Sarah Hegazi will be remembered as someone who just wanted to be herself — and was imprisoned and tortured for doing so. On Saturday, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist died by suicide in exile in Canada. She was 30 years old.
Hegazi’s friends trace the lead-up to her death to a moment in 2017 during a music festival in Cairo. As the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila played, Hegazi hoisted a rainbow flag above the crowd — a daring move in a country where homosexuality is taboo. A friend took her photo, and Hegazi became famous after the image spread across on social media.
But Hegazi’s friend, Aya Hijazi, says that moment came back to haunt her. The two women are both activists who have spent time in Egyptian prisons.
Hegazi was arrested after her photo spread on social media. Upon her release, she fled to Canada, where she was granted asylum.
“She told us, I always felt depressed and not able to express myself, and I wasn't trying to make any political statements, I wasn't being courageous, I was joyous,” Hijazi told The World.
Today, activists in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria are remembering Hegazi. Upon learning of her death, Hamid Sinno, the openly gay lead singer of Mashrou' Leila, sang a few stanzas in her honor — taken from Hegazi's own last words.
Hegazi posted these lines online before her death: The sky is more beautiful than the Earth. And I want the sky, not the earth.
The World’s Marco Werman spoke with Hijazi about how people Hegazi is being remembered and the consequences of her decision to wave the rainbow flag.
Aya Hijazi: Right. She raised that flag and then some people put it on social media. It wasn't her. And then after that, people posted it, it was a week later that she was arrested. She was sexually harassed by the authorities. And she was asked very private questions. She was electrocuted and she was tortured just because of raising the flag, nothing else.
I think that was the last moment of joy she ever felt. She was taken afterwards to solitary confinement as well. And then she was placed with two women in a cell, and they were forbidden from talking to her. And then ultimately, of course, she was deported and made to leave Egypt. And her mother died, as well. And so she just felt depressed afterwards.
There was advocacy for her case, and then she was just released. She wasn't acquitted. And then she was basically deported, never allowed to go back home. And I want to say that she never felt comfortable living in exile. She told us repeatedly that she wants to go back home, even if she's going to go back to prison.
I mean, it is mixed, an unequal mix, with 90 percent of the people just being vile. [But] fellow activists and friends said if this was 10 or 15 years ago, no one would have been outspoken in her support. But now, even 10 percent are able to be outspoken and really speak their opinion freely about the issue and even changing their profiles to the rainbow flag. It is very taboo. That is change. And we think this change is made by Sarah. So she left, but I think her legacy for rights and freedoms and peace and love will live past her.
In America, all of this happens, even legislation banning discrimination, it's because of democracy. It is because there is freedom of speech and you can't have rights, if you're ruled by a tank and a government.
So people are arranging vigils for her in Beirut. They've already lit candles for her yesterday, even in Syria — it's war-torn and people are dying. Because she was a strong supporter of Syria, Syrian activists did a vigil for her and raised banners. A lot of people really loved her and came out in support of LGBTQ rights and this was the first time that I seen Egypt people changing their profiles to the rainbow flag.
This interview has been condensed and edited.