JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- In 2008, Laila was a recent college graduate and committed anti-occupation activist in her hometown of Nablus. But there was one issue her groups could not adequately address: her sexuality.
“I started testing the waters, looking at what organizations are out there, what’s the discourse,” said Laila last month in Nablus.
She researched the Haifa-based lesbian group Aswat, but that organization is more attentive to Palestinians within Israel and inaccessible to West Bank residents like Laila.
She also added Haneen Maikey, the director of the queer organization al-Qaws, on Facebook. Soon, she was talking to Sari, an al-Qaws activist in Ramallah.
Maikey and Laila finally met in person a year later and now, Laila is one of al-Qaws’ principal leaders. Like hundreds of Palestinians before and after her, she has found a space in al-Qaws.
The Jerusalem-based organization has been engaging Palestinians with issues related to sexuality and sexual diversity since 2001.
Al-Qaws’ mission, Maikey said at a Haifa conference organized by Aswat earlier this year, is “to oppose patriarchal institutions and systems that regulate our sexuality, (and) to challenge gender and sexual standards and norms which have always been depicted as fact, such as heterosexuality.”
“Patriarchal institutions” may be a broad target but for Palestinian queer activists, that is the point.
Colonialism, sexism, heteronormativity -- all of these forms of oppression are interlinked and inseparable, and al-Qaws leaders approach the queer struggle from different perspectives that go beyond specifically LGBT concerns.
For Kareem, an al-Qaws leader in Jerusalem, the main issue he is fighting is society’s control of bodies, and the privileging of certain individuals over others.
“Why am I more valuable to my grandparents than my (female) cousins, who are older than me?” he said. “This is what pisses me off the most. And it’s not solely a gay issue.”
Al-Qaws began as a group within Jerusalem Open House, an Israeli LGBT organization. Though it was never inattentive to the unique concerns of Palestinians, al-Qaws was initially able to run services from both Israel and the West Bank at the Jerusalem office.
But as the separation barrier closed off West Bankers to Israel, al-Qaws leaders realized they needed to establish new ways of overcoming the restrictions. The multiple experiences of these members – Jerusalem residents, West Bankers, and Israeli citizens – were always integral to the group.
“Our organizational stuff -- board meetings and retreats, which we have four a year -- all of these are happening in the West Bank. No compromising,” said Maikey.
Rejecting a 'colonial logic'
In 2007, al-Qaws split away from JOH over significant political differences. Al-Qaws rents an office space from the JOH building, but it refuses to work with institutions that do not unequivocally oppose the Israeli occupation.
“The fact that we are based in Jerusalem, where you cannot ignore apartheid and occupation, made dealing with politics part of our ideology,” Maikey says. “Sexuality is a relevant lens to the occupation, and occupation is relevant to how we see our sexuality.”
Al-Qaws’ unwavering stance against the occupation led to a new wing of the movement in 2009 -- Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, an activist collective within the global BDS movement and the Boycott National Committee.
Though not officially affiliated with al-Qaws, PQBDS stems from al-Qaws ideology, which links the Palestinian struggle for sexual liberation with resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The queer call for BDS is a pointed response to what activists call Israel’s co-opting of queer Palestinian voices.
An international pro-Israel marketing campaign, called “pinkwashing” by BDS activists, reproduces what Maikey refers to as a “colonial logic” in which Tel Aviv is painted as a haven for repressed gay Palestinians, and Israel is a “savior” for gay Palestinians fleeing a homophobic, backwards society.
For al-Qaws activists, this construction is untrue and irrelevant. Israel does not grant asylum to gay Palestinians and, more importantly, “pinkwashing” obfuscates the reality that queer Palestinians endure the same daily oppressions of the occupation as heterosexual Palestinians.
“For me, Tel Aviv is the city that was raised on top of the remains of Yaffa, which is my grandparents’ home city,” said Sari from his hometown Ramallah. “To go partying in Tel Aviv is something that never crosses my mind.”
Instead of looking toward Tel Aviv or the Israeli gay community, al-Qaws is creating its own “havens” for Palestinians to discuss sexuality within uniquely Palestinian contexts.
These groups, which take place in Israel and the West Bank, give Palestinians the opportunity to discuss issues that they cannot address elsewhere.
Al-Qaws leaders recognize they are not separate from Palestinian society; they, too, have internalized the patriarchy they seek to overcome.
Helping other Palestinians deconstruct and overcome the oppression of sexism or heteronormativity is a form of activism in itself -- even if the public does not hear about it, and even if those Palestinians never become outspoken activists themselves.
“We provide a bubble so people can gain skills, knowledge, friends and allies,” said Maikey from her office in Jerusalem.
“It’s not only us as activists who are doing the change. A lot of people in their daily life are changing themselves, their families, their friends -- and we are contributing another thing.”
'A game we play'
Because al-Qaws deals with sensitive issues, the organization toes a delicate line between its public activism and the privacy of its members.
“Visibility is a game we play,” says Laila. “We know where to be visible, and where not to be visible.”
Members do not seek publicity as individuals, but the organization has become increasingly prominent in recent years, especially among other Palestinian social movements working for broader socio-political change.
“Palestinian civil society, young political movements -- we have a large network of activists and allies in the West Bank,” said Maikey.
While some al-Qaws projects aim to push the boundaries of sexual discourse in mainstream society, many are of a quieter nature.
Writing workshops, internal discussions, queer-friendly parties -- these initiatives, while certainly not secretive, have created a more fundamental change: honest discussion of sexuality within Palestinian society.
“When I started being active in Al-Qaws, the fact that we had this group of activists meeting regularly, that we discussed what to do next, came up with ideas together -- that was a statement unto itself,” Laila said. “That was our strongest statement on what queer activism is.”
Laila, for now, is content to be a prominent face in other activist circles. But for her work with al-Qaws, simply speaking about sexuality -- even if in the privacy of friends and allies -- is a major step forward.