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Queer in Palestine
Lesbian and bisexual Arabs on coming out, keeping secrets and living the audacity of hope.
First, you have to be invited. Then you have to promise complete discretion. On the appointed evening, you arrive and the list is checked. If everything looks OK, you’re in.
You’ve suddenly entered another world. There are scores of women dancing, talking, eating, drinking. They come from different backgrounds—Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze—but they’re united, as Palestinians and as queer,
You’re finally home.
This is a monthly party for LGBT women put on by Aswat, a decade-old organization for Palestinian queer women based in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, not far from the Lebanon border.
“I thought I was the only Arab lesbian in the world. Even when I was young and I heard about lesbianism, it was, for me, a foreign thing, not something that happened in our society,” says 32-year-old Inaam, describing the parties one afternoon as we sit in the Aswat office and eat cheese-filled Druze bread and tomato-and-cucumber salad.
Inaam is from a city in northern Israel and has been a member of Aswat for seven years. “When I heard about Aswat, I was shocked,” she says. “It was eight women then, and I was like, ‘There’s actually eight Palestinian gay women?’”
With short-cropped hair and low-slung cargo pants, Inaam would register on the radar of dykes anywhere in the world. Still, even in Haifa, a city known for its liberal politics and lively arts scene—and which is home to a healthy smattering of gay cafes and clubs—she’s cautious, and prefers to keep her last name out of the press. It seems that sexual liberation here is for the 90 percent Jewish majority rather than the 10 percent Arab minority.
“I choose when to be out and when to not,” Inaam explains. “When I go to talk [to groups], it’s important for me to know who’s coming, and what villages they are from—if there’s someone I know, it’s more scary for me.”
Her friend Nora*, smiling, lights a cigarette and interjects from her perch near the window, “This is the Palestinian outing process.”
Therein lies the problem. In Israel, a country that prides itself on being the most gay-friendly destination in the Middle East, Arabs experience discrimination for being Arabs, but they also suffer silently within their own Arab cultures for being queer. Add gender to this already complex duality, and you’ve got … well, complications. From its inception, Aswat has faced these complications head on.
Most of the members of Aswat, like Inaam and Nora, would be called “Israeli Arabs” by the government, as they reside within the current borders of Israel. But Aswat, as an organization, has chosen to emphasize its links with its sisters in the West Bank and Gaza, calling itself a group for “Palestinian gay women.”
Rauda Morcos, one of the founding members of Aswat, summed it up to Xtra! Canada’s LGBT newspaper in 2004. “We’re against any type of occupation. I don’t want to be occupied as a Palestinian or as a woman or as a lesbian.”
“Palestinian society is still very conservative,” explains Nora, also in her early 30s. “For an LGBT group, maybe there is a benefit to being here [in Israel].” But those legal, government-sanctioned benefits don’t necessarily translate to the family or societal level.
Nora continues: “It doesn’t really help me, being inside Israel, because the Palestinian society is separated culturally from the Jewish. Living here, it doesn’t mean that we’re living a safe life. Some families, if they know their daughter is a lesbian, they might kill her, or abandon her.”
But those are the actions of extremists, and for the majority of Arabs Inaam and Nora know, they represent a worldview that is nowhere near the reality. And, both Inaam and Nora emphasize, life is getting better for lesbians and bisexual women in Arab societies, a development they readily credit to both the openly sanctioned and underground work done by Aswat and by other LGBT Arab groups throughout the region.
Inaam herself is out to most of her immediate family, whom she describes as “traditional” rather than religious. “It’s been a long process, but after five years, I would say [my mom is] embracing me for who I am because she doesn’t want to lose me,” Inaam says. “For her, it’s important that no one else knows, the bigger family, the society.”
Nora, too, discusses being gay with her family, albeit in more theoretical terms. “I try to raise the issue with my parents in the sense of human rights,” she says. But she’s met mixed results. “My sister said, ‘If I hear about you having something with a woman, don’t even think about coming back to this house.’”
For now, Nora, who is bisexual and divorced, chooses to stay silent, seeing no benefit in coming out to her family, who live in a small village outside of Haifa.
“I’m not going to tell anyone, because getting divorced was really hard to do. I’ve been seen as a whore—I’ve been seen as everything that is bad,” she says, lighting another cigarette. “As a divorced woman I should have gone back and lived with my parents. But I didn’t do that. I worked hard to gain my financial independence. It was rough, but it was worth it. Now I can live my life the way I feel is OK for me.”
Nora adds, a bit regretfully: “I wish that the day comes when we can talk about this freely, with no restrictions, with no limits, with no fears.”
And when that day finally happens, Aswat will throw away its closed guest list and open up the doors to the party. (aswatgroup.org)
The “Humans of” movement has gone viral, covering our planet city by city. The Middle East and North Africa has proven to be no exception, writes Joey Ayoub.
