June 18, 2013 Haifa: Love and sex in the age of apartheid

We arrive in the stunningly beautiful port city of Haifa, a muggy heat descending over steep hills winding to the port, towering cranes like gigantic blue flamingos perched along the shore, the over-the-top Bahai Temple and Gardens shimmering up the terraced mountain at the end of the German Colony area where we are staying. Our first stop today is with a group of dynamic women from Muntada: The Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health, and Aswat, Arabic for Voices.

Safa Tamish (www.jensaneya.org) is the intense and lively director of Muntada, a community based, feminist group founded in 2000, devoted to working on sexuality and sexual rights for Palestinians in Israel. This started as a project within an Israeli family planning organization, but became independent due to the complex intersections of sexuality, national identity, cultural sensitivity, occupation, and the consequent spoken and unspoken dynamics of power.

I suspect that most readers share the Western view of a repressive patriarchal Palestinian/Arab culture where women are characteristically dominated by their fathers and husbands and sexual issues, let alone queer issues, are off the agenda. We learn quickly that the culture is far from monolithic and there is a tremendous amount of nuance and complexity that needs to be understood.

Safa has a huge dose of chutzpah and creative energy. She describes going into different settings, starting with student councils, working on projects based on listening and respect for the local community, learning from each other. Once there is obvious mutual respect then much is possible.

Working in a Bedouin community, she understood that every mother has to explain to her child the predictable questions about sex, birth, etc. Using nonthreatening interactive training, with techniques such as role playing, she never encountered opposition, despite working in conservative villages. In the course of her work with girls in tenth to twelfth grade, she found that almost 90% of the tenth grade girls were engaged and by twelfth grade, many were married. After Safa’s program, none of the girls married while still in school. She believes in community empowerment, done respectfully and quietly.

The projects and conferences grew and by 2006 Muntada became an independent Arab association. She found that Zionist funders had no interest in Arabic projects and Arabic funders had no interest in working with Israelis. The original name was associated with family planning, but due to all the talk about the demographic threat from procreating Palestinians, this name also became political poison. Additionally, contraceptives were already available through the national health insurance. The group also wants to work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab world and thus became an independent organization with 28 volunteers. Their first funding came in 2007 through the Global Fund for Women and later other internationals, the European Union, Oxfam, local ministries for social welfare, and the Ministry of Education.

They are now developing culturally sensitive school programs; there are no models in the Arab world, and the western models are sometimes useful but culturally tone deaf. So how does this work in the real world? Safa told us that it is often tough; men are often gender insensitive; they need to be challenged without being imposed upon. The tolerance of the women gets tested and this then challenges the men. Last year, there was a two day training on sexuality in Nablus. All the men sat on one side, all the women on the other, two women were completely covered and two men were sheikhs with long beards. They stated that Sharia Law has all the answers and felt that additionally this project is funded by the west, with a western agenda. Safa thanked them for their comments and began the program unintimidated. The next day they were role playing and she asked the sheikh to explain to his daughter, “What is masturbation?” When he refused, “I cannot do this!” she explained, “But she is your daughter, do you want her to learn this from the internet?” He replied, “No,” blushed, and then finally did the role play. Others in the program reported that this experience has created dramatic changes in the school and the sheikh is now recommending the program to everyone!

With her lively expressive face she tells us another story. The group wanted to teach about puberty to seventh graders. First they got the permission of the principal and then invested in training the teachers, obtaining credits from the Ministry of Education. After the training, they evaluated the program and found that little had changed. So they developed a questionnaire for the students asking them what topics were of interest and who and what were their resources. The sixth and seventh graders asked questions about oral sex, anal sex, contraception, and pornography! The next step was to develop a letter for parents explaining the need for the program. When the outraged parents objected, Safa presented the parents with the results of the children’s questionnaire! So the strategies include developing the training, working with teachers, children, parents, and following up to check the outcomes.

When she asked the teachers, what was the most useful outcome of this work, one reported that she had been teaching the poetry of love in an intellectual way, but now she began talking more comfortably. During these discussions she discovered that one of her 15-year-old girls was involved in a “casual marriage,” an arrangement with an older man, and many girls were having sex with taxi drivers. The teacher was really able to talk about love and relationships and felt she had reclaimed her educational role as a teacher in this course. She also reported that she was now hugging her husband in front of her children and that the family was much less cold and more physically intimate. Such are the many surprises in this work.

The group, Muntada, develops manuals and materials for schools and last year created a youth program for 16 to 19 year olds on sexual rights as human rights. The students made films on the topics which included premarital sex, and wanted to have a big public launching ceremony. Safa admits she was terrified at the community response, but the films opened in the cinema in Nazareth in front of over 2,000 people. The audience responded positively and one parent told her, “I am so proud you.” Their website is growing and includes professional questions and answers, sex therapists, gynecologists, and Arabic translations of scientific articles. They had 370,000 hits last year, the majority from Saudi Arabia.

