A Taboo Question Revisited

I live in a predominantly European neighborhood in a ‘cosmopolitan city in the Arab world’. It’s beautiful, modern, and quiet, with big villas surrounded by lots of greenery. It’s picture perfect, and every time I leave my compound and drive away, I feel like I am leaving a story book. As I drive, I see a mother and her children cycling their way to school, or a group of runners on their morning job, or more than couple of dogs with their owners on their morning walk. It’s almost like a little game I play on my own, the classic “I spy with my little eye.” And this morning was no different. I spy with my little eye, a little boy playing with his big fluffy white dog at 8 am in the morning. How cute, right?

Wrong. See, this was different. The boy was sporting a bright red t-shirt to match his red sunburnt face, and sandals to protect his little feet. But where were his pants? This boy was bottomless. No tidy whities or Spiderman boxers. He must have been about 10 or 11 years old, but so why I was I so shocked? I swear I must have looked like a stalker, because I couldn’t believe my eyes. I am about to get married, yet the first time I see a male genital I gawk at it and giggle like a 9 year old girl. If you are reading this and laughing, I don’t blame you, because it is in fact very sad. I know it is. How could a 21 year old female be so shocked to see a small male organ in public?

Can someone please answer me that?

Is it because I am Muslim? Is it because I am Arab? Is it because of my upbringing?

I went to the “x” school, in a very predominantly European area. Although this school has recently made it into headlines for having to be evacuated due to a “threatening call,” it is a really good school. Now, around the 8th or 9th grade I was sent home with an important letter to my parents.

I remember giving it to my mum and reading it together, but I honestly didn’t understand it at first. My mum later explained that the school wanted to know if I am allowed to attend sex education classes. And even though the 13 year old me rejected the idea over and over again, my mother signed the letter and forced me to go to sex education classes. I went to school the next day, and asked my Muslim friends if they are allowed to go to our sex ed. classes and most of them said no.

Ok, now here is the problem, why did their mothers say no? I was the only Arab girl in that whole grade at the time, there were some Muslims but they were not from Southwestern Asia, they were either Afghani or Pakistani. So maybe that was the reason; the mothers said no because their cultural and social upbringing didn’t accept their daughters to sit through a strictly professional class about sexual education. I say daughters, because if I remember correctly, the only male Muslim in our entire grade was allowed to attend sex. ed. classes.

I sat through exactly 3 sexual education classes. In one I learned how to put condoms on cucumbers, in another I learned about rape, and in the last about sexually transmitted diseases. The three classes spanned over three weeks, but it all came to an abrupt end. On the fourth week, I was told that all Muslim students would have to leave sex education classes and attend Islamic classes instead.

This is going to get a little bit confusing, but I will briefly explain how the schedule worked at this school. Students had 8 subjects every day for the five workdays of the week, and the timetable was never changed once it was set at the beginning of the year. The only one problem was that students did not have a slot for the Islamic lessons required by official authorities. Even though the majority of the students were non-Muslim, there were still around 8 students in my grade that were Muslim. So, I was suddenly denied of sex education classes, and was instead forced to go to Islamic classes. Who ordered that? No one knows. I asked, my mother asked, and neither of us ever got an answer. So sexual education ended with three classes for me. Any information I learned about sex or boys from my teenage years onward was from my very curious friends.

So if I took 3 Sex Ed. classes, why was I still so shocked about seeing that little boy? This story is very sad already, perhaps even pathetic or a little bit tragic. I still know girls around my age and even older, who wimp at the thought of a male organ or sex. And so why is that? Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese women’s right activist explained in an interview with The Guardian “We constantly and obsessively think about sex, but dare not talk about it. We rid ourselves of one so-called abomination with one hand, then practice intellectual debauchery, which is much worse, with the other.”

What I am arguing in this paper, is the fact that the words “women,” “sex,” and “Islam” grouped together as a concept shock people. I am not talking about married women specifically, rather I am referring to the general Muslim women population. In my opinion, I think this is so because of the lack of knowledge and proper education – the same reasons for the continuity of women circumcision and child marriage in many areas of the world.

To explore my thesis, I conducted a series of very small experiments with the people around me. Even though these experiments were in no way conducted scientifically or statistically accurately, I stand by my findings. My procedure was simple; I very casually asked 10 of my female Muslim friends with 2 questions, covering 2 areas that I believe Muslim Women have a problem with. Similarly, I asked 5 of my Muslim male friends, 1 question, that I believe can give a slight insight onto my topic. This paper will seek to discuss the different questions and then present my findings.

First question:

Many women, especially Muslim women, have been brought up with the idea that their genitals are “private,” which makes complete sense. But, I think the problem is that we begin to think they are private even to us. In biology class around the 8th grade, when the teacher explains about the female and male organs, the whole class starts giggling. At an age of 15, this is understandable. However, the cycle continues. The first time I reached out to understand how a vagina works – what it does and what it looks like – was at the age of 20. In my explorations, I came across the question: “If you don’t know how the female and male organs work and what they look like, how are you in turn supposed to understand sex or be even remotely comfortable speaking of it?”

So, the first question I asked the 10 Muslim women was:

“Do you know the parts of a vagina, what they look like, what they are called, and what they do?”

Here is what I found:

Only 1 woman was able to sketch out and label a model of the vagina perfectly; the other 9 were unable to answer my question. I also realized age does not guarantee knowledge. I asked women who were mostly in the same age group as me (20-25), but there were three women above the age of 30. The one person who gave me a correct description is 22 years old.

