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No Jews Need Apply to Women’s Rights Gathering

Did we all share the fantasy that Arab women and Jewish Israeli women could “do peace” better than the guys at Camp David? Dream on. An international conference on Female Sexuality was scheduled to take place in Turkey this fall as a forum for discussing women’s rights and sexuality issues in the Middle East. But after a number of Arab women threatened to boycott if any Jewish Israelis came, the conference was officially “postponed.” (This was before the current unrest.)

Hosted by Women for Women’s Human Rights, a Turkish group, and by the New York-based International Women’s Health Coalition, the conference was in the planning stages in July when the ruckus began. Marilyn Safir, an Israeli feminist and professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, was disinvited by two organizers. As remarkable as this turn of events was the friendly and matter-of-fact tone of their late-July letter.

Dear Dr. Safir,
Leyla has just attended another meeting in London on sexuality and customary practices in Muslim countries before coming to Istanbul. There she has learned from the Arab participants that, given the most recent developments in Camp David and the lack of agreements reached between Israel and Palestine, there is currently an atmosphere of tension and we were told that the Arab participants to our own sexuality meeting would boycott the meeting in finding out that participants of Jewish-Israeli background were also coming….
      Under these conditions, we are very sorry to inform you that we will not be able to invite you for this particular meeting….We would like to repeat that we are extremely sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused and we thank you for your understanding in this difficult situation….
                                                                                                                  Sincerely yours,
                                                                                                          Pinar llkkaracan and
                                                                                                                       Leyla Gulcur

Safir, a long-time women’s activist, didn’t take it lightly. Recruiting the help of her feminist allies in Israel, the United States and elsewhere, she launched a campaign to protest her exclusion. To llkkaracan and Gulcur, she wrote:

I can not express my disappointment to you. I have been working and cooperating on various projects with Female Palestinian partner[s] for the past 3 years—from both Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and An Najaq (Nabulus) Universities. We have been meeting and working together in spite of the problems that exist….I think the attitude of the women who refuse to come is counter productive… I have attend[ed] several conferences where such threats have been made and the conference organizers have not given in to pressure. I want to and am prepared to work together and to demonstrate that women are above this type of behavior. I ask you again to reconsider your decision.
                                                                                                         In sisterhood, Marilyn

Dear Dr. Safir,
We have not claimed that you are not able to work with Palestinians or Arab women. In fact, as you might know, it is very often the case that Palestinians do not have any problem attending the conferences with Israelis, but the citizens of other Arab countries do….[A]s it is, the Middle East is largely Arab, and most of the women who will be attending the meeting are Arabs.
        In that context, we were not able to understand what you mean by “giving in to pressure,” as there is no sense in attempting to have a meeting that will not be attended by most of the participants.
      I hope you will understand that insisting that we should take “another” stand on this issue could also be described as “pressure,” only one from a different/your perspective.
      Our mistake was being uninformed and naive about the level of emotions regarding the issue and sending out the invitations without having checked it before.
      That is completely our mistake and we apologize once more for it.
                                                                                                          Pinar llkkaracan and
                                                                                                                       Leyla Gulcur

Safir contacted the Anti-Defamation League, the Turkish ambassador, the Israeli consul in Istanbul in hopes of reversing the decision, and still was optimistic that she would be able to attend what she expected would “prove to be an important meeting as there will be discussions about the infringement of Human Rights as related to female sexuality.” But, she reflected, “excluding a group because they are a minority in the Middle East does not bode well for human rights organizations.”

In the end, according to Safir, the IWHC’s president, Adrienne Germain, called her with apologies, and then informed her that the conference had been postponed, though Germain has told LILITH that she hopes to reschedule the meeting when it becomes possible to develop a “dialogue of trust.” Reflecting on the experience to the Israel Feminist Forum list-serve, Safir wrote, “My aim was not to have the conference cancelled as I think that it is a very important topic. Rather, I wanted to create an awareness of the discriminatory nature and the [politicization] of a meeting that was to cross over boundaries.”