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Aswat Fundraiser

June 8, 2006

On Monday night, I attended a fundraiser for Aswat, a Palestinian queer women’s organization (Aswat means “voices” in Arabic). It was held in an art gallery attached to the offices of the Third Wave Foundation. It was co-sponsored by a load of organizations, notably the Audrey Lorde Project (ALP), Al-Fatiha Foundation, the Brecht Forum, CAAAV, the IGLHRC, Queers for Economic Justice, among many, many others. Rauda Morcos, the Aswat’s coordinator and co-founder, was the featured speaker at the event. They began with a conversation between Morcos and a woman who works at ALP. The two organizations seemed to have created a meaningful connection – Morcos and the woman from ALP appeared to know each other quite well and the “conversation” seemed organic. Morcos began with an introduction of the mission of the ALP and the part of that mission that seeks to create connections with groups and NGO’s outside of the US. Morcos then talked a bit about Aswat and its membership, how the group and organization (it is both) function and how the member see the group’s role in the Palestinian community.

Morcos was an eloquent speaker and managed to set Aswat in the larger contexts of the occupation, queer/LGBT groups in Israel, Palestinian culture, and the queer world at large. There were quite a few things that struck me, some of them because of my own assumptions and some because I am just plain impressed when I hear about groups or organization that set their goals and standards clearly, with which they then follow through.

Morcos was sensitive to the fact that any words that she was speaking on behalf of Aswat were approved by all of the members of the group. As young and as small a group as it is, they have one “internal” agenda, which is to provide support for Palestinian queer women, and an “external” agenda, which includes informing the Palestinian public at large about issues relating to queer people and women’s sexuality. A few of their activities: they hold social as well as organizational meetings, they have an email listserv (Aswat actually started with an email listserv), a web site and hotline, and in terms of external stuff, they’ve done a number of projects with Palestinian media (newspaper, radio). See their full mission here.

Another thing that struck me was Aswat’s resolve regarding politics and the occupation. As women who suffer from discrimination in three ways (as Palestinians, as women, and as queers), they refuse to compromise on any issues that they feel are central to their mission. One of those issues is whether to ally themselves with LGBT organizations in Israel. Morcos spoke at length about Aswat’s difficult decision regarding whether or not to participate in this summer’s International World Pride week, to be held in Jerusalem and hosted by the Jerusalem Open House (JOH). She said that they weighed the pros and cons of participation and boycotting, and while they were leaning towards participating (most members felt that boycotting would not be a productive tactic), one member could not fathom taking part in an event that would no doubt require closures, curfews, and extra checkpoints for Palestinians in the occupied territories. (high volume of people in one place in Israel usually equals tighter security and movement restrictions for Palestinians). In the end, they decided not to take part. Morcos concluded the World Pride discussion by reiterating that Aswat’s agenda is so completely unrelated to the goals of World Pride and of the mainstream LGBT groups, in addition to them finding a World Pride celebration completely inappropriate while the occupation is going on.

During the Q & A, I asked her to speak a bit about Aswat’s relationship with the JOH. She said that they work with the JOH on the latter’s Palestinian project, which consists mostly of men. The JOH is creating a project for GLBT Palestinians in the north of Israel proper, in which she said Aswat is interested in participating. They choose to generally not associate with the JOH, however, because the JOH refuses to take a political stance against the occupation. As previously stated, Aswat also feels that their goals are generally quite different than most Israeli LGBT organization. Morcos stressed that their work takes place among Palestinians and their external work is directed towards the Palestinian community. They would not find support with Israeli groups or organizations unless they decided to publicly oppose the occupation.

I find it fascinating that Palestinian gay/queer men’s stuff happens through the JOH, an Israeli LGBT organization based in West Jerusalem, while gay/queer women’s stuff happens through an independent Palestinian-run organization. What does this mean for the way that queer men and women choose to find communities? Are there parallels we can make for queer communities here in the US? I also started wondering how my own status as a white queer affects what spaces I feel comfortable in and what spaces I trust.

Apropos of forming queer communities, there was one question asked by a middle-aged white lesbian (my assumption, yes) that was particularly ridiculous but got such a well-put answer that I feel like I need to write it out here: “Let’s say I was a lesbian and lived in the West Bank and didn’t have a computer to access your listserv, and I wanted to find other lesbians. Is there a bar or neighborhood where I might go?” And Morcos answered the woman, looking at her straight in the face and not skipping a beat, “If you lived in the West Bank, you would never ask that question. Because we are under occupation, it’s a war zone! We don’t go to bars very often.” The woman said, “Well, where do *you* meet lesbians?” Morcos answered, “I met most of my friends at demonstrations, through my activism, or my writing group. There was one bar in Ramallah that LGBT people used to go to but it was bombed by the Israeli army. I don’t go to bars very often.” It was an incredible interaction to witness, because it summed up so many of the differences between mainstream LGBT issues and groups like Aswat and the ALP, who are trying to give voices to people so used to being suppressed from so many directions. I have an immense amount of respect for Morcos’ work and that of Aswat, especially in their need to never sacrifice any part of themselves and I hope they continue doing their work with the same resolve.

P.S. Rauda Marcos is in the US to receive the 2006 Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Other related media:
Interview with Morcos in The Advocate
Press release about Morcos’ award from the Jerusalem Open House

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