Aswat (Arabic for “voices”) is an organization dedicated to LGBTQ rights, specifically for women within the LGBTQ community: “a group of Arab gay women and home to all lesbians, inter-sex, queers, transsexual, transgender, questioning and bisexual women” (website, www.aswatgroup.org, April 2010). Founded in 2003, Aswat’s goal is “to serve as a Palestinian gay women’s group where we may express ourselves, discuss gender and sexuality, define our feminism, and address the conflict experienced by us between our national and gendered identities.” Aswat is an example of how LGBTQ communities form on the internet, especially when the potential for violence is too great for people to physically meet in the same space.
The internet has acted as a potentially safe virtual site for LGBTQ populations that seek to build communities, but cannot do so in real space. Aswat began as a virtual community on Yahoo! in 2002, and officially took on its own identity and name in 2003 when its founders saw the need for a more structured entity. A coordinator was appointed, who then inquired in the Occupied Territories and Israel for potential members. Aswat received support from Kayan, an Arab feminist group, and began having monthly meetings, scheduling workshops, and making the group known internationally while allowing members to remain anonymous.
Finding that the Arabic language lacked adequate vocabulary for them to voice concerns specific to their identity, members come up with new language to express themselves as they publish articles, sponsor educational initiatives, participate in demonstrations, and continue their meetings. Aswat published a glossary of LGBTQ terms in Arabic to replace inadequate and offensive language. Aswat has reworked English as well – some examples are LBTQI (Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex) or “Palestinian gay women” (also “Palgaywomen”) when referring to members, and the term, “homonationalism.”
Addressing a Need
Aswat’s website (www.aswatgroup.org) explains the need for the organization:
Many women in the Palestinian society are living their identities and sexuality in secret. We believe that this is a result of the patriarchal structure of our society where surviving means being silent… When women dare to identify themselves outsides the borders of prescriptive traditional gender roles and identities, they face violent exclusion, or even worse, violence against their own bodies and property… This is the reason why, until now, Palestinian women have hardly ever organized or dared to protest, resist, and insist upon creating a space to deal with issues of women’s sexuality and lesbianism. Furthermore, as Palestinian women living inside the borders of Israel or in the Occupied Territories under Israeli occupation, we belong to an internally displaced population that does not enjoy equality in power, resources, education, culture, or religion… As long as 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, they are transformed instantly into enemies. The competition between different, sometimes clashing needs and struggles, puts us in peculiar situations where we are demanded to prioritize one struggle over the other… In this sense, ASWAT offers a unique perspective on social change in light of the conflict between identities and political struggles.
Relations with Israeli Groups
One challenge Aswat has encountered was whether to accept help from Israeli LGBTQ groups, or even to acknowledge them at all. Already marginalized as women, Palestinians, and Lesbian, association with those perceived to be the enemies of Palestinians increased friction with the general Palestinian public. Nevertheless, Aswat has been acknowledging kindred groups around the world, including Israel.
Meem and Mithliya
Aswat has also been working with Meem, a group for Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LBTQ) women in neighboring Lebanon. Meem (for the Arabic letter corresponding to M, the first letter of mithliya or “lesbian”) was started in 2007. Meem does much the same work as Aswat, but is restricted to LGBTQ Lebanese people. Meem works in association with Helem, a Gay support group in Lebanon that was found three years prior. Mithliya (“Forum Lesbien des femmes Arabes”) is also the name for a Lesbian online forum for women in the Mashrek (the region encompassing most of Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon) and the Maghreb (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania).
In May 2009, the launch of Bareed Mista3jil (“Express Mail,” a book consisting of 41 stories from LBTQ Lebanese, published by Meem in 2009) was held at Al Madina Theater on Hamra Street in Beruit. Selections from the book were read in Arabic and English.
Freeman, Jane, Jérôme Valluy. Persécutions des femmes: savoirs, mobilisations et protections. Bellecombe-en-Bauges, France: Croquant, 2007.
http://www.aswatgroup.org/english/, accessed July 2010.