CAIRO - It just happened one day, without prior notice. On Jan. 26, Moheddin Marwan lowered the iron curtain of his grocery store at lunchtime. When he came back to work the next day, he just stood there petrified, as motionless as the new barricade that blocked the access to his shop.
Stacked up like Lego bricks, the concrete blocks literally cut Cairo"s Sheikh-Reyhan Street in two – erected by authorities to protect official buildings from protesters. As if the center of the city wasn’t disfigured enough after two years of clashes between protesters and police forces.
So the man with a salt-and-pepper beard who protested against Mubarak and voted for Morsi, this 49-year-old grocer from the corner store, rolled up his sleeves, moved the Coca Cola crates in the back of his shop and unlocked the emergency exit door. In a matter of minutes, the “Marwan passageway” was born.
“I wasn’t going to just let my business die like that! One more wall won’t stop the violence. It just poisons Egyptians’ everyday life. Instead of fixing the problems, the government creates new ones!” says Marwan. The sound of footsteps on the asphalt interrupt him. A herd of suits, satchels on their shoulders, flows into the store only to come out the other way. It’s 2 p.m., the end of the workday for public administrations. “That will cost you five gineihs (70 cents)!” jokes Marwan, pretending to be a customs official.
“Why not? You should put up a toll, just like the Suez canal!” answers one of the suits. “I could make a fortune out of it! More than a thousand people go through my shop every day to bypass the barricades!” says Marwan. “The thing is, this hole in the wall is all that’s left of the spirit of the revolution – solidarity between Egyptians.”
Cairo's graffiti artists relentlessly cover up the new barricades - Photo: Gigi Ibrahim
For a long time, the shopkeeper believed in the revolution. In January and February 2011, he was standing in Tahrir Square, unafraid of the police’s bullets, shouting “erhal” (“beat it”) to Mubarak. His 19-year-old son Muhammad even lost his voice because of the tear gas. “When he started talking again, he sounded like a little girl. The gas had created an infection that we were never able to cure,” he says.
Then, during the June 2012 presidential elections, this fierce opponent to Ahmed Shafik, whom he considers to be “a remnant of the former regime,” voted for Mohamed Morsi: “Not because I like the Muslim Brotherhood, but because he seemed like a nice guy.”
"We'll blow it up"
Now, he’s angry at everyone: the government, for “chasing after its own interests,” but also the protesters, “overly excited youngsters who are acting like hooligans and who make our lives miserable.” The father of two was used to waking up at 5 a.m. to open his store until 11 p.m. But now he’s having problems making ends meet. “The breach in the barricade saved me but my benefits plummeted. After 2 p.m., clients are scarce. When there are demonstrations, I have to close my shop.”
He’s not the only one to criticize the new concrete barricades. In the maze that the center of Cairo has become, cafés don’t have enough clients and taxis barely manage to zigzag through. Everyone has to be resourceful to find ways around the new situation. Like this woman with a scarf who proceeds to climb the blocks behind Tahrir Square, with her heels in her hand. Or this group of insubordinates, who recently managed to bring down one of the barricades – oblivious to the police’s tear gas. The next morning, the wall was back up again. Relentless in their defiance, Cairo’s graffiti artists were already busy covering it up with anti-Morsi graffiti.
These concrete blocks are now part of Cairo’s inhabitants’ daily lives. So much so that singer Youssra El Hawary composed a song about it – within 10 months, her song El Soor (The Wall) had reached 200,000 views on YouTube and become one of the most popular songs of the post-revolution era.
To his surprise, Moheddin Marwan also became quite famous. One of the concrete blocks in front of his store reads “Marwan Passageway” in Arabic. “People like me because I refuse no one. The other day, someone even carried his bike across the shop,” he says.
However, being a good Samaritan earned him a visit from an Internal Affairs agent. “He came here and accused me of smuggling potential protesters. I told him: ‘What do you want me to do? Close my store indefinitely and starve to death?’ He then suggested that I file a complaint to the police. A complaint! Seriously! Nobody will listen. My patience has limits. If the wall is still here in the next few days, I’ll call my son and we’ll blow it up.”
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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