Disgust and Despair, or Yet Another Rant on Lebanon

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I used to write I wanted to go back to Lebanon, live there permanently and all that. I used to be so blinded by love for that country that I romanticized it to death, brushing over the bad aspects as if they were nothing.

Then I came back, and the romantic dream died. I still loved Lebanon though. A more honest love, perhaps, but it still had a special place in my heart.

But now I am done. Don’t get me wrong, many things I still love, many things still make my heart beat. I’ll probably never be over Beirut. How can one be over Beirut? But I digress.

I am, however, over the Lebanese political elite. I am tired of screaming arraftouna. I am tired of sending letters and tweets and marching and yelling and advocating for change while it is very clear that the political class couldn’t give two fucks about what it is we’re asking for. I’m tired of being disgusted to the core by the aggressive corruption, I’m tired of begging for rights that are rightfully mine, I am tired of consultations, meetings, discussions, projects funded by organisations and countries with their own agendas and their own priorities, who really, actually, don’t really give two fucks either about what it is you’re asking for. I am tired of pretending something can be done in the current system we’re in.

I am tired of pretending we’re not at war when Tripoli is counting its dead, and has been for a while. I am tired of looking at discrimination in the face every day I spend in Lebanon and not knowing where to start to eradicate it. I am tired of being considered by law and by society as a second class citizen who should stay at home to raise children born within wedlock, a religious wedlock if you please. I am tired of the mind-numbing hypocrisy of the religious, the politician and business classes alike, all united to stomp on equality, justice and freedom.

The truth is my heart is aching with the mothers still looking for their children decades after they have been abducted or disappeared during the war, the truth is I can’t stand that my friends need two jobs just to barely make ends meet while they have degrees and experience whereas a family name can open the doors of heaven to others.

I’m tired of Lebanon. Because this is Lebanon, whether we like it or not. Today Lebanon is a country where abused women have no law protecting them, where women can’t pass on their citizenship to their family, where rape is legal if the rapist marries you, where maternity leave is so short and childcare so expensive you’re virtually left with no choice but to drop your kids at your mothers and take a job that finishes at 2. If you’re lucky. Today Lebanon is a Parliament giving itself the authority to extend its own mandate, today Lebanon is a country where political lines are drawn according to sectarian allegiances, where so called parties are nothing more than families repeating the same lies for decades. Today Lebanon is a country where you can’t even get a civil marriage, where modern slavery is seen as a normal part of every day life, as if there were nothing wrong in putting a human being under the authority and responsibility of another. Today Lebanon is a country where the vast majority of the workforce is unaccounted for, informal, where social security is a Graal only the lucky can get. Today Lebanon is a country where all woes are blamed on the Other, the refugee, the member of a different sect, the poor, without ever looking within to see the rot.

This is the Lebanon our political and administrative sectarian system gave us. Do you like it? Is there anything to be proud of?

Now is the time for radical action, for general strikes and paralyzing actions of the system. Now is the time to strike back, to name and shame, to stop voting, to stage constant protest.

The time for compromise and participation has gone, and we’re only left with confrontation. It is our only hope.

On Angry Feminists, Women’s Bodies, and People’s Sense of Entitlement

When I put myself in front of my computer this morning, I had every intention to work and write the 28th chapter of the Tales of the Phoenix City.

However, it seemed life had other plans for me.

Fate, or maybe it was just random bad luck, put yet another person in front of me who asked me “if that baby was coming”.

I gave an icy cold reply, and that seemed to shut her up.

I never got how people can be so insensitive and feel so entitled to meddle in affairs that have nothing whatsoever to do with them. I always felt that these questions can hurt a person trying to have a baby but not succeeding, or sadden a person who has just miscarried, or anger a person who doesn’t want to have a child, or just plain bore a person into a stupor as they simply really don’t feel like discussing what’s in or what’s not in their uterus with every half wit that crosses her path.

However, this issue is bigger than the issue of having a child. People’s sense of entitlement to ask women personal questions most of the times seems to largely go unquestioned. As women, it seems that people expect us to nod and answer gracefully all the questions that get thrown at us, regardless of what we feel and think. Are you getting married? Yes? No? If Yes, when? If no, why the hell not? Once you’re married, it’s the child issue that raises its head, accompanied with well and not so well-meaning old wives’ tales about how time is running out and if your body gets used to your partner’s sperm you won’t be able to conceive (true story. Someone actually said that to a friend of mine). When you’re pregnant, your womb becomes public property with the same random people rubbing your belly like there’s no tomorrow, as if for good luck. Seriously, can you imagine people’s faces if I went around caressing men’s bellies and making stupid cooing noises? Once you’ve had your first child, when are you going to have the second? And once you’ve had your children, it seems that the world gets filled with self-appointed experts criticizing right left and center the way you’re raising your offspring.

My husband gets asked all the time questions about the progression of his PhD, about how his activities are going. Very few people, save for some members of his close family, ever ask him about when we are planning on having a child. On the other hand, random people seem to have no problem whatsoever asking me about the future occupants of my womb, each and everyone of them giving advice I did not remember asking for, or stressing me out because apparently a pregnancy would not suit my job.