Second question:

The second question I wanted to discuss the word “shame” and how it is related to sex and Islam. If a woman has sex outside of marriage in Islam, it’s shameful, both to the woman and to her family. Similarly, if a married woman is to describe, or ask someone about her sexual frustrations, or even talk about sex, it is still shameful.

The book “Sexy and the Citadel” by Shereen El Feki, provides insight about everything to do with sex in the Arab world. According to an interview with The Guardian, El Feki states that, “Sex is the lens through which I study society, because what happens in intimate life is shaped by forces on a bigger stage – politics and economics, religion and tradition, gender and generations – and vice versa.” From this I learned that in order to understand sex in the Arab world, we must freely talk about it. The answers to all our questions cannot be contained in only books. Women must be able to freely ask questions, and understand without feeling shameful or even hesitant since it is an extremely natural aura.

So the second question that I asked was “Have you ever had any questions about sex that were never addressed, and if so why did you leave them unaddressed?”

Here is what I found:

This one was kind of tricky, and I realized I should have made the question clearer. But the answers I received were still very unexpected for the age groups that I asked. The three women above the age of 30 all agreed that they had more than a million questions when they were in their 20s, but never looked them up because it was considered wrong to ask such questions to their peers at that time. Two of these women said that they addressed some of their questions and concerns only after they got married, but that they still have unanswered questions. The other woman is single, and she said she only started to read about these things at the age of 38. The rest of the women I asked around my age group, I divided into two groups. The first group consists of 6 women who don’t know much, and the other consists of 1 woman who knows everything there is to know. This latter woman is also the same person who answered the first question correctly.

The group of 6:

They all asked me what kinds of questions I was referring to. I replied with an example: “Do you bleed after the first time you engage in intercourse?” to which d they all said “yes, of course you do.” (This is scientifically incorrect, and such a misbelief is also the cause of more than a thousand girls’ deaths every year in Egypt. When women engage in sexual intercourse with their partner for their first time and but do not bleed, they are seen as non-virgins and murdered by either their family or husband). When I explained this to them, they all replied that it is not their fault and that it was “embarrassing” to ask such things to anyone.

As for the men:

I asked my 5 male Muslim friends, “Do you think it is acceptable to engage in intercourse before marriage? If yes, why? Also, why is it acceptable for men and not for women?”

Their answers:

All five of my delusional male friends said intercourse before marriage is unacceptable but that everyone does it anyway. This is something I am willing to condone, as long as they know what they are doing is wrong. However, the answers to the follow up question were nothing less than plain shocking. All five men gave me some variation of all the things women are just too tired of hearing. “A key that can open many locks is called a master key, but a lock that can be opened by many keys is a shitty lock.” Or my personal favorite: “If you have 2 sweets and tear the wrapper off of one and throw both on the floor, which one are you going to want to eat more?”

Yes. These are my friends…

Yes. I need new friends…

However, in many way I am happy I did this; it taught me a lot, and inspired me to learn more about myself. While this paper is not an indication of the opinions and experiences of the general public, I believe it still gives adequate insight on this topic.


Edemariam, Aida. “Joumana Haddad: ‘I Live in a Country That Hates Me'” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

“Sex and the Citadel” by Shereen El Feki.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


Reeds from Red Lips – Dr. Pamela Chrabieh (American University in Dubai News)

AUD School of Arts and Sciences Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Dr. Pamela Chrabieh has recently edited and published a book entitled Reeds from Red Lips on Arts and Gender in Southwestern Asia.

The book includes diverse stories told through poetry and prose in English, French, Modern Standard Arabic and Lebanese, and encompasses a selection of conceptual photography artworks, digital visuals, cartoons and paintings. It features established scholars, poets and authors, journalists, artists and students, from Southwestern Asia or living in the region: Dr. Pamela Chrabieh, Norah Al Nimer, Katia Aoun Hage, Malak El Gohary, Amal Chehayeb, Lana AlBeik, Dr. Frank Darwiche, Noor Husain, Joelle Sfeir, Maram El Hendy, Dr. Omar Sabbagh, Karma Bou Saab, Farah Nasser, Haeley Ahn, Masooma Rana, Sandra Malki, Maya Khadra and Nour Zahi Al-Hassanieh.
In her book foreword, Dr. Chrabieh explains that the diversity of Southwestern Asian voices is “so vast that it is unlikely to work on an exhaustive review, and this is definitely not the goal of the book; neither is it to obtain a fixed view of the gender and art relation (…).  The book gathers the visions, journeys, statements, biographies and artworks of some authors and artists who either self-define or reject the gender binary by emphasizing the fluidity of gender and subverting gender conformity. It also displays a mosaic of languages and local dialects, visual techniques and writing styles; reeds that vibrate and produce different sounds and pitch ranges out of empowered lips”.
According to Dr. Chrabieh, “most of those who contributed to this collective work are part of the Red Lips High Heels’ movement (http://www.redlipshighheels.com/), an online gathering project of writers and artists I launched in 2012 in Lebanon. This movement advocates peacebuilding, human rights and women’s rights in Southwestern Asia. (…) Southwestern Asia has unfortunately been too often stereotyped, viewed as homogeneous and demonized, but the authors and artists featured in this book deconstruct prejudices. They tell stories of the rich pasts and current diversities of this part of the world. They prove somehow that the local belongings, realities, memories and histories are quite complex, a mélange of grey zones and multiple shades”.
Dr. Chrabieh adds: “I would like to express my gratitude to the many peoples who have been providing support to the Red Lips High Heels’ movement since 2012 and to this book’s project. I would like to thank in particular the authors and artists who allowed me to publish their works and my assistant researcher Haeley Ahn for her dedication and valuable input in the editing, proofreading and design of the book. To my students and former students at the American University in Dubai: thank you for inspiring me with your life stories, talents, skills and knowledge”.
Reeds from Red Lips is available on amazon.com:
Kindle Edition ASIN: B0711D71C1