Lesbians in Morocco: Should we stay or should we go?
Being gay is a cultural and social taboo that these young Moroccans keep hidden.
RABAT, Morocco – In Morocco, often considered one of the most liberal Muslim countries, affection between women is common. Girls loop arms, stroll hand-in-hand and sit cuddled together. But when this affection becomes romantic and women want to live openly as lesbians, Morocco’s acceptance abruptly stops.
“Lesbianism is not a good thing. Our God does not allow us to do something like this. It is haram,” said Hasnae Krimi, 22, a linguistics student at Rabat’s Mohammed V University, who believes that sickness and natural disasters are increasing as a warning to reject homosexuality. Most people in this Islamic country respond in similar fashion: Homosexuality is haram, prohibited by God.
Even after the Arab Spring, as demands for democracy and human rights ripple through North Africa, homosexuality is still an island unchanged, officially illegal and too taboo to be discussed openly. Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa, who has written a new book about growing up gay in the Arab world, lives in Paris for fear of reprisal in the country of his birth.
Under Moroccan law, committing “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex” is punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine ranging from 120 to 1,000 dirhams (about 14 to 117 USD). Algeria and Tunisia have similar bans. There have been no reports of women arrested in violation of these laws in Morocco, perhaps because experts say it’s rare for a lesbian to be open about her sexual orientation.
Moroccans Sarah and Maria, both 20, have been a couple for more than a year. Both asked that their last names not be used because of the stigma and legal implications attached to being a lesbian in Morocco. Though Sarah now attends a university in France and Maria is studying fine arts in Casablanca, they spend time together whenever they can.
Maria says she’s known she was a lesbian since she was 12 years old, but Sarah struggled when she began having feelings for Maria. “I wasn’t ready to understand how you can love someone that has the same gender,” she said. Now Sarah confidently pronounces, “I am lesbian.”
Sarah and Maria met online. A mutual friend teased Sarah about not knowing Maria because Maria lives in Casablanca where Sarah has many friends. Sarah added Maria on Facebook, planning to delete her later. Instead the women began messaging each other. To meet in person, Sarah flew secretly to Tunisia where Maria was studying abroad, telling her parents she spent the weekend studying with friends.
Neither woman’s family knows of her sexual orientation, but Sarah and Maria did tell some friends and colleagues they are lesbians — and lost friends as a result. Sarah said her ex-boyfriend physically attacked her in the street three times in one week because he was ashamed that she dated a woman after him. “We cannot rely on the police,” Sarah said, adding that if she reported the attacks, her former boyfriend “could tell the police that we are lesbians.”
Behind the law against homosexuality is religion, said Dr. Abdessamad Dialmy, a professor of gender studies at the Rabat’s Mohammed V University and one of the leading researchers of sexuality in Morocco. “For the majority of Moroccans, homosexuality is a sin because it is rejected by Islam,” he said. “If you have sex outside marriage, it is less condemnable than sex among the same sex. The first one is only a sin, not abnormal. Homosexuality is seen as a sin and abnormal.”
Moroccans grow up with strong attitudes about gender roles. “Like we say in Arabic, I need a back to stand on. [As a woman], I’m weak,” Krimi said seriously. “I need someone to support me, not someone who is just like me. If I am with a girl, I don’t think it will work.”
The societal pressure to get married, Dialmy said, is extreme. Marriage is often the central life event for men and women. “It is not a choice,” he said, adding that homosexual women often end up marrying men, sometimes gay men, and keep their true feelings suppressed or secret.
Sarah said she has come across women on the online forum
LGBT Maroc asking for advice on how to become heterosexual. She knows others who gave up their religion because “so many people tell them they cannot be both gay and a Muslim,” Sarah said sadly.
Sarah and Maria believe that being Muslim and being lesbian are not mutually exclusive. “I think that it is a question of interpretation,” Sarah said. “For us, love has no sex. There is no limit to love in our religion. For us, there is no limit for love.”
Nothing in the Qur’an offers any help. There are verses that condemn male homosexuality, fornication and adultery but nothing in Islam’s main text addresses lesbianism, said Dialmy. There is a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed) that condemns sexual acts between women, though it’s debated as to whether the Prophet really said this.
“We are the concrete example that we can be lesbian and Muslim at the same time,” wrote Sarah and Maria in a follow-up email. “We pray, we fast during the Ramadan month, and so on. We don’t have different beliefs from other Muslims; we just have the beliefs that every Muslim should have: what we read in the Qur’an and not what we imagine.”
Despite the pressures on lesbians in Morocco, there are signs that things might be changing. Sarah points to a growing community of support. True, it exists largely online, but internet forums such as LGBT Maroc and Lesbiennes du Maroc may help individuals feel they are not alone.
