Crossing Hands Across Borders: Feminists Come Together

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From April 28th till May 3rd 2010, Cairo was the hub from which 19 activists from across seven Arab countries designed and launched a network of peer support for young feminists in Arab societies.

Perhaps too aware that this was going to be my first meeting with a majority of young non-queer Arab feminists, I was pretty nervous. I had previously attended some meetings where the expression “I am a feminist” was often reluctantly uttered and usually followed by a “but…”. In these particular meetings, the majority of feminists seemed to be much older heterosexual women with PhDs, who happened to have written a few academic articles on the infamous topic of “Women in the Arab World.” Oddly enough, it was relatively safe for us young queer feminists to be in these meetings. We were there under the pretext of logistical support: to record what the older feminists were discussing, to take photos and videos of them, and to provide the world with an exciting tweeted version of an otherwise rather boring conference. Occasionally, one of us would step up and throw in a comment that seemed to awaken everyone to what should be the obvious: that we too are “Women in the Arab World.”

This, however, was the first time that I participated – under the umbrella of Meem – in a non-queer Arab feminist event. I was out of the closet before the plane even landed and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the participants. I already had certain issues with being identified as a “lesbian” and not as a “queer woman”  – a term which I feel encompasses a wider range of my experiences. But it wasn’t an idea that I couldn’t swallow. Falafel? Falefel.

And so with all of that in mind, during my one-hour flight to Cairo, I was still on the drawing board, debating with myself the content of my session and what it ought to be. Entitled by the organizers “نظرة مثلية” (A Gay Perspective), I knew that if anyone were to openly push for women’s sexuality  and gender identity to be part of the network agenda, it would be me, along with the support of other queers in the meeting. On my notepad and in Arabic, I tried to articulate concepts on sexual identity, on intersections between gender and sexuality, on patriarchy as an opressive system, ideas which I thought were as basic as it could get. My session was set to take place by the end of the third day of the meeting.

The plane finally landed in Cairo, and at the airport, I bumped into two of the participants, who, as soon as we were walking towards the taxi, asked me which organization I was with. I told one of them “I am with Meem.” She smiled and said, “oh I’ve never heard of it, what does it do?” And so I mumbled something along of the lines of Meem being a support group for lesbian, bisexual, queer & questioning women and transgender person in Lebanon. She smiled wide and said that it was very interesting. Phew, that wasn’t so hard, now was it? The second participant smiled too, indicating that she had heard of the group before. Two young Arab feminists down, 16 more to go.

As soon as we reached the hotel, I sent Nadz an SMS: “Nadz, we’re here, Room 24. Come get us, help!” Of course, my SOS signal to Nadz was sent because my roommate and I were distressed by how shabby the hotel room seemed at first sight. But when Nadz came to the rescue, I felt a sense of relief, as it finally registered in my head that I had all the support I needed to be as vocal as necessary in this meeting. As for the hotel room, it didn’t seem as shabby when she told us that activists from the Gaza Freedom March stayed in this very same hotel earlier this year. Later that day, I met the rest of the organizers who turned out to be the most heartwarming feminists one could ever come across.

Throughout the next couple of days, I got to know feminists from Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and some who lived abroad, in UK, USA and Canada. During most sessions, I was an attentive observant picking up on signals of solidarity in a room full of women discussing issues that were at the heart of their struggles. When I finally understood that only a handful of   the attendees had actually met a lesbian before, I wanted them to speak about it. My session revolved around a discussion on myths and misconceptions about lesbians. And so we put everything on the table: Sick. Sou7akiyi. Raped. Haram. Butch. Mentally-Disturbed. Daddy issues. Corrective therapies.

When one of the participants said “I asked a doctor about the issue, and he answered that God would not create human beings ‘this way’, that homosexuals choose this path at their own will” – I did not know whether to laugh or cry at how confusing it is when a psychologist takes up God as his reference.

Yet, even though we each had such different perspectives and experiences, this was still a safe space to articulate ideas about ourselves and each other that we never had the chance to reconcile. If I were asked now what it was that was so powerful about that meeting in Cairo, my answer would be the following: Resonance. Whenever someone shared their perspective, others listened attentively, nodded, related, analyzed, drew webs of intersections, asked questions, challenged – and through it all, even though we each held so many misconceptions about each other, a thirst for solidarity bound us all together.

Lynn is actively involved in Meem, a community of queer women and trans folk. She's also into pixels, among other things.

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