Never give up your right: a story of domestic violence, sexual abuse and daily struggle

Today is international women’s day.
It’s 4 in the morning and I can’t sleep.
I was born at 4 o’clock in the morning.
I was born a girl.
If I only knew then what I was going to go through in my life, I would have wished myself not to be born at all.
I was born in a family with an abusive mother and a silent father.
This is what I got from my parents who made me.
This is what I should be grateful for:
From the age of 7 – today I have been called a whore.
From the age of 0 -17, I was beaten almost daily by my mother.
At a very young age, 2 – 5, I was sexually molested, never told my parents though so I can’t blame them for it.
From the age of 6 – today, I was/am controlled in every action I did/do and in every spoken word I said/say.
The only difference today is that I am not beaten on top of it. My punishment is different. I am dead to them, so I still feel every strike I got on my body growing up but now in their rejection of me.
At the age of 15 they tried to force me into marriage but I got the man to think I am crippled when they forced me to speak to him on the phone, so I got free from that. They never knew why he suddenly changed his mind, they still don’t know today.
At this age I started to run away from home as well.
At 16, my first suicide attempt and I ended up in the hospital and after that at a child and adolescent psychiatric clinic.
My mother said: I wish you died!
I think that is the only sentence she and I ever shared in opinion, I had wished that too, so many times.
My parents here were so ashamed of me being at a clinic that they decided, as I destroyed my reputation in their point of view, that we all had to move to another city.
No, it isn’t a joke.
We moved, many many miles away.
And yes, because I had tried to kill myself and they were ashamed of me being at a psychiatric hospital.
Let that sink in for a while.
At 17, after getting rid of my sister, forced into marriage at 14, then it was my turn. But before that, a couple of months before that, I was sexually assaulted by a relative.
Here comes years of silence from my father, the Silent Watcher, until today!
So let’s get back to the forced marriage with the rape included at the so called “wedding night”.
All my life I have never been able to choose who to love and who to give my body to. My dear parents/relative/the “rapist forced husband” took care of that decision when I was young. The most beautiful experience I could have had, to fall in love and lose my virginity to the boy I love, was ripped away from me in the most disgusting way.
I can never make it undone.
I can never undo the pain.
I can never undo the screams.
I can never undo the tears.
I can never undo the number of times I begged him to stop.
And I can never undo the bloody towels they collected to celebrate my virginity as a display in front of everyone the day after my rape. My relatives and mother so proud about the amount of blood on the sheets.
And my father?
What did he do in all this?
Haven’t you learned it by now?
Silent at home, not participating, but as always, a silent watcher.
18 1/2 years old, running away with a baby at my arms from my raper and abuser after spending months talking to my father on the phone begging him to help me, telling him how my abuser beat me.
The Silent Watcher said nothing.
I ran away, I called the Silent Watcher and told him about my plan to get a divorce.
My  mother was screaming in the background and calling me a whore and the Silent Watcher told me I am welcome if I go back to my rapist and abuser but not welcome if I decide to get a divorce.
I ended up alone.
In the streets.
Suddenly homeless.
With a baby.
Do I have to tell you I lost her in court?
My abuser won.
My mother and all my relatives, who all my life talked about dignity, what a girl should and shouldn’t do and the meaning of family, they all became like my father.
They all became the Silent Watcher.
No one helped me.
No one cared.
No one came to court.
I lost her.
And me? What happened to me? I was moved from one juvenile home to another and even once in foster home care until I became 24 years of age.
At 18 – today, I have been called a bad mother.
At 18 1/2  – today, I have met my mother maybe 3 times and the last time I tried she called me a whore and a liar when I called her “Mother” and she refused to open the door for me.
And my father?
Well, the sin I committed  (getting a divorce), he and my mother did the same. He is remarried and still the Silent Watcher but also a silent abuser because I am not welcome to be myself anywhere near him.
It’s his way or the highway.
So, I have no father.
I never had.
I have no protecter.
So what does it mean in an honour culture society?  It means that anyone and everyone have been able to take pieces of me at all times with no struggle whatsoever.
I am a walking meatmarket and punching bag with a bullseye on my forehead.
Let me explain:
A woman, who lives alone and disobey her father, the culture and religion she belongs to, is nothing but cheap and free to anyone to abuse.
Years passed, I have been hospitalised many times in the psychiatric ward.
My tears and pain has always been the same and had the same reasons, the longing for my stolen and lost child and the big knife in the back by my family.
I tried suicide 3 more times over the years.
Last attempt 6 – 7 years ago.
Today I am ok, not totally, I am still damaged goods but I am here, am I not?
All my life I have been abused and I am still here.
I struggle every day to survive, and with the help of my pencil, and the love of my friends, I am getting stronger.
One beautiful day I will be strong enough to write a book about this. I will stand in front of everyone and talk about honour culture. Maybe it will take years as the hurt is still so deep but it doesn’t matter. Let it take time.
I will speak up.
I am not what my mother called me all my life, “Useless”.
And I am not my father’s daughter, “A silent watcher”.
You will hear and watch me fight back louder and with more confident in the future.
What I just wrote now was just the teaser/trailer.
I wrote this as my gift to all women around the world on the International women’s day:
Unite, fight and never give up your right!

