Queering the Arab Feminist Movement: Two Years in the Making

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April 2008 Conference in Marrakech

Exactly two years ago today, April 19, I went to a meeting in Morocco around resource mobilization for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Over 100 of the region’s top women’s rights advocates were there and it was the first time I meet them. I was extremely nervous about being an out Arab lesbian in their midst, knowing that most of them saw me as diseased or abnormal, and certainly that all of them believed I didn’t belong in a conference like theirs. My experience at that meeting, however,  was life-changing on a personal level, and an important catalyst in what we, at Meem, like to call the queering of our region’s feminist movement.

As soon as I got back from that meeting, I wrote an article for the then-quarterly Bekhsoos entitled “Bringing Vaginas to the Arab Feminist Dialogue.” It was about a speech I gave at that conference, inviting my fellow women’s rights advocates to open up our region’s movement to matters related to sexuality:

“I said that the war against women’s rights is a war against our bodies and it is with our bodies that we must fight. I said that Arab women’s rights activists should talk about vaginas. […] I talked about feminism not being feminism without the inclusion of all issues related to sexuality. I talked about deconstructing virginity, legalizing abortion, fighting rape, incest and sexual harassment, and celebrating female sexuality.”

My speech at the time was very popular, and, despite a few harsh and continuous attacks, I became known as the young feminist who pushed taboo topics related to sex at these conferences. Only a handful of people knew I was a member of Meem though – or that I was queer. I would use other organizational affiliations I had in order to get invited and/or to get my point across. Sometimes I would just invent organizations.

Fast forward two years later, I am at a similar meeting, only with fewer participants. It’s 2010 and this time we’re in Amman, Jordan. Again, I am part of a panel designed to discuss taboos in the Arab feminist movement. Again, I have a speech prepared about how we must include women’s bodies and sexualities in our Arab feminist discourses and agendas. But this time, and almost like I had planned it as a marker of our progress over two years, my speech takes a different turn. I find myself blurting out: “What’s the big deal in me being a lesbian?” Sixteen thoughts race through my head in the two-second breath between that sentence and the one I say next:

  1. Oh, shit.
  2. Did I just come out?
  3. Maybe they didn’t notice.
  4. Crap.
  5. Damn it, Nadz, you always get carried away!
  6. It’s ok.. I can just say I meant.. “what’s the big deal about [one] being a lesbian?”
  7. They’re not going to buy that.
  8. Oh, shit.
  9. It’s ok.. they should have guessed by now anyway.
  10. Is there anyone in this room I really shouldn’t come out to?
  11. Shit, I’m in Amman.
  12. Oh, crap, did all those male interpreters understand what I said? How did they translate it to Arabic?
  13. Is everyone going to look at me weird now?
  14. Are they going to stop liking me?
  15. Fuck!
  16. Fuck it. It’s about time.

“What’s the deal with me loving another woman?” I say. And I go on to explain that the big deal lies in the dangers that lesbians (and other queers) pose to heteronormativity, upon which a lot of the oppressive systems are built. But forget that part. Let’s move on to the questions and answers that followed.

A Jordanian psychologist sitting in the back of the room says: Homosexuals are sick and they become so because of sexual violence they experience as children. It is a condition that must be treated.

Most of the faces in the room turn sour as they turn to look at the psychologist murmuring things like: “that’s not true” or “shame on you for saying this.” A prominent Iraqi women’s rights activist stands up and replies: I used to believe that too.. 15 years ago.. and then I educated myself on the matter and now I understand that gay rights are human rights. A prominent activist from Mauritania, probably in her 60s, replies: To me, it is enough that lesbians are women and that they are oppressed for all of us to make room for them in our feminist movement. A legendary feminist from Palestine says: I want to learn more about how to incorporate sexual rights into our work; what are some things we can do?

Overwhelming support from the audience, compassion, protection, respect. In reply to the psychologist, I say two things:

  1. It is not true that homosexuals are mentally ill. I challenge you to find any decent medical or psychiatric book published after 1982 that says so. You are simply mistaken.
  2. I have experienced a “treating” of homosexuality, as you call it, and it is cruel and inhumane and I think all of us should together start a campaign that puts every psychologist that practices such a “treatment” in jail.

To that, everybody applauds, women from Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Mauritania, Turkey – all over. They applaud and agree and I spend the rest of the conference talking more to them about lesbian issues and how we can work together to achieve gender equality for all women. In the taxi on my way to the airport coming back to Beirut, I try to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened: a lesbian welcomed and celebrated among leaders of the Arab women’s movement. Two years ago, I would have said: no way, not in this decade.

If we were to trace our steps over those two years from the Marrakech conference to the Amman meeting, we would be able to map out Meem’s strategy in pushing Arab women’s organizations to become safe spaces for lesbians, transgenders, and people of alternative sexualities. Although this topic merits many volumes of research and analysis, I wanted to end this article with some quick highlights of the strategies that brought us to where we are today, lest others like us find them useful:

  1. We were always kind and patient with homophobic Arab feminists. We knew most of them weren’t homophobic out of malice but out of ignorance. Never underestimate the power of kindness in the face of hatred.
  2. We built relationships with key allies to get into strategic meetings and panels.
  3. Whenever we could, we went to meetings in large numbers. There is an amazing power in numbers.
  4. At every single meeting we went to, we would raise a hand and ask a question about lesbians or transgenders – even if it was out of context.
  5. Wherever we could, we would volunteer with women’s organizations.
  6. We let prominent feminists know we appreciated everything they’ve done for Arab women.
  7. We went into meetings with our own, sincere personalities, and while our sexualities remained hidden to most people, we never pretended to be other than ourselves.
  8. We educated each other on women’s issues other than sexuality and trained our members on gender equality.
  9. We placed lesbian and trans people’s issues within a broader framework of sexual and bodily rights.
  10. We showed respect to everyone, even when our opinions and beliefs were disrespected, and, in doing so, gained the respect of our fellow activists.
  11. We gave them copies of Bareed Mista3jil and links to Bekhsoos.
  12. We celebrated every progress (like this one), no matter how small, and kept our eyes on the long-term goals.

And, finally, we made friends with amazing Arab feminists from all over the region, but that wasn’t a strategy. It was a bonus we gained along the way.


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