HAIFA, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--Rauda Morcos didn't intend to reveal her sexual preference but she acknowledged she was lesbian to a newspaper reporter writing about her poetry.
Although Morcos, a Palestinian Arab in Israel, lost her job working with at-risk youth shortly afterward, she has no regrets.
"When I came out in 2003, I thought I might be killed or displaced from the community," she says, acknowledging she received anonymous telephone threats and that her car was damaged after word got out. "I'm still alive and I'm not displaced."
Morcos is the general coordinator and a co-founder of Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women. Aswat means "voices" in Arabic, and is the first and only group of Palestinian lesbians in the region. On March 28, it held in Haifa its first public conference.
The meeting, which Morcos said was attended by as many as 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 and asked that her last name not be used. "It was a big opportunity for us to estimate and value the things we have done in the last five years."
The conference was successful and problem-free, Samira said, despite opposition that mounted in the weeks preceding the conference and 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 movement of Arab Muslims in Israel--publicly criticized the Aswat meeting, calling for the conference to be canceled and urging its community "to stand against the campaign to market sexual deviance among our daughters and our women."
Up to 30 people from the Islamic Movement protested outside the conference hall during the event.
"We do not oppose their personal choice but we oppose their intent to bring this issue to the open air," Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, an Arab member of Knesset and head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, told Women's eNews a few days before the conference. "The consensus of our community does not tolerate this kind of behavior. The consensus feels it is kind of a disease that must be healed and must be healed in a peaceful way."
Palestinian Arabs in Israel make up nearly 20 percent of the country's population. In addition, about 3.9 million Palestinians live in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Setting a Precedent
Before Aswat was formed, Palestinian Arab women rarely organized, publicly protested traditional beliefs 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 that in a number of ways.
Written by Arab and non-Arabs, the group's new book aims to help build bridges between the minority lesbian community and the larger Arab world. "Home and Exile in Queer Experience" is a collection of articles on topics ranging from Aswat and its aims, to the struggle for gays and lesbians in the Arab world and conflict regions, to a well-known essay by American poet Adrienne Rich that argues that lesbianism is an extension of feminism.
Arabic literature lacks material about homosexuality, Morcos says, and the group assumes the responsibility 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?"
In the last year, Aswat has published five newsletters in Arabic dealing with various issues concerning gays and lesbians that target both Palestinian lesbians and the Palestinian and Arab community. It also published an Arabic glossary that explains basic terms of sexual identity.
Members of the group meet once a month or so to socialize, discuss issues of mutual interest and plan events and programs. The group, which includes women from the West Bank and Gaza, has nearly 30 active members and about 50 women who participate in the e-mail list, Morcos said.
The organization will soon launch a virtual forum on its Web site for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex individuals of Arab origin around the world.
The vast majority of Aswat members keep their lesbian identities secret in a society their Web site says "has no mercy for sexual diversity."
Way to Break the Taboo
"It's known that the issue of lesbian women and homosexuality is not dealt with in public in our society and there is a total denial of it," says Aida Touma Suliman, general director of the Arab organization Women Against Violence in Nazareth. "The fact they organized themselves, are raising the issue, writing about it and raising awareness, that's the way they break the taboo."
A group in Lebanon is the only other similar organization for lesbians in the Arab world.
Salwa--who asked that her real name not be used to protect family members and is currently studying abroad--says Aswat has been a great system of support and is one of the reasons the 24-year-old plans to return to her homeland.
While Salwa's mother and brother know she is lesbian, her mother asked her to keep it secret from the rest of the family. Even after living abroad and being surrounded by an openly queer community, Salwa says that being able to live her life out of the closet is not her foremost concern.
"Palestine is my home. I lived here 21 years," says Salwa, who was raised in Nazareth in Northern Israel and is one of the founders of the group. "It's my everything, especially when I talk about a queer community and can go back and be with them . . . It's very important to have this group and to know you can go back and have a home."
Taking Concrete Steps for Change
Samira, 31, says Aswat has given her the opportunity to actualize herself, her agenda and to take concrete steps for social change in her community.
A few months ago, the Tel Aviv resident was invited to represent the group by passing out information about it at a teacher's college in the north of Israel.
Although most of her large nuclear family knows she is lesbian, her extended family--also from the North--does not know. Although Samira was very nervous at first about doing the leafleting, she felt she was ready to put herself out there and risk a potential encounter with relatives.
"It was an important step for Aswat, and for me, for my own development," she said recently from a Tel Aviv coffee shop.
As she approached other Palestinian Arab women to hand out brochures and talk to them, some in the college encouraged her, a few started arguing with her on religious grounds, but no one threw away the information in plain sight or became violent, she said.
"This is what Aswat has given me, the opportunity to be a part of history," Samira said. "But the main thing is the opportunity to meet other women, to be there with them and for them."
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.