This post is a guest post written by Ahmad Amir Tahhan as part of the Austria To Austin student exchange. In this post, Amir shares the details of  Zawaya, a platform designed to help LGBTIQ+ Arabs, beginning in his community in Vienna, Austria. 

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In December 2016, two Syrian friends of mine and I started working on a social project called Zawaya, which means “Corners” in Arabic. Our goal is to raise awareness for LGBTIQ+ topics in the Arabic-speaking community to bring peers from the Arabic-speaking LGBTIQ+ communities together and thereby strengthen their voices. The longterm goals of our project will include the tackling homo­bi­transphobia, racist violence and discrimination in the context of school, work and housing in the Arabic-speaking communities.

In our line of work, we are constantly challenged to think outside the box. Working with people of all ages from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds demands the willingness to react flexibly to new situations, to cater for a great variety of sometimes opposing needs, as well the ability to find innovative solutions to problems that one encounters in a multicultural environment. Our vast experience in this regard will help us to address our diverse target groups in a creative way.

For the past year, we have been working/volunteering together at Queerbase. It has been immensely fruitful and stimulating, leading directly to our work on Zawaya. Originally coming from various disciplinary and professional backgrounds, we appreciate the productive way in which we use our different perspectives to accomplish a common social goal. Furthermore, the core project team is supported by activists, artists and social scientists from the Queer community in Vienna.

Zawaya is an online project that focuses on sexualities in different forms from and for the Arabic speaking community in Austria.

Besides general information on sex, gender, sexuality, and safer sex, the main focal point lies on the experiences of Arab lesbians, gays, bisexual, trans­ and interpersons. Zawaya will set up a multimedia website that will offer texts, articles and also different forms of videos in Arabic, German and English. Peers from the Arabic-speaking LGBTIQ community will develop the contents of the website in workshops headed by the project team.

This online platform will provide personalized articles and videos as well strengthen the community and share experiences. We plan on collaborating with creative filmmakers and artists from different backgrounds to create videos in innovative forms and concepts.

Due to the refugee movements in the last two years, the Viennese LGBTIQ community has
changed. Though LGBTIQ refugees — especially the Syrians — found some relief after arriving in Austria, they face two main problems: first of all, they encounter homo­ and transphobia as well as racism in their communities of origin, the LGBTIQ community and the Austrian society at large. Second, of all, there is a lack of information in Arabic on and for LGBTIQ, which further exacerbates the effort to counter the multiple facets of discrimination.

We seek to fill that information gap.

Often these people come from countries where different sexual practices, health care, reproductive health, sexuality in general and sexually transmitted diseases are not spoken about or are presented with negative images. Therefore the Arab LGBTIQ community has found it hard to establish a positive and confident self­ representation. This lack of information and self ­representation has a negative impact on the Arabic speaking community and the Austrian society at large.

The existence of LGBTIQ Arabs has been largely ignored by both groups, thereby perpetuating negative stereotypes of the seemingly mutually exclusive categories of Arabs and those who identify as LGBTIQ. To counter these negative stereotypes and to establish a positive, responsible and self-determined approach to one’s own body and sexuality we need peer-to-peer developed information. We are hoping that Zawaya will help to connect LGBTIQ Arabs in Vienna and foster a positive self ­image of the community by provide cutting ­edge information on LGBTIQ topics that formerly have not been available in Arabic. Due to its innovative and multilingual approach, the online platform will also be attractive to Austrian audiences who are interested in the specific experiences of the Arab LGBTIQ community.

Zawaya engages with a community that so far has been excluded from public discourse.

The workshops that have already been conducted have shown that within the Arab LGBTIQ community there is a great need to voice one’s own opinions and experiences, and therefore the project has been greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. By focusing on the creation of a multilingual website, we offer an easily accessible low-threshold solution for the sex education of Arab LGBTIQs and the Arab communities in general.

Zawaya’s multilingual website will be not only easily accessible for the Syrians but also to a large audience worldwide. The internet has proven to offer an unparalleled channel for sharing information, yet restrictions will very much depend on national legislations. For Austria and other European countries, we expect unrestricted access.

We plan to scale our idea moving forward. Through our platform, we would be able to not only reach almost 420 million people around the world but also profit in various ways. Some of these include our social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online broadcasts, online & offline news media, supporters and promoters such as organizations and initiatives.

What are we doing now?

Where are in the first founding phase. We’re going to focus on the interactive process between the peers from the Arabic-speaking LGBTIQ community who will develop the contents of the website in workshops and the project team. After launching the website with personalized contents — articles and videos — we will start a campaign to spread the word through media, social media platforms, events, activities, and supporters in the local and international Arabic community. Gathering feedback from the peers from the Arabic-speaking LGBTIQ community all over the world and letting them share their stories and personal opinions with us. Also, we are going to observe the general reaction every time we add new content to the website. All of this will support us forming and planning the next steps for our project.

We are so passionate about this project because we believe that; “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.” — Audre Lorde.

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