Beirut, Lebanon – Perfect Strangers tells the story of seven friends who decide to share their phones’ incoming messages during a dinner party. Secrets unfold: sexting, homosexuality, loss of virginity and secret love affairs.
The movie is the most remade film in cinema history. Available in 18 different languages, it has sparked conversations over loyalty, friendship and privacy.
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But in Netflix’s latest Arabic version, the movie has caused a different debate – one about women’s sexuality and LGBT rights and what they represent for religious and family values in the Middle East.
The film is Netflix’s first Arabic movie and quickly became the most watched in the streaming company’s website in the region after it was released on January 20. It gathered particular criticism in Egypt over a scene where Egyptian actress Mona Zaki’s character is seen taking off her underwear from underneath her dress. At some point one of the male characters comes out as gay, surprising his childhood friends.
Egyptian member of parliament Mostafa Bakri said in a TV interview that the film targeted family values and said Egypt should “ban Netflix”. There were other calls to prohibit the film in the country and threats of lawsuits over its “promotion” of homosexuality. It is the same argument that has led dozens of LGBT people and activists to face arbitrary arrest and even torture in Egypt over the years.
Ashraf Zaki, the head of Egypt’s Actors Union, said in a Facebook post that it stood behind actress Mona Zaki and added “the role of the arts … is to address the difficult issues” in a society “that believes in freedom”.
‘A more honest way’
Although Egyptian cinema was traditionally a pioneer in representing sexuality, most famously through its daring belly dancers, and even queer communities, these were and still are often limited to stereotypes, filmmaker Maria Abdel Karim told Al Jazeera.
Karim, who is also a lecturer at the United Kingdom’s Bournemouth University specialising in women’s voices and representation in the Lebanese cinema, says women are still usually portrayed to “cater the male gaze”, and LGBT characters are still represented negatively through caricature, mental illness or criminal behaviour.
Even in more positive approaches queer figures mostly appear in a “coded” form – like a female character who is portrayed as a lesbian because of her short hair.
“We still don’t have representation of queer people in the Middle East; it’s in a covert way or if it’s there is not a happy ending,” Karim says.
Part of the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Perfect Strangers revolves around the fact that one of the characters openly says, “I’m gay”.
“Now it’s changing. There’s a new wave of Arab filmmakers who are taking it in a more honest way, saying the word, the label, overtly,” Karim says.
However, directors and actors who do represent homosexual relations or overt female pleasure face consequences from having their films cut or banned by the censorship bureaus still present in many countries of the Middle East, to death threats and punishment “by the state or religious extremists”, according to Karim’s research.
The criminalisation of homosexuality is often used as a weapon to silence journalists or content creators. Lebanon is usually seen as an “exception” to the more conservative stances of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan, but there’s still a “lack of interest” in covering the LGBT cause, says Myra Abdallah, Middle East and North Africa regional manager of Women in News and member of the board of directors at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality.
‘Tool of social control’
In the last few years, the Arab region has seen a rise in conservatism due to a series of complex factors that include the rise of hardline groups, economic crises and the COVID-19 pandemic – which has allowed for the implementation of restrictive measures used in abusive ways to control freedom of speech.
“Women and gender minorities are usually the first victims” during times of crisis, Abdallah told Al Jazeera. “Society has become more conservative, that’s for sure.”
Sex is also one of the most immediate victims of this, says Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. “Conservatives take sex and wrap it in religion and use it as a tool of social control – to control people at the heart of their intimate lives, which is the heart of ourselves.”
The author recalls a quote from an Egyptian gynaecologist who she met while writing her book: “In our region, sex is the opposite of football. Football everyone is talking about it but hardly anyone plays it. The sex everyone is doing it but no one wants to talk about it”.
But some do. Women talk about sex and men do too, says El Feki. “The challenge has come in bringing men and women together … which is in a sense what this film is now encountering, it’s putting it out there.
“So thank you conservatives for objecting, because it makes the headlines and then people watch the film and then we start having more conversations,” she says.
Social media: Double-edged sword
The online streaming model has created a censorship-free space for filmmakers, who can reach their audiences directly in their homes – not only through Netflix, but through other alternatives such as independent queer online film festivals.
Karim says, for example, that she doubts Perfect Strangers would be shown in Egyptian cinemas.
“Netflix just jumped onto the houses of the people and maybe that’s what made this film’s controversy go even more mad: because they didn’t have control,” she adds.
Mostly triggered by the Arab Spring, its digital nature and consequent openness, this helped activists and NGOs find a space online to keep the conversation alive and continue to challenge taboos, sometimes at a price.
“Social media is a double-edged sword,” warns Abdallah. “It’s a free space for activists to talk about things but also a space for bullies and electronic armies and political institutions to bully those who speak.”
Abdallah says social media platforms and companies “are not working alongside activists”, but rather with the powerful political parties and religious institutions, especially in the Middle East.
Lebanese drag pioneer and performer Zuhal, who usually posts videos of himself in drag or funny takes on his dating life, has seen his account banned many times, most recently in January. “Banning is digital murder,” he wrote at the time, questioning Instagram’s explanation that his posts disrespected community guidelines.
Dr Sandrine Attalah is another familiar face of the Middle Eastern social media sphere. The Lebanese sexologist has taken to TikTok and Instagram to explore the type of sex education that doesn’t exist in schools. She often talks about female pleasure and uses models of the female and male reproductive systems to illustrate her videos.
“It allows people who want to know more, who are curious, who are searching for their own sexual identity, their sexuality. This is helping them,” she told Al Jazeera.
The importance of representation can be about pleasure but, more importantly, it’s a question of safety. Without notions of their own limits and sexuality, the lines of informed consent are blurred for both men and women, and society lacks tools to combat the prevalence of HIV and female genital mutilation.
However, like Zuhal and many other social media creators in the Middle East focusing on the topics of sexuality or LGBT rights, Dr Attalah has also seen her account banned, and her videos are reported on a weekly basis.
“The videos about female pleasure, about the clitoris, about the vagina are much more reported than the videos I post about the penis or male ejaculation. They are afraid of losing control on women. This is purely what we are seeing,” she says.
“It’s pure hypocrisy. We don’t want our secrets to be out. People are in denial of their own realities,” the sexologist says.
Representation is ‘lifesaving’
Openly gay Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman is no stranger to the challenges that movies and content portraying LGBT people face in the Arab world. His movie Eternals was banned in a number of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates because of Sleiman’s role: portraying the first Arab gay couple and the first gay kiss in a Marvel movie.
Like Dr Attalah, Sleiman argues the attempt to hide reality is not only futile, but harmful.
“They all have the right to ban it but that in no way means their countries are not full of queer people who are hiding, who are scared for their lives, and living in a miserable prison – and that breaks my heart,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Hollywood actor says he grew up in Lebanon “playing a character” of a heterosexual version of himself and faced suicidal thoughts at times.
Sleiman says the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Perfect Strangers means the movie “is doing its thing”.
“Let them be disturbed, that’s art. This is how it starts changing,” he says.
For him, coming out as an Arab gay in 2017 and portraying historic LGBT characters in Hollywood has earned him death threats, but also “unbelievable amounts of love”. Some of the messages he receives, he says, are from people thinking of taking their own lives.
“This just shows how powerful storytelling and feeling seen and represented is. It’s lifesaving,” says Sleiman.