Lebanon vs Sweden…Who wins?

A girl growing up trying to fit in but fails miserably, lost between two cultures…

I was born in a land of war, killing and bombing. I remember all the windows we had to change because the glass broke when the bombs fell outside like rain. Many of our neighbors soon stopped changing the glass but I remember that my father changed them EVERY time. He didn’t want his family to have nylon as windows. I remember that we often ran down to the basement to get cover from the storm of bombs outside. I remember that when I left to school in the morning I never knew if my parents or siblings or relatives would be alive when I went back home. Every day was a miracle when we all survived and were home, altogether as a family. We were lucky, other families weren’t. Many died during my first years growing up in Lebanon.

So, my father wanted to save us. I am sure he didn’t plan that his daughter would see a child with a head split in the middle for falling down from the balcony because of a bomb. I saw that my father didn’t want his daughter to see her relatives taken away by soldiers for months for questioning and coming back home all covered in blood from all the beating. I saw that too. So, my father made a promise to us, to move us to a safer country, and he did, one beautiful Saturday, to Sweden.

It was 1984, I was 6 1/2 years old when we moved to Sweden, and after living a whole year in a camp to wait for the residency, my family and I moved to our first home in this country in 1985.

It was a town where we were the only foreign family and my sister, my brother and I were the only students in school with dark hair. The Swedish kids made fun of me and called me names and for the next couple of years I was struggling to make myself accepted. I cried very often. I just wanted to go back and I asked my father many times why he took us away from the country where I felt like home, Lebanon.

It wasn’t only hard for us as kids, this was a hard time for my parents as well, a new country and children that no longer could speak the mother tongue right. We spoke a new language that they didn’t understand. They had no control over the situation – my parents began to, as they call it, save us from the “Swedish world”. They didn’t want us to change, but it was hard for us, my siblings and I. I was trying to be accepted at school and my parents tried to save me from being accepted. I was very confused.

Even my mother and father began to have problems, they grew apart and the fights and the screaming began. Both situations were alike: hiding from the bombs in a basement and hiding from the fights in my room, life hasn’t changed for me, it got worse, at least back in Lebanon we were hiding together as a family but in Sweden, we were hiding from each other.

Everything deemed strange, my parents wanted me to hate it or not to get close to it: Swedish people, black people, Muslim people, even people with a strange haircut, everything became a threat to their kids and soon I was banned from even leaving the house or talking to anyone or having friends.

I thought that in time this will change and my parents will be different, but no, it got worse, they even banned us from watching Swedish channels.

-No Swedish TV, they said.

This left an even bigger gap between us in the family. Everything was forbidden.

I told my father:

– I thought you brought us to this country so that we could live in peace and to have our freedom, but this Dad, this is prison and its painful. Why don’t you let me adjust to this country, why?

He didn’t answer me.

My older brother left the house and didn’t want to have anything to do with the family, and because he left, I became the oldest of the kids and got the blame for everything that happened.

At home I had to hide the fact I had Swedish friends and  that my best friends were a Muslim girl from Iraq and a Swedish girl. I learned soon to live a double life, like a double agent in FBI or something. At home I never said anything, too afraid to be judged. I never smiled, I never asked for anything, and in school, my mood was always swinging. I was on top and happy some days and screaming and fighting other days, but at least I was reacting, I was alive.

 One day I asked my father:

– Do you want me to hate peoples who are different? Weren’t there different peoples in Beirut? Different religions? So if it was ok there, why isn’t it now? You never told us to hate anyone in Lebanon.

He never answered that either.

I thought about it. Of course there were people of different religious identities and colors, and I remember that we all shared the same basement when we were hiding from the bombs, listening to the same radio for news, praying the same prayers, sharing our food and water with each other, and hugging each other when we could go back home in one piece. Why can’t it be the same here in Sweden?

We weren’t the only family having to deal with this dilemma. Others were in a similar situation.

 Today my parents are divorced, they live in different cities. They hate each other and they can’t deal with the fact that they have family obligations. We are strangers to each other, so tell me, was it worth it? Was it worth surviving the war? Was it worth moving to a country with no war and no bombs? Here, we don’t have war, but we are no longer a family. This country ripped us apart!

I went for a vacation to Lebanon, after 19 years in Sweden to see if I would feel like home there, but I didn’t. The gap between the people  nowadays are as big as the gap in our family, if not bigger. There are gaps between people because of religion and race, between rich and poor people. Even politics is dividing people and families. I was so disappointed.

Where is home for me?

I am an outsider in Sweden as I am a Lebanese girl and I am a stranger with weird European ideas in Lebanon.

Have you ever talked to a person that says that the best time of her life is when she was hiding from bombs in a basement?

Well, I am that person.

I know it doesn’t make any sense to many, but that was the best time of my life.

