Posts Tagged ‘Beirut’

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Feminists in the streets: IWD 2009, Beirut

March 11, 2009

There’s nothing like a good, fiery, reclaim the streets demonstration to spark up a cause. And I think that the events conducted last weekend by the Feminist Collective, in Beirut to mark International Women’s Day 2009, in which I am proud to have participated, did exactly that.

On Saturday, we were dispatched in groups of 3-5 to 12 different places in Beirut in order to distribute leaflets and raise awareness about IWD, as well as attempt to engage passers-by in discussion about the situation of women in Lebanon. The stark variation between the different parts of town represented the vast disparity that exists in such volatile closeness in Lebanon: here an up-market shopping area, there a university street; here a trendy bar-street, yonder a refugee camp. Differences, that, of course, are also played out in terms of religion as well, and when mixed in with the vectors of class, income, education and ethnicity, make for an impressive, if not downright perplexing, spectrum in terms of differences in opinion. To quote a Daily Star journalist that wrote about the event:

“One Christian woman insisted her fellow Lebanese Christian women were free and considered “gender oppression a Muslim problem.” A Muslim woman meanwhile argued that sexual harassment and rape resulted from a woman’s inappropriate dress and behaviour.”

But then again, this is Lebanon, and the extent of contrasting opinions should not surprise us. However, I do believe that such contrasts have lss to do with substantive differences in opinion and more to do with the way that sectarian differences reside in the fore of so many Lebanese minds, in that sectarian axes of identity are maintained, cultivated and perpetuated as an overarching mindset.

For me, the most interesting thing when listening to women respond to the question “what is your opinion of women in Lebanon today?” was the tendency that interlocuteurs had of interpreting, or framing the question along sectarian lines, instead of latching onto the pan-woman message of solidarity that constituted our approach and, ultimately, our agenda. Though I was based in the mainly-Christian northern Beirut suburb of Kaslik, I later heard that this tendency manifested itself in practically all of the other areas as well.

“Which women?”, they would ask in reply, as if the national qualifier of “Lebanese” was not sufficient detail. When an activist insisted upon the Lebanese element, the interlocutor would often point out that situations varied significantly according to which “society”, ie sect, they came from. In response to this, we tended to highlight the sort of legal and societal problems that are faced by all women across the board in Lebanon: from the law forbidding a Lebanese woman to pass her citizenship onto her children if she marries a foreigner and a dire lack of anti-domestic violence legislation, to discrimination in terms of employment and wages and common-place incidents of sexual harassment. Well, yes, they would eventually admit, these are some things faced by all us Lebanese women…

Another thing that impacted on me on our day of grassroots awareness-raising was the extent of the pessimism. When asked what could be done to remedy these perceived gender injustices, many women just shrugged their shoulders, pouted their lips and raised their eyebrows in a sort of hopeless lack of inspiration. When talking with other activists in other areas, I heard that such hopelessness was manifestly stronger, and far more depressing for the activists, in the refugee camps, where many women highlighted the problems they encountered on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeding their families. There, in positions of disempowerment that exceed the gender issue, talk of women’s lib seemed to understandably fall near the bottom of the priority list.

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Sunday, International Women’s Day, proved a more positive day for us ‘feminists’. Perhaps it was the unity and strength we felt in numbers, many of us proudly sporting our black shirts with ‘feminist’ boldly emblazoned in white on the front.

Our first event was a sit-in staged on Hamra street under the theme of solidarity with migrant workers. Along with the issue being one of increasing debate in Lebanon, I personally think that it was a strong and aptly selected banner to rally under, because it succinctly articulates broader feminist agendas of uniting struggles for gender justice with liberation along race and class lines. I felt that the demo was given a definite boost when we activists (Lebanese, American, European) were actually joined by some Filipino migrant workers. Not only for the egoistic purpose that it lent us ‘activists’ a mark of authenticity, which it undeniably did, but also because I hoped it would, in some small way, give those migrant workers confidence that whatever struggles they faced on a daily basis did not occur in isolation, and therefore that there could be, at some point, some hope for solidarity yielding an end to marginalisation.. However cliché that might come across as…

