Rauda Morcos didn’t intend to reveal her sexual preference when she acknowledged she was lesbian to a newspaper reporter writing about her poetry. Although Morcos, a Palestinian Arab living in Israel, lost her job working with at-risk youth shortly afterwards, she has no regrets.
‘When I came out in 2003, I thought I might be killed or displaced from the community,’ she says. She received anonymous telephone threats and her car was damaged after word got out. ‘I’m still alive and I’m not displaced.’
Morcos is the founder of Aswat, which means ‘voices’ in Arabic and is the first Palestinian lesbians’ group in the region. On 28 March, it held (in Haifa, Israel) its first public conference. The meeting, attended by 350 people, marked five years of the organization’s existence and the publication of a new book in Arabic about lesbian and gay identity.
‘It was empowering. It was exciting,’ said Samira, who heads the Aswat board.
The conference was problem-free, despite mounting opposition in the preceding weeks. There had been a high level of anxiety among the group’s leadership that the event or even attendees could be in jeopardy.
The Islamic Movement in Israel – a religious, political and cultural grouping of Arab Muslims – publicly called for the meeting to be cancelled and urged its community ‘to stand against the campaign to market sexual deviance among our daughters and our women.’
Up to 30 people protested outside. ‘We do not oppose their personal choice but we oppose their intent to bring this issue to the open air,’ said Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, head of the Islamic Movement in Israel. ‘Our community does not tolerate this kind of behaviour. The consensus feels it is kind of a disease that must be healed, and healed in a peaceful way.’
Palestinian Arabs make up nearly 20 per cent of Israel’s population.
Before Aswat was formed, Palestinian Arab women rarely protested traditional beliefs in public or had a place to deal with women’s sexuality and lesbianism. Members of the group, which started out as a virtual forum on the internet, are changing this in a number of ways.
The group’s new book Home and Exile in Queer Experience aims to help build bridges between the lesbian community and the larger Arab world. Its articles range from a statement about Aswat and its aims, to pieces on the struggle for gays and lesbians in the Arab world and conflict regions. It also includes a well-known essay by US poet Adrienne Rich arguing that lesbianism is an extension of feminism.
Arabic literature lacks material about homosexuality, Morcos says, and her group wants to change that. ‘We have to work in order for them to accept us,’ she says. ‘If we don’t have material in Arabic, how will people know about sexuality?’
Members meet once a month to socialize, discuss issues of mutual interest and plan events and programmes. The group, which includes women from the West Bank and Gaza, has 30 active members and about 50 women who participate in the email list.
The organization will soon launch a ‘virtual forum’ on its website for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals of Arab origin around the world.