Like many LGBT individuals in the Middle East, Sarah* and Maisaa Feddag lived a life of charades and masks—until they escaped to the United States.
Living in a virtual world online, the two found each other through social networks, using false identities, in Dubai in 2010. It’s the reality how most LGBT Arabs live, where sexuality isn’t allowed to be discussed, and LGBT people are in constant fear that the person they meet on the other side of the screen might actually be a police officer who will arrest them.
“This is [how] all lesbians and gays in the Gulf or the Middle East are living their lives, like with a hidden mask. It’s horrible,” says Maisaa, who took Sarah’s last name when they married.
Fortunately, the virtual world became real for Sarah, 32, and Maisaa, 25. The veil pulled back, Sarah, a human resource coordinator for a company in Dubai, and Maisaa, a mechanical engineering student at a local university, fell in love.
Nearly three years later, the newlyweds complete each other’s sentences, as GO Magazine witnessed during a recent interview with the happy couple. GO met with them at the Oakland, Calif. offices of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps asylees and refugees settle into the U.S.
Dubai is a small oil- and trade-wealthy city-state that is a part of the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf.
The UAE’s unfavorable stance on LGBT rights or human rights in general isn’t a secret. It’s dangerous and even deadly to be queer and living in the Middle East, and leaders of the UAE aren’t making any moves to change its position. The government protested the U.N. Human Rights Council’s first-ever discussion to human rights organizations, while media has reported the torture and murders of people suspected of being queer.
Sarah and Maisaa aren’t surprised by the UAE representatives’ reactions toward LGBT people on the global stage.
“We see it in the [country]. They are not fair with people. There is no kind of human rights or respect [for] equality,” says Sarah. Maisaa nods her head in agreement.
Sarah had left her family in Algeria a long time ago, after they suspected she was a lesbian and abused and threatened her, she says.
“[It was a] terrible time with them. I had been beaten and threatened and a lot of horrible things happened to me,” she says, reluctant to go into detail. She escaped to Dubai, hoping for a less hostile environment—but it was only a temporary solution for her.
“When the problems started with Maisaa, we decided that we don’t need a temporary solution,” says Sarah.
Maisaa’s family began suspecting their two-year relationship about nine months ago.
“My family, they start suspecting there is something going on between me and her and they start questioning me a lot and threatening, ‘You don’t have a right to see her,’” says Maisaa.
Her brothers began intimidating her.
“My brother told me, ‘If you stay meeting this girl, you will see something that you … can’t even imagine what would happen to you,’” says Maisaa, who was afraid for their lives.
That was the final threat. The couple, who were already dreaming of living together peacefully, began making plans for leaving sooner than they had expected. That night Maisaa said to Sarah, “Let’s leave.”
The two women went to the U.S. Consulate in Dubai and applied for asylum. Before they knew it, they were accepted—and for the first time in their lives, they tasted freedom rather than fear.
The other side of the rainbow
In April 2012, they landed in the “gay Mecca” of San Francisco. Isabella Allende, author of Daughter of Fortune, was Sarah’s first inspiration for wanting to be in the West Coast city.
She loved the richness of the diversity and history described in the story, and wanted to see it for herself. Then she learned about Harvey Milk, the city’s LGBT history, and the resources available to the couple.
“Honestly, we [were] meant to be here. Everything was pushing us to be here, like everything was easy. We couldn’t even dream[ed] it,” says Maisaa.
A month later, the couple flew to Boston and wed in a simple ceremony, just the two of them and the justice of peace.
“Marriage was the best way to feel the commitment [and] settlement after days and days, of suffering, hiding feelings, hiding the love and respect toward the person I love,” says Maisaa, now filled with the courage to tell the world she’s married to the “woman I chose to spend my life with.”
On a more solemn note, the wedding was also a way to replace the sadness she felt leaving her family behind and starting a new family with Sarah.
“I needed so bad to feel like I formed a new family when I felt that I [had] already lost one,” Maisaa says.
Marriage was personal for Sarah, but more about a political statement too.
“When we decided to get married, it was about the symbol of what gays want. It is a symbol of equality, respect and appreciation of years and years of the fights and suffering of gay[s] who [didn’t] live to the moment of marriage equality,” Sarah says.
This March, marking their third anniversary, the couple will renew their vows to each other, but this time with their new friends around them, they say.
The newlyweds are settling into life in the San Francisco Bay Area working, making new friends with local LGBT Arabs and the LGBT community, and building their new lives, they say.
Maisaa has opened the line of communication with her family in Dubai on a limited basis, she says, but has no plans of returning. San Francisco is their home now.
Maisaa plans to return to college to complete her education, while Sarah, who has a master’s degree in human resources, plans to continue to work.
Happy and safe, Sarah and Maisaa realize how fortunate they are, and don’t want to forget the darker periods of their lives that brought them to where they are now. They also see the changes happening in the Middle East due to the Internet and social media, the very tools that helped them recognize and identify who they were.
“We came here and we are happy, but we don’t want to forget why we are here,” says Maisaa about why they left their country to start over in the U.S. “We don’t want to forget that. We want to do something.”
Sarah adds that they want to send a “positive message to the LGBTs [and] women” telling them not to believe the negative messages that they are “sick, criminal or shameful,” but that they are “beautiful, smart, nice,” and have a right to “be yourself and be safe.”
The Internet, social media and TV were instrumental to both of them to their personal discovery; more so for Sarah, who began her search when she was about 14 years old, she said.
She devoured blogs and websites and found a glimmer of hope in bits of information that slipped through the cracks in Algeria. They let her know she didn’t have to buy into the messages her country was feeding her.
“Sometimes, they would broadcast some stuff that accidentally would show you something that makes you open your eyes,” says Sarah. “So, all this stuff together made me feel that, ‘No, I don’t have to accept what they want me to be.’”
Maisaa agrees, who came out to herself when she was about 21 years old, after years of hiding.
Inspired by their own experiences, the couple is using the tools that helped them free themselves to free other LGBT Arabs. Since they obtained their asylum status, the couple has produced 28 video episodes in Arabic showing and talking about their lives in the U.S. and posting them on Facebook, they say.
The response has been enormous, not only in support, but because the couple has inspired other Arabs to come out publicly. They say their followers are revealing themselves online, and others have left their homes in the Middle East to go to countries where they will be safe.
“It’s what really, really make us happy,” says Sarah, proud that LGBT Arabs are speaking out in the face of being tortured or killed. “There is a movement now because of our videos. There are a lot of people who came out and [are] broadcasting videos, ‘We are gay and we [are] living in the Arab countries.’”
To watch the videos, visit http://youtu.be/dFJb-6d9cVA
*A pseudonym–her real name has been changed to protect her safety.