By Heather Cassell, PQ Monthly
Celebrating their love and freedom, Cherifa and Maisaa Feddag, an asylee lesbian Arab couple from the United Arab Emirates, are changing their community and world by pronouncing their love for each other out loud and through a series of videos in Arabic and English.
A month after the couple’s arrival in the U.S., the two women wed in a small ceremony of just the two of them and the justice of the peace in their Boston, Mass. hotel room in April 2012. Maisaa, 25, took Cherifa’s, 32, last name, she says.
The women’s wedding was an act of exercising their rights as a loving lesbian couple, says Cherifa. For Maisaa, their wedding was about her commitment to Cherifa as well as forming their family of two in the U.S. after leaving her family behind in Dubai, where they both met. Cherifa left her family in Algeria long before she met Maisaa, she says.
“When we decided to get married, it was about the symbol of what gays want. It is a symbol of equality, respect and appreciation of years and years of fights and suffering of gay[s] who [didn’t] live to the moment of marriage equality,” Cherifa says.
Maisaa agrees, but the act was also more personal for her.
“Marriage was the best way to feel the commitment [and] settlement after days and days, of suffering, hiding feelings, hiding love and respect toward the person I love,” she says, now filled with courage to tell the world she’s married to the, “woman I chose to spend my life with.”
The newlyweds plan to renew their wedding vows to each other among friends in March to mark their third anniversary, they say.
The couple is also living out loud and proud. Since receiving their asylum status in the U.S., they’ve begun to record their lives in San Francisco producing 28 short episodes, mostly in Arabic and some in English, and posted them on YouTube and Facebook for other Arabs to watch.
“We came here and we are happy, but we don’t want to forget why we are here,” says Maisaa about why the couple left their country to start over in the U.S. “We don’t want to forget that. We want to do something.”
The response to their videos showing their daily lives in the “Gay Mecca” to celebrating at last year’s San Francisco’s Pride Parade has been enormous, the couple says. Their videos have also inspired other Arabs within the U.A.E. to publicly come out online and others have left their homes in the Middle East to go to countries where they will be safe.
“We speak about our daily life and how we are just Arab and we are gays and lesbian. We have a normal life. We don’t have anything to be ashamed [of],” says Maisaa.
“There is a movement now because of our videos,” adds Cherifa, proud that LGBT Arabs are speaking out in the face of being tortured or killed. “There are a lot of people who came out and [are] broadcasting videos, ‘We are gay and we [are] living in the Arab countries.’”
Cherifa and Maisaa’s goals with the videos are to share their own life experiences and show other Arabs that they don’t have to live in a world of charades and masks, as many do, and that being gay is OK.
In the U.A.E., living behind veils goes beyond real life for LGBT individuals. It is the reality how most LGBT Arabs live in a country where sexuality isn’t allowed to be discussed and LGBT individuals are in constant fear that the person they meet on the other side of the screen in real life might actually be a police officer who will arrest them.
Living in a virtual world online in Dubai, the two women found each other through social networks using aliases and false photos in 2010, they say. Maissa was so terrified that Cherifa wasn’t real, she repeatedly cancelled their dates to meet in person for fear that she was being set up, she says.
Fortunately, the virtual world was real for Cherifa and Maisaa. The veil pulled back, Cherifa, a human resource coordinator for a company in Dubai, and Maisaa, a mechanical engineering student at a local university, fell in love.
Nearly three years together, Cherifa and Maisaa complete each other’s sentences, as PQ witnessed during an interview with the happy couple at the Oakland offices of International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps asylees and refugees settle into the U.S., last month.
“This is [how] all lesbians and gays in Gulf or the Middle East are living their lives, like this with hidden mask. It’s horrible,” says Maisaa.
Dubai, is a small oil and trade wealthy city-state that is a part of the U.A.E. on the Persian Gulf.
In 2012, representatives of the U.A.E. protested the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first-ever discussion about LGBT rights. The discussion was based on the U.N.’s adoption of the resolution 17/19, “Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity,” passed in June 2011 and the follow-up report “Study on discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” authored by Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, and published in December 2011.
Representatives of Islamic and African nations spoke out in opposition to the reports’ stated goals, first with a letter to the council in February announcing its 57 member states’ opposition to the discussion in February 2012, then again a month later when the groups vocalized their opposition before several representatives walked out of the discussion at the meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We already know that [U.A.E. leaders] have not reached a point to discuss the human rights and accept the LGBT rights because if they accept the LGBT rights” then officials have to accept rights and “being equal at all of the levels,” says Cherifa.
“We see it on the land. They are not fair with people. There is no kind of human rights or respect to … equality,” continues Cherifa. “They cannot do that. So, we are not surprised at all, but of course we feel sorry.”
Maisaa nods her head in agreement.
As they became more serious about each other, Cherifa and Maisaa realized that they needed to leave Dubai. Maisaa’s family began to suspect the true nature of their relationship. They believed that their lives might be at risk if they didn’t leave. Separating wasn’t an option for them, they say.
Maisaa’s family began harassing and threatening her after suspecting that her relationship with her “friend” Cherifa might be more than friendship, she says.
Cherifa had lived what Maisaa was experiencing and she escaped it once before. Years before, her family abused and threatened her when they suspected she was a lesbian and she ran away to Dubai. But for her it was only a temporary solution.
“[It was a] terrible time with them. I had been beaten and threatened and a lot of horrible things happened to me,” says Cherifa, not going into detail. “This is why when the problems started with Maissa we decided that we don’t need a temporary solution.”
Maisaa agreed recalling her family threatening her and telling her, “You don’t have a right to see her.” One of Maisaa’s brothers threatened, “If you stay meeting this girl you will see something that you … can’t even imagine what would happen to you,” says Maisaa.
That was the final threat. That night Maisaa went to Cherifa, “Let’s leave.”
Two years into their relationship, the couple was already dreaming of living together peacefully. They were already making plans to find a permanent solution by escaping to the United States or another Western country, they say. It simply happened sooner and faster than they expected after applying for asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Dubai. They were immediately accepted. For the first time in their lives they tasted freedom rather than fear.
Cherifa dreamed of coming to San Francisco after reading Isabella Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune.” She loved the richness of the diversity and history described in the story and wanted to see it for herself. Then she learned about Harvey Milk, the city’s LGBT history, and the resources available to the couple, Cherifa says, happy that the couple ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Honestly we [were] meant to be here. Everything was pushing us to be here, like everything was easy. We couldn’t even dream about it,” says Maisaa.
The newlyweds are settling into life in the San Francisco Bay Area working, making new friends with local LGBT Arabs and the LGBT community, and in general building their lives, they say.
Maisaa has opened the line of communication with her family in Dubai on a limited basis, she says, but she has no plans of returning. San Francisco is the couple’s home now and Maisaa plans to return to college to complete her education, she says.
Cherifa plans to continue to work and settle into her American life, she says.
Watch the couple’s videos online here, or check out an episode of their “Born This Way” series below. Photos courtesy of Cherifa and Maisaa Feddag.
Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather Cassell is the publisher and editor of Girls That Roam, a new online women’s travel magazine and community. When Heather isn’t on the road or chasing the latest story she’s a writing and publishing consultant and editor, media relations expert and an event planner as president of Whimsy Media in San Francisco. You can reach Heather at email@example.com.