"For many queer Palestinians, and many Palestinians who believe in absolute freedom, it just comes as second nature that when we fight for a free Palestine, we're fighting for a Palestine that is free in all ways, not just free from the occupation," says Palestinian artist and musician Bashar Murad. "A Palestine that does not discriminate based on religion or based on gender or sexual orientation." Through his songs and video art, the openly gay pop singer champions LGBTQ+ rights within conservative Palestinian society and under Israel's occupation. Born in East Jerusalem in the early 1990s, Murad captures the layers of dislocation that define the lives and experiences of many Palestinians. As he recently described one of his songs to NPR, it is "about the feeling of not feeling like you belong anywhere. And so you'll be fighting for Palestine, and then people will tell you Palestine doesn't exist. Palestinians don't exist. And then in your own community, you'll be fighting against conservative norms, but also carrying the message of Palestine with you."
Ghadir Shafie, a Palestinian activist and feminist who was born in Israel, in the still-predominantly Palestinian city of Akka on the Mediterranean, had that feeling when she moved to Tel Aviv as a teenager. She expected a welcoming and queer-friendly city, based on the familiar image of Tel Aviv, only to be told by her Israeli friends to change her name, so that it would "sound more Israeli and less Palestinian," she recalls.
"Israel's pinkwashing is an international strategy in order to paint a false picture of progressive, modern, gay-friendly Israel, while at the same time to create an image of a Palestinian who is homophobic and backwards," Shafie says. "And within this context, to also act as the savior of the Palestinian and to constantly try to create one form of identity, and whoever doesn't fit into this identity is not accepted." Shafie went on to co-found Aswat, the Palestinian Feminist Center for Sexual and Gender Freedoms, which is based in Haifa.
Murad and Shafie spoke to Democracy in Exile in a joint interview to discuss the queer and feminist movements in Palestine that persist under the shadow of both Israeli occupation and apartheid—and how their fight for LGBTQ+ rights is inextricable from their Palestinian identity. "The struggle for liberation in Palestine is intersectional," Shafie says. "There can be no free Palestine without queer liberation."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
I believe that certain human rights and civil freedoms cannot be prioritized above other human rights and freedoms, nor can they be divided. The struggle for liberation in Palestine is intersectional.
- Ghadir Shafie
The term apartheid has now become more and more common in describing the situation in Palestine—the lived reality for Palestinians and the system of control that Palestinians experience. From your experiences as Palestinians, as activists, as people who are engaged in social movements, and as people who are engaged in the queer movement, what does it mean to you, if it means anything to you, that the international community is catching up to the way Palestinians have understood their lives all this time?
Ghadir Shafie: Palestinians have been talking about apartheid for over 20 years, and only this year, Amnesty International issued a report on Israel "committing the crime of apartheid." The report was very clear and courageous and used the exact terminology that is reflective of Israel's apartheid. It clearly shows that Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians—against all Palestinians across all areas under its control.
Israel is doing that through successive governments in order to benefit Jewish Israelis. This amounts to apartheid, and apartheid is prohibited in international law. I think this is the most important thing for us to try and focus our efforts on, because laws, policies and practices, which are intended to maintain a cruel system of control over Palestinians, have left us fragmented in so many forms—geographically, socially, politically. Very, very fragmented and impoverished in a constant state of fear and insecurity and confusion. I think this is the most important thing for Israel to maintain—to create a state of fear and confusion that would make it impossible for us to organize.
But human rights have long been a cited line by the international community when dealing with the decades-long struggle and suffering of Palestinians. Being a Palestinian based in present-day Israel, facing the brutality of Israel's repression, it's very easy to explain apartheid. I live in a mixed city, one of the five mixed cities in Israel, which are Akka, Lyd, Ramle and Haifa. Israel has created this fake image of mixed cities where people share the same space, but actually, the state of Israel has made sure to create separation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to maintain its system of apartheid.
How do we feel apartheid? In addition to 66 laws that discriminate against me as a Palestinian in all fields of life, I think we've all seen it very clearly during the funeral of the murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. You know, when you go to a funeral, you feel great sadness for the loss of a beloved one. In the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, we felt the oppression of the state; we felt the brutality of the state; and we also felt fear because the police were attacking the mourners very brutally. And the whole world witnessed that.
We've seen the true face of Israel many times. Apartheid has many faces, and as Palestinians, we have different experiences of apartheid, whether we're based inside present-day Israel, in Jerusalem, in the Occupied Territories, in besieged Gaza, or exiled outside of historic Palestine. It's important for us to try and explain apartheid, not just in terms of, you know, international law and the international community, but in terms of practices. Today we see people around the world gather in solidarity with Palestinians. We haven't seen it on the level of governments yet, but I think that people around the world are understanding every day what this apartheid system is.
