updated 3/28/2007 8:35:01 PM ET 2007-03-29T00:35:01

Arab lesbians quietly defied Islamist protesters and a social taboo to gather at a rare public event Wednesday in a northern Israeli city.

Many of the attendees said they were sad that the only place safe enough to hold a conference for gay Arab women was in a Jewish area of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population. Israel's Jewish majority is generally tolerant of homosexuality.

"This conference is being held, somehow, in exile, even though it's our country," said Yussef Abu Warda, a playwright.

Driven deep underground for the most part, only 10 to 20 Arab lesbians attended the conference, organizers said. Most blended in with Israeli lesbians and heterosexual Arab female supporters without making their presence known.

"We'd like all women to come out of the closet — that's our role. We work for them," said Samira, 31, a conference organizer who came with her Jewish Israeli girlfriend. Samira agreed to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals.

Outside the conference hall, 20 women protesters in headscarves and long, loose robes held up signs reading, "God, we ask you to guide these lesbians to the true path."

Security was tight. Attendance was by invitation only, and reporters were not allowed to take photographs, use tape recorders or identify people.

Israel's secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. Jerusalem, with its large proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strongly anti-gay.

Homosexuality, which is strictly forbidden by Islam, is considered taboo among most of Israel's Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the country's population.

Poetry readings, music and Arab women rappers entertained the conference, called "Home and Exile in Queer Experience," organized by Aswat, an organization for Arab lesbians with members in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We are here to say they (Arab lesbians) are not alone," said Rawda Morcos, Aswat's spokeswoman, one of a tiny minority of Arab women who are openly gay.

Out in an unaccepting community
Morcos said her car was vandalized repeatedly and she received threatening phone calls at her family home after her village in northern Israel found out she was a lesbian.

Even rapper Nahwa Abdul Aal, who performed for the gathering, didn't support it.

"Being at this conference hasn't changed my mind," she said. "I still think it's wrong."

Samira, who has a dozen brothers and sisters, said she told a sibling she was gay two years ago. The news quickly spread among the family, and her 70-year-old mother fell into a depression, begging her daughter to change her ways.

But she eventually accepted her daughter's homosexuality "in her own way," by packing large boxes of food for Samira whenever she came to visit.

"My mother said, 'take the food, for you and your girlfriend,'" Samira recalled, agreeing to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals.

Some of her family never came around. A pregnant sister told Samira she would "never touch her children."

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