Contemporary Feminisms in Lebanon: Lights in the Tunnel

Though many commentators have warned that the Arab Spring has turned into a winter, and despite the fact that many countries in the Southwestern Asian region have for the last decades witnessed continuous wars, political turmoil, economic crises, as well as the rise of extremism and the dissemination of sectarianism, the reality, in my opinion, should not be depicted with apocalyptic lenses, nor with binary approaches – i.e. black/white, good/bad, old/new…

The Southwestern Asian region encompasses multiple cultures, beliefs, ideologies, practices, experiences and trends, and this complex and dynamic diversity imposes itself as the subject of study and the canvas upon which scholars should be revisiting the past or assessing current situations and phenomena. With that perspective, when it comes to writing the history of Southwestern Asian feminism and-or analyzing contemporary discourse and activism, I argue that the use of mainstream approaches – evolutionist, revolution-centered and institution-centered – does not contribute to the recognition of diversity, nor to a better understanding of its dynamics. Instead, it fuels memory selectivity versus the inclusiveness of diverse memories and thus histories and identities.

This paper first presents an overview of these approaches, and then introduces my approach to studying feminism in Southwestern Asia and especially in Lebanon – an approach I have been developing for several years as a scholar and activist. Based on the results of ongoing qualitative research I have been conducting since 2004, proving the existence and the positive impact of many individual and collective change-makers, I conclude that it is too soon to talk about the downfall of women’s rights along with what is perceived as the failure of the Arab Spring. In fact, the logic itself is flawed. But, I also disagree with the common motto “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” meaning the reality we live in is only just a dark/passive/ violent moment. Indeed, preliminary results prove that lights were (in the past) and still are (in the present) illuminating the tunnel.


It is true too that there are many obstacles that women and all Lebanese citizens face, such as the continuous state of internal war (physical/psychological), sectarianism, economic crisis, etc. And yet, despite the gloominess of the situation, my research has uncovered an explosion of diverse feminist voices and initiatives in Lebanon and within the Lebanese diaspora worth studying, encouraging and including in the much needed dialogue between feminists, and between feminists and other actors within the Lebanese society – a much needed dialogue that helps to harness diversity and overcome divisions.

While further investigation is definitely needed, I will conclude with the following points: these change-makers or agents of change offer an alternative to the disenchantment experienced by many institutions and non-governmental organizations – a disenchantment that results from aiming for a generalized transformation (a revolution) concerning women’s rights in particular and other socio-political causes as well. This alternative is about taking small, varied and diffuse but continuous steps, about recognizing and appreciating the many lights that help us walk through the tunnel, and about including those in the history of splendors brought with the ships and the shipwrights.


SOURCE: Dr. Pamela Chrabieh, “Contemporary Feminisms in Lebanon: Lights in the Tunnel”, in Shifting Identities: Changes in the Social, Political and Religious Structures in the Middle East. Edited by Mitri Raheb, Diyar Publishers, Bethlehem, 2016, pp. 155-172.

I was born a girl…

I was born a girl…

“Born a girl” means being judged by my family and relatives for who enters or not “the place” – a “place” where my entire family’s value and honor lay, i.e. “between my legs”. “Between my legs” is my father’s honor, my sisters’, my uncles’, yeah everyone in my ‘tribe’. The only one who has the power to enter that area must be approved by them or forced on by them. So you go through life knowing that you are judged and crucified because of “the place between your legs”.

For me, honor is not that… Honor is to LOVE. For me value is to honor self value AND the value of others no matter their race, color, sexual orientation or religion. For me love should conquer EVERYTHING. But no, if a certain individual with a different religious affiliation falls in love with someone outside that religion then hell breaks loose and if it is a girl/woman then her name changes to a ‘whore’. Same if she falls in love with someone with a different color or race – what if she is a lesbian? Certainly that boys/men are judged horribly too when it comes to sexual orientation, but girls/women go through multiple channels of horrible situations.

I am a woman now… A shame to my family, but I will ALWAYS be proud of being/becoming a woman. I at least have the dignity to see further than race, color, religion and sexual orientation and choose my life and whoever I want in it….

“Between my legs” has nothing to do with your honor or value, dear family…. It has nothing to do with my honor or value either. That area is personal and none of your business, so take your shame elsewhere and leave me alone. I am a woman and it is time to FIGHT BACK!!!!

Let's End Violence Against Women!

Although women enjoyed sometimes important roles in ancient cultures such as the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek, most women in the past and the present of Southwestern Asia and North Africa live in oppressive environments. Women are usually considered as tools of pleasure – tools to be thrown away when they ‘expire’. They have their roles restricted to give birth, take care of their families and accomplish their marital duties, due to the patriarchal system and the ignorance of so many individuals. In Lebanon for instance, children born to a Lebanese woman and a man from another country are not granted the Lebanese Nationality. In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from entering Starbucks – ‘unlawful mixing between the sexes’, they need to be accompanied by a male guardian known as a ‘mahram’ whenever they leave the house, and they still are not allowed to drive a car. Saudi Arabia ranked poorly on women’s involvement in politics, workplace discrimination, freedom of movement and property rights” (BBC). In Iraq, women’s position and security in society has deteriorated since 2003. In Palestine, divorced women are still dehumanized and ridiculed. In Libya, only 10% of the seats were allocated to women in the national elections and all political parties are led by men, making women’s chances of getting nominated in any party’s list slim.