Perhaps more significantly, the government unofficially tolerates Kif-Kif, the only organization advocating for LGBT rights in Morocco. Kif-Kif’s main office sits across the border in Madrid, and its visibility is limited to low-profile conferences and Mithly, a new publication, distributed quietly, that features LGBT voices. Established six years ago, Kif-Kif has sought unsuccessfully to become a legal association in Morocco.
Still, worldwide consideration of gay rights and the increase of media with lesbian characters may be inspiring some societal acceptance in Morocco, especially among affluent young people.“That’s okay, for me, lesbianism. It’s freedom, it’s part of being human, to choose what they want,” said Abdelaziz Liasse, 24, a psychology student at Mohammed V University in Rabat. He advocates for what he calls “smooth lesbianism” — being secretive about one’s sexual orientation. “It is a fact that it is existing, but we cannot admit the existence of lesbianism [in Morocco’s Islamic society],” Liasse said. Openness would create what he calls an “explosion” of chaos in a society that does not accept homosexuality.
A “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality appears to be growing. Meryem, 28, who also asked that her last name not be used, dated another woman for two years. She never discussed the relationship with her parents, but they seemed to know anyway.
“They’re more or less open-minded, so I used to tell them about my boyfriends,” she said. “At a certain time I stopped talking about men and they didn’t ask for the reason because I think that they understood.” Meryem’s parents never brought up her sexual orientation. “They prefer hiding the reality even from themselves,” she said.
Posters online at Lesbiennes du Maroc acknowledge this attitude with an oft-repeated saying: “To live happily, live hidden.”
Zineb, 22, who also preferred not to give her last name, is a linguistics student in Mohammed V University. She experimented herself, kissing a girl when she was 16 years old. She knows other women who did the same thing, whether out of attraction or curiosity. “I have some bisexual friends, or at least friends who have tried kissing girls. They are curious to experience a new thing. [And] some girls are attracted to girls so they want to kiss them — not just for experience!”
Zineb is convinced that most lesbian and bisexual women eventually marry men. “It’s easier and you are more accepted by society,” she said. “If you want to go out of your parent’s house, you have to marry.” She doesn’t believe that gay marriage will ever be legal in her country.
It is a reality Sarah and Maria live with every day. “Sometimes we have to forget our professional dreams for our private dreams,” Sarah said. “We want to have a communications agency in Morocco, but if we want to live together and feel safe, to marry, to have children, and so on, we cannot live here. We don’t really know what we will do.”
“We are watching the American movies and series like “The L Word,” and we are just dreaming to have this life, but we can’t,” Sarah continued. “We just want to be free and safe. Maybe we will live in a country where there is the possibility to be together. I want to live here, but I have no security. I have to live in another country, not my country. I am Moroccan, but I cannot live in Morocco.”
From @theimeu: Palestinian Christians under occupation, many more dispossessed refugees living outside of Palestine.
There are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians living in the land of Christ’s birth, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Most Palestinian Christians live in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem in the occupied territories and the Galiliee region in northern Israel. Due to the difficulties of living as a non-Jew in Israel and under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, the Christian population of the Holy Land has been dwindling for years.
For more information about Palestinian Christians, read our fact sheet.
PHOTOS: Christopher Hazou/IMEU
He was a skater goat, he said see you later, goat.
***Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)
From the @theimeu. The hypocrisy of Shimon Peres & Israel. “1974-1993. Military trade between Israel & apartheid South Africa: $10 Billion+”
Several Israeli officials, including President Shimon Peres, have joined the chorus of world leaders who publicly expressed their condolences over the death of Nelson Mandela. Yet during the South African apartheid regime, Peres (pictured with then South African Prime Minister John Vorster) facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars in military trade agreements. Over the course of two decades, Israel’s arms trade with South Africa exceeded $10 billion.
Both Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled plans to travel to South Africa to attend Mandela’s funeral, instead sending a delegation of Knesset members.
Post with 2 notes
On December 4, the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted unanimously to endorse the call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions (USACBI), becoming only the second academic association in the US to do so. The decision was described by the ASA as an “ethical stance”, which “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians”.
Support for the resolution was described to Al Jazeera by author and Professor of American Studies Alex Lubin as ”nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called ’America’s last taboo’…Creating a space within US society to break through the enforced silence on Israeli occupation”.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Distinguished Professor at UC Davis, David Lloyd spoke about the conference that preceded the historic vote: "There was an incredible swell of applause and enthusiasm for the speakers who supported the Boycott. All expressed in different ways that this [boycott] was a fundamental matter of justice. This event indicates just how much things have shifted within the academy."
I’m quoted in this article. SJP represent.
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