So the whole thing turned out to be a hoax.
Throughout the last few weeks, I have been a regular reader of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” especially during the current unrest in Syria. As Sara wrote in her post, “A Gay Girl in Damascus Tells It Like It Is,” the presumed author of the blog, Amina Abdullah, “is being celebrated as the unlikely voice of Syrian revolution.” The blogger wrote about the daily frustrations she faced as a 35-year-old lesbian living in Damascus.
But after reading the apology by the actual author—a white, Western man named Tom MacMaster—where he admitted masquerading as a lesbian Syrian woman, I started worrying about the image of female Arab bloggers, who believe social media hold a great promise for carrying their voice to a larger audience. For me, the case provokes questions not only about an American man posing as a lesbian Arab woman, but also about the very idea of using social media to bring damage to already-fragile images of Arab women in the public sphere.
Though some Arab and international media outlets were skeptical about the real identity of the Syrian blogger, others have addressed the issue in the broad context of the current transitions in the region, where reforms are expected to embrace not only political authoritarianism, but social and cultural taboos as well. For the past few years, the issue of homosexuality in a conservative Arab world has come to surface mainly in cyberspace as conventional media continue to be adamantly opposed to dealing with those taboos. For example, Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags were formed to support the fictitious Syrian blogger when rumors spread about her detention by security forces.
I found MacMaster’s confession to the Guardian and his statement that the whole thing was about him attempting to enhance his writing conversation skills disgusting! Why in the world would an American heterosexual chose to pose as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” blogging for the last four months? Is it a matter of adventurous sensationalism carried out for the purpose of fun, or is it yet another evidence of the validity of conspiracy theory that sees Western policies as detrimental to Arab-Islamic culture and traditions?
In her post on the February 21, 2011, Amina wrote: “I live in Damascus, Syria. It’s a repressive police state. Most LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible. But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo. Am I crazy? Maybe.” Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, and is punishable by at least a three-year imprisonment. Sexual orientation is not an open subject for discussion in the Arab world. Syria is being increasingly perceived as a police state with little regard for human rights. So MacMaster wasn’t telling us anything new.
The MacMaster hoax will most likely be used to beef up skepticism among conspiracy theorists about “Western plots” to destroy our cherished national and cultural values. I believe Tom MacMaster owes a big apology not just to his readers, but to Arab women in particular.
The Arab world has found great fulfillment in social media. In Saudi Arabia, they are organizing Facebook campaigns to campaign for the right to drive. Women in Egypt are asserting bolder and more forthcoming attitudes in the context of the revolution through social media. Virtual space is turning into the new arena for Arab women’s articulation of their identities in the 21st century.
The tragedy of the MacMaster hoax is that it shows how social media, long glorified as tools of empowerment for Arab women, could be used to bring more havoc on Arab women’s reputations. Currently, there are no legal mechanisms that might be enforced to hold MacMaster accountable for his abominable act. For the benefit of the doubt, the case should be taken only as an individual conduct that would certainly provoke condemnations, even in the West. But the MacMaster case should give rise to more serious global regulations to ensure that the Web, widely acclaimed as a window of opportunity for women aspiring for social and political advancement, would not be used for extortion and defamation.