Lesbian Issues Brought Up at the Arab Feminisms Conference

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An Arab Feminism(s) Conference was held this past week at the American University in Beirut, bringing together academics, researchers, writers, activists, and professors working on feminism and women’s rights. We got very excited about the conference and knew that it would be a challenge to bring up lesbian issues amidst what we predicted would be a conservative audience. So we banked on our allies from the Feminist Collective, the Global Fund for Women, the Coalition of Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, and Sisters in Islam, members of whom were present at the conference as speakers and participants.

Indeed, our friends were true to their alliances and the topic of lesbians was brought up at different times, through Zeina Zaatari’s speech for the inclusion of sexual rights in our feminist discourse. The Feminist Collective also made sure to speak about Bareed Mista3jil during a panel on feminism and art. Zeina Anwar from Sisters in Islam was also a vocal ally. But my most pleasant surprise came with the brave and radical interventions of Prof. Amal Amireh, a delightful woman who took it upon herself to insist that the Arab feminist movement should embrace lesbian issues as an integral part of its struggle. It was a touching moment – to say the least – for many of us Meems present at the conference. Amal Amireh is and will always be a hero to us. Here is a recount of what happened, adapted from the Feminist Collective blog entry “Feminists Split Over Sexuality:

This morning, and finally, the split was vocalized clearly and homophobia was brought out into the open. Kaltham Al Ghanim form Qatar University confused gender identity with sexual orientation reprimanding women who want to act like men (by wanting to sleep with other women). In her opinion, by doing so, they are glorifying men. She asserted that she did not see lesbian issues as feminist and thought the conference should respect her opinion. A few people clapped. She also went on to call feminist revolutionary talk as childish and unrealistic, asking her fellow academics to be practical in their proposals and thoughts. She also accused them as being distant and ignorant of the real feelings and lives of the real average Arab woman (assuming of course that she was in close proximity of the lives of these women). “Why defy our culture?” she asked.

I was happy it came out of her. I was happy the ridiculous ideas of a good part of these conference participants were vocalized so clearly because then it allowed for a comeback. And, indeed, Professor Amal Amireh (biography, books, blog), one of the accused revolutionary feminists, took on the responsibility of responding critically to these ideas by stating that Dr. Ghanim’s view on feminism and culture could only be defined as backwards. “We have to acknowledge that sexuality must be an indispensable part of our feminism and that lesbians are women, they are Arab women, they are among us, they are us.” Amireh went on to  state that “our feminist ethical responsibility will be measured by how supportive we are to our lesbians.” And the room went silent. Then some people laughed.

Et voila. Fantastic stuff.


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