However, one cannot deny the struggles and accomplishments of numerous women. In Bahrain for instance, women are well represented in major professions, women’s societies and women’s organizations. One-quarter of the women are able to hold jobs outside the confines of the household. In the modern State of Israel, the number of Israeli women occupying positions in politics has increased in the last 20 years and women hold positions such as city mayors, council members, Supreme Court and District Court justices, as well as members of the Knesset and Ministers. In Kuwait, women can work, drive and travel without their fathers’ or husbands’ consent and they hold senior government positions. In Oman, women pursue careers and professional training. In Algeria, women represent one-third of the parliament.

I mentioned above two main causes for women’s oppression: 1) ignorance – ignorance of society in general including women themselves who ignore their basic human’s rights. 2) the patriarchal system and ignorance. The patriarchal system’s basis is the domination of families and society by men. According to Burns (2008), the patriarchal system is linked to sexism, and sexism contributes to violence against women including battering (p.75). Battering is sometimes understood as a problem within the individual such as the inability to recognize and express feelings. A man batters because he is unable to assertively express his needs and desires (p.110). That could explain somehow the numerous realities of violence against women in Egypt for instance – a UN report in April 2016 states that 99.3% of women and girls have been subjected to sexual harassment. “The social acceptability of everyday sexual harassment affects every woman in Egypt regardless of age, professional or socio-economic background, marriage status, dress or behavior,” said Noora Flinkman of Egyptian campaign group HarassMap. Also, the survey states Iraq is now more dangerous for women than under Saddam Hussein, with women disproportionately affected by the violence of the past decade. Furthermore, “in Palestine for example, women are subjected to sexist crimes from Palestinian men and to racist crimes from Israelis”. Hannah Rought-Brooks, Salwa Duaibis, and Soraida Hussein wrote in their article “Palestinian Women: Caught in the Cross Fire Between Occupation and Patriarchy” that Palestinian women are subjected to sexual violence and rape from their own men as well as from the Israeli soldiers, and without any consequences”. The World’s Women 2015 Statistics (UN) show that the Middle East has high rates of violence against women. A sad reality that urgently needs tackling at national and international levels, as laws often do not suffice.

What about the role of religions?

As far as I know, all religions are against violence, rape, murder… All preach love and self-sacrifice for others. God almighty didn’t even distinguish between man and woman. He created them both like him (على صورته و مثاله). They both need each other to complete their lives.

Christianity: “In Jesus’ ministry, he teaches: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.   I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, NRSV).   Victimization is never God’s will but rather fullness of life.   Jesus understood his ministry “to proclaim release to the captives . . .” (Luke 4:18 quoting Isaiah 61, NRSV).   He told the story of the Good Samaritan to emphasize our responsibility to stop and care for the victim.   These are fundamental teachings through which other passages must be interpreted in Christianity” (Vawnet)

Islam: “According to Muslim scholar and activist Sharifa Alkhateeb (1999): The most abused verse is ayah 34 of Surah four:   “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah gave more to the one than the other, and because they support them from their means.   So devout women are extremely careful and attentive in guarding what cannot be seen in that which Allah is extremely careful and attentive in guarding” (Vawnet)

Here are some verses that prohibit violence:

  • Isaiah 60:18: Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise
  • و إذا خفتم شقاق بينهما فابعثوا حكما من أهله وحكما من أهلها إن يريدا إصلاحاً يوفق الله بينهما إنّ الله كان عليما خبيراً (النساء)

And if you fear dissension between the two, send an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted.

How to end the violence against women?

1-      Promote women’s rights, including gender equality – meaning women have the right to vote, work, to be educated, to be independent and reach higher positions in society, to drive, to have fun, to have equal employment opportunities and equal salaries. Women have the right to be treated with respect and dignity, to decide at what age they want to be married and not to be forced by society and traditions.

2-      Work on prevention:  “Prevention should start early in life, by educating and working with young boys and girls promoting respectful relationships and gender equality. Working with youth is a “best bet” for faster, sustained progress on preventing and eradicating gender-based violence. While public policies and interventions often overlook this stage of life, it is a critical time when values and norms around gender equality are forged “(UNwomen).

3-      Promote official education of girls and women: “Promote gender equality in schools and widen access to education for girls. It has been proven time and time again that girls enrolled in school are less likely to be married early and become pregnant. If that weren’t reason enough, girls that obtain higher levels of education are more likely to find employment and become empowered as a result of their financial contributions to the family and community.

4-      End forced early marriage and premature pregnancy, the leading cause of death of girls between 15 to 19 years of age.

5-      Bring greater attention to violence that is perpetrated by a partner or spouse.

6-      Revise marriage laws that are institutionally biased against women, particularly those that deny women custody over their children, inheritance, and land rights in cases of death, separation or divorce” (one.org)

Women are our responsibility as men because men and women complete each other as Saint Paul said ‘they become one soul and one body’, and thus keep life moving on. Men should respect women. Women are not tools nor dolls to play with. It’s about time we end violence against women!








Burns, k. (2008). Violence against women. Farmington hills: Christine Nasso.

Hock, M. k. (2006). It’s my life now. New York: Taylor & Francis group.










Why are women’s roles limited in Southwestern Asia?

