©Photo: Salma , ©Design: Boshra Jallali

« The Urgency To Take Action »

Salma El Masri , He / She : Activist

By Haithem Haouel

English translation by Yasmine BenSalah

When personal experience and convictions intertwine, militanty begins to take shape and struggles end up being structured. Salma El Masri lives in Cairo. She is executive director of Bedayaa Organization, which works to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people. In recent years, as part of the team, she has been working hard to raise awareness among young Queer people about their drug use habits. Her work has proved to be a fruitful one, carried out in an immersive manner, always on-site... and free from prejudice.

Behind each cause hides an existence, connections, and sometimes an unusual combination of circumstances. Often a context can generate momentary or lasting changes. Salma El Masri can vouch for the fact that her atypical path, which began at an early age, is community-based. An inevitable future, it seems. She recalls: “I dedicated myself to activism quite early, working for SOGI Issues (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Issues). In 2010, a kind of networking began to emerge. I felt it, we felt it. At the very beginning, there were four of us. A committed and supportive core that met others around human causes. Contacts were formed gradually. There were, for instance, those advocating human rights, in particular, the rights relating to women and children. They organized themselves into collectives, associations, or organizations. Feminists and Queer /LGBTQI++ people also asserted themselves and became visible. All in an effervescent social and political context in Egypt.” Salma decided to take action, namely by reconciling two groups of lesbians and gays.


Unity; the corner stone of struggle

Susceptibilities, discord, or disagreements could arise. But there can be no place for commitment or struggle in a climate of unhealthy relationships. Salma remembers dedicating herself for a while to easing certain tensions within the Queer community itself, in particular by bringing together Lesbian and Gay friends. “I offered activities, cultural programs, various outings, group games, and getaways.” She quotes.

A community life full of activities emerged. It brought Queer people together and thus allowed collectives, associations, and organizations to see the light of day. A solid network of associations began to exist in the Greater Cairo Region, and activities and initiatives were soon to be decentralized throughout Egypt. In the end, it was a fruitful time, which shaped the future of many awareness-raising initiatives, and the firm existence of Bedayaa. However, in 2017 / 2018, a scourge began to creep in…that of the spread of hallucinogenic substances and various drugs, specifically within the LGBTQI+/ Queer community. Substances that are associated with loss of control, health issues and often fatal accidents.

Facing up to gimmicks

Festivities and music (especially techno) attract in particular, and as everywhere else in the world, users of synthetic drugs. Ecstasy, MDMA or GHB were all the rage. Cases of people unknowingly drugged or abused were reported. “A few pills are discreetly thrown into glasses and it’s a disaster!” Salma is concerned, pointing out the remarkable diversity of drug types and the effects they cause. Those are gimmicks that tend to exist when electro (or other) music and partying are involved.

People take drugs in groups or individually, often completely unconscious, and unaware of the consequences. Overdoses and deaths follow one another, and cases of addiction are increasing rapidly. The health of many young people is at risk. Young people are left to fend for themselves, afraid to seek medical care, to consult or report to doctors for fear of being stigmatized. Not to mention the arbitrary raids carried out by the authorities, who, for “presumed” security reasons, get their hands on illegal substances found in the homes of drug users. In these cases, they end up stuck in prison and in legal trouble. In addition to this worrying situation, there is a lack of guidance, care, appropriate medical infrastructure, awareness campaigns and rehabilitation facilities. Thousands of young drug users find themselves dragged into an addiction nightmare, lived in silence. The taboo nature of the situation remains overwhelming.

Efficiency on the spot

“In the name of Bedayaa and in response the urgency of the situation, we mobilized with the aim of raising awareness among drug users by taking action on the spot.” Explains Salma while pinning the classic ways of doing this, such as calling on well-known personalities or influencers or by carrying out ordinary and ultimately irrelevant campaigns, often carrying cliché messages. Civil society in Egypt sometimes uses ordinary means to raise awareness, using speeches that perpetuate clichés and harm fragile social groups via media and social networks.

And “taking action on the spot” means getting closer to the organizers of events, often techno or “Rave”, and helping partygoers on site; which remains an efficient way to be always on the lookout and attentive to substance users. Advice, stalls, and information points are sprouting up, attracting people, and helping them avoid the dangers of these drugs and their effects, thus avoiding overdoses and other serious incidents. “Our target remains the Queer community but as our actions are also visible online, many felt concerned by this.” Specifies Salma El Masri. Currently, psychologists, psychiatrists, addictologists, and lawyers are also mobilized. A handbook and awareness-raising guides are now available. This robust teamwork helped reduce the stigma that this target population may endure.

“The Queer community is exposed to the use of drugs in order to stimulate the senses, to feel good for a period of time. To guarantee a pleasant but undoubtedly ephemeral escape. Some consumers take them occasionally. But Queer people are the most tempted by nightlife and the party scene. Salma points out that most people already unconsciously live with other addictions such as coffee and cigarettes and that humans are indisputably always torn between moderation and excess. “And what we need to avoid is precisely these excesses in everything. It’s only possible to carry out this militant work by monitoring the frequency of intake and providing access to information”. Says Salma.

A census in figures is always carried out by Bedayaa. Not all of the queer community is affected. Many consumers are targeted. A figure that is constantly being adjusted upwards. Some rehabilitation centers manage to attract a few cases, but not enough or not sufficiently. Frivolous care is provided… often in vain, as patients end up leaving and coming back… And a vicious circle is set in motion among drug users from the queer community in Egypt. The actions of Bedayaa organization have succeeded in anticipating a few drifts and serious situations. “Because if you’re determined to consume, you might as well do it safely”. Underlines Salma El Masri.

Bedayaa’s goal is to extend this project to the regional level, namely by contacting “Mawjoudin – We Exist” or other existing organizations in neighboring countries. “This necessary work is not being done enough in the Arab world and we must act across borders, by establishing a structured plan.” Concluded Salma based on interactions with people, both virtual and real-life. A regional Queer community is in need. Assistance is needed, despite the difficulties linked to the socio-political and security contexts in several countries of the MENA region.


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