The American roots of homophobia in Africa

In a new report launched today, the liberal group Political Research Associates (PRA) documents the role of U.S. right-wing evangelicals and religious institutions in fostering homophobia in several countries in Africa. With data from seven countries (Uganda, Liberia, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria), the report exposes the impact of U.S. conservatives on policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as well as reproductive rights. This latest report builds on PRA's earlier research on the issue.

The report argues that the culture wars between pro-life and pro-choice groups within the U.S. have been exported to Africa. Homophobia has connected different Christian denominations which are usually suspicious of one another, such as Evangelicals uniting with Catholics and Mormons who promote a "pro-family" agenda.

While the architects of anti-gay bills in the different African countries are politicians or religious leaders, they all have strong links to U.S. Christian Right groups. The right-wing evangelicals have concealed the extent of their influence by using African proxies to declare that gay rights are a new form of neo-colonialism. In June, clergy in Uganda called for the parliament to look into the country's anti-gay bill again.

In February I argued against the proposed U.S. aid cut to African countries that persecute their LGBT populations; the U.S. can look to its own backyard at the right-wing evangelicals who have instigated homophobia here. It has since become clear that the U.S. is not actually going to cut its aid, but rather channel additional funding to LGBT organizations.

The LGBT movement in Uganda has also sued American Pastor Scott Lively, accusing him of inspiring the anti-gay bill in Uganda that proposed the death penalty for persons found guilty of homosexuality. The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the case in the U.S. on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a non-profit group (seen protesting the anti-homosexuality bill in the image above). The revised bill reduces the punishment for homosexuality to life imprisonment. The story is also being covered in the U.S., including reports on the state of LGBT rights in Uganda and an interview with Lively.

So it will be interesting to see how the court case between against Pastor Lively turns out. Will the case set a judicial precedent? Will persecuted groups be able to hold proxy instigators of discrimination accountable for the abuses they cause?

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Democracy Lab

My first lady doesn’t wear a tiara

Since the presidential elections in Egypt a few weeks ago, the new first lady's choice of headdress has been a constant topic of debate. Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of president-elect Mohamed Morsi, wears a long, conservative hijab that covers her head and torso. This has opened the door to endless commentary. Some have taken this as inspiration to discuss what her official function should be. Others relentlessly mock her dress (seen as conservative and low-class). Still others indulge in purely islamophobic ruminations about whether a hijabi woman is fit to represent Egypt at international affairs.

That most Egyptian women wear hijab doesn't seem to factor into those comments. The mockery flared again last week, as charming photos of Mexico's new young presidential couple, Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, telenovela star Angélica Rivera, were juxtaposed with those of Egypt's new first family -- and not in favor of the latter.

The most egregious comparison I have seen was sent to me in an email. It included an image titled "From This, to That. No Comment," and which juxtaposed a rather lousy photograph of Naglaa Ali with one of the late Queen Farida, first wife of Egypt's last ruling monarch, King Farouk.

This week, Egyptians are marking the 60th anniversary of the military coup on July 23, 1952, that deposed King Farouk. Nostalgia for Royalist Egypt appears to be at a peak. But this longing for an Egypt governed by a foreign dynasty that acted as puppet rulers for the British colonial occupiers is puzzling -- especially coming from people who never lived under the Egyptian kingdom.

In the royal era, social polarization reached unprecedented levels: History books refer to the "half-percenters," the 0.5 percent of the population who were said to control 99.5 percent of the wealth. Farouk was a glutton whose appetite was surpassed only by his appetite for women. So this isn't just nostalgia -- it's an uninformed rejection of the present.

This rejection, targeting not the political ideas of the new president (with which I personally vehemently disagree) but his wife's choice of headgear, fails to conceal both islamophobic and classist discourses. That Naglaa Ali wears the veil may not be as much a problem as is the "style" in she wears it -- a style that, let's say, would not be seen in the upper-middle classes in Egypt.

To her credit, Ms. Ali appears well aware of the challenges regarding her public role. If she creates a large public presence, she will be readily compared to Suzanne Mubarak; if she doesn't, that will be blamed on her and her husband's religious beliefs.

A few weeks into her new function, however, she has made herself conspicuous by her absence from President Morsi's local and international public appearances. Morsi traveled to Saudi Arabia for an umra (a minor pilgrimage) and a meeting with King Abdullah, but she was not in the photographs.

This may not mean much. After all, Mubarak did most of his foreign travel without his wife. She had her own schedule, both domestically and internationally. In effect, then, if the main concern of Ms. Ali's detractors is Egypt's image abroad, her behavior so far should allayed their anxieties. Ms. Ali's own preferences will keep her away from the public eye.

But the fact remains that Ms. Ali's persona represents Egyptian women more than did her half-Welsh predecessor, Suzanne Mubarak, or the latter's half-English predecessor, Jehan El-Sadat, and assuredly more than the tiara-wearing former Queen. If you want to judge her, judge her based on her performance in this new assignment -- not on her sartorial choices. Pseudo-liberals should know better.

Mohamed El Dahshan also blogs at, and you can follow him