LBTQ Women in Palestine
ASWAT, challenges and opportunities for Palestinian LBTQ women
My name is Rima and I am Aswat’s information and publication coordinator.

I am going to give you some background about our region, challenges, and how we survive. Six years ago, when I started questioning my sexuality and considering the possibility that I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only lesbian in the Arab world, I think we all did.

At the time I had never heard of an Arab lesbian, never read about one, and never saw one anywhere in the media. Being a lesbian meant for me that I would go against everything I’d been taught and raised by.
My biggest concern was my family. I didn’t want to disappoint them or shame them in front of society. It was black or white. Either coming out and paying a very heavy price or staying in the dark suffocating closet.

At the time I couldn’t see a different future for me than the one my parents and everyone I loved wished and wanted for me. The price was too heavy and I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it, and I decided to go for the life that everyone around me, who I loved and respected, wanted for me, and I got married.

I remember how much I wanted to meet someone like me. I wanted to find other women, read about them, listen to their stories, but they hid very well, so well that I doubted they even existed.

In order to understand our reality as Palestinian Lesbians, it is very important to understand that Palestinians are an indigenous minority in Israel. My people have suffered and are still suffering from traumas of land expropriation, house demolishing, occupation, discrimination and threats of citizenship dismissal. For these reasons and others, the Palestinian society is very zealous about its traditions and culture. The majority of the society rejects behaviors and changes that “threaten” its heterosexuality and patriarchy since it is perceived as a threat to the continuity of the uniqueness of our culture. They romanticize the past and sometimes I feel like they want to freeze everything that was in the past and reject any change.

Our reality is a very challenging one, although we live in the Israeli state and should be protected by its laws, that is not the case. We live by the Palestinian ethics of honor and rules. When your family or community wants to hurt you, the state does not interfere. When these ethics are broken, the community itself takes the measures it feels are right to protect its honor. Your family can be pressured to disown you, you can get beaten, forced to marry… so as you can see, although we are not outlawed, we do pay a price, we are judged and sentenced by our own community many times.

As a woman, if you don’t get married, you are expected to live with your parents till the day you die.

The day I told my parents that I was getting a divorce, that I was a lesbian, and that I was going to find myself an apartment in Haifa, my dad’s first reaction was “are you going to be on your own? Who is going to protect you?" Their first concern was me not living with them. This was my dad’s first concern.

It wasn’t easy, it was very exhausting, all the discussions and fights around that, but thankfully at that time, I had a group of friends who were there for me and gave me all the support I needed to be able to stand for myself.

Still, when I was in my new apartment, my liberal mother came to my house, armed with my uncle, who threatened to physically force me to go back home if that’s what it would take to bring me back. I spent weeks of sleepless nights afraid that my uncle meant what he said and that he would send someone to stalk me or hurt me. Again, I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t have all the support I had.

After that incident, my mom, disappointed and hurt, refused to speak to me for an entire year.

Now, Aswat faces the same universal homophobic challenges of the LGBTQ community in the world. However, unique to the case of Aswat, as Palestinian LGBT women, are the multiple forms of oppressions that we face.

One challenge is that of being a national minority who has been struggling for equal human and civil rights for decades. As a Palestinian it is harder for me to find a decent job and a decent salary. I have fewer opportunities than a Jewish person. A significant percentage of the jobs in Israel are related to the security industry and all of these jobs as a rule are unavailable for us. In most parts of the country, people don’t want to employ Palestinians, which makes the competition on the jobs left harder and leaves many Palestinians unemployed.

Another challenge that we face is that we live in a patriarchal and conservative society which expects us, the women, to be submissive and obedient. Women who want to pursue careers, be independent, be sexual, are considered rebellious and many times they are outcaste in one way or another. We are still struggling for equal access and recognition as women and take an active part in the feminist struggle for equality, so try to imagine how a family would react to their daughter making a choice for herself without their approval.

Another challenge we face is the fact that the Palestinian society in Israel is governed by its own codes, traditions and unspoken policies. Many times we are excluded as individuals and as an organization from political agendas because of the belief that inclusion of Aswat or of homosexuality would probably threaten the acceptance and legitimacy of these organizations. This was the case with two of the main Palestinian NGO’s in Haifa who wrote two declarations about the future vision for the Palestinian community in Israel. Both declarations didn’t mention or relate to homosexual rights.

To add to all of that, try to imagine the situation, now that in the recent elections an extremely right wing, conservative government was elected, which already calls for applying more conservative policies and practices against the Palestinians community. Just recently the Israeli transport ministry, Yisrael Katz, wanted to change the names of the Palestinian villages to Hebrew names and not use the Palestinian name. Earlier, the party of far-right Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, suggested criminalizing and baning commemorating the Palestinian 'Nakba'. There are also tries of dismissing citizenship. These are only few examples from many others. In this new reality, as Palestinians, we face an even greater challenge of greater exclusion.

Today, looking back, I realize how important Aswat’s role is in our lives.
Rima, talked about how you can survive as a lesbian, as an individual, in the Palestinian society. As we all know, this stays in the personal level. In order to make a change, a real social change in your community, a movement needs to be created. So how can you start?