There are multiple causes that limit women’s roles in Southwestern Asia i.e. the Middle East. The first one has to do with the historical legacy as society equated physical strength to general ability, thus relegated women to a lower status than men. This has resulted in the objectification of women in many parts of Southwestern Asia. However, one has to keep in mind the diversity of women’s situations in the past, as Professor of History at Georgetown University Judith E. Tucker states: “women have never been a monolithic group even within the same society: class, race, and/or ethnicity could have consequences as significant for women’s opportunity and status as did (does) gender” (pg. 16).

A second cause in my opinion has to do with the patriarchal system, and that explains somehow the rise of feminist movements in Southwestern Asia. The patriarchal system is constructed on the basis of a belief in inequality between male and female and the application of such a belief to a lifestyle – and legal system. Patriarchy tends to prevent individuals in society from being civil and independent. Many scholars such as Guity Nashat and Baron Beth define the origins of the patriarchal system: the family. Baron Beth asks the following questions:

“How did the Arab family structure gender relations? How does the study of this basic social institution help us to understand changes in gender definition and the relation between gender and power over time?” (pg. 234).

Without the structure of a conservative family, patriarchies would never exist in Southwestern Asia. Patriarchy limits women from being active agents in society. “Empowering women” will only be realized in Southwestern Asia when all women are given equal rights and expectations as of men, not through “female-only” scholarships or fancy government titles.

A third cause according to some scholars is the lack of education in matters of women’s rights and gender diversity. The success of feminist movements in Southwestern Asia will therefore depend on the level of education. Otherwise, the changes that result from these social movements will only be temporary. However, in my opinion, the failure of feminist movements is not because of a lack of education but rather because of a general fear of change. One example of society fearing change can be found in Egypt, where the artworks of social activists and conceptual photographers on women’s freedom, such as Hagar El-Saied and Abu-Elmaaty were highly criticized by conservative Egyptians.

This fear of change negatively impacts women’s roles and situations. Women for instance in many countries cannot choose their partners. Sarmadah by Syrian novelist Fadi Azzam reminds us of such a limitation. Many women are also the victims of honor killings, as expressed in Al Duflah Tree’s novel, and female circumcision – refer to a BBC report claiming that female circumcision is practiced on more than 130 million women in North Africa. In 2008, UNICEF recorded Egypt as having the second highest rates in female circumcision with 91% of its women affected by it. Activists claim that female circumcision is a form of sexual abuse and should be considered as a crime by law. Furthermore, feminist scholars in Southwestern Asia such as Joumana Haddad and Nawal Saadawi, take a stand against such a form of sexual abuse. Nawal Saadawi for instance wrote in her book Diaries of a Female Doctor about dealing with female circumcision as a village doctor.

A fourth cause is the lack of independence. According to Valentine Moghadam – citing the example of Kurdistan – “independence developed women’s rights movement determined to see an end of honor crimes, FGM, and polygamy.” (pg. 162). The call for gender justice thus goes hand in hand with independence at different levels – national and individual. Furthermore, it should be accompanied with the implementation of democracy and new laws as Wanda Krause states following her study of Egypt during its political upheaval in 2011. Definitely, economic and political empowerment will not bring about lasting gains for women in the economic and political spheres – nor in the private sphere – without changes in the political and legal systems. As I see it, a combination of education/awareness and systemic changes, as well as targeting the roots of society’s fear of change is needed to help women gain more rights and have their diverse roles in society recognized in the long run.


Works Cited

Krause, Wanda. Civil Society and Women Activists In the Middle East: Islamic and Secular Organizations in Egypt. London: I.B.Tauris, 2012. E-Book Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 June 2016.

Keddie, Nikki R., and Beth Baron. Women In Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries In Sex And Gender. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. E-Book Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 June 2016.

Moghadam M. Valentine. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. British Cataloguing in Publishing Data. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003. Print.

Nashat, Guity. Tucker E. Judith. Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History. Indiana University Press, 1999. Print.




The Middle Eastern Woman's Handbook

  1. You heralded bad news to your family the minute your mom found out she was pregnant with a girl.
  2. You could’ve been buried alive at birth. Be grateful.
  3. You must get married, you must get married, you must get married, you must- you must!
  4. The family’s entire honor is between your legs. Keep them closed.
  5. Your brother can do whatever he wants but you need to stay at home and learn how to be a housewife.
  6. Red lipstick makes you a whore.
  7. Becoming labeled as a spinster or promiscuous by society should be your biggest fear.
  8. You were only put on this earth to please your man.
  9. If you were to be sexually harassed or raped, it would be completely your fault- because you should’ve covered yourself up some more!
  10. He killed her to redeem the family’s honor, and cleanse its reputation from the shame she caused them.
  11. You should be forced to wear a hijab and cover your entire body so as to not lure men. Religion said so.
  12. No man will marry an independent, stubborn, out-spoken, successful woman. Don’t be like that, tsk tsk tsk.
  13. Learn to love double standards.
  14. Your life and your body are under the control of your father, your brother or your husband, never your own!
  15. It’s perfectly normal to marry some man you’ve never met before because his mom liked the way you looked at your cousin’s wedding.
  16. You haven’t really accomplished anything unless you’ve gotten married.
  17. You’re expected to bleed on your wedding night; otherwise you’re definitely not a virgin and should be shot to cleanse the family name!
  18. You need to get married, you need to get married, you need to get married, you need to- you need to!
  19. You will be fat-shamed by both men & women. Better watch those calories!
  20. You’re expected to be in a constant competition with other women!
  21. That’s too short! This is too tight! Oh my god, that’s too revealing!
  22. If you marry someone from a different nationally, you’ll have no right to pass on your citizenship to your children, whom you’ve carried for nine months. Accept the fact that you’re a second-class citizen.
  23. You’re expected to produce male children. It’s your ultimate goal in life.
  24. He is entitled to marry four women. Religion said so.
  25. Remember, it is you who tempted him to rape you, it is you who provoked him enough to hit you; it’s always your fault.
  26. There is no such thing as rape in the setting of marriage.
  27. Your paycheck, if he’s kind enough to let you work, is his. Hand it over at the end of every month with a kiss on his cheek.
  28. He hits you because he loves you. And let’s not deny the fact that you were asking for it.
  29. Honor killings are an acceptable solution. Marrying your rapist is another acceptable solution.
  30. Your “reputation” is everything.
  31. What you lack in looks, you better make up for in the kitchen!
  32. “هم البنات حتى الممات”. Know this. Memorize this. Laminate this. Teach it to your children. Repeat it regularly.

