Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

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Refugee Camp Fashion

May 14, 2009

“Are you wearing contact lenses today?” one of my students pipes up in the front row, interrupting me in the middle of a doubtlessly fascinating tirade on the difference between subject and object pronouns.

“No,” I reply, “I just forgot my glasses at home”.

“Well you look better without them,” she says decisively.

“Perhaps, but I can’t actually see very well without them either. So which is better, fuzzy vision or looking good?”

She smiles, as do the other two girls in the classroom; I think that by now they are accustomed to my cynicism.

These sort of incidents have been a recurring template during my days volunteering at the centre of the Palestinian NGO Najde in Shatila refugee camp, Beirut. Whether it’s suggestions that I should pluck my unruly eyebrows or straighten my unbrushed hair, or comments that my blue rubber flipflops are too boyish and should be exchanged for pink or yellow sandals with glistening fake diamonds, both young girls and adult women are quick to question my fashion sense (or apparent lack thereof).

But I’m not offended by these comments. Mostly, they make me laugh because I realize that, in the context of the camp and specifically considering the values that inform gender roles there, I must come across as more of a nihilistic androgynous hobo than the quirky post-hippie that I otherwise seem to come across as.

It is true that when stood next to many of the young women who are involved in the Najde centre, both students and employees, I look like a bit of a scruff. These are chics that have a selection of shoes and matching belts in every colour of the rainbow, wear tight-fitting jeans and gaze at you from beneath thick, immaculate eye make-up. Some get around in short sleeves and skimpy skirts while other, more conservative ones sport tank-tops over tight long-sleeved shirts and top the outfit off with an elaborate array of layered and patterned material for a hijab.

One of my students, 17 year-old Razan, is like a chameleon. Tall and willowy but with a shy smile, she loves drawing and dreams of one day becoming a fashion designer (luckily for her, not one of the 32 proffessions that the Lebanese government bans from Palestinians). Every day she breezes into class in an intricate outfit based around one colour and complemented with either black or white. One day it is crimson red, the next a daffodil yellow, and the next lush grass green, each item of each outfit picked to complement the shade of the day and always perfected with a white or black lace hijab. And she looks fabulous!

Just last week, we went on an outing for all the employees of the Najde centres in Beirut, Saida and Sour. In three busses we were taken to a stunning, hidden part of the Litani valley near Nabatiyeh, to a restaurant whose seating area was nestled on the bank of the river, amongst orange and lemon groves.

Some 200 of us sat from morning till evening smoking shisha, eating mezze and dancing dabke, but amongst us, there was a hard-core few who never left the dancefloor. They boogied for hours and hours, twisting their butts in super tight skinny jeans, gyrating their hips accentuated by thick sparkling belts and shaking their shoulders laden with string after string of costumer jewellery. They looked like their could have just stepped out of Top Shop on Oxford street. Except, contrary to the trend of many of their Muslim sisters in the UK who are increasingly turning towards traditional Islamic dress to manifest their piety, these demons on the dancefloor simply wore matching white lace hijabs alongside their revived retro accessories.

Increasingly, I admit that I am perplexed by the apparent contradiction of these young girls who dress in a trendy, flattering, even sexy way, and then don the hijab as an outwards sign of piety or even modesty. Obviously, some would be encouraged to wear it but I also think many do out of choice.

I wonder if, perhaps, for some of these young women, complementing their fashionista desires with a variant of Islamic dress is a conscious means of trying to express their integrity within a tight-knit society where a woman’s virtue is still defined in conservative terms (virginity, purity, loyalty, motherhood etc). Maybe it is their way of negotiating a middle ground through social gender expectations and contemporary popular culture.

Similarly, my own conscious fashion choices are equally motivated by my ideological (read feminist) leanings: a desire to not fall into what I often see as the mainstreaming of sexual objectification of women in popular culture and media. Or not bowing to partiarchally-defined standards of beauty, like removing body hair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to making oneself feel good and confident by looking pretty, but I feel that we should explore what ‘prettiness’, or even beauty, means to us creatively, and not just cut-and-paste ready-consumable models of beauty.

But particularly, in the camp, I’m also keen to dress ‘modestly’ so as not to draw too much attention to myself as an outsider, especially wary of not feeding into the stereotype of western women as sexy, or even loose. Where some of my students wear tanks tops, for example, I would never.

So within the context of the camp, set against these negotiated femininities, when pressed about my appearance (unshaven, bespectacled, dressed in loose long silk skirts and baggy tops) I obviously do not launch into a full-length feminist tirade. I do not think that would be relevant to the girls and women there.

Amongst all of the other battles that everyone is fighting in that camp, is the notion of the sexualisation/objectification of women one that they would feel was relevant to them? Is their beauty, their sexuality (often played out within the confines of their religious traditions) not being deployed as a source of feminine power, as it is often in Western societies?

Nevertheless, I do try to respond with inklings of critical thinking about what it means to dress in certain ways. A couple days ago, I told one of my students that I didn’t care about fashion, that it was more important for me to focus on personal interactions. Interestingly, I find myself echoing the argument given by some Muslim women about the veil: that they prefer to spend their energies working on perfecting their insides rather than embellishing their outsides. Slowly, I have been realising that I am articulating my own secular reasons for modesty within a quasi-religious discourse, perhaps because I think it will resound more deeply within my interlocutors.

When Fatmeh, the woman who makes tea and coffee at the centre, tried to pluck my eyebrows, I resisted, initially laughing, but then saying that I was very grateful for the body that nature (not God, but maybe same idea) had given me. That Alhamdulillah, my body functioned well, and I was satisfied with it as a whole, despite its imperfections, even sometimes despite my own insecurities.

I do not seek to be a role model, which is probably realistic because my relative strangeness in terms of appearance might foreclose that. I am also wary of coming across as some eco-feminist warrior missionary, for such dogmatism is surely never useful either. But I do consider my work in the camp, with the children and adolescents, as one of encouraging self-confidence in all its different forms, not just academically, and nurturing notions of critical thinking.

I will just seek to be true to my own ethics, as they morph and fuse with others, and try to articulate what I feel is interesting and valuable about such explorations.

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Great feminists think alike

April 23, 2009

“Top 12 Reasons why the Billboard Campaign ‘Sois belle et vote’ is offensive to women

1) Oh, so now you’ve noticed that women are important? When you want their votes? […]

9) Wouldn’t it be better if you sought to change the Lebanese elections system so that candidates are forced to represent issues and not religions? Wouldn’t that make more sense for women voters?

10) Where are women’s rights in the 19 elaborate points of your political platform? Hmm?”

Big-up to the Feminist Collective for further contributing to debunking this patronising poster…

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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.