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I Like Women Like Me!

By Sruti Bala

04 October, 2005
Countercurrents.org

It all started in 2003 with what seemed like a harmless e-mail list: a handful of Palestinian and Arab women living in Israel as well as in the occupied territories of the West Bank began an exchange on the internet, to share with each other in a secure space their experiences related to sexuality. For a society torn by violent political conflict and shattered by various levels of social tensions and interlinked oppressions, this small step was significant, for it meant voicing for the first time an issue that is absolute taboo.

There was a lot to share and talk about: from the discovery of one's own sexuality, to experiences of sexual harrassment and abuse from family and outsiders for daring to divert from the compulsory heterosexual norm, to the invisibility of women in general, but in particular of women who questioned their prescribed gender roles. For these women, it involved a great deal of struggle from wanting to raise their voices to actually being able to speak. To begin with, it meant having to search for an appropriate language. This was not only for practical reasons of enabling communication, since some of the women living in Israel used Hebrew just as well as Arabic, and others English, but also, as Rauda Morcos, one of the initiators of the list, points out, because finding one's voice implied that language needed to be re-appropriated: "I have forgotten my language, I don't know how to say to make love in Arabic without it sounding chauvinistic, aggressive and alien to the experience." The search for words to express oneself, the search for different voices led to the founding of ASWAT (Arabic: voices), a group of Palestinian Gay Women.

To be women, to be Palestinian, to defy the norms of heterosexuality: ASWAT decided to draw the links between these layers of oppression, which for a long time felt too overwhelming to confront all at once. It also aims to create a community that allows for a space where differing identities do not constantly have to be negotiated and explained and fought for. Running an organisation, arranging regular meetings and conducting concrete work is no small task in a country which is, at least for holders of Palestinian documents living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in fact one large open air jail. On the one side, the expanding wall constructed by Israeli Security Forces, which stretches
right through Palestinian land, added to the already heavy travel restrictions, make physical meetings of the group a challenge in themselves. The actual cultural and class differences between different Arab women whether from within occupied Palestine or in Israel, also raised other types of barriers, which had to be overcome in the search for support and solidarity in a common cause.

To politicise the issue of sexuality means to draw connections between discrimination on grounds of sexual preference, the patriarchal social set-up in Palestine and life under Israeli occupation. In doing this, ASWAT women are taking immense personal risks. As the women from ASWAT say, in their working statement: "As long as we women participate in the struggle for national liberation, we are welcomed and our efforts are appreciated. The moment women want to focus their energies in establishing independence from the male occupation and structure, we are transformed instantly into enemies." Currently, Kayan, Arab Feminist Organization provides an office for ASWAT. Several women in ASWAT, already active in other political associations and in peace and anti-occupation work, now strive towards bringing sexuality to the agenda of political and social change.

Rauda Morcos, writer and educator, living in a small town in Northern Israel, relates her own experience of facing hatred and outrage because of what she stands for. A journalist working with a leading conservative Israeli newspaper (Yedeot Ahronot/ The Latest News) interviewed Morcos and published an article about her poetry in July 2003. Although she mentioned her lesbian identity in passing during the interview, this L-word gave the article its juicy title, enough to make people want to read on. All of a sudden, the Arab population of her home town, which she generally assumed to have no interest in the literary supplements of Hebrew newspapers, seemed to have read the article and had something to say about her. Local corner shop owners made photocopies and distributed it, because, after all, everyone knew it was about the daughter of so-and-so from their own town. The consequences of that article were far more serious than Rauda had imagined: her car windows were smashed and tyres were punctured several times, she received innumerable threatening letters and phone calls, and to top it all, 'coincidentally' lost her job as a school teacher, since parents of pupils complained that they did not want her as a teacher. Whether she liked it or not, Rauda had taken a step out of the closet, at the risk of endangering her own life and being criminalised in return. She however used this experience as a means of self-empowerment. "In such situations," she comments in a tongue-in-cheek manner, " you realise very quickly who your true friends are and who is a waste of time. Once you step out of one closet, it becomes easier to step out of the next."

Rauda is one of the few women in ASWAT who is "out". The women in the group come from all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances: some bisexual, some lesbian queers, transsexual, and transgender, inter sex, some, in her own words, just confused. Yet ASWAT provides the forum to be open about these questions inside the group, and nevertheless find the arsenal with which to fight their common battle. At the same time, it also allows for searching for role models outside of Western gay-lesbian lifestyle codes, for an expression of diversity in female sexualities from within the diversity in Arab society.

ASWAT can be contacted at: palgaywomen@yahoo.com

Sruti Bala can be reacged b.sruti@web.de


 

 

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