A Little Empathy Would Go A Long Way

Artwork by Fares Cachoux – Woman holding Syria on her back (Cartoon Gallery, Dubai)

I attended a Dubai Slam Poetry session few days ago and one of the talented young poets, Syrian Sarah Tamimi, told the story of war through a daughter’s promise to her departed mother: ‘Don’t look back’… What I understood from Sarah’s tearful performance which content evoked my own experience in Lebanon’s physical war zone in the 1980s, is not the importance of letting go of the past, but of not letting the pain of the past steal the blessings of today and the promise of tomorrow. Palestinian-Canadian Dr. Nadia Wardeh and I had a serious conversation following the session about the power of memory and the importance of cultural resistance, and how we were both moved by Sarah’s words. ‘Empathy’ (al ta’atuf) came to my mind.

Empathy is usually defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions (affective empathy) and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling (cognitive empathy). Empathetic individuals are more likely to help others in need, even when doing so cuts against their self-interest. Empathy definitely fights inequality, reduces prejudice and racism, encourages people to reach out and help others who are not necessarily in their social group, and boosts positive human relations. Empathy is good for the office – managers who demonstrate empathy have better performing employees who also report greater happiness. It is good for professionals in education, health and social care. Some scholars argue that there is a genetic basis to empathy, while others suggest that people can enhance or restrict their natural empathic abilities. Empathy is therefore a culture in itself that is – or not – nurtured. Many religious and philosophical traditions have favored empathy as key to moral thought, conduct, or motivation. However, being religious does not guarantee being empathetic.

Following up on our conversation the next morning, I wondered about the flood story in the Bible, and the numerous interpretations found in Jewish and Christian traditions. Contrary to Noah’s portrayal in the 2014 American biblical epic film directed by Darren Aronofsky, a figure with different characteristics is depicted in the sacred scriptures, the figure of an absentee from the moment God speaks to him until he leaves the ark and steps on to dry land. Noah expresses no shock or horror at the idea of the mass destruction, nor does he plead with God to think again. Was Noah’s silence the sign of lack of empathy? But the story continues with Noah having to feed the animals in the ark for an entire year without sleep. Noah learns how to know and care for others. According to Scottish Torah scholar Dr. Avivah Gottlieb, “the ark becomes a crucible in which a new type of sensibility is nurtured. The ark is to be a laboratory of kindness” (The Genesis of Desire). Zomberg finds a drama about ‘civilizations’ in the flood story: the real crisis of human beings is that “they have become so open that they are closed to one another”.

Zomberg’s theory reminds me of Samuel Huntington’s – The Clash of Civilizations. For Huntington, the more the ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations are open to one another, the more they will realize their differences thus will clash. Openness definitely carries with it the risk of conflict, but it paves the way for making the unfamiliar familiar, for mutual respect, dialogue and conviviality. Empathy requires openness but it should be coupled with paying attention. Psychiatrist Ronald David Laing explains the dilemma facing many individuals who are not able to develop empathy because they fail to notice others: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” In simpler words, to have empathy, I have to be able to see. To have empathy for you, I have to be able to see you.

I saw Sarah, and I could see in her poem the daughter running and her mother screaming: ‘Don’t look back!’ I saw refugees in camps and in the streets of Beirut. I saw friends and family members die because of the war in Lebanon, in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Is seeing/noticing the key? We are bombarded with scenes of suffering and horrible deaths night and day on all media channels. Does this continuous reminder contribute to a culture of empathy or does it push individuals to eliminate the more humane elements in them as a means of protection, of survival? Seeing/noticing could also block one’s empathy and therefore create an affective social distance. Seeing too much could provoke fatigue – ‘empathy fatigue’ -, a sense of lack of power to affect change when we are faced with unrelenting bad news.

To have empathy for you, I have to become more mindful of what I see/notice, I have to learn to feel with and feel into, and not be afraid of feeling beyond my local narrow borders, beyond my comfort zone. I have to learn to understand. I have to learn to beat the ’empathy fatigue’. Seeing Sarah and the Syrian war through Sarah’s words, feeling Sarah and her characters’ pain, merging our emotions, and understanding Sarah and refugees who lost their loved ones, their homes, their past, and are hanging on the thin strings of life in order not to lose their future. As Albert Einstein explains it in Mathematical Circles: “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security”.

Truly, a little empathy would go a long way…