The evening of June 13, 2020, was like any other for Raya Sharbain: filled with online distractions. Sharbain, a program coordinator at Jordan Open Source Association, was browsing social media when news of an Egyptian woman’s suicide flooded her feeds. Sarah Hegazi, a lesbian activist who had been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities after waving a rainbow flag at a concert, had taken her own life after a long battle with PTSD.
Two days later, Sharbain, who edits Wikipedia pages in her free time, went to Hegazi’s page. Her last name had been spelled incorrectly, so Sharbain fixed the mistake. She clicked on the Arabic version of the page and noticed the activist’s cause of death was listed as “murder,” even though reputable outlets were reporting it as suicide. Sharbain opened the edit tab once more. Suddenly, the entire page was nominated for deletion by other editors.
As a collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia is technically an open-access platform, but its community of Arabic language editors is an increasing source of controversy. Critics say the fate of Hegazi’s page — which remained deleted at the time of this article’s publication — is part of a greater culture of conservatism that pervades Arabic Wikipedia, making it difficult for Wikipedians to post about subjects seen as taboo in Arab society.
Hosted by the California-based Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia relies on volunteer editors, who can apply for administrative authority once they’ve gained the trust of their respective communities. The admins effectively function as gatekeepers to Wikipedia posts: they can block or unblock accounts, protect pages from edits, and delete, revive, or rename pages without restriction.
Wikipedia articles exist in more than 300 languages, each with its own community of editors and administrators. For Arabic Wikipedians, editing and posting content can be uniquely challenging. Despite Arabic being one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, Arabic readers face a huge disparity when it comes to online content. Some estimate that only 3% of the internet is written in Arabic. Arabic Wikipedia, which averaged some 300 million views a month in the first half of this year, exhibits similar disparities. In 2018, Hebrew Wikipedia had 108 editors per million speakers. Arabic Wikipedia had two. This lack of manpower has resulted in a smaller group of admins too: while Arabic Wikipedia has 26 admins, Icelandic, for example, has 28.
The limited number of Arabic editors and administrators has resulted in an environment that, some critics say, is closed off or even hostile to newcomers who seek to edit and create posts about controversial subjects. Samir El Sharbaty, a Cairo-based brand associate at Wikimedia Foundation, says Arabic Wikipedia suffers from more gender bias than Wikipedia in other languages. “It has a long way to go in order to reach a better level of representation and neutrality,” he says. Afek Ben Chahed, the only woman in the Arab Wikimedians Committee, says many of the admins appear to have a conservative or religious bias.
For Sharbain, who has organized multiple edit-a-thons and workshops with Wikipedia and Wikidata across the United Kingdom and Jordan, editing articles about topics that interest her is uniquely satisfying. She likes to create entries for her favorite Arabic alternative bands, upload pictures she’s taken of landscapes or concerts, and edit English Wikipedias about Jordinian politics. She says Hegazi is an important person to document because her story is testament to the brutality of the Egyptian government, which tends not to be well-documented in the Middle East. Including Hegazi in the encyclopedia ensures her legacy.
Hegazi, a 30-year-old software developer, committed suicide after being imprisoned, sexually assaulted, and electrocuted for three months in an Egyptian prison. Her ordeal began in September 2017 after she waved a rainbow flag during a performance by the Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila, whose frontman is openly gay. The band’s strong stance on sexuality — their songs openly address gender and politics — has sparked backlash in many Arab countries. Their concert in Cairo marked a turning point: within days, an image of Hegazi smiling with a rainbow flag had circulated on social media, and the country’s musicians’ syndicate banned Mashrou’ Leila from entering Egypt. Authorities used the moment to launch one of the biggest crackdowns on the country’s LGBTIQ community in years, arresting dozens of concertgoers on “debauchery” charges.
After her release from prison in early 2018, Hegazi lost her job, left her family, and fled to Canada, where she sought asylum. She continued to write about her struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and trauma, but the turmoil of her ordeal weighed on her. “To the world,” Hegazi wrote in a final letter, “you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”
Sharbain, whose hair is short and closely cropped like Hegazi’s, was upset by the deletion of her page, midedit, at first. But when she joined the “talk page,” where volunteer editors discuss issues with articles, she saw editors and admins debating whether Hegazi had warranted an entry to begin with. Sharbain commented that Hegazi met the “notability” criteria, which are among the requirements for individuals to receive biographies on Wikipedia. She initially thought that the discussion was a vote, so she called on her fellow Wikipedian friends to join in (23 voted in favor of keeping the article deleted; 18 voted to republish it), but later she realized that the final decision was made by one administrator. On June 22, a week after Hegazi’s death, an administrator with the username Dr-Taher sent a note: “Delete. Thank you all.”
Now, if you search for “Sarah Hegazi” on Arabic Wikipedia, the site yields no results (though the Arabic-language sidebar of Hegazi’s English Wikipedia page redirects you to a short paragraph about her suicide on a page about LGBTIQ rights in Egypt). For Sharbain and other Wikipedians, it was difficult to ignore editors’ obsession with whether Hegazi was notable enough to merit her own entry in Arabic. Even after Dr-Taher deleted her page, the fight to republish it continued in Facebook Wikipedia groups. Sharbain told Rest of World that when one commenter asked who Hegazi was, “Another editor derisively responded, ‘The atheist who killed herself.’”
Michel Bakni, an administrator and a top editor at Wikipedia, insists that the deletion of Hegazi’s biography had nothing to do with admin bias. Bakni says the matter was simple: she didn’t cross the threshold for notability. As for how Hegazi became eligible for an English Wikipedia post, he notes that each Wikipedia community manages itself; “eligibility” does not mean the same thing for English Wikipedia and its Arabic counterpart.
But the criteria for notability within Arabic Wikipedia remains subjective. Last year, a similar debate among Wikipedians occured after Israa Ghareeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian makeup artist from the West Bank, was reportedly murdered by members of her family in an apparent honor killing after posting a story on Instagram with her soon-to-be fiancé. Although thousands protested her murder after the news went viral, admins said she didn’t meet the criteria for a Wikipedia post. And yet Shady Habash, an Egyptian filmmaker who was imprisoned for mocking Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and died in jail earlier this year, was deemed worthy by admins. Habash’s demise mirrors Hegazi’s: their deaths were the result of the same authoritarian regime, but only one appears on Arabic Wikipedia.
Visibility online and offline
The availability of accurate Arabic LGBTIQ content online, especially for those who are part of the community in these countries, is often a deciding factor in how others view them. “By removing her biography, Wikipedia is erasing what she went through and the reasons that led to her suicide,” says one queer Lebanese woman, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety. But Majd Al-Shihabi, a Tech Exchange Fellow at SMEX, an Arab digital-rights group, says the debate itself is a start. “Wikipedia is about how we understand ourselves as a society,” he says. According to Al-Shihabi, documenting these battles could push the online Arabic-language ecosystem forward.
Arabic Wikipedia admins remain firm in their resolve to keep Hegazi off the site. The debate between editors and admins, which is still visible within Wikipedia’s edits, makes their views on Hegazi’s legacy clear. “Hegazi has no achievements, prizes, or works,” said one admin. “She’s just a girl who raised a flag at a party, was arrested, became forgotten, then committed suicide.” But even without Arabic Wikipedia, Hegazi’s Wikipedia entry exists in 18 other languages.