Israel: home to a transformation in Arab gay community
Battling against a deeply patriarchal society, Arab Israeli and Palestinian lesbians are uniting to break the taboo of homosexuality and politicise the right to be female and gay. "We are Palestinian, we are women and we are gay," is the slogan coined by Aswat, the association campaigning for lesbian Arabs to be accepted in Israeli and Palestinian society, and whose name in English means "voices".
"A lot of lesbians and Arab homosexuals have double lives, marry and lead a secret existence. People say it is forbidden by religion," says Rauda Morcos, Aswat coordinator, at its headquarters in Israel’s northern city of Haifa. "Society is hyprocritical. But we are against this issue remaining secret. We want it dealt with as a political and social issue," she said. In late 2002, Rauda decided to put her money where her mouth was and take action with fellow lesbian Samira, her former roomate. The two women set up an Internet forum for Arab lesbians in Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. A year later they founded Aswat.
Today the association, funded by European and US groups, organises monthly and totally anonymous support meetings, raises gay awareness and disseminates information about homosexuality. "We want people to manage on their own, take their destiny into their own hands," says 27-year-old Aswat member Rima. "Women have to be given the confidence so that they can then change the mentality around them." But to be autonomous in a society where the family is central to social life and a self-help network represents a real challenge to that way of life.
"No one can publicly declare they are homosexual without support. You need to be strong, even financially, because you need an alternative to family support should you loose it," points out Rauda. Her experience is a prime example. When she was "outed" as a lesbian without her consent, she was sacked as an English teacher and her life became a living hell in the northern Arab Israeli village of Kfar Yassif. "People called me up just to insult me. My car was ruined, sprayed with words like ’bitch,’ ’lesbian’. My uncles stopped talking to me," she remembers. One anonymous story on Aswat’s website alludes to the confusion of being gay in Jerusalem, a predominantly religious city, and the support perhaps acquired from the organisation that allows its author to speak out.
"I was on the bus and a guy, who looked like gay and he did not knew about it, sat near me. He looked at me confused and told me ’nice bag’, I said ’thanks’. He then asked me ’it is girl’s bag, you know’. "I said ’yes I know’. Some moments passed by, and he still troubled and puzzled, asked: ’do you like girls of boys?’. I answered the most boring answer ’none of your business’.
"However, today if I were to be asked same question I would have answered I like ’girls who are boys who like boys like they are girls’, paraphrasing Blur’s amazing song Boys and Girls." If, with the passing months, Aswat is becoming more visible and widely recognised in Israel, it is also attracting the wrath of the Islamic Movement, which has become an incontrovertible fixture in the Arab Israeli community. "Under Islamic law, homosexuality is unlawful, a kind of illness that needs to be treated," said Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, an MP in the Israeli parliament and a member of the movement.
"Our Arab society cannot tolerate this phenomenum, to allow it to become an overt part of our daily life," the lawmaker added. It is comments like that which send shivers down Samira’s spine. "We are trying to do our job and not give them more importance than they deserve," said the 31-year-old out shopping for a Drag Queen theme night in a Tel Aviv nightclub not far from her home in the sprawling metropolis. She knows that the path is still long and paved with stones for gays, particularly in the Palestinian territories.
"We don’t have any illusions. We know, for example, there will be no gay pride in Gaza. But quietly and surely we will change things." Aswat is starting to snowball. An association, even if for the moment it remains a secret, was set up in Ramallah in March by four gay students. "Officially we do social work against the occupation or the wall. But in private we are trying to help gays," said one of its founders on condition of anonymity, who has infiltrated Tel Aviv illegally for the Drag Queen night.
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