Bashar Murad: To me, a pivotal moment was the #SaveSheikhJarrah movement that started online. Since around that time, we've seen Palestine penetrating different spaces and new spaces all around the world. We've been seeing Palestinians on the ground who decided to take control of the narrative that has been so false for the past decades. We've seen this rise of citizen journalists who are on the ground, who are documenting their daily experiences of apartheid and of living under occupation. And this helped, I think, take us to a new place where we're going, staying away from neutral words like "conflict" or "clashes," which don't really present a full story, and going toward terms like apartheid, settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing. It's also been great to see how Palestine is becoming, in a way, more mainstream in certain spaces, and how it is being tied to other struggles all around the world.
But at the same time, although this is all great, it's also alarming how long it took for the world to start using these terms that we've been saying for a long time. So it alarms me about how long governments will take to actually recognize reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B'Tselem.
I live in East Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah, and I've had a very firsthand experience of the occupation. I was able to see with my own eyes just the continuous dehumanization of Palestinians who are just fighting for basic human rights, who are fighting against ethnic cleansing and forced displacement from their homes. I was also at Shireen Abu Akleh's funeral, and it was a very… we had the normal feelings of a funeral, which are sadness and grief and anger. But it was also coupled with this feeling of oppression, as Ghadir said, and the feeling of danger and the feeling that even in our sadness and in our mourning, we cannot do it in peace, because we are not considered on the same level as our Jewish counterparts in this apartheid state.
It strikes me that with what is happening and transpiring on the ground today, there seems to be an effort to escalate the erasure of Palestinian identity itself by the Israelis. An attempt—and I say it's an attempt, not a fact, because I think it's a fruitless effort and impossible to achieve. But nonetheless, there's this new effort, for example, to ban the Palestinian flag. Now that's obviously a retro move in the sense that this happened previously, and of course, Palestinians famously found various ways to express the identity of the flag.
Ghadir Shafie: Today, Israel is criminalizing the use of the Palestinian flag, and we saw the aggressiveness and brutality of police forces attacking even the casket bearers [at Shireen Abu Akleh's funeral] to remove the flag. You ask about escalation—there's a constant escalation. Israel can do whatever it wants. It can legalize the Palestinian flag and our identity, and it can criminalize it as well. And I think the whole issue of Palestinian identity and Palestinian existence has been scattered ever since Oslo.
We've been called Arab Israelis, or Arabs of '48, sometimes Palestinian Israelis. I think throughout all the peace treaties and accords and agreements, we were never mentioned. Two million Palestinians living inside the state of Israel were never mentioned as part of any solution. And only in 2005, when BDS, the Palestinian boycott divestment and sanctions movement, was launched to, first of all, shy away from a political solution and bring back the discussion to human rights, that it has united all the demands of all Palestinians. It was mostly why I became a passionate supporter of BDS, because it's acknowledging my existence and being part of the Palestinian people and not marginalizing and changing my identity. Unfortunately, this discourse has been familiar to us always as Palestinian queers. And hopefully, we'll have a chance to address that as well.
To relate more specifically to your question about Palestinian identity—our organizing was to create a movement that was inclusive, broad and effective at the same time, and not to fall into this identity discourse. So, for example, in establishing our queer movement, it was important for us to address Palestinian identity within that, to address our feminist identity, our gender identity and our sexual identity.
For many years, it was important for us not to prioritize the struggle because rights and struggles cannot be divided nor prioritized. And the Palestinian queer movement has actually continued what Palestinians have always done, or at least Palestinian feminists. Because when we try to historicize the queer movement in Palestine, it's imperative to try and conceptualize the intersection of queer politics and feminism as the feminist movement has always strategically and organically connected to national and social struggles. Meaning that to a great extent, women's rights within Palestinian society became a mainstream issue, despite the constant efforts to marginalize women's voices and minimize our immense contribution in the struggle for justice and freedom. Our institutional memory and heritage are those of a feminist movement that has always been effectively involved in political, social and national organizing and, in doing so, ultimately connecting struggles within a society that has been resisting occupations, settler colonialism, apartheid, Zionism and sexism for almost a hundred years.
I think in establishing our grassroots queer movement in Palestine, what we did is to enrich and broaden this intersection to include gender and sexual rights and freedoms. In doing so, we have placed a special emphasis on the intersectionality of our struggles, as Palestinians, as women and as queers in uniting feminism, queerness and resistance to all forms of oppression into a monumental struggle that has become not only relevant, but also effective locally and globally.
It just comes as second nature that when we fight for a free Palestine, we're fighting for a Palestine that is free in all ways, not just free from the occupation. A Palestine that does not discriminate based on religion or based on gender or sexual orientation.
