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.
A view of Jerusalem (photo credit: 365grad)
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.
The streets of Bethlehem (photo credit: Beatrice Busaniche)
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.
photo credit: Alaaeddin H
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)
* Name changed by request