Sometimes freelance journalism is just failure. This interview was recorded already in early August 2013 in Books@, the only openly gay café in Amman. Malia*, the blogger behind Mind the Pause met up with me to talk about her life as a lesbian women in Jordan. I still remember that she was one of two women with short hair that I have seen during all my stay in the Middle East. Ramadan is on. She orders a beer and lights a cigarette. Bad-ass woman. The interview went down fine, only problem: I lost the tape.
What followed were months of enquiry, desperate search and the attempt to re-do it over Skype (which gloriously failed). Everything just to realize now – 12 weeks later – that I had a complete handwritten transcript of it. The analog world wins.
What did it mean for you to come out in the Jordanian society?
It was much harder to come out at the time I did it, almost 15 years before. Since I am out socially and I never lost anyone. The first person I cam out to was my cousin, but generally people that I told never had a problem with it. Today I am still careful about it. It is more the gay men I know who have problems, especially when they display a certain feminine attitude. 15 years before the whole scene here in Amman was very small, we talk about a group of maybe 20 people. By now it is more usual that people come out to their peers and the scene became larger. It is a bubble as long as you’re in, it is able to protect you from the outside world.
Where do you find partners, when homosexuality is such a taboo?
It is easier for gay men to find sexual partners than for lesbians. Simply due to the fact that womenare living with their parents most of the time and therefore face restrictions. Usually he internet is a place for lesbians to meet and get to know new people. Or mutual partners meet as friends of friends. On the other hand it is much more accepted for women to stay non-married in contrast to men. Nobody gets very suspicious about a single women, which makes it again easier for lesbians to deal with their sexuality in daily life.
How is the legal situation for homosexuals?
Here in Jordan we do not have a law that prohibits gay and lesbian sex. That means, it is not illegal but not legal as well. The LGBTI scene in Jordan exists in a legal grey zone. Transsexuals in particular still face a lot of discrimination being considered as satanic. A common prejudice against lesbians is that social circumstances influenced us to be the way we are, that we can be turned around. Personally I do not feel a need for justification. I am just who I am. Being homosexual is not a choice but a part of human sexuality.
Would you recommend young people to come out in the Jordanian society today?
I think that people should come out to their friends and family. Someone you love will most likely understand and support you. Personally I never lost anyone because they knew about my sexuality. This is very different for women than it is for men. Men usually face more obstacles meeting with a partner in private. All stories of violence against homosexuals that I hear are mostly men. On the other hand a big obstacle of empowering young lesbians is that we – unlike the gay scene – have no public role models. But then again both gays and lesbians have a total lack of support groups. This might be the biggest challenge up to date: Not having a political movement for the rights of LGBTI issues. Unfortunately I cannot say that the past generation paved the way. I ask myself, what have I done to enable the younger generation in their struggle for rights?
You are exclusively engaged in the internet blogging on “Mind the Pause”. How important is new media for the LGBTI scene in a restricted society like the Jordanian one?
I think that the internet made a great difference for gay communities all over the world. But here it had a greater impact. People learn about their sexuality on the web, they discuss their identity in the virtual sphere before they talk to anyone in the real world. Speaking of myself I try to promote open conversations on my blog as well as personal thoughts. It is a place for the scene to engage in discussion but also an outlet for my private reflections.
The Ammani gay scene is lately getting very vibrant, speaking of gay parties and a gay magazine. Why seem Jordanian lesbians so little involved?
There is hardly something in Amman that one could call a truly lesbian scene. Everything that happens, takes place within small social circles. Of course lesbian parties exists but we are way more careful than men. Honestly, I believe the lesbian scene – if you want to call it like that – is very boring (laughs). We have an advantage which consists of society being more in favour of lesbians than of gays. They like us more because we are the “smaller threat” to social norms. We are maybe just better in hiding.
Do you feel you get enough support from women’s rights movements?
Of course women’s rights and the aims of the lesbian scene are very much linked. One reason of carrying out an “honour” killing might be the homosexuality of a girl. Another problem that women’s rights activist tackle and that influences lesbians massively is the law that women need to have a male guard until the age of thirty. Of course you cannot go out by yourself and meet your girlfriend like this. But it limits the freedom of all women, not only lesbians. In theory the feminist movement should support us. What I see here in Jordan is that only young women are doing so. Old feminist do not even know the right of their own body, so how can they take a stand for mine? This society is still very enclosed even if secular and liberal voices are existing. I believe that on the long run they will have an impact.
What do you think of movements such as Femen who strongly engage in the discussion of women’s rights in the Middle East?
Femen should be more responsible about what message they deliver to young feminists in other places. Here in the Arab World some kind of protests can become very dangerous for the participants. If they are still promoted to be a valid tool, I believe that Femen is acting very selfish and irresponsible. We have to find our own way here.
What would be the way you choose?
For me social change through art, music and education is better than angry activism. Also I do not like having a prioritising and enclosing agenda. We have to fight for individual and personal freedom in our society. We have to fight religion being so much implemented in social relations. It is not only about our concerns as lesbians, there is much more to it. We do not even have access to sexual education, how can we talk about educating people about homosexuality? I do not subscribe my struggle to my sexuality only and would not feel right in an organization that only serves gay and lesbian rights. The approach in changing our surrounding has to be more global. Regardless to that I strongly favour a support group for people who just came out. Having an organization like this would be very important for people.
How do you feel is the current attitude today towards more openness in Jordanian society?
I am not sure. Even in liberal places homosexual affection is widely considered as “public displayed indecency”. We had some busts in the recent months where people in bars, such as this one, where put up to 48 hours in jail. There was this gay bar right in front of a police station that hosted transvestite shows. You can imagine what a cultural shock this produced. It was shut down in 2007 and nothing new has come up since. Like I told you before, I never experienced aggression against me because of my sexuality, but there are of course reports of homosexual people getting harassed by police and by peer groups. Our struggle for more rights is not a public one so far. We have to take little steps.
* Name changed by the author