Rauda Morcos has every right to hate the press. On July 2003, the Israeli newspaper Yedeot Ahronot interviewed Morcos about her poetry but also announced to the world that she was a lesbian.
Following the public outing, Rauda Morcos’ car windows were smashed, the tires punctured, and she received countless threatening phone calls and death threats. Soon after, Morcos lost her job working with youth and was forced to move back in with her parents in Haifa.
“It was a disaster for me,” she explains “but I am not bitter, at least now I understand how important it is to influence the media and represent something different.”
Rather than shying away from the media spotlight, Morcos decided to turn a bad situation into something positive. She went on to start the groundbreaking lesbian organization ASWAT (Voices) in 2003, made up of a group of Arab gay women that work on many levels to raise public awareness and create a safe environment for gay women within Arab and Palestinian society.
ASWAT is self-described as a home to all lesbians, inter-sex, queers, transsexual, transgender, questioning, and bisexual women. She was also awarded the Felipe de Souza award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 2006 for her human rights campaigning.
One thing that she believes hinders social change in the Arab world is the negative media coverage of homosexuality — when the issue is discussed at all. “If you watch satellite TV or listen to the radio in the Arab world, you will find that they don’t mention — not even once — the word gay or have a gay character or even a gay story,” Morcos says.
“And if they mention homosexuality, it won’t be obvious,” she adds. “They will mention the world ‘shath’ but that means nothing, this chair could be ‘shath’! I just don’t think that anyone will understand what they mean and, watching it all, you would never think that an alternative to heterosexuality exists. . . .”
Yet this under-representation is only half of the problem; when the Arab media does cover the issue of homosexuality it seems they have already made up their mind to denounce it.
Let Me Decide What I Want to Think
Earlier this year, MENASSAT covered an incident where the Lebanese channel LBC aired a program on homosexuality called the “The Bold Red Line.” In the program, same-sex relationships were misrepresented and linked to sexual abuse, prostitution, and growing up without a father figure.
Morcos believes that if these programs truly want to explore homosexuality, then they should do so openly, without constantly having to reaffirm heterosexuality. “If they want to represent the alternative to heterosexuality, then they should go ahead and do it properly. . . . It really annoys me and I just want to say ‘Let me decide what I want to think!'”
The misrepresentation of homosexuality in the Arab world has also emerged from some rather unexpected sources. The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Egyptian author Alaa el-Aswany, was hailed by critics worldwide for breaking social taboos in Egypt, but was criticized by Morcos for its inaccurate portrayal of homosexuality. “The Yacoubian Building is very negative about homosexuality as it shows that the person was molested when he was a child and this is the ‘excuse’ for being a shath. . . . This supports very widespread ideas that rape or sexual abuse is a ’cause’ of homosexuality.”
Morcos adds, “Many people need to realize that homosexuality is very similar to heterosexuality, you cannot explain why you’re heterosexual. People may ask you why you’re homosexual, but the only answer that you can give to these people is how do you know that you’re heterosexual?”
Change from the Inside
As for inspiring the Arab media to move forward, Morcos insists that change needs to come from within the Arab world rather than from the West. “I don’t believe that emulating the West will work — it will only bring temporary change.”
“I don’t have to remind you that women, until very recently in the Western world, were denied the vote so I don’t think that we should talk about the Western world as the kingdom of freedom. And it is not as if we don’t have our own way of defining our freedom,” she said.
Morcos says that real social change in the Arab world must come first by involving local communities in the process. Finding ways that work, she says, “Is the best way forward for people who are involved. They need to get together locally, then regionally to talk about how to change the Arab and Muslim world, to write about it and openly tackle the media and TV.”
But what does Morcos believe is standing in the way of realizing this change?
“Politics is one of the main barriers to change, as well as entrenched traditions. Add to that the national struggle.”
Equality above All
For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is clear that the nationalistic struggle takes top priority on their social and political agendas and raising other issues has the potential to be seen as a dangerous distraction. As Morcos explains, “When your struggle is about the nation you are welcome to go out and practice your principles, yet the moment that women — especially women — want to focus their struggle on their gendered/sexual needs, they become enemies.”
“It is the same with the LGBQT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Queer, and Transgender) movement — the moment that they focus their struggle on their sexual identity, they become enemies as the national struggle is seen as the most important struggle.”
Morcos, however, refuses to accept this situation and insists she would be contradicting herself if she didn’t believe that equality was the most important thing to champion. She says she is extremely optimistic that change is on the way in the Arab world.
When Morcos was publicly “outed,” she admits that she underestimated her community and its ability to understand and tolerate difference. “It was a challenging time for all of us when I came out, but it was also inspiring. When I first came out, there were a lot of people against it and there was even a lot of aggression towards me, but now people see me and they welcome me everywhere and respect me very much.”
Change is clearly inevitable, but it takes time and understanding, she says. “My village is a small example of what can be achieved. It is an Arab community which is very conservative, but still they are able to understand one person, so why not understand more?”