Feminisms in Dialogue (I)

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
2012, USEK, Lebanon

Following a first encounter organized by ‘Women in Front’ yesterday afternoon of at least 30 Lebanese women activists, journalists, university professors, lawyers, etc. all wanting to improve women’s participation in politics and decision making, I remembered the experience I had while living in Montreal (Quebec, Canada) with a group of women under the leadership of professor Denise Couture, ‘Féminismes et Interspiritualités’ (La Grappe), advocating for feminisms and cultural/religious identities in dialogue.

The contexts, conceptual approaches, group dynamics and mission statements are of course different, but ‘diversity in dialogue’ (or trying to be in dialogue) is a common point. In Montreal, women in our group came from different backgrounds – Christians, Muslims, Jews, ‘Sorcières’ (Witches), Agnostics, Voodoos, Hindus, Baha’i … – and feminisms – leftists, rightists, third-wave, alternative. In Beirut, we were from different religious – Muslims and Christians mainly, but also non-religious – and political affiliations – March 8, March 14 and ‘independent’, a diversity of generations – women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s,… -, of fields of expertise, of marital status, of life experiences and world visions…

Differences were a treasure we cherished in Montreal and tried to manage while searching for a common ground. In yesterday’s gathering, I saw a strong will to deconstruct the culture of violence against women. I saw women actively involved in fighting for their rights and it gave me hope for a better future in Lebanon. However, many challenges lie ahead in order to build a sustainable movement for an effective reform of both our social-political system and ‘mental/mentality’ structure:

1- The public space is still a place where women’s bodies, actions, and voices aren’t legitimate. The public space – patriarchal space -, is violently policed to exclude its Others. Thus the importance of inventing and circulating counter-discourses in parallel discursive arenas or subaltern counterpublics. It is in these counter-spaces that we can begin to articulate the complexities of our feminisms in action, including in political action. Those counter-spaces are to be built within the current social-political system and around it, in order not to lose our freedom of expression once those spaces are institutionalized (formalized), nor to become ‘paria’. A fine balance should be found…

2- Questions we should answer: would a female parliamentarian necessarily promote a feminist agenda? To what extent women doing politics ‘à la libanaise’ would be ready to sacrifice personal/sectarian/family interests for the sake of other women? Isn’t there a risk of commodifying the feminist cause and facilitating the assertion that sexism must be dead because we have female politicians? What about women who don’t feel obligated to vote for a candidate because she’s a woman – not only women with a patriarchal mentality, but also feminists? Clearly, there should be a debate between those who find it is not enough to hold certain beliefs or values – those values must be represented by and in one’s actions -; and those who believe that it is in the very act of voting or simply supporting, that one, in a sense, constitutes one’s feminist identity. This is a major issue: if we consider our actions to be part of the ‘performance’ of feminisms, then what are the risks and possibilities of various kinds of performance (or lack thereof)? A focus on feminism as something enacted in and (continually) structured through performance is a crucial tool for resisting essentialism, which is the death knell, so to speak, for all historically marginalized, disenfranchised populations.

3- Feminists in Lebanon must actively seek to co-construct what feminism(s) means to every one of them and in each community, becoming inclusive and open to alternative interpretations if it is to thrive. I sadly noticed yesterday – and in other arenas too – women trying to impose their feminism as ‘the true way to follow’: ‘secularists’ versus ‘religious’, ‘leftists’ versus ‘rightists’, ‘pro 30% quota in the Parliament’ versus ‘no quota’, etc. When we fail to recognize the importance of our differences and to try to seek common ground without excluding each other, not only vehement opposition to feminism (s) will be diffused, but the Patriarchal system (s) and culture (s) will expand. Recognizing each other’s subjectivities is our only hope to overcome oppression and for feminist movements to involve their audiences, no matter how hostile they may be. This is what I would call ‘the opportunity to do feminism (s) kairotically’ (referring to ‘kairos’), in the sense of paying attention to the context of communication, understanding the audience and its needs, and identifying emergent moments in time and space that are ideal for rhetorical action based on unity in diversity.

As a scholar and activist of feminism, I urge my feminist friends, colleagues and future partners to be vigilant, “preparing and planning for rhetorical events to occur, as Cicero would have us do, and also seizing emergent moments that lend themselves to doing feminism(s) rhetorically, as Gorgias and Isocrates would advise. If we want others to do feminism(s), we cannot allow feminism(s) to violate or oppress potential feminists (read: everyone/anyone) or we become that which we have tried to overcome. Feminism(s) does not have to be the ‘f’ word that people in polite company just do not say; rather, it should be the event in which everyone is invited to participate”.

Women in Front

Women in Front, Sodeco (Beirut), January 2013, with Dr. Pamela Chrabieh

Feminisms in Dialogue (II) will soon be published, with more challenges …

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