„We are changing society, very very slowly, but we are changing it“
From a eurocentric perspective, being politically active in the Middle East is seldom connected with LGBTIQ1 activism. Queer groups, their struggles and achievements are not widely known or acknowledged by the European Left. Aswat is one of two groups for LGBTIQ people within the Palestinian community, meaning that Aswat organises queer Palestinians that come from and/or live both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.2 Unique took the chance to meet with an activist* from Aswat to talk about activism, women’s safe spaces in the LGBTIQ community, sexuality and education.3
What kind of work do you do as Aswat?
Aswat is a secular group for queer Palestinian women*, who self-identify as lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender or intersex. We mainly work in three fields: The first is providing a safe and inclusive space, which we create by having meetings with our members. Most of our members are not openly gay, so discussing LGBTIQ topics is quite important. The second one is empowerment. We organise workshops for the women* in our group, from creative writing to soft skills like leadership, etc. The third and very important field of our work is networking and publications. In this field, we work together with other organisations and provide information for our members and the broader public. We also organise workshops through other organizations who host our representatives, and last year, we had the first series of workshops organised by Aswat for activists and service providers.
How do you create a safe space for queer women*? What does that mean?
First of all, a safe space is about personal security: Nobody knows where we meet or the location of our office. Sadly, this is very important to our members. Homosexuality is not a topic we talk about in our society. A lot of women* in the group thought that they were the only lesbian Palestinian women* in the world. You may have heard about LGBTIQ people within the Jewish community, but if you try to find information in Arabic on the internet, you will only find negative stuff, quotes from the Bible or the Quran for example. So providing an empowering positive space is very important on an individual level. When I first went to an open evening – well, not entirely open due to security reasons – I had the feeling of finally getting to know people who had gone through similar experiences. Growing up I didn’t know that something besides heterosexuality existed and the whole process of figuring out your sexuality was not easy as a woman* in my so-ciety. Some parents are very strict when it comes to knowing where their daughters are. A lot of girls have a curfew at a certain time, many women* in our society aren’t financially independent until they somehow decide to move out, which is only possible if you have a ,real‘ reason, like studying in a different city. So most of our members find ways to sneak out and lie to their parents to come to our meetings, which means that having seminars for a week, a weekend or even a whole day sometimes means excluding people.
Is Aswat the only organisation of its kind in the area?
There are two Palestinian queer organisations, there is al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, which is an open group, and Aswat, which is a women* only group. The name Aswat means “voices”, because it was important for us to raise the voices of women* in the queer community, but we do a lot of projects together. The biggest one so far is our support phone line. It is the first line giving support in Arabic, giving people the chance to talk about queer issues in their own language and helping them to figure out their stuff. We are also in touch with organisations and groups in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt although not all of them are legal, since homosexuality itself is illegal in certain countries. This means we mostly work together online, share work experience and publications and meet from time to time at seminars abroad. We try to learn from queer organisations around the world, especially when it comes to spreading our ideas. Since we’re Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction, fighting to change laws is very far from our reality but campaigning is huge for us. Many schools for example don’t talk about
sexuality, and having sex before marriage seems to be something that does not exist. Unfortunately we are not allowed to go to schools and run educational processes there, so we focus a lot on educational processes within our organisation, working with personal experience and making ourselves known.
What kind of campaigns do you organise?
Campaigning is not always easy. A year ago we wanted to advertise the support phone line in as many places as possible. We paid for a week of advertising on a website, but they took it off after a few hours because they got so many angry calls. So we focus on sticker campaigns and try to go to as many places as possible, like universities, cafes and public areas. We also published a book sharing the individual stories of members, as information helps youn-ger people to feel safe and ok with themselves. An important aspect of what we do is providing information in Arabic, because again, if you are a teenager and try to understand what it is you are feeling, you are constantly surrounded by homophobic comments. A lot of teenagers
only know the word gay as in „you are gay means you have been sexually harassed“, so reclaiming words is part of our activism. As the word for gay men in Arabic has such a negative connotation, the LGBTIQ community invented a new word: “mithli” for men* and “mithliyyi” for women*. The word “mithl” stands for “homosexuality” and for “same” as in equal and has no negative connotations.4 The publication and the phone line were huge achievements for us as a group, especially considering that our first meeting ten years ago took place in one of the members’ flats and that the group started as an internet mailing group. Now we are able to celebrate our 10-year anniversary with an open conference at this year’s IDAHO5, so we are changing society, very very slowly, but we are changing it.
How do students in your university react to Aswat campaigns or your activism?
My university is an open university, with Jewish and Arab people from the entire country.- Homosexuality is sometimes mentioned in courses, but still a lot of students think that nothing exists besides heterosexuality in the Arab society. I’ve met fellow students that claim to have no problems with homosexual Jewish couples, but simply deny the existence of queer people within the Arab community.
Personally, studying makes some things easier, but not all of them. I’ve been in Aswat for four years now and in the beginning I had to lie to my parents, tell them that I stayed with a friend to be able to go to the meetings or just be able to meet girlfriends. Because I’m older now and because I spend a lot of my time doing queer activism, things are better now, although my mum still thinks I’m going to a feminist organisation. Being active in Aswat has given me a lot of empowerment. If it weren’t for all the people I’ve met during these years, I would still be struggling in terms of identity but also in terms of myself as a person. Being organised as a lesbian in a queer group makes you feel so much better about yourself. It makes you more courageous and self-confident to deal with the world.