First Israeli Arab Conference of Lesbians Convened in Haifa

Meeting held despite opposition of Islamic Movement members who demonstrated outside of venue.

The first conference of Israeli Arab lesbians was held Wednesday in Haifa by the organization Asawat ("Voices").

The discussions dealt with homosexuality in the Arab public and what they referred to as "triple discrimination" of being women, lesbian and Arab in Israel.

News released in the past two weeks of plans to hold the conference aroused bitter opposition in the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, members of which demonstrated Wednesday outside of the Haifa auditorium where the conference was planned.

At the conference, participants discussed the difficulties faced by Arab lesbians in dealing with their identities and coming out of the closet.

One participant spoke about her personal experience of moving to Tel Aviv on the pretext of continuing her studies, while actually seeking, "to answer the many questions that arose in adolescence," that she was not allowed to ask.

"Many times I felt as if I was in a 'diaspora' while in my 'homeland,'" she said. "I had to leave my village in order to realize my sexual orientation."

The participants also spoke of the struggles of lesbians to uncover their sexual identity and of the fear of being harmed.

As a precautionary measure, photography was prohibited at the conference and security officers escorted a number of participants and guarded the venue itself.

"This is the first conference of its kind. There is no doubt that the Arab public respects minorities, but as a precautionary measure we have obtained security guards because we don't know what tools will be used by those who oppose us," said the organization's coordinator, Ruada Murkus.

Some 300 people participated in the event, including Arab and Jewish lesbians and homosexuals, as well as feminists from Israel and abroad.

Outside of the auditorium, a demonstration was held by nearly 30 men and women affiliated with the Islamic Movement.

"The activity of these women diminishes the value of the human being and their actions are not accepted in the Muslim and Palestinian world," said MK Abbas Zakour (Ra'am-Ta'al), who headed the demonstration.

The Asawat organization said that "listening to the voices of the various groups in Arab society" is the proper response to the opposition.

Asawat was founded five years ago by three Arab lesbian women whose stated goal was to raise awareness and to work towards achieving freedom to express lesbianism and homosexuality within Arab society.

The organization has sought to link the national and sexual identities of Israeli Arabs.

The group's participants define themselves as linked with a nation under occupation and racism, struggling for political and social freedom within Arab society.

"There is no need to differentiate between the Palestinian and sexual identities," said Nabila Asfaniuli, a feminist activist and director of Asawat. "We refuse to remain in the darkness of the closet, drawers and bins. The time has come for us to raise our voices and knock on the sides of the bin."