The study of Feminist/Women’s movements not only contributes to our understanding of women’s experiences of political and social change, but also helps to bridge the gaps between local activism and feminist theory. Feminist claims and organizations in Lebanon and most Western Asian countries are not new, and credit for the growth of new Feminisms must go to its pioneers, the women who first came to see their inferior status in society and to understand that such inferiority was not a divinely ordained fate that they were obliged to accept.
I have recently published a book in Arabic on women’s status, experiences and situations in Ancient Western Asia (‘Womanhood in Western Asia, A Journey to the Past’, Beirut, Dar el Machreq, 2013), proving the long-existence of Patriarchal systems and mentality, but also, gender equality ‘spaces’ within ancient cultures and religions. Still, feminisms as social-political movements arose at the end of the nineteenth century, coinciding with that of the reformist movement. What those pioneering women achieved was not negligible, even if they focused on charitable work – except for Egypt with its Women’s Educational Society founded in 1881, and the Instructive Women’s Union in 1910, raising public awareness of women’s rights as a key objective. A second wave could be identified during the 1940s, a period marked by the resistance of Arab societies under imperialism, with most of the claims focusing on issues such as polygamy and women’s right to education. In Lebanon, the Lebanese Women’s Council came into being in 1943 and the Committee of Lebanese Women’s Rights in 1947.
Following the end of the Second World War, women’s associations were created by communist parties throughout the Arab world – such as the Association of Lebanese Women in 1947-, socialist parties and conservative parties, but they came close to forgetting their founding objectives when they considered women’s issues should be subordinated to national liberation. After Independence, Arab societies witnessed a proliferation of civil associations in general and of women’s associations in particular, all springing up to champion women’s causes – basically education, political rights and deconstruction of traditional roles. The second half of the 1970s witnessed the first steps towards the founding of women’s organizations independent of official political organizations, but the war in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s stopped the proliferation of local initiatives.
Following the Taif agreement in 1989, and especially during the 1990s, a progressive consciousness was reinforced locally, inspired by United Nations’ conferences such as the Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995. A common vision was then shared: democracy, development, human rights (including women’s rights) and peace are inseparable. As the gap between the ruling regime under the Syrian authorities and parts of society widened, many civil associations and non-governmental organizations were founded. This ‘explosion’ gave the impression that the Lebanese society was on the move or seeking to improve its conditions, and it proved to be effective on many levels such as the 2005 uprising against the Syrian Occupation. Still, the new consciousness and the rise of civil society did not help Lebanese women obtain most of their rights and equality in political and economic life, nor the full approval of international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to many experts, this paradox can be explained by attributing it to the pressure exerted by international organizations – women’s representation arose as a concession on the part of many Arab countries. The latter accepted the formal incorporation of women into few cultural/social/political projects on condition that they remain a mute, motionless presence (http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/contents/2005/ch5-e.pdf, p.139).
The latest revolutions in the Arab World gave women a chance to raise their voices, thus in Egypt, Tunisia (and even Lebanon), women were revolutionized, calling for gender equality and the end of gender-based violence and discrimination. Though many commentators have warned that the Arab Spring is turning into a Winter, the situation is more complex. With the war in Syria and its direct impact on Lebanon’s political and economic crisis, the continuous upheavals in Egypt, and the dust settling in other countries, there are both challenges and opportunities to expand the roles women play in shaping the forces that affect their lives – and to assess these roles. True that Middle Eastern countries ranked disappointingly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, true that there is a high risk during transition processes that political factions compete to outbid each other’s conservatism thus undermining women’s rights in the process… However, the outlook for women remains uncertain, with much to gain or to lose. And yet, despite the complexity, my research covering civil movements in Lebanon – based on content analysis and participant observation since 2001, and especially online activism since 2005/2006 -, has uncovered an explosion of new activism of women.
Indeed, women of diverse generations, socio-economic classes, sexual identities, political and religious/sectarian/non-religious/non-sectarian affiliations, many of whom had never previously taken part in politics, have sought with courage and creativity to change their society for the better. Women working individually or in groups are increasingly raising their voices, forging new roles, gaining in influence and proving that struggling for women’s rights is not an ‘illegitimate foreign imposition’ but a local contextualized diversity of visions and practices. We are witnessing a new phase of women’s mobilization in Lebanon, comprised of Kafa, Nasawiya, Abaad, Women in Front, Lebanese Women’s Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship, True Lebanese Feminist, Red Lips High Heels, and so many other online/ offline Feminist/Women’s Movements and organizations.