Should you snap at the umpteenth person putting his or her head up your ass, people frown at you as if you were the living embodiment of their version of feminists, I.e, aggressive women always barking at patriarchy and their ‘so-called oppression’. Let me tell you one thing: us feminists are angry, that’s for sure, because the minute we put on our feminist glasses it becomes impossible not to see the gender bias and discrimination we have to live under, it becomes impossible not to notice that women are expected to answer obediently to all the shit that gets thrown at them and nod submissively otherwise they’d be frowned upon if not mocked and degraded, and something inside us just snaps and starts wanting to bite people’s heads off. Feminists are angry because they question what society takes for granted: gender stereotypes, gender injustice, discrimination and society’s sense of entitlement.

This sense of entitlement to ask questions about a woman’s private life stems, at least for me, from the general perception that women’s bodies and lives do not belong to them and them only. Women’s bodies are society’s , their family’s, their community’s, but never their own. This being said, it derives that questions can be asked and comments can be made. It is only when we make the conscious choice to respect every human being body’s integrity that we can truly say we respect healthy boundaries and can have equal relationships.

Don’t give me advice if I don’t ask. Don’t ask me personal questions, especially if I barely know you. Don’t tell me what my child should eat or do.

After all, you’re not seeing me asking your husband how his prostate is doing. Therefore, I’d be grateful if you could leave my uterus alone.

Plastic Capitalist

Today, I was attending a Meeting on women’s leadership: men in suit moderators, outdated data, lack of content. The meeting was supposedly women’s leadership, yet the was not discussed and rather, the whole thing looked more like a company’s team building retreat, with moderators apparently on a mission to complete their template.
When my colleagues and I raised the issues, we were told to, in that order: take things with a pinch of salt, be more positive, that the best people were moderating the sessions, that we were aggressive and that finally we were welcomed to send all our suggestions and evaluation in the little form provided in the little folder.
It was strange to see that apparently there was no woman qualified enough to be part of the moderators, but beyond those specific issues, it was appalling to witness how much the issue of women’s rights has become commodified, treated via companies specialized in “leadership strategies”, within the framework of a conference so formatted the environment for leadership development was far from being provided. The worst part of it all might very well have been that organizers and moderators presented themselves as “feminists”. The same ones who told me to “take things with a pinch of salt”, presenting themselves as feminists.
This situation clearly reminded me how much feminism has been overused, recuperated and distorted, the way you see right wing neocons parading as feminists. Feminism is by definition a revolutionary current aiming at questioning power relations, whether they are economic power relations, gender power relations or political relations. As feminists, we must remain aware of what language is being used, what methods are being used, what images, what attitudes, everything. Remaining vigilant and speaking out against situations that strike us as insensitive gender wise, or oppressive to any social group, not just women , are part of our job, and if that makes us aggressive, then so be it. When we spoke out at that conference, many people blamed us from holding the agenda back, from being too offensive: I however can’t help but notice that our stir caused two women trainers to moderate one session, which was not previously factored in the programme, just like the acts of feminists demonstrators in the 70’s were perceived as aggressive, yet you wouldn’t have seen drastic changes in European laws pertaining to women and gender without them. Feminism, contrary to women’s rights currents, not only asks for gender equality within laws and practice: it aims at shifting societies upside down to challenge traditional conservative concepts of what it means to be a woman or a man, it aims at questioning and changing heteronormative and sexist beliefs and practices.
One of the aspects of the intrusion and recuperation of progressive ideologies by capitalism and neoliberal policies is how the emphasis has shifted from public duties to individual duties. While talking about women’s rights and empowerment, so many people kept pointing fingers at women, stating it was up to them to seize opportunities and not to wait on the state to give them anything. The success of capitalism is that it has managed to make people believe that asking anything from the government is acting as an assisted person. It’s the Nike philosophy, just do it, you can do it, etc, you you you and people who try to do it and fail are stigmatized. Reminder: governments ratify human rights law treaties, therefore, governments should be held accountable for respecting, protecting and implementing them. The State has a duty, in fact many of them, and part of the empowerment process is to remind the state of its obligations and put it back in front of them, and stating that in doing so, a citizen is being nothing short of a big whiny baby is. A. Lie.

On the dangers of standing on a street in Lebanon

So there I was, innocently standing on a street after work, waiting for a pick up, when a car stopped in front of me.
– A question please Miss, he said.
So I walked to his car, obliging, thinking he needed directions ( that’ll teach my civic sense to shut the fuck up and now give the finger to every living soul I don’t know that talks to me).
– what do you do? He said, I always see you here.
I looked at him, puzzled and bewildered. Why was he asking? Dif he need to find my organization for something or the other? I decided on vagueness.
– I work in the neighborhood, why?
– I always see you I told you, so where do you work? Tell me! What do you do? What type of job you have?
There and then, I knew he was not looking for information, but perhaps, for a suitable bride with good money that comes with, or a quick fuck, of God knows what. So I just told him, Ma khassak. This is none of your business.
-So if someone talks to you what do you do, you hit him? Byekol 2taleh? He yelled, bristling with aggression.
– I’m married and all…
As soon as I said that, he said: oh, that’s different then, and just left in a hurry. He was right to leave, not because my husband is 1m88 and could easily kick his ass, but because I was 1m66 of pure, pure unadultered sheer rage and would have made him EAT his stupid car.

