In January 2022, an Arabic version of the film Perfect Strangers became the focus of public outrage. The uproar was about more than just a controversial movie, however, and, upon closer analysis, revealed the role of undergarments in the injustice perpetrated against queer subjects.
In mid-January 2022, Netflix Egypt released an Arabic version of the 2016 Italian film Perfect Strangers. The plot revolves around seven friends who gather at a dinner party. At the prompting of the hostess, they play a game in which they share every message and phone call they receive during dinner with each other. Secrets are revealed: one of the seven friends is outed when he receives a text from a lover, and several affairs are uncovered that cause fractures in friendships and relationships. The film was denounced by parliamentarians, religious institutions, and government officials who perceived it as a threat to the moral fabric of Egyptian society. The uproar triggered by the film shows a glimpse of the everyday practices of surveillance and securitization that queer subjects experience in today's Egypt.
Two aspects of the Arabic Perfect Strangers seemed to elicit the biggest outrage: the sexual identity of Rabi’, the only one of the seven friends who shows up to the party without a partner, and a scene where the character Maryam—an unhappily married Egyptian woman with a drinking problem—nervously slips off her black lace underwear and stuffs it into her purse before heading to the party. In Egypt’s hypersecuritzed state, any deviation from the ‘natural’ order of things triggers quick and harsh disciplining by the state apparatus. Maryam’s underwear scene was treated as a moral offence, but its punishment would be limited to sanctions and court cases against the actor, the director, and the producer of the film. The disciplining of Rabi’s sexuality on the other hand, extends beyond the actor, director, and producer, and could potentially punish many queer bodies in hiding that may have never even heard of the film. In this sense, the state’s understanding of what is ‘moral’ or ‘traditional’ is tactical and often relies on heteronormative frameworks of gender and sexuality. While the film did not show explicit sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the text Rabi’ received from his male lover and the act of Maryam taking off her underwear alluded to forbidden sexual desire. The state had to eradicate the possibilities situated within these allusions.
Proponents of the film focused on the ludicrosity of the outrage that the mere act of a woman removing her underwear could threaten morality—astonished that a short scene where one glimpses a scrunched-up object, barely discernible as an undergarment, garnered a pervasive uproar. This astonishment is a staunch reminder that queer people’s stories and struggles remain as hidden and invisible as the objects that allude to our intimacies and desire, tacit denials of the long and painful history of the state’s disciplining of queer bodies.
In Egypt the state governs and disciplines queer bodies through disciplining what we will refer to as objects of allusion, which is in this case the underwear and the historical practice of policing underwear. Underwear, the hidden garment, has a long and unsavory history with the Egyptian state security apparatus and queer bodies. Egyptian State Security, Vice Squads, and local media outlets have for over 20 years scrambled to humiliate and incarcerate queer bodies through the surveillance of undergarments. Throughout the history of the hyper-securitization of the Egyptian state, underwear appears numerous times as a central focus in the state’s attempts to discipline and govern queer bodies. In May of 2001, Egyptian security forces raided the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood. Security forces detained and tortured hundreds of individuals that were considered non-heternormative in the ways they moved their bodies and engaged in their intimacies. Following the raid, security forces stopped, searched, and detained individuals in public spaces ‘whose looks or walk, [or] the style of their hair,’ could be interpreted as signs of non-heternormative identities. It was common practice for Vice Squad officers to identify ‘deviants,’ by checking their underwear. They would ask those they stopped, searched, raided or arrested for their ID and then would proceed to ask them to take down their pants in order to look at their underwear; or, during a home raid, officers would rummage through drawers of undergarments.
Female underwear in the possession of a body that is perceived as “male'' is treated as a threat to heteronormativity. It insinuates and alludes to a sexuality that is oriented towards a body that imagines itself otherwise, a self that fractures the allusions of the dispositifs of control. Although, undergarments are hidden objects, the state’s security apparatus actively searches queer bodies, and mobilizes resources to uncover evidence of their deviance. Visibility and invisiblity are not allowed for queer bodies, because the mere act of existing and quietly alluding to an ‘otherwise’ is a threat to the nation state.
