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Palestinian Gay Women holds historic conference

Published Apr 12, 2007 9:29 PM

March 28—The restaurant tables are piled high this evening with more food than we, a group of 40 people, can eat. The feast is a gift from this gay-friendly Palestinian-owned restaurant to Aswat for having held its first public conference earlier today. Aswat translates from Arabic to English as “voices”—the voices of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual Palestinians.

Aswat’s all-day conference, titled “Home and Exile in Queer Experience,” met in a large cinema not far from this restaurant.

This conference honored what Aswat describes as its “five fruitful years of engaging in social change and raising awareness in the Palestinian community.”

It also celebrated Aswat’s publication of an anthology about same-sex love translated into Arabic. Aswat explains, “The book was produced in order to raise awareness in Arab society both with respect to freedom of choice concerning sexual preference and the existence of lesbians in Palestinian Arab society.”

The conference took place in this coastal city built along the curve of the Mediterranean, within the “green line” borders of the establishment of the 1948 colonial state of Israel in ancient Palestine.

In the weeks and days leading up to the conference, concerns gathered like clouds after two Muslim members of the Knesset (parliament), criticized the conference and Aswat—statements widely circulated in the mass media.

Aswat seeks to open up a wider dialogue among Palestinians with this conference and the publication of the Arabic-language anthology. So when 20 Palestinian Muslim women stood quietly outside the cinema before the conference began this morning, holding signs expressing religious opposition to the event, Aswat was clear and strong in its leadership. Aswat asked its supporters not to demonstrate against or argue with the Palestinian Muslim women. Instead, Aswat asked all supporters to come inside and take part in the conference.

Inside, the conference was a brave success and made more history than can be easily digested in a day.

Sweet taste of solidarity

Controversy about Aswat generated widespread public debate and discussion, which in turn led to expressions and acts of support and wider solidarity.

Raja Zaatry, journalist and editor at the Al Ittihad Arabic-language daily published in Haifa, editorialized against religious condemnation of the conference about same-sex love. And two popular gay-friendly Palestinian restaurants in Abu Nuwas offered concrete support to Aswat.

Conference attendance exceeded expectations: 260 people pre-registered and an additional 90 registered at the event, which was largely by invitation-only.

So many people of all sexualities, genders and sexes showed up for the all-day conference that before the program could even begin, a hasty call had to be made to another city to bring many more translation devices. The entire day’s program was simultaneously translated into Arabic, Hebrew and English. The gathering was predominantly Arab, overwhelmingly women and other oppressed sexes, and with a showing from Ashkenazi Israeli Jewish activists.

Palestinian women came from cities, towns and villages, including from Gaza, Ramallah and other West Bank towns under Israeli military and settler occupation.

The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice sent Aswat a message of solidarity signed by scores of individuals and 100 organizations worldwide, gathered in only four days time. While the list of signers is long, it represents an important and timely political coalition.

Signers include:

The Al-Fatiha Foundation (USA); Aireana, Grupo por los derechos de las lesbianas (Paraguay); ALLGO (USA); Alqaws: The Palestinian LGBTQ Community Project (Israel); Anti-Homophobie Africaine (Kenya); Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti Transexual/ALITT (Argentina); Assal East Coast (USA); Audre Lorde Project/ALP (USA); Behind the Mask (South Africa); Centre for the Development of People (Malawi); Centro para la Educación y Prevención del Sida/CEPRESI (Nicaragua); Common Language (China); Coalición Nacional de Grupos de Gay de Nicaragua (Nicaragua); Collectif Arc en Ciel (Mauritius); Desalambrando (Argentina); Desdenosotras, La Casa del Encuentro (Argentina); DIVAS - Instituto em Defesa da Diversidade Afetivo-Sexual (Brazil); El Closet de Sor Juana (Mexico); Engender (South Africa).

FIERCE! (USA); Gender DynamiX (South Africa); Gender/Sexuality Rights Association of Taiwan, G/SRAT (Taiwan); GRIOT Circle (USA); Grupo de Mujeres Safo (Nicaragua); INCRESE! (Nigeria); Ishtar MSM (Kenya); Les Voz (Mexico); Mulabi - Espacio Latinoamericano de Sexualidades y Derechos (Argentina); Mujeres al Borde (Colombia); Mujeres y Cultura Subterránea (Mexico); Nodutdol for Korean Community Development (USA); Organización Ecuatoriana de Mujeres Lesbianas/OEML (Ecuador); Organización de Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad (Chile).

Organization Parma Support Group for lesbians, trangender, bisexuals, hijras/murats (India); Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project/QWOCMAP (USA); Red Lésbica Cattrachas de Honduras (Honduras); Sangini (India) Trust (India); Sindicato de Trabajadoraes Lesbianas Gays y Bisexuals (Chile); Sylvia Rivera Law Project (USA); Taller Lésbico Creativo (Puerto Rico); Tanzania Lesbian Association/TALESA (Tanzania); Vikalp Women’s Group (India) and Wits ACTIVATE (South Africa).

Astraea sent its board chair, Brenda Funches—an African-American lesbian community activist—who saluted the conference in Arabic and English. Naima el Moussati and Hanneke Kamphuis traveled from the Netherlands to represent “Mama Cash,” a global fund for women.

A Druse and Moroccan speaker addressed the conference and so did several U.S. and Israeli Jewish activists.

Both the newspapers of the Communist Party of Israel and of the Arab nationalist party Balad—the Arabic acronym for National Democratic Assembly—are writing news articles about this conference for their presses.

Harvesting fruit

Aswat Board Coordinator Samira, and Shahira Shalabi from the Shatil Center, welcomed participants in Arabic as the conference opened. All the Palestinian speakers addressed the conference in Arabic.

The conference honored Rauda Morcos, general coordinator of Aswat, for her years of tireless work and her leadership.