But I hate myself a little for having had the knee jerk, automatic reaction of telling him straight away I was married. I shouldn’t have, and will never ever say it again should a similar situation arise, for what is this society that barely respects a woman only if she’s a mother and a wife? Aren’t single girls worthy of respect? So let me get this straight: he has the utter sense of entitlement to stop and invade my privacy and ask all kinds of questions, and when I refuse to answer and tell him it isn’t any of his business (not to mention it’s for my own safety, the last thing I need being a stalker), he’s all offended and aggressive, demanding to know, making me pass for a hysterical woman who beats the crap out of every person talking to her (how i wish it were true).
However, I tell him I’m married and all of a sudden he feels shameful and drives off. In one event, I was able to witness the condensed patriarchy of Lebanese society. Single women suffer from a paradox: their honor lies in their virginity and they are to be sheltered and watched, but at the same time it’s like, in the eyes of society, they don’t belong to anyone yet, so they’re sort of up for grabs, making it ok to harass them. Married women and mothers are sacralised, their union having been blessed by a religious, patriarchal, authority.

All women out there in the public sphere, trying to play a role in their communities, run the risk of being harassed on the streets just because they are women.

This is precisely why we should be even more visible, why I will never ever say my marital status again because it is no one’s business, because I deserve respect, not because I am married to a man, but because I am a woman, a human being.

The Collective for Research and Training on Development.Action will be at the AWID Forum in Istanbul on Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. I’ll be speaking during the session at the Education Space, drop by and say hi if you;re around! 

Lebanese Chronicles: One

Her name is May, and as she sat me down opposite her, all smiles, I could leisurely observe her cross neatly tied around her neck, her loose plait, her glasses. 

May is from the Philippines, and has been working in Lebanon as a beautician for one year and four months. 

Such a precise statement could only mean that she was counting down the days until she came home. I was eager to know more, and sure enough, it was not long before each of us were parting with bits and pieces about our respective lives. 

May notices my wedding band and starts giggling: Oooh very nice! Then on to tease her colleague, who just arrived to Lebanon, fresh from the Philippines, and who has six children back home:”Yiiiih Sally, did you see, you need to go home and find another husband and have even more children!”, cue giggles, and me telling to said Sally that one husband was plenty, thank you very much, and that I was sure she’d agree with me. 

May speaks about her colleagues, about how long they’ve been in the country, how long more they’ll be staying. Until I decided I wanted to know more about her. 

May’s husband died a couple of years ago, and she found herself a single mother living with her son, working as a nail beautician in her homecountry. “Do you know, she said to me, that in the Philippines, a manicure-pedicure is 2 dollars? This is why we come here, this is why we leave home”. May’s son is called Sandrix, he’s now five years old and living with his grandmother. Beaming with pride, May tells me she sends them money every month: “Last time I spoke to them, my son asked me “Mama! Are you going to send money? Can I have some ice cream then?” so I told him “yes my love, yes, too much ice cream even”. 

Then he asked her where she was. 

When I heard this, I felt a little part of my heart wither and die. Me, who made a big song and dance about not seeing my niece for a couple of months, I was sitting opposite a woman who left behind her own child to make sure he had a future.

May wanted to know everything about my husband, my life, why my mother was not staying with me in Lebanon, all details I happily provided her with. When I said to her I’ll be sitting by the phone waiting for my sister to call, she looked at me and laughed “like me!”. Funny how sparks of understanding can fly between people who come from completely different walks of lives. Different situations, different circumstances, same, universal feelings stemming from the essence of being human. Loss, grief, want and need are undiscriminating weapons. 

But don’t go for one second think that May was complaining or miserable. When I told her her parents must be really proud of her, she positively blossomed: “They are. My parents, my brother, my sister, they all said they were so proud of me, especially because I used to be so naughty with all of them! But now I’m very happy, they’re proud of me, and my son is going to school!”

While I couldn’t imagine her ever being naughty to anyone, it made not doubt to me her whole family was proud of her. May will be in Lebanon until 2013, then she’ll go home to her son and family. Until then, I intend to drop by and have a chat with her now and then, so we can have a coffee, and maybe some more laughs. 

Note: May did say to me she was really happy working in a nail salon and practicing her trade and not in a house, even though she did not elaborate on why. Domestic workers and migrant workers in Lebanon suffer high levels of discrimination and sometimes, violence, leading the most desperate of them to commit suicide. Working conditions in private houses can be extremely harsh, with employees not allowed days off, getting locked up or beaten up. Migrant workers are not allowed to go into swimming pools at beaches and have to endure the rampant racism and lack of support from the authorities. To know more and get involved, please go to http://www.nasawiya.org/web/category/migrant-rights/