Safa has started similar work in the West Bank and Muntada has just graduated their third group. West Bankers were once open minded but have become increasingly conservative. The youth have lost their ability to dream; not only are they physically occupied, but their minds are occupied as well, there is a sense of internalized defeat. Safa does not believe in partial liberation. She sees personal and national liberation as equally necessary. She notes, during the Arab spring, young people demonstrating in Ramallah demanded personal and national liberation. Sexual liberation she explains is intimately tied to fighting checkpoints, apartheid laws, and repressive family reunification prohibitions. It seems the personal is political, even in Palestine.

Things are even more challenging for the LGBT community. A woman I will call Suhair explains that the organization, Aswat, means Voices, and is a feminist social change organization of gay Palestinian women that is also part of the overall political struggle. The group was started in 2003 by eight women to create a safe space and address challenges and aspirations. Cofounding members were activists in Israeli LGBT organizations and other progressive organizations. They were at first welcomed in Israeli organizations but had to keep their national identity closeted. They found that the vast majority of LGBT organizations, despite the Israeli branding of tolerant gay tourism, do not support Palestinian rights. These women did not feel they could prioritize their rights. Thus they created a discourse that combines resistance to all oppression including occupation and homophobia. At the same time while Palestinian queer women are not unique in the challenges they face, they cannot begin to think of sexual freedom without the right to be free of occupation.

Suhair shares her own personal story as a teenager, questioning her sexuality, without any venues, Arabic sources, supports in school, at home, or with friends. She discovered a phone support in Tel Aviv called White Line which was important to her, but their only suggestion was to get out of Haifa and come to Tel Aviv. She finished high school, got into Tel Aviv University, had “the best time in my life” out of the closet, but still felt she was the only lesbian Palestinian in the world. She had many Jewish friends, but then something weird happened. When invited to parties, friends told her she didn’t look Palestinian and suggested she change her name to sound “Israeli”. She tried to be cool, but was choking inside. Her friends reassured her they just wanted her to have a good time, no hassles. One day, she packed up her stuff and went home to her more conservative family and culture. “Gay haven Tel Aviv is not a gay haven for Palestinians.” “The soldier at checkpoint does not care if I am gay or straight.”

As a high school teacher, Suhair notes that Palestinian society has been living at the margins of marginality for decades. The total investment in education for Palestinian students is 1/3 of their Jewish counterparts, from age three to 18. The budgetary discrimination affects how kids are exposed to sexual education, what manuals, directories, and websites are written in Arabic, what opportunities are available for the educators and the educated. This is further complicated by a generally conservative society and segregated schools.

A woman I will call Layla, also a member of Aswat, agrees that Palestinian society is far from monolithic; but that it is difficult to be a lesbian in a Palestinian organization, or a Palestinian in an Israeli Jewish gay organization. She always felt a need to hide one of her identities until she found Aswat. She talked about the complexities of the Palestinian community, the homophobia and realities of occupation that are embedded in her mind, the lack of modern writings on homosexuality, the fact that sexual freedom is only possible with economic freedom. She works with women to write and publish their personal stories, to join with intellectuals and other feminist organizations like Muntada to support each other in solidarity and sisterhood. There are also joint efforts with the boycott, sanction, and divestment campaign, Palestinian Queers for BDS, Al Qaws, and the promotion of the rights of queer Palestinians by the BDS movement.

As the three women talk, we learn that amongst Palestinians, their language has been transformed into a shallow mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English that is the consequence of settler colonialism and occupation. In this Arabic, most women have no name for their genitals, that vague “down there” place, unnamed, untouchable. “Everything starts with words,” Safa exclaims. “In Arabic literature there are 990 names for the genitals, each animal has a different name for its genitals, poets in the ninth century wrote about homosexuality and bisexuality and it was acceptable.” In Amman same sex marriage is allowed! Fortunately people are being transformed by what is happening around them.

They also reflected on issues related to men who are part of their work. In a male dominated society, to believe in your partner’s rights requires a willingness to give up some of your own privilege; not all men are ready to do that. But male privilege for Palestinians is extremely complex for they too lack privilege; suffer from economic discrimination and humiliation, much like marginalized men of color in the US. Thus the conversation quickly encompasses issues that included gender, race, and class. This provocative discussion ends with a comment from one of our Black women delegates about the need to build a more just society, “But it is not your responsibility to build that in a dominate culture. It is my burden as a Black woman to educate my oppressors, but white men need to hold white men accountable.” In Israel/Palestine, where Palestinian men are far from the dominant culture, the rude reality of second class citizenship and occupation makes that struggle incredibly more difficult.

Share this to: