying with a man as with a woman,” Leviticus 18:22 — is prohibited because it feminizes, and thus humiliates, the penetrated partner. In Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the Roy Cohn character, denying he is a “homosexual,” says: “I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles and shakes his hand.” Roy Cohn, who had lots of power, could not possibly be a “homosexual.”
Hold that thought, and now consider this: Many of the power wielders in the Abu Ghraib debacle are women.
To begin with, three of the seven first-line abusers are women: Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Hanman and especially Pfc. Lynndie England of the notorious thumbs up. Then there are many of the commanders on the ground, including General Janis Kaprinski, director of the Abu Gharaib prison, and Major General Barbara Fast, the top American intelligence officer in Iraq — and in Washington, of course, there’s Condoleezza Rice, the first female National Security Advisor.
Overall, women make up a sizable proportion of the military: 15% of the armed forces, 17% of the reserves and 23% of the military police in Iraq. On “Nightline,” Ted Koppel said: “Women are now such an integral part of it that the war in Iraq, literally, could not be run without them.”
This is exactly what we feminists wanted in the old days of fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment. We swallowed our anti-military biases and argued that equality for women in the military would afford access to job training and veterans benefits and, because women are morally superior to men, our presence in the military might civilize its culture and maybe even war.
So far, there is little evidence that it has worked out that way.
People with unchecked power, even if they are female, will abuse the defenseless. Neither power nor abuse has a gender or even a sexual preference; there is no such thing as “homosexual rape.” There is only rape.
There is also hope: One of the most powerful new human rights movements is one that grapples with these issues of gender and power in all their complexity: the international effort for the rights of gays and lesbians. This movement, as did feminism, sets it sights on transforming America and the world.
While there are no astonishing pictures from the Egyptian jails, there is an astonishing picture on the Web site of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. It is of a demonstration in Africa; an African woman is holding a sign saying: “Come and arrest me. I am a lesbian of Namibia.”
Kathleen Peratis, counsel to the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, is a board member of Human Rights Watch.