When the media reports on arresting those relegated to a second-class citizenship, they almost always mention female undergarments. The object of allusion in this case—what are considered non-normative undergarments—are no longer singular sites of disciplining the deviant, but rather disciplining the act and object of alluding to disruptive intimacies as they extend beyond the deviant’s body.
In 2013, the state security apparatus mobilized against non-heteronormative bodies, this time through seemingly small arbitrary arrests, home raids and digital entrapment. Since then, hundreds of non-heteronomative individuals have been arrested, far exceeding those arrested during the Queen Boat raid. Reporting on these arrests, local news and media outlets have almost always cited the possession of ‘female undergarments’ as evidence of deviant behavior.
The allusion to queerness within a hyper-securitized state is mediated through its police, its courts, its media, its religious institutions, and the practices of queer bodies. Queerness can be ignored, hidden, almost tolerated, or misinterpreted as acceptable intimacy. Queerness can also be stripped from its allusion, paraded in front of hostile mobs demanding restitution for the perceived offense. Queer bodies furtively and perpetually attempt to escape and remain hidden from security apparatuses and their mobs. When our gesturing, and our alluding becomes too loud, too visible, it is then that our bodies, their corporeal and imagined forms, need to be kept in check. Keep your underwear hidden, keep them ‘ordinary—white underwear, the same ordinary design and color as most Egyptians wear.’
Within hostile geographies, queer bodies encounter other queer bodies through carefully choreographed practices of visibility and invisibility, eluding the prying eye of the security apparatus, while gesturing wildly to other queer bodies craving connection and belonging. To be queer is to be ungovernable, to be ungovernable is to be disciplined into ‘proper corporeal containment.’ Sara Ahmed approaches queerness as a practice of extending the body, a reorientation that involves ‘reshaping the body surface,’ a stretching that entails a potential, a feeling that movement and becoming can be otherwise. To make things queer is to disturb ‘the order of things’ in a world that is already ‘organised around certain forms of living—certain times, spaces and directions’ (161). To survey and to check underwear is to constantly probe into our bodies, to exhaust any possibility of imagining ourselves, our intimacies, our encounters as otherwise. Our bodies persistently encounter ‘stopping devices’ as they interface with the state (Ibid. 139). Stopping devices question our right to belong; ‘Who are you? Why are you here? What are you doing?’ (Ibid. 139). These disruptive encounters inevitably create a sense of disorientation, of being out of place.
Managing the undesirables entails the management of everyday life; a management of ‘your politics, your affiliations, your nightmares, your ideology, your rights, your friends and neighbours. Your dreams’ (90). The accusations made against non-heteronormative bodies, even when pointing to queerness’s hidden practices, almost always include references to the objects of allusion. By bringing an object itself to public trial, queerness and the possibilities it embodies—connections, intimacies, unhindered movements, and joy—are lost, leaving us only with the imaginaries of discipline and incarceration. Our ability to imagine is exhausted in the denouncement of the actress Mona Zaki’s (Maryanne’s) underwear scene, in the evidence presented against defendants accused of homosexuality, and in the stopping, searching, and detention of those who wore non-normative undergarments during the Queen Boat crackdown. Our becoming otherwise is always governed, so we gesture carefully and we move hesitantly. Our bodies leave shadows of practices outside of the state’s reach and, when the state’s security forces cannot capture each and every queer body, they redirect their efforts to capturing objects of allusion and dreams
Elaine Lowaty (they/them) Elaine is a queer anarchist feminist living in Egypt. They write about the fragility of queer geographies, they look for ways to produce softness within precarity, they host spaces for connection, and produce knowledge on queer intermovement building. Yara Ahmed Yara Ahmed is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, whose research interests include affect and the everyday, mobility, and queer theory.