On a chilly March night, Shrouk El-Attar is preparing for a belly dancing show at a London club by pulling on a shimmering blue skirt, fixing a sparkly bra – and sticking on a beard.
The act, called “Dancing Queer”, is a protest against the persecution of gay, lesbian and transgender people in El-Attar’s native Egypt where they risk violence, arrest and jail. But the vivacious electrical engineering student wears many hats. Hours before the show – which she has performed around the country – El-Attar donned a suit and tie to speak at Britain’s parliament about issues faced by refugees.
The 25-year-old, who is completing her masters at Cardiff University in Wales, has helped many asylum seekers access higher education in Britain – something she is passionate about after spending several “heartbreaking” years unable to study. Her efforts were recognised at the weekend when the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR named her its Young Woman of the Year for her “inspirational leadership” with the award presented by “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie.
Growing up in the coastal city of Alexandria, El-Attar always knew she preferred girls. “I just thought that everyone likes girls; boys like girls, girls like girls, everyone likes girls – why wouldn’t you? They smell nice, they look great!” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. But she vividly recalls the day when a teacher told her class of nine-year-olds that homosexuality was a terrible sin. “I didn’t want to be that horrible person who was going to burn in hell,” she said.
El-Attar arrived in Britain in 2007 with her mother and siblings but they were deported after their asylum claim was rejected. El-Attar was eventually granted asylum because of her LGBT status. “I really 110 percent believe I wouldn’t be alive if I was living (in Egypt) the same way I’m living here now,” said El-Attar, who added that her atheism would also put her at risk. “Life for LGBT people in Egypt can be really difficult. We are forced into marriages, forced into having children, forced into having sex with people we don’t want to have sex with.”
Homosexuality is not explicitly criminalised in Egypt, but LGBT people have long been targeted under a law on “debauchery”. In a recent high profile crackdown, dozens of people were detained after fans attending a rock concert raised a rainbow flag in a rare show of public support for LGBT rights in the conservative Muslim country.
Egypt has been considering a new law to ban homosexuality. Through her belly dancing performances, El-Attar raises money to pay legal fees for LGBT people in Egypt and relocate those who fear family violence because of their sexuality. She has performed in France, the Netherlands and Japan, and hopes to take her show to Germany this summer.
Although Arabic is her mother tongue, El-Attar feels more comfortable speaking English because she says Arabic vocabulary around homosexuality is so negative. “When I started accepting my identity, the words I knew about myself were very derogatory – were words that hated me,” she said. But El-Attar, who identifies as queer, says LGBT people in the Arab world have begun coining their own positive terms. The one she likes is “mithli” – meaning “same as me”.
As a young teenager in Egypt, El-Attar was two years ahead of her classmates and was set to start university at 16. But her arrival in Britain scuppered her plans. Although she was accepted by every university she applied to, she quickly discovered she was effectively barred. Asylum seekers in Britain are treated as international students, who pay about 10,000 to 38,000 pounds ($13,800-$52,600) a year – far more than home students.
“It’s just not fair,” said El-Attar. “We are denying an education to some of the world’s most vulnerable people – people who have fled wars, torture, rape.” She has played a key role in a campaign by Student Action for Refugees to give asylum seekers the same access to university as British students, with fee waivers, scholarships and bursaries.
In her spare time, El-Attar assists at a centre in Cardiff where university students help asylum seekers improve their English and integrate into the city. “When I was applying for universities there were no universities accepting asylum seekers,” she said. “Now there’s around 60 across the country, and it’s beautiful to see real change happening because of our work.”