A Celebration of Courage: Rauda Morcos, Founder of ASWAT, the First Palestinian Lesbian Group, Receives Felipa Award

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) announced today that its 2006 Felipa de Souza Award will be presented in May to Rauda Morcos, founder of ASWAT (Voices), the first group for Palestinian lesbians in the region.

Since 1994, the Felipa Award has recognized the courage and impact of grassroots groups and leaders dedicated to improving the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other individuals stigmatized and abused because of their sexuality. The Felipa Award carries with it a $5,000 (USD) stipend to assist and strengthen the ability of grassroots human rights groups to do their work.

“Rauda Morcos is a true example of courageous and effective human rights leadership,” said Paula Ettelbrick, the executive director of IGLHRC. “By founding ASWAT and being so visible as a lesbian, Rauda has helped turn fear into hope for so many others. We are proud to celebrate her accomplishments this year and to support her work.”

In 2002, Rauda Morcos joined a virtual forum for Palestinian lesbians, the first opportunity for lesbian women to communicate openly with each other in Israel and in the occupied territories. After the success of the online virtual forum, Morcos co-founded ASWAT, which means Voices, in January 2003 as a place for Palestinian lesbian women to meet face to face and to discuss and share ideas with one another. Since its founding, ASWAT has grown and developed a range of urgently needed programs under the guidance of Morcos.

“As the first Arab to be given this award, I am honored as a member of ASWAT and because such an award brings a sense of legitimacy to our organization within the Palestinian community and within many different communities in which we try to work,” said Rauda Morcos. “Just think how this will sound to women or men in our communities—that a person gets awarded for who they are as a lesbian and that being a lesbian is something to be celebrated. The award also sends a message that LGBTQI people are not just about sex but also about political action and human rights activities.”

ASWAT programs and services include the following:

  • Advocacy outreach and education to reach the Palestinian community through workshops, media and lectures.
  • Monthly Support Group Meetings to provide opportunity for women to express thoughts and feelings about their gender, sexual identity and nationality. This is often the first time women can discuss these issues together in Arabic, a language that does not usually tolerate nor consist of positive expressions for female sexuality or lesbianism.
  • An Information Center that runs the website and a Support Line where women can call to find a safe place or to share their experiences and receive guidance and support. Also produces and translates LGBTQI materials in Arabic.
  • ASWAT's virtual forum Palgaywomen that consist of over 70 participants.
    Crisis Situations Assistance in response to hate crimes, employment discrimination and threats on the lives of group members from their community.
  • Educational Project for Service Providers who work with youth, targeting teachers, counselors, youth group leaders, community centers workers and others.

ASWAT is dealing with strong taboos regarding women sexuality and sexual orientation and found it difficult at the beginning of its existence to reach out to groups within the Arab community. ASWAT as a group and its members can still face rejection and silencing within the feminist community, the Palestinian community, the Israeli society and the International Communities in general.

“The Felipa award will give ASWAT a much greater credibility and encourage people to work with us in advancing human rights for Palestinian LGBTQI people,” said Morcos.

Nominations for the Felipa Award are solicited each year from activists around the world. Nominees go through a rigorous review by the staff, board and the International Advisory Committee of IGLHRC. The Award embodies the spirit and story of Felipa de Souza, who endured persecution and brutality after proudly declaring her intimacy with a woman during a 16th Century inquisition trial in Brazil. Previous Felipa Award winners include: Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), the first organization to push for the human rights of LGBT people in Zimbabwean society and to provide counseling services and HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns; Simon Tseko Nikoli, the famed LGBT/HIV activist from South Africa; Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, whose leader Brian Williamson was murdered in 2004; Lohana Berkins, a globally known transgender activist from Argentina; and Maher Sabry, the Egyptian activist who notified IGLHRC of the arrests of the Cairo 52.

Rauda Morcos from ASWAT will receive the Felipa Award at an awards ceremony in New York on May 23, 2006 and in San Francisco on May 25, 2006.