At first, it seemed like a straightforward — if disheartening — case of yet another internet activist paying the price for speaking out against the regime under who’s watch they have the misfortune to live. On Monday evening Amina Arraf, a young gay woman living and blogging in Damascus, was reportedly kidnapped by armed men — assumed to be members of Syria’s notorious secret services — and taken to an unknown location.
“We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back,” wrote her cousin, Rania Ismail on the homepage of Amina’s blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus.
Major news organisations and social media sites around the world quickly picked up on this harrowing tale of a young woman punished for her outspoken beliefs and commitment to her sexual identity — the “Free Amina” Facebook page amassed over 15,000 followers in the days since her disappearance.
But the story has quickly unravelled.
Doubts about Amina’s identity surfaced after it emerged that the photographs purportedly of her were in fact taken from the Facebook page of Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London who has no connection to any lesbian woman in Damascus. Journalists and investigators have been unable to find any traces of a Damascene woman whose personal life corresponds to that of Amina, and the US embassy in Damascus also has no record of her existence, which is highly suspicious considering her claims to have dual American citizenship .
So, who is Amina Arraf? It is perfectly possible that “Amina” is merely the pen name of a Syrian activist who has been careful in concealing their identity from the authorities — although perhaps not careful enough. Equally, there is a possibility that the blogger is entirely a work of cynical online fiction (cases of which have been reported before, as in the instance of Plain Layne, a young bisexual female blogger who transpired to exist purely in the imagination of Odin Soli, a middle-aged man who had previously blogged as Acanit, a young Muslim lesbian with a Jewish girlfriend).
Amina’s story raises myriad questions about the elusiveness of online identity and the problematic nature of trying to verify information purely through the internet. But however mysterious or suspicious this particular case may be, it should not make us forget the plight of thousands of other bloggers and activists in the Middle East and across the world who have been forcibly detained for expressing their views.
And if the writer of A Gay Girl in Damascus does exist, and is currently being held by the Syrian security services, we can only hope that the media flurry surrounding this story will in some way aid his or her circustances by raising awareness of the situation in the country.
Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.