LBTQ Feminist Women in Lebanon
The Feminist Awakening
At Meem, we came together around lesbianism and got involved with feminism at a later stage.
We now call it our “feminist awakening” because for many of us, this is exactly how it felt, a feminist awakening. When we first started, we were a lesbian group and weren’t really aware of trans or feminist issues. It is through weekly book clubs, trainings, workshops, discussion groups, collaborative writing sessions, and other similar activities, that we, as a community, became aware of all the intersections that form our identities. It was an awakening for us when we realized that we were involved in a broader framework, that of sexual and bodily rights – and for these issues, we found that there’s no better lens than the feminist lens (the Medical lens being stupid that is).

We have been inspired by writers, poets, researchers, academics, groups and activists around the world, and in that process, we have been trying to create our own feminism that we feel must come from the global south. Within less than two years, we went from community building to movement building: to what we call the Feminist Collective. Perhaps at first, we needed to come together around an identity rather than a cause. Our feminism as Arabs in a sectarian society, located in what often becomes the center of battles, in a homophobic society – we still find ourselves privileged because of our freedom of speech: our only saving grace in Lebanon.

If you think about it, the essence of sexual rights is our right to have great sex. That’s the bottom line to it. When you can choose your partner, you can have better sex. When you have access to contraception, when you can change your body according to your gender identity, when you have sexual education in schools, you have better sex. We want to fight for all of these sexual rights, through a feminism that focuses on sexuality as the essence of gender inequality. The queers are fighting with their bodies, with their vaginas, with themselves. There cannot be a feminist movement without queers and without queerness. As Arabs, as Lesbians, as LGBTs in Lebanon, coming from a place where everyone assumes we are on the reactive, on the passive, where we are perceived as victims, we feel a responsibility to define our own feminism. We do not separate ourselves from other movements – we situate our lesbian causes in the larger framework, be it a local, regional or international one. In that sense, there cannot be, and there aren’t any lesbian rights – there are either anti-discrimination rights on the basis on sexuality or women’s rights. Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t any lesbian, or LBT concerns.

In order to mainstream lesbian concerns, we depend more on our friendships rather than on holding meetings and demanding that lesbian issues be put on agendas. Perhaps the most significant strategy for us as queer women in Lebanon was to create the Feminist Collective – a group whose members are women, men, people of non-conformist sexualities, and heterosexuals. We focus on immediate action when necessary, and always under the name of feminism. As activists, we blog, we write, we publish, we’ve even twittered from police stations. We capitalize our use of alternative media to make sure that our actions are told with our own voices, that they are heard and seen by the general public.

To engage with issues that affect us as citizens of Lebanon, as women, as queer women, our members infiltrate events, such as the Official Turkish cultural week that took place at UNESCO a few days after the Armenian Genocide. We infiltrate coalitions (such as the Migrant Workers Coalition which we really forced ourselves into as they were reluctant to “let us” participate or join use in a sit-it organized for International Women’s Day, afraid of us mentioning sexuality – lesbians and sex workers).

Of course, we faced a lot of criticism with the creation of the group. We faced lesbian baiting: we were accused of ruining feminism because we were all queer women, as if there’s something wrong with being a lesbian fighting for women’s rights. Even other gay organizations critiqued our feminism, which supposedly gets in the way of gay rights. Our struggle sometimes seemed like it was running against the stream, and funnily enough it ran against the opinion of some gay men and human rights movements who thought we were too radical, too vocal, too feminist and why?

But we ask ourselves, what does it mean to focus on an issue? A cause? You focus on a strategy, a project, but not ONE entire cause. Our focus is therefore temporal - of course we focus on issues, but it is a temporal focus.

What we call Infiltration is one of our favorites activities/strategies. It stems from the idea that we are everywhere, yes, lesbians are everywhere. And so with that spirit, we infiltrate NGOs that work on women’s issues – such as KAFA (for the Protection of Women and Children Against Family Violence) who had no idea that at one point all of their volunteers were queer women! Even the coordinator of Meem and other active members were project managers in that NGO last year. Several members of Meem work as journalists, and a lot of them have covered the book launch of Bareed Mista3jil in their respective newspapers, journals, and other media outlets.

In an article written for Bekhsoos, Meem’s magazine, Shant describes the opening plenary of the AWID Forum 2008, where the sentence “’there cannot be a feminist movement without the LBT people’ was widely applauded by a room of 2000 people.” She says: “that a few failed to praise this sentence. It just so happens that those few were part of Arab feminist groups.” Shant then sets the scene for us:

“After long talks with members of these groups, one clearly understands that it is mainly a matter of fear. One member explained: ‘I support the cause, I do, but I cannot support it on an organizational level because it might jeopardize many of our relationships with our partners; working with one marginalized group can marginalize all the other groups we work with as well as the issues we work on. If you were to come to my country, I would be more than willing to bed you and help you, but I cannot speak of your cause publicly in the name of my organization. We cannot jeopardize our struggles by standing with this struggle.’ She added: ’Many human rights organizations publicly discriminate against LGBT groups. That is a politician’s way of doing things, not a humanitarian’s. If you don’t want to take in the cause, then at least don’t undermine it in public, such behavior is very wrong, and of course, I stand against it.’”

“So, first,” Shant asks, “where does that leave us? What kind of a feminist movement are we building in our region and how will this movement mesh with the global women’s movement? Is it even a movement when instilled fear stops many from incorporating marginalized groups with ‘hard topics’? And finally, what are the steps necessary to take in order to have these groups embrace the LBTQ struggle within the feminist struggle? We are an ‘underground’ group ourselves; we do not expect other groups to take to the streets screaming and shouting for LGBTQ rights by tomorrow. But one of the first steps that these organizations can take is to refrain from publicly bashing us, from undermining our existence just to gain extra credit with some of their partners and funders. It is not by having human rights groups in our region marginalize us more that we build a stronger women’s movement. It is unacceptable for people who work on bettering a society to build a ‘hierarchy’ for acceptance and have their own causes gain popularity at the expense of the more ‘unaccepted’ groups.”

In her blog, Nadz complains that “the lobbyists for the nationality campaign (the women’s right to pass on their nationality) have been screaming and shouting for 6 years and once again they ride the coaster of empty promises by governmental officials. Is it the Violence bill? The protection of Women and Children from Violence? We got excited about it for exactly 2 hours when we heard it was listed on the agenda of the Ministers’ meeting a few months ago. And then it got bumped, just like that. Countless days of hard work get thrown into the recycle bin by a mere few words from some guy.”

And so we ask leftists, feminists, queers, and all human rights activists in Lebanon and in the region even, what is it exactly, this change that we seek?

Lynn, on Behalf of Meem at the LGBT Human Rights Conference of the Outgames 2009, ILGA workshop "Lesbian Movements: Ruptures and Alliances"