And although the amount of people who would have witnessed the event was probably restricted due to the quietness of a Sunday afternoon, the media coverage was fair. Next year, however, someone from one of the groups involved needs to contact more international and Arab media outlets (AlArabiya was the only one there that I noticed). And thanx to our resident film-maker, a video has appeared on YouTube. (I, personally, would have opted for something more mellow musically…)

The second event was a sit-in on the Cornishe in Ein AlMreisse. This time, we were less cushy than in funky, laid-back Hamra, manifested in our initial reluctance to go about distributing leaflets to the many families enjoying a Sunday stroll and shisha by the sea. But the debates sparked first by out flyering, and then by our banners and megaphones asserting our feminist ideals, made it entirely worth it. One bloke was very happy to spout on about how women were, in fact, really only useful in the kitchen. Oh, and for child-rearing as well. And, to much shock, he actually said that wearing lipstick is an invitation to rape… And then another woman started yelling about how we’d gotten it all wrong: didn’t we understand that a woman is considered worthless if she does not seek to beautify herself, that to not embellish oneself physically is a lifetime commitment to spinsterhood?

We welcomed these reactions, and did not face them with words, but with multi-coloured banners, reading “No Woman Deserves Violence, Ever”, “Where are women’s rights?”, “Give us 4 years in Parliament and see how we run the country” and “None of us are free till all of us are free”. There were also others who replied, members of the public, who argued of their own accord, and voiced approval for our willingness to tackle these issues that are so often silenced…

And even though, I admit, even though I felt a bit uneasy amongst the shouting and the being stared at, pointed at by a crowd of curious/disturbed/grateful/angry/congratulatory people, the feeling that we were there, pushing these issues to the fore, was far more significant. We were confronting taboos, provoking the general public, without ever being violent or disrespectful. In a country drowning in the quagmire of its own long-standing and exacerbated identities, we were articulating a radical ideal in a vibrant way. Ye were protected from the emotions that ran high by the unity we felt as a group, bound through our matching t-shirts and our common convictions, and by those in the crowd who sometimes silently, sometimes loudly, proclaimed their support for our cause.

Today, I am proud to call myself a feminist.

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Back to Beirut

March 6, 2009

One moment, I’m gaping, recoiling in horror at the sight of a young child, perhaps six or seven years old, hanging off the passenger of a stationary long, sleek, black Mercedes. Gripping the ledge provided by an open window, the child suspended himself off the tarmac and arched his head into the vehicle, probably asking for money from the driver and eventual passengers. The car made small yet sharp, agitated jerks forward, obviously attempting to scare the child into letting go.

As soon as the oncoming traffic ceased and the car was able to make its turn, it accelerated abruptly, in another cruel attempt to rid itself of the urchin. As far as I could see, the child managed to hang on despite the aggressive manoevre, and as it disappeared down the hill towards Gemmeyze, I hoped for another impending traffic jam so that he would be able to safely disengage his small self.

Five minutes later, I find myself sipping a Bloody Mary in one of the jilted, trendy pubs in the area towards which that car had just sped off to, already allowing the chilled drink and even more chilled surroundings to help me forget the disturbing incident.

Fifteen minutes later, on the walk down Rue Gouraud between the pub and a nearby restaurant, we were pursued by a teenage boy in shabby plastic sandals, shoe-shining kit in hand. “Please mister, no money, no money mister,” he called out after us. “Please, just one thousand (Lebanese Pounds, about 66 dollar cents)! No money mister, no money!”

Although I considered my initially mild yet increasingly harsh shouts of “Khallas!” (Enough!) to be less violent than the dangerous driving of the Mercedes, it was blatant that my attitude conveyed exactly the same degree of brutal disregard and crude apathy.

I silently welcomed myself back to the habitual hypocrisy that seems to define upper-middle class and expat lifestyles in Beirut.