5 min

Arab lesbians defy tradition to form chosen families

Pressured by families and society, women create relationships on their own terms

One can find examples of gay people getting married to people of the opposite sex across the world. It is hardly news, Danny Ramadan writes. Many queer people who are in denial of their own sexuality find themselves drawn to the idea of getting married — the heterosexual way. Credit: Danny Ramadan

Fida tells him to come over and sit at the table with us, but he rebels and continues to run around the park and climb into the little swing.

He falls, and she rushes to his aid. He is crying with loud screams, overreacting to what looked like a tiny slip. My ears are shattering from his high-pitched screams.

“This is how my whole day was today,” she tells me, as she tries to calm him down in her lap. “I spent Friday babysitting, while my wife is dealing with her ex-husband.”

Fida, a 36-year-old lesbian, met her “wife,” Salma, 28, three years ago, when the latter was still married. (Fida’s and Salma’s names, like those of everyone else interviewed for this story, have been altered to protect their identities.)

Salma was forced to marry her distant cousin five years ago. She knew she couldn’t refuse her family’s orders to get married. “When I met him the first time, it was dread at first sight,” Salma says later that evening over a glass of wine. “I just hated that man, but I couldn’t simply go to my father and say something along the lines of, ‘Hey, dad, I’m a lesbian, so thank you, but no. Thank you.’”

While the young Arab generation in general, and the Lebanese one especially, has been expanding its horizons and accepting LGBT people among them, family pressure, tradition and religion are big factors in the future of women in the family unit. Many women succumb to the traditions and accept marriage, which might stand in their way of getting a higher education or becoming a professional or even conflict with their sexual orientation.

Three years into the marriage, Salma was having an affair with Fida while keeping up appearances in front of her husband and her family. “Loving her wasn’t easy,” says Fida, sitting across the table from me, holding hands with Salma. “First couple of months, I didn’t know she was married, then she sort of came out to me.” The realization that Salma was married placed a strain upon the relationship. Fida did not believe in dating someone who was already married. Salma, however, was “one-of-a-kind” to Fida.

This roller coaster of emotions continued for the next year with an on-off relationship until Salma learned she was pregnant. That was the moment Salma and Fida started to plan for their future together.

“As soon as Salma gave birth to Sam, she asked for a divorce,” Fida says. “The storm that hit us for the next six months was overwhelming, but she got divorced — finally — ending that chapter of her life.”

For now, Fida and Salma rent a small house together on the outskirts of Beirut, where they join forces to raise their young son. Salma has been estranged from her family for the past couple of years since the divorce.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Salma says, taking another sip from her glass of wine. Next to her, the baby monitor assures us that Sam is fast asleep. “My wife and I have our own home, we join together in raising our child, and we couldn’t be happier.”

You can find examples of gay people getting married to people of the opposite sex across the world. It is hardly news. Many queer people who are in denial of their own sexuality find themselves drawn to the idea of getting married — the heterosexual way. Often, people stay closeted simply because they’re in denial about themselves and don’t come out until after they’ve married and had kids. This, however, complicates things rather than solving them, introducing the dilemmas of sexual frustration as well as future children.

Nadia’s decision to get married at a young age in hopes of solving her “sexuality problem” has significantly affected her relationship with her son.

Born and raised in Syria, her son Mark, who is now in his late teens, found out that his mother is a lesbian when he walked in on her and her girlfriend in bed when he was 12. Unaware of the potential consequences, he told his father, which led to the family publicly disowning Nadia and his father divorcing her.

“I was young and scared,” Nadia says, a gloomy look in her eyes. “I didn’t know what to do other than accepting the first suitor who knocked on our doors and asked for my hand in marriage. Now, I barely talk to my family, and I never talk to my ex-husband.”

Nadia continued to care for her family, her ex-husband and her son. She worked hard to mend her relationship with the family, returning to their house for a while, before finding her own space and moving there with her son. She continued to date a number of women, something her son didn’t appreciate. Two years ago, she inherited some money, allowing her to pay for her son to go to college in the United States.

“He doesn’t call; he doesn’t write. I wait for hours on Skype hoping to see him, but he is always offline,” Nadia says on a Skype call from Syria, sitting and holding a tiny dog in her arms.

She spends the nights checking the little green icon on Skype, hoping for her son to appear. He, however, blocked her long ago and talks to her only when he needs cash.

“I don’t want to talk to her or about her,” he tells Xtra. “All she wants to talk about is asking me to get her a green card to come to the US.”

Getting married might offer an escape for some lesbians, like Nadia, or a temporary solution, as in Salma’s case. Yet another woman, a lovely, petite girl with fuzzy hair and an angelic smile, is concocting a devilish plan.

“I’m getting married with one goal in my mind: to have a child, then divorce my husband,” says Mariam, 27. The husband is, naturally, unaware of her sexual orientation and is also unaware that his marriage contract with her has an expiry date. “I know I’m being evil,” she says as she looks at herself in the mirror. “I’m lying to him and to my family, but this society has been nothing but homophobic to us. Might as well use the image the society is projecting on us to get something I want.”

Mariam has been dating her girlfriend for the past two years, and they both think that it’s the right time for them to raise a child. “We want to start our own family; it’s within our rights,” she asserts, while continuing to examine her looks in the mirror. “When I get married to this man, I will be nice to him, but at the end of the day he is only the sperm donor for me and my girlfriend. When I’m pregnant, I will divorce him. Then I will be free.”

She tells me she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, smiles a bit, then leans in and asks, “Do you think I should lose some weight to fit in my wedding dress?”