Being gay in most of the Middle East is tough, although the issue is coming out of the closet in several countries, including Lebanon and Egypt. In the case of Palestinian homosexuals, they not only have to deal with conservative traditions but also the politicising of sexuality in the context of attempts to construct false ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomies. Lesbians have traditionally been invisible in Arab society. In this article, Aswat staff explain their efforts to open the eyes of Palestinian society to their plight, the support they have received from Israelis and how sexuality is acting as a bridge between the two sides.
On 28 March 2007, Aswat (Voices) held the first conference of Palestinian lesbians in Haifa (Israel). On this day, Aswat celebrated five fruitful years of engaging in social change and raising awareness in the Palestinian community in Israel; and launched the publication of its first book in Arabic: Home and Exile in Queer Experience: a Collection of Articles about Lesbian and Homosexual Identity.
The conference was considered a great success, as many experienced a feeling of intoxicating joy and pride in the air. Many said Aswat provides them with a safe and beautiful space, some called Aswat a challenge, some even declared that Aswat is living the impossible and writing history. Among the participants were Palestinian, Israeli and international lesbians and homosexuals, funders, journalists, and gay and human rights activists.
Attempts to silence our voices
Two weeks before the conference, the Islamic Movement had issued a statement to the press denouncing the event and claiming that Aswat is “a fatal cancer” that is “corrupting the Palestinian society, that should be forbidden from spreading in Arab society and should be eliminated from the Arab culture” and demanded the immediate cancellation of the conference.
Although this appalling statement had caused much stress, Aswat decided to proceed with the conference and not to break under the Islamic Movement’s intimidation. Ironically, this negative publicity drew even more attention to the event: 250 people registered for the conference in advance and an additional 100 joined on the day.
A celebration of Aswat’s groundbreaking work
The conference was structured around two main panels. The first panel discussed homosexuality and lesbianism in the Arab community. Rauda Morcos – the general coordinator of Aswat – talked about the fact that most women in Arab society, and not only lesbians, live their sexual identities in secret. Aida Touma-Solaiman – the director of the Palestinian feminist organisation Women Against Violence – said that Aswat represents a challenge, because it questions society’s social engineering and patriarchal hierarchy. Yousef Abu Wardy – a well know Palestinian actor – talked about the role Aswat plays in the chain of freedom, and how important it is for the people who believe in freedom of expression to support and empower that chain. Ruti Gur – a Mizrakhi feminist and activist – expressed her excitement as she called Aswat “a dream that came true and that no one had allowed herself to dream”.
The second panel discussed the new Aswat book. In this panel, Raafat Hattab – a young Palestinian gay and representative of Alqaws (Rainbow), a Palestinian community project – talked about his experience as a gay man and quoted a poem by Nizar Qabbani when he said “revolution begins in the womb of sadness.”
Nabila Espanioli – the director of Altufula Centre for early childhood education and women’s issues – spoke about Aswat’s role in writing history and in breaking taboos. Dr Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian – a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – discussed the significance of Aswat’s book for the Arabic language; she defined the linguistic revolution Aswat has initiated as one of “naming the nameless”. Haya Shalom – a Mizrakhi lesbian feminist activist – spoke about Aswat’s role in shaping the process that will bring about social change in the Arab and Jewish societies.
In addition to the panelists, guests of honour attended the conference and spoke in solidarity with Aswat. These included Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian transgender and Jewish communist and the author of Stone Butch Blues.
Aswat gains visibility and strength
The conference was a great success for Aswat on many levels. It put Aswat on the map of political and social change. Indeed, as the event got significant media coverage in the Arab, Israeli and international press, the Palestinian community has become more familiar with Aswat and its mission. In addition, more and more people are referring to Aswat for information about the gay, bisexual and transgender community within Palestinian society; and more women who are questioning their sexuality are now approaching the organization to receive support.
The conference also has given Aswat the opportunity to test the will of local human rights and feminist organisations to stand by its side; to verify the strength of existing alliances and to consider the possibility of further co-operation with local NGOs.
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