- Bashar Murad
Bashar Murad: To answer your question. Palestinian-ness is always under attack, and as Palestinians, we're just seeing how the Israeli government can find new creative ways to attack our existence and our identity. But now it seems that they're starting to recycle the same old methods from history. The latest thing is the attack on the Palestinian flag. But what the state fails to understand is that based on history, no matter what methods are used to try to erase our identity, it is impossible, and we'll always find creative ways. If they ban the flag, we will probably come out with watermelons the next day or something.
I think for many queer Palestinians, and many Palestinians who believe in absolute freedom, it just comes as second nature that when we fight for a free Palestine, we're fighting for a Palestine that is free in all ways, not just free from the occupation. A Palestine that does not discriminate based on religion or based on gender or sexual orientation.
Can you give a little bit of history about the queer movement in Palestine, and how that feeds into and contributes to the overall liberation movement for Palestinians?
Ghadir Shafie: I believe that certain human rights and civil freedoms cannot be prioritized above other human rights and freedoms, nor can they be divided. The struggle for liberation in Palestine is intersectional. It is transformative and effective and needs the full support of the global queer community and activists.
Palestinian queers and LGBTQIA+ people are among the most discriminated marginalized minorities in the world, facing multiple levels of oppression—as Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid, settler colonialism and occupation, as women and trans people living in sexist, violent, militaristic, patriarchal societies, and as queers in the context of pinkwashing and homophobia.
Queer people around the world were celebrating in Pride events and marches [in June] while Palestinian queers have been living in a state of horror, basically. Apartheid Israel is creating fear and chaos among Palestinians, applying excessive force through the use of lethal weapons on peaceful demonstrations, even funerals. A lot of people ask what it means to be queer in Palestine. I think Palestinian queers face some of the universal challenges that queer people around the world face, but unique to the context of Palestine is occupation, settler colonialism, apartheid and pinkwashing. Israel's pinkwashing is an international strategy in order to paint a false picture of progressive, modern, gay-friendly Israel, while at the same time to create an image of a Palestinian who is homophobic and backwards. And within this context, to also act as the savior of the Palestinian and to constantly try to create one form of identity, and whoever doesn't fit into this identity is not accepted.
As a teenager, questioning my sexuality within Palestinian society, I moved to Tel Aviv, where I studied and I actually believed that this is the place where I can live my life freely. But very soon my Israeli friends tried to change my name, so I would sound more Israeli and less Palestinian. At the time I was very young and confused, but it was very clear to me that I've always been a Palestinian. I had just started to question my sexual identity and at some point, it was very difficult for me to accept this imposition by my Israeli colleagues. I decided to leave Tel Aviv and never look back.
I moved away from Tel Aviv with a feeling that my gender and sexual identity as a Palestinian is not something that is clear, and definitely I don't want to change my Palestinian identity in order to fit into the narrow Israeli framework of identity. It was only 10 years later when I joined and helped co-found Aswat, the Palestinian Feminist Center for Sexual and Gender Freedoms, that I was able to reconcile my sexual orientation and my sexual and gender identity with my national identity. Nothing changed ever since. My son goes to a Palestinian school, and the Ministry of Education doesn't allow us to talk about sexual rights and sexual identity, because again, "we are not ready and we are backwards and primitive and homophobic."
The whole narrative of pinkwashing is deeply rooted within Israeli colonialism and apartheid. One of the main challenges in our organizing—in addition to the political fragmentation, the social fragmentation, the geographic fragmentation—is to try and create a narrative that would relate to all Palestinians and find what is in common between us, and not separate ourselves further from the struggle for justice and peace.
This is when the Palestinian movement started organizing around intersectionality. And again, it was inspired by the feminist movement that has always organized around and been strategically and organically connected to national and social struggles.
Our addition to the national struggle in Palestine, to the national feminist struggle in Palestine, is to come and enrich and broaden this intersection to include gender and sexual rights and freedoms. And because Israel was very much promoting pinkwashing, it was important for us also to create a discourse that was very, very clearly explaining what is queer liberation and how there can be no free Palestine without queer liberation. Trying to put queer discourse and queer liberation more into the center and not to marginalize it like Israel has been doing. We're dealing with a very oppressive state, and we're also dealing with a very fearful society.
It's also important to address the internal challenges that we deal with within Palestinian society. In the last 20 years or so, in our grassroots organizing in Palestine, we have created many open spaces and queer-friendly spaces. We have been interacting with the Palestinian street, with the feminist movement, with the national movement. When we go out to demonstrate for justice, my people don't oppress me. I was never oppressed by Palestinians. The Palestinians don't shoot rubber-coated bullet at me. They don't shoot tear gas bombs. The most aggression is state oppression [from Israel]. BDS, which is the largest coalition of civil society in Palestine, is centering Palestinian queer voices. Queer liberation goes hand in hand and stands in solidarity with all forms of liberations and against all forms of oppressions.