In some of the cases, these movements/organizations attempt to influence the state through a two-pronged approaches, both indirectly through local empowerment programs and, indirectly, through attempts at influencing the state – refer to the demonstrations for Citizenship and street protests against Domestic Violence or the antiquated Rape Law. In other cases, the focus is on consciousness-raising and education – in other words, on changing women’s and most Lebanese mentalities through storytelling, academic literature and intellectual/training-of-the-mind-to-think initiatives. Still, despite these Lebanese movements/organizations’ different approaches and divisions on priorities and strategies (such as the 30% quota in the Parliament versus equality), they all seek to empower women in particular and marginalized human beings in general, and therefore, they contribute to enhancing democratization and help raising expectations that democracy could pursue progressive but not radical agendas – democratization does not simply refer to the process of developing liberal democratic procedures for electing political representatives, but also to direct participation in decision making at a variety of levels. Also, these movements/organizations provide proof of the existence of a vital civil society and reinforce the Toquevillean view that problems could be addressed by organized groups of citizens and not, as is the tradition in the region, only by the traditional political parties. In addition, they share the following characteristics:
1) a common diagnosis: Lebanese women are second-class citizens, seen and treated as ‘eternal minors’ playing decorative roles; they live in a Patriarchal system where the state and large parts of society wage a war on their bodies, safety and well-being; Sexism, Misogyny and Gender-based violence should be urgently dealt with, along with other major social problems such as racism, sectarianism, corruption, homophobia,…; women should have the right to their bodies, their sexuality, to be free to express their opinions and make their own choices; women should have equal rights of employment, equal treatment and pay; women must play an active role in the political process, assume more leadership roles and have all their citizenship rights…
2) a common voice: refusing empty promises; refusing to postpone the battles of today to tomorrow (NO to the “halla2 mich wa2ta” excuse – wait for the right moment!); refusing to be silent.
3) a common anxious feeling and an unusual passion to do something meaningful – in other words, people involved in these movements/organizations are politically-minded. They do things because of their belief in the ideals that define what it means to be a Lebanese, a woman, a human.
4) a common attitude which is the grassroots – an attitude of freedom, creativity without undue concern for conventional roles of authority, and unrestrained political enthusiasm.
5) a common resistant posture to central control – those activists/movements/organizations cannot be made subservient.
If these movements/organizations do not work on building a common network/coalition, they will definitely suffer from burnout and experience a high level of disenchantment. To be successful, they need to be organized in ways that could put pressure on political parties and the executive to pass laws, and able to follow through to monitoring the effects of that legislation and ensure that the executive and the courts implemented the laws that were passed – Ivory towers will not help! They need to create a common sustainable awareness campaign and common education tools for schools and universities. They also have to reach a consensus on the issue of autonomy – lacking a tradition of local philanthropy or the support of membership dues, many organizations have become dependent on external funding, thus restricted in their initiatives. They need to build bridges with other civil societies’ actors/actresses in order to reach a consensus regarding the general social, political, economic and cultural conditions that necessarily impact women’s empowerment and human rights in general. They need to gather and share knowledge when it comes to assessing their achievements and failures, to create a new discourse to override the current paradigms – most Lebanese women are not aware of Lebanese and Arab feminisms, and many activists focus only on street struggles and dismiss the intellectual struggle or the reform of visions and mentalities! They need to be part – together, in solidarity – of consultations to set benchmarks as well as processes to monitor their implementation. They should dialogue and find a common discourse concerning the religious-secular divide on women’s rights – many secular feminists dismiss religious feminists and vice versa.
There are more and more feminist activists in Lebanon and they have already made great strides. The awakening occurred. For this reason, the idea of rallying efforts to advance women’s rights and create a ‘resistant’ culture based on gender equality and social justice, that places women’s rights benchmarks at the heart of political dialogue and settlement, appears feasible. Change may be in the offing…
Chaieb, Mounira. ‘The Precarious State of Women’s Rights after the Arab Spring.’Tunisia Live, July 10, 2013.
Eltahawy, Mona. ‘Why do they hate us ? The real war on women is in the Middle East.’ Foreign Policy, May/June 2012.
Winter, Bronwyn. ‘Feminism and the Post-‘Arab Spring’.