BY MAYA HOFFMAN ’20
The Mount Holyoke College Arab Student Union (MHCASU) hosted “Queer Arab Narratives -‑ Past and Present” in the Mead Common Room on Wednesday, April 18. The event was meant to “explore stories, organizations, works and personalities that have dominant, explicit or implicit, queer associations throughout history in Arabic culture, literature and music,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
Layle Omeran ’13, a Mount Holyoke alum from Yemen and founder of Za’faraan, a queer and trans collective for Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in the U.S., spoke at the event. Omeran shared their personal narrative of identity with intersectionalities of sexuality, language, gender and displacement, among others.
Omeran discussed the common conceptions and dialogue that exist around queer Arab identities by tracing the history of queerness in Arab culture and as it exists in modern-day Arab culture. They said that the construction of queerness usually falls into two different narratives. One is external, that queerness was created as a response to trauma. The other is internal, which centers around the multiplicities that comprise the actual person.
Omeran shared some of their art, including two portraits of queer Arab people using calligraphy. The goal of these portraits, according to Omeran, was to “re-imagine culture and disrupt the status quo.” They were “trying to represent these people without exposing them entirely.”
Queer narratives are not included in many Arab cultures, and queer Arab identities are often not represented in common LGBT spaces for people of color. “It was very important for us to put on this event and create this space for folks who identify as queer and/or trans Arabs,” said co-chairs of the Mount Holyoke ASU Joud Mar’i ’19 and Nada Al-Thawr ’19. While discussing the goals of the event, Mar’i said their goal was to create a space where queer and/or trans Arabs are able to learn about the history of movements and initiatives in the Arabic-speaking world. “We were also hoping to create a space where people who don’t identify as Arab, can learn, share their stories and help support our communities,” said Mar’i.
Queer oppression in the Middle East and North Africa has a long history which continues to this day. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report created in 2018 by the HRW and the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality details such oppression. Until recently, forced anal examinations were legal and practiced in Lebanon and Tunisia. Pressure from activist organizations and individuals in the region brought an end to the invasive practices.
There are other instances of oppression carried out by state and non-state actors in these regions, including the criminalization of same-sex relations and gender nonconformity, community stigma and rejection, lack of gender recognition for transgender and gender nonconforming people and many other forms of violence. Most recently, in September 2017, Egyptian security forces arrested dozens of people carrying the rainbow flag.
Omeran’s presentation was followed by a question-and-answer period that turned into a less formal discussion. “I was really happy to see a Mount Holyoke alum connecting with current students,” said Prokriti Shyamolima ’19, a student who attended the event.
Following the discussion, current students shared their own work at an open mic section. “The most rewarding part of putting this event together was being able to have space where queer and/or trans identifying Arabs were able to share their stories, their struggles and their journeys,” said Mar’i. “They got to learn about different spaces in the Arabic speaking world where they can reach out for support and love. Most importantly, it was a space for queer and trans Arabs to exist and bring all their intersecting identities and feel represented, heard and supported.”
Omeran discussed the work of many organizations currently spreading awareness about queerness in Arab culture including Aswat, Ghanni and Al-Qaws in Palestine, Helm in Lebanon and the My Kali magazine in Jordan. Locally, they talked about Tarab in New York City and their own Za’faraan in Boston. Za’faraan publishes an online zine called ZA’FARAAN! and is looking for submissions before June 30, 2018 for its next edition.