During the morning panel on “Homosexuality and Lesbianism in the Arab Community,” Morcos recalled that Aswat grew out of the seed of an e-mail list compiled in 2002 that created a virtual forum for Palestinian gay women to meet and talk to each other.

A year later, the group met for the first time in the home of Rauda Morcos and her Palestinian activist partner. Today, some 14 members meet twice a month. Palestinians from the occupied territories have to endure Israeli military checkpoints to get to the meetings. The mailing list is much larger now.

Over the last half decade, Aswat has also worked to develop relations of solidarity with Palestinian women’s organizations.

This morning’s conference opened with a welcome from Rula Deeb, director of the Palestinian feminist organization Kayan—in which Aswat has its organizational home. At least eight Palestinian feminist organizations were represented at the conference here today.

Yousef Abu-Wardy, a renowned playwright and one of the most famous and well-loved Palestinian actors, spoke to the conference on the morning panel. He likened conditions for an Arab actor inside Israel to another kind of closet. He said that the chain of every society is only as strong as each individual link. Abu-Wardy called on the Arab world to help strengthen the link of Aswat.

Aida Touma-Solaiman also addressed the morning session. She is general director of the Arab organization Women Against Violence in Nazareth and a central committee member of the Communist Party of Israel—which is more than 90 percent Palestinian.

Touma-Solaiman said that even as she was leaving to come to this conference, she got calls from people urging her not to attend. Some said this love wasn’t natural. Touma-Solaiman replied eloquently and succinctly that this love has existed since the dawn of time. If all the repression and oppression since hasn’t eradicated it, then it is clear that this love is natural.

‘Writing history’

Aswat’s conference also celebrated the launching of its first book in Arabic, so that as Palestinians they can reach out to their own population in their own language about their own culture and history.

The title of this anthology of articles by Arab and non-Arab writers translates from Arabic into English as “Home and Exile in Queer Experience: A Collection of Articles about Lesbian and Homosexual Identity.”

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian—an Arab professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem—was part of the afternoon panel that analyzed the significance of this new Arabic-language anthology and the articles within it.

In the last year alone, Aswat has also published five newsletters in Arabic and a glossary in Arabic of terms regarding sexuality. Aswat uses the Arabic words mithlyat (lesbian woman) and mithlyun (homosexual male).

Aswat also plans to organize a virtual forum on its website—www.aswatgroup.org—in which Arab people around the world can take part.

Nabila Espanioli, a distinguished feminist activist and the director of Al-Tufula Center for Preschool Education, said, “What is happening here is that Aswat is writing history as we go and history is writing Aswat.”

‘Weaving new social fabric’

Palestinians at today’s conference and this evening’s celebratory feast are articulating—in Arabic—the connections between their struggle for sexual liberation and their lives as Arab people living under occupation.

Raafat Hattab, a young mithly, described growing up as a Palestinian male attracted to other males. But after he moved to Tel Aviv, he said, he was treated as “the enemy” in the Israeli “capital of freedom,” expected to give up his national identity, his Palestinian identity.

Hattab described the work of Alqaws—The Palestinian LGBTQ Community Project, which is the organization that he is part of today. Alqaws is based in Tel Aviv and organizes among Palestinians, in Arabic.

Aswat issued a statement about their conference that concluded, “ASWAT has been acting for five years within Palestinian Arab society in order to raise awareness of the issue of homosexuality and the freedom to realize it, and has invested great efforts in uniting the national, gender and homosexual identities. We belong to a people facing occupation and racism, and we are fighting for its political, human and cultural freedom. Together we shall oppose all forms of imperialist domination. ASWAT is acting to create a space within our Arab society where we can struggle on both the political and the social levels.”

Tonight, this Palestinian restaurant is serving up a feast for 40 participants of the day’s event in order to honor the importance of Aswat’s conference.

Daylight is waning and the night is releasing the scent of jasmine in the cool air. Something big has happened today, and you can hear it as the young Palestinians around the table, from different cities, towns and villages, begin to thump the tables rhythmically, transforming the thick wooden table tops into Middle Eastern drums.

Their voices rise together, singing popular Palestinian and Lebanese resistance songs in Arabic.

A stone’s throw from this restaurant are buildings left in shambles by Lebanese missiles, fired after Israel invaded—backed by Washington, Wall Street and the Pentagon. Several Palestinians tell me that even as they feared they might die under the bombs, they cheered the Lebanese resistance struggle against the mightily-armed Israeli military.

One young mithlya adds that the bombs fell on military, police and governmental buildings in Haifa with far greater accuracy than Tel Aviv or Washington claimed.

Palestinians make up 20 percent of the total population living within the 1948 borders of the Israeli garrison state. The same young Palestinian raises her arm to indicate this Arab neighborhood in Haifa where we are being warmly hosted. “This street is our city,” she says. “We are trying to weave a new social fabric.”

The singing is growing more robust by the time the sweets and coffee arrive at the tables. Arms are raised in fists and V-signs. One young woman explains, “The song is from the first war of Israel against Lebanon. The song says that the only thing Lebanon will give her attacker is its own suicide.”

The fine-pitched voice of a proud Palestinian intersexual—a beautiful and handsome person—rises above the rest. Glasses and cups are held high as they sing: “I kiss the earth that our liberation fighters’ boots have walked on!”

They sing in Arabic: “Jerusalem is ours!”

These are Palestinian Aswat, and they are rising.

To learn more about Aswat, write to: [email protected]; call: +972-4-866-2357; fax +972-4-864-1072; or visit www.aswatgroup.org.

Leslie Feinberg, a managing editor of Workers World newspaper, spoke at the March 28 conference at Aswat’s invitation. Feinberg’s solidarity message to the Aswat conference is online. Click here.