How do we survive as a collective?
The very existence of Aswat as a safe place for Palestinian lesbians, gives women the support they need in order to be themselves and live their lives as lesbians.

Aswat is a group of courageous women who broke the silence around Palestinian lesbians and created a safe place and a community for us, Palestinian lesbians.

Aswat was created to answer a need and to fill a vacuum. A need to talk about our sexuality in our own language with people who come from the same background, same reality, and have similar cultural, historical, and national experiences.

Aswat provides a safe space and support for Palestinian lesbians in the Palestinian community, in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

It is a place were Palestinian lesbians have the opportunity to voice their feelings and opinions, share experiences and fears and articulate their needs into action. Women who arrive at Aswat weak and exhausted, recharge themselves and become activists, volunteers, staff members and board members..

Aswat, as a group, tries to be sensitive to all the complications around our women’s desire to reveal or conceal their identity. We keep in touch with them with whatever platform they choose; phone, e-mail, forums, individual meetings, group meetings. Meeting at a public place or meeting in our office. Aswat’s office address, for example, is secretive. It is only known to partner organizations and supporting foundations. We wanted to offer our women a safe place to come to which is also protected from offensive attacks of radical extremists, for example, who think that we encourage immoral behaviors and disobey God’s biological order.

It is important to say that our programs and activities respond to social injustices through advocating collective action and social change because Aswat’s women believe in justice, equality and in creating new opportunities for women to enable them to lead fulfilling lives.

So what do you need to do as an organization?
First and most important, provide a social support for your members to deepen and strengthen their connection to their national and sexual identity.

Secondly you need capacity building, to promote women leadership, and make sure the activism around our rights and recognition never stops. Participate and build raising awareness, empowerment and leadership workshops and programs.

You need to advocate for the existence, inclusion and rights of LGBTQI in your society. This we do through our education workshops that we give to the general public and through our publications. For example, our second book was a collection of Arab lesbian personal stories, written by the women themselves. This book allowed a closer look at who the lesbian Palestinian woman are and what are her challenges and fears. People were able to see us as people, and in a way we were able to shatter our dehumanization as lesbians.

What we all should aim for and strive for is creating a social movement for change. So how can we do that? So how do we survive?

We believe that Networking is the strategy.

- We network with feminist organizations like women against violence and feminist centers because we are feminist. We believe that women empowerment and financial independence are the first steps towards her freedom.
- We network with NGO’s for equality and justice because we too believe in and demand equal opportunities and justice for all.
- We work with peace movements, like the Coalition of women for Peace. We struggle for equal access and rights for the Palestinians, for ending Israel’s occupation and against the apartheid wall.
- We are a part of all the forms of oppressions that are practiced against us women, Palestinians and LGBTQ. These are our partners.

Be inclusive and ask for help! Social change is a process
Our understanding in the intersection of oppression makes it possible for us to make these connections visible to other civil society organizations who advocate for equality, human rights, women rights and minority rights. The idea is that “you don't have to be gay in order to advocate for LGBTQI rights”.

Aswat’s slogan is “my right to choose, to live, to be.” These are basic rights that all women and men, gay and heterosexual can identify with. So we all want the same things, don’t we?

Our experience has taught us that partnerships and networking enlarges our circle of trust and reaches out to a greater number of women all over the world. After all… we are all fighting for the same things. Our right of self determination!

You can get help and learn not only from the local organizations, you can connect with other groups and individual in the region.
It is no secret that our region is inflamed by political tentions, which makes it very hard to network with similar groups and individuals in the region. With the exception of Jordan and Egypt, We cannot visit any of the Arab countries in the region. Unfortunately, groups in the Arab world cannot even cooperate visibly with us due to political tensions.
Still, we have built strong connections with gay groups and individuals from the Arab world. Regional networking allows an exchange of contents and ideas, and offers a learning experience to all of us.

You can even get help from International organizations

Here I would like to thank ILGA whom with we started a significant cooperation in 2008, when Aswat was invited to attend ILGA's world conefrence in Vienna. Being part of ILGA certainly contributes to increasing our visibility by creating more opportunities to gain access and recognition globally, and provide opportunities to network with similar groups and individuals from our region.

Through ILGA’s mailing lists, we are keeping up with the latest in the LGBTQI world and women movements.

Finally, to Sum up
Social change is a process and it’s a collective effort. It is a learning and a joint process, we in Aswat are already seeing the seeds of our own work.

Aswat is more visible in the media; we are networking locally, nationally, regionally and internationally with similar and other NGOs and foundations that support our work.

We have gained access to the general public through our workshops, created groups of women leaders who not only contribute to their own personal growth, but to those of many other women.

We have created a discourse that caters for our language, background, history and heritage.

We are changing perceptions; we are slowly but steadily entering the consciences of our society and becoming a reality.

Though the way is still paved with many harmful weeds, Such experiences as today’s are empowering and rewarding and certainly motivates continuity and inspires activism.

Thank you all for coming today and for all your support!

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On behalf of ASWAT, Palestinian Gay Women, at the LGBT Human Rights Conference of the Outgames 2009, ILGA workshop "Being lesbian, bi, trans woman in the Middle East: survival kit".