Dr. Iman Al-Ghafari is a poet, a professor, a lesbian writer, an academic researcher, an illustrator and a literary translator. Her doctoral dissertation was about identity in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. She has written extensively on sexuality and gender issues in media, culture, and literature. Currently, she is a guest writer in Sigtuna as a part of the International City of Refuge programme.
Lesbian love appears to be an oxymoron and is a problematic existence in many countries—especially in closeted and homophobic cultures. Despite the fact that homophobia exists everywhere, it varies from one culture to another depending on the dominant rules, laws, and social values. It is still hard for lesbian love to survive in a male-chauvinistic world, because it remains imprisoned inside many closets of fear. In her poem "Lesbos" (1962), Sylvia Plath desperately suggests that if we want to exist, or even have an affair, "We should meet in another life, we should meet in air.” Ironically, this impossible situation that confronts many lesbians worldwide has not changed a lot. The issue is to what extent lesbian lovers can meet in air or in a land ruled by hate and fear?
Though heterosexual love is widely celebrated in mainstream media, lesbian love remains ignored, silenced, or treated as a sinful act. Most Arabic films and songs celebrate heterosexual relations and male friendships, but they rarely portray female bonding, neither in the context of friendship nor of love, without inciting fear. Clearly, hetero-patriarchal cultures cannot comprehend the fact that there are lesbians who exclusively love women, and who have never been attracted to men. Since women are usually portrayed as potential enemies and competitors who conspire against each other to win the love of a male suitor, many Arab women have come to believe that they are necessarily envied by other women. By creating distrust and fear among women, Arab patriarchy manages to alienate potential lesbian lovers from each other, making it easier for men to control women's relations.
The tendency to incite fear among the public is usually provoked to achieve socio-political goals. If ever an intimate lesbian relation is portrayed, it is usually projected in a negative and intimidating light. The idealization of heterosexuality is never projected onto lesbianism, which therefore remains invisible. In surveillance cultures that are constituted by a fear of everyone, writing about lesbian love requires confronting many of the dominant views about love, sex, and the female body. Coming out of the closets of cultures that suppress the open expression of love requires confronting the systems that institutionalize fear to become part and parcel of people's relations not only with each other, but also with their own selves. Arab countries do not only imprison rebellious voices behind literal or metaphorical bars, they also imprison love and create a culture of fear surrounding it. Such an oppressive setting makes it hard for lesbian love to be privately attained or publicly pronounced.
Though same-sex relations within the context of asexual friendships are legitimized, they are frowned upon within the context of romantic love and sexual intimacies. In mainstream cultures that are predominantly heterosexual, males are expected to fall in love with members of the opposite sex, and females are expected to marry a male when they grow up. These assumptions that exist almost everywhere deprive gays and lesbians of the chance to assert any difference from the generalized norm, lest one should be labelled as deviant, or become isolated as a freak. Any presumed deviation from the norm would alienate the lesbian from the rest of the community that values sameness on many levels, except on the level of love and sexuality.
Since Arab and Islamic societies are afraid of women in general, and of lesbians in particular, they control women by inserting fear in their hearts, bodies, and minds to prevent them from taking any steps towards self-assertion. Many of the novels about lesbian relations appear to be written by homophobic male or female authors whose main purpose seems to terrify lesbians both of coming out of the closets and of other women. Most of the works written about lesbians by non-lesbian authors attempt to stigmatize lesbianism as a 'sexual deviance', or ‘an unnatural’ attraction that can be hetero-normalized by males. Hence, lesbian love in many Arab cultures continues to be depicted as a temporary lustful act that is deprived of passion and commitment.
Despite all the restrictions and risks, I prefer to speak up and stay free from fear. Homophobic cultures use silence and fear as a tool to control, and I use words as a means of overcoming fear. The irony is that silence is usually treated by Arab men as a sign of women's acceptance, while it is used by many women as a strategy to attain fake freedom behind bars and to avoid any confrontation with the dominant systems of power. After having been systematically punished and harassed in my country for teaching feminist poetry and for speaking and writing about my intimate lesbian feelings, a friend asked me with a sorrowful look in her eyes: "Was is worth your while to go through all this when you could silently love women?" I took a deep breath and I sighed in utter exhaustion: "If I don't speak, I will never exist."
20 November, 2017