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Arab lesbians hold rare public meeting in Haifa, defying Islamist ban

Arab lesbians gathered in the northern Israeli city of Haifa at a rare public event, quietly defying protests from Islamists and a taboo in their own society.

So strong is the antipathy toward homosexuality in their communities that only few of the Arab women in the crowd of about 250 at the Wednesday meeting were gay a sign of how much Arab women feared being identified as lesbians, said Samira, 31, a conference organizer, who came with her Jewish Israeli girlfriend.

"We'd like all women to come out of the closet - that's our role. We work for them," said Samira, who battled her own family when they found out she was a lesbian.

Israel's Jewish majority is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country's secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. On the other hand, Jerusalem, with its large proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strongly anti-gay.

And among Israel's Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, homosexuality is taboo to most.

Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and a statement issued by a large Muslim group in Israel described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community.

Driven deep underground for the most part, only 10 to 20 Arab lesbians attended the conference, organizers said, and most blended in with their Israeli counterparts and Arab backers without making their presence known.

Poetry readings, music and Arab women rappers entertained the conference, called "Home and Exile in Queer Experience," organized by Aswat, an organization for Arab lesbians, with members in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We are here to say they (Arab lesbians) are not alone," said Rawda Morcos, Aswat's spokeswoman, one of a tiny minority of Arab women who are openly gay.

Some related painful experiences.

Samira, who has a dozen brothers and sisters, said she told a sibling she was gay two years ago. The news quickly spread among the family, and her 70-year-old mother fell into a depression, begging her daughter to change her ways.

But she eventually accepted her daughter's homosexuality "in her own way," by packing large boxes of food for Samira whenever she came to visit.

"My mother said, 'take the food, for you and your girlfriend'," Samira recalled, agreeing to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals.

Some of her family never came around. A pregnant sister told Samira she would "never touch her children."

Morcos said she had her car smashed up regularly for months and received threatening phone calls at her family home when her village in northern Israel found out she was a lesbian.

Many of the attendees said they were sad that the only place safe enough to hold a conference for gay Arab women was in a Jewish area of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population.

"This conference is being held, somehow, in exile, even though it's our country ... but it's not being held in Nazareth or Umm el-Fahm (two large Israeli Arab towns)," said Yussef Abu Warda, a playwright.

Outside the conference hall, 20 women protesters in headscarves and long, loose robes held up signs reading, "God, we ask you to guide these lesbians to the true path." Khadijeh Daher, 35, described lesbianism as a "sickness."

Security was tight. Attendance was by invitation only, and reporters were not allowed to take photographs, use tape recorders or identify people.

Even rapper Nahwa Abdul Aal, who performed for the gathering, didn't support the gays. "Being at this conference hasn't changed my mind," she said. "I still think it's wrong."

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