Bashar Murad: One of my main issues with pinkwashing is that, first of all, it makes the queer person an exceptional human being that is more deserving of "saving" than a non-queer person. This is why I always have this issue with people who are falling into the trap of Israel's pinkwashing strategy, and how Israel supposedly treats queer people and, on the other hand, how Palestine would treat them. To me, as a human being, I don't think my gender identity or my sexual orientation differentiates me from the other Palestinians who are under the same oppression. At the same time, pinkwashing also makes the Palestinian feel that there is no space for him in his own community. As Ghadir mentioned, when this queer person goes to Israel and lives their life there, they will see that they are also oppressed there because they're Palestinian. So for me as a queer person, living in Palestine, and also as an artist who has been trying to establish my work and my future here in Palestine, we always have a struggle with space and finding a space that we identify with as queer Palestinians. It seems that no matter where we go, we are not accepted or we are oppressed for a certain reason.
Of course, while there is a queer movement and there are queer Palestinians who are claiming their spaces in occupied Palestine and in the West Bank, I won't sit here and say that homophobia is nonexistent in the Palestinian community, or that we are where we're supposed to be in terms of queer rights and queer acceptance. But to me, the oppression that we do feel or whatever pushback that we feel in our own societies for being queer, I think it's magnified by the occupation. Any struggle that I have as a queer Palestinian on this land, it will always go back to the occupation, because the occupation creates instability and it magnifies these inner struggles and internal Palestinian problems that are present in every society around the world. But the occupation magnifies it. Even if homophobia exists in certain places in Palestine, two things can be true at once. The occupation is still present, and it doesn't take away from that reality if the other exists.
Ghadir Shafie: I just wanted to relate to what Bashar said. I agree with him. I think the burden of being an artist, a Palestinian artist, also a Palestinian queer artist—and I think Bashar is the first openly Palestinian queer singer—there is a certain burden that comes also with the responsibility. Art and artists are always on the first frontline. And there's a lot of responsibility lying on the shoulders of artists when they perform, whether in Palestine or outside. What I'm trying to say is, it's our responsibility to create these safe and empowering spaces for queer artists, just as we create these spaces also for non-queer artists.
One question that doesn't get enough attention, even though the issue has been talked about a lot, is Palestinian leadership—and by this, I don't mean Palestinian Authority or the PLO. The Palestinian leadership as it currently exists is not there, right? They are not privy or able to even conceptualize in a lot of ways this other version of liberation that you all have—as activists who are approaching the struggle from this intersectional perspective, from a global perspective, from a feminist lens, from a queer lens. And so my question is, what would you like to see develop, not so much in terms of this institution or that institution, but in terms of the kind of leadership that exists?
Bashar Murad: For me as a 29-year-old living in East Jerusalem, what you said is not controversial at all. To me, the Palestinian leadership is nonexistent. I do not see anyone who represents me, and the basic things that me and my generation believe in.
What needs to happen is we need a leader who speaks to everybody, and a leadership that is based on these concepts of intersectionality and holds an inclusive freedom for all. And, yeah, right now, it's not present at all. A lot of the time, things that have been happening in Palestine or the way that the PLO or the police act, it shows that there's clearly no leadership. When I see the way that the PLO behaves and sometimes treats Palestinians themselves, it's confusing. Especially after the past couple of years where we've had this rise in solidarity and awareness for Palestine all around the world.
For all this work, this grassroots work that has been happening from the Palestinian people themselves, the leadership just comes and ruins all that. We need leadership that knows how to communicate with the rest of the world, but also how to communicate with their own people and push for these ideals of inclusive liberation.
Ghadir Shafie: I would add that the Palestinian leadership, whether in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or in present-day Israel, has failed to fight for our most basic rights—not just the right of return for refugees, but the right of life itself to Palestinians living here. It has failed on all levels. It has failed to provide leadership. It has failed to provide any form of resistance to Israel's oppression, and it has failed to provide alternatives. I think what we want to see is a more strategic movement, a more effective movement, a movement that gathers the Palestinian people, that forms a broader coalition that focuses on commonalities rather than differences, that prioritizes the right of life, a leadership that springs hope for everyone.
Israel's main goal is to try and take away hope from us. I agree with Bashar when he mentioned that there was a wave of hope that was very courageous, that sprung all over historic Palestine last year, when Israel attempted to continue its ethnic cleansing against residents in Sheikh Jarrah. I think this uprising revived Palestine. It was spreading from cities and villages inside Israel to cities and villages in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to Gaza, to refugees and then to the world.
We were able to do that without having a proper leadership. So imagine how much we can achieve with a more compassionate leadership, a leadership with dignity, because we are also fighting for our dignity on a daily basis. If BDS, with all the burdens and the challenges that it has faced, managed to gather so much solidarity, locally and globally, then that is the form of leadership we should aspire for—that unites our demands, that springs hope, and brings home little victories, because these little victories give us hope and willpower to continue to struggle for justice and freedom.