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Advancing women’s rights… or reinforcing the status quo?

Every year in New York at this time of year, thousands of women take over New York in the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), to address gender equality and women’s empowerment. CSW takes place in March, to coincide with Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and the 31 days we’re allotted to address “all things women.”

The Commission itself was founded in 1946, shortly after the creation of the UN itself. The purpose was to raise awareness and develop policy around international women’s issues and to monitor women’s standing around the world. The Commission was engaged in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, and Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security — three historic and essential global agreements for women’s rights. Basically the backbone of global women’s rights work.

In 1987, the Commission started meeting annually. Ten years later, in 1997, the Commission adopted the policy of coming to negotiated conclusions through debates, panels and round tables. The annual conclusions form international commitments made by member countries. All this sounds great — and is important.

However, negotiation spaces are limited to government delegations and accredited organizations, leaving the voices of many activists and civil society organizations on the outside. Feminist organizations are forced to organize ‘parallel events’ on the periphery of the official meeting, outside the halls of power. There are political implications to who is present — and absent — from these spaces.

As someone who has worked on women’s rights for over twenty-five years, I have only attended one CSW. Yes, just one.

It was a few years ago, but I still recall the experience. I was wearing a suit, with a t-shirt underneath that said “feminist” — in Arabic. The security guard stopped me before I could enter.

“What does that shirt say?!” he demanded.

“Feminist!” I said.

Read more here!

Choking on a Pink Cupcake: Why I Hate International Women’s Day

I hate International Women’s Day.

And with every passing year, I hate it even more.

I hate the one-day-every-year that we are supposed to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve got to go for equality. Did we need reminding?

Quick history: In 1911, women — and men — took to the streets to demand rights for women to work, to vote, and to hold public office. And so this day was born.

Quick reality: It’s 2023, and we’re not equal anywhere. Not in a single country.

And every year, on March 8, we’re told “Happy International Women’s Day.”

As your resident feminist killjoy, I refuse to be happy about this day. When we’re equal, I’ll be happy about that.

I’ve written a bazillion pieces talking about how things are for women around the world. And nowhere in the world are we fully able to participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. How do I know this?!

Here are a few of the bazillion reasons:

The gender gap is real — and it is real big. It will take 132 years for us to close the gender gap, to achieve equality. We are getting worse — in 2020, we needed 100 years to close the gender gap. We’ve lost a whole generation.

Education is closer to equality, but the majority of children who are out of school are girls — that’s 130 million girls worldwide. The majority of people who are illiterate are women — nearly half a billion women and girls cannot read or write. And school isn’t even safe. Roughly 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school every year.

The political gap is widest. Women are dramatically under-represented in positions of power and decision-making. More than 80 countries have never had a woman head of state. Today, only 31 countries are led by women — out of 195 countries in the world.

The economy also discriminates against women, who do the majority of unpaid care work — 76% of it. When women are paid, they still earn less. 77 cents to every man’s dollar. And far less for women of color. Only 6% of companies globally have a female CEO — and she’s still referred to as “the female CEO.”

One in three women and girls will experience some form of violence in our lifetime. I think it’s actually more. And 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime — verbal or physical.

So, there’s a lot of work to do. And we all should be doing it — every day.

See more here!

Setting Yourself on Fire to Keep Others Warm: Why I Fight for Women’s Safety

I heard the screams before I saw her face. Deep, ancient howls. The agony of all women since the beginning of time. My stomach turned, knotted. I did not want to see, but I had no choice. I did not want to know, but somewhere deep, I knew.

I gently pushed aside the partition of plastic bags strung together, held up by twine, tied together at the corners, dust-coated and frayed, quivering at the slightest breeze, ready to disintegrate. Even as the bags shook, the air was dead-still that day.

I handled the grocery-bag barricade carefully, delicately. Like someone’s laundry on a line. But they were not clothes. I did not want to be the one to destroy what had been deliberately constructed — a shield to allow the woman whose voice I heard a sense of dignity, of privacy. To allow her to feel safe.

This plastic was the only protection she had from the outside. The protection I now compromised.

“We need to see where that sound is coming from,” the journalist said.

“We need to know what is going on,” her photographer said.

“You said you’d line this up for us, Lina,” she added.

Yes, this was my job. I worked in humanitarian emergencies — wars, natural disasters, the world’s worst stuff. In those tragedies, I worked with women. And not just any women — women who were survivors of rape. Or at risk of rape. Which in fact is all women.

And yes, part of my job was to work with journalists, reporting what we do, and how we do it.

“You said you’d line this up…” she repeated, as if I needed to be reminded that the journalist was there, in Haiti, to report on rape after the earthquake.

I wondered what, exactly, I was supposed to “line up”? Women who were raped — for them to be revictimized by the international media? This was a part of my job, yes. But it was a part that I despised.

Her howls continued, growing louder. Guttural. Plastic bags now aside, I finally saw her. The girl. The girl behind the howls. She was lying in the dirt, writhing, face contorted, sweat-soaked in her once-white cotton gown, a scrap of fabric that was now brown and tattered on the edges.

The dirt had turned to mud where she lay. A small patch of mud, created by her sweat. Created by her pain.

Check out the full blog here!

Contraception Perception: Why Do Some Countries See Reproductive Rights as a Threat?

We’d like to think we have the right to make decisions that impact our bodies and our lives, because it is our right, right?!

Nope. In most of the world, we don’t. Meaning, we don’t get to make informed and independent choices about some of the biggest things in our lives. I’m talking about stuff like marriage — deciding when and who to marry, or if we even want to get married at all! And kids — if we want them, how many, and when.

All around the world, women are not free to make those decisions for themselves. Meaning, they don’t get the right information — or any information at all — and they certainly don’t have access to the kinds of services they need to support their choices.

In our world of 8 billion people (OMG!), 257 million women do not have access to family planning. Meaning, they don’t have the ability to decide if they want children or not. Family planning gives women power. And powerful women are a threat.

The latest State of World Population report, published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), reminds us that the challenges we face — lack of awareness, lack of information, lack of access — are made far worse by myths and wrong beliefs about side effects, as well as the risk of stigma and opposition from family and community.

This is true in too many countries. Yes, even in the US. A study by the Guttmacher Institute focusing on lower-income women in the US revealed that 39% would start using contraception if cost were not a factor. What’s more, American women are trapped between a new wave of abstinence-based education, an absence of fact-based sex education, and increasing restrictions on our rights to safe abortion. This weighs especially heavily on young women, and women from marginalized and vulnerable communities.

At the same time, we’ve made some progress. The State of World Population report from 2022 — dedicated to the need for action to end unintended pregnancy — tells us that global contraceptive use has increased, and so unmet need has decreased. Good stuff.

Of the 1.1 billion women who want to limit their childbearing, three quarters are using contraception. But that means that one quarter are not. And that’s still a lot of women who don’t have access to what they need, who don’t have the ability to control their own lives and choices.

COVID has made this worse, by reducing access to services, support, and medical professionals. As a result, 12 million women in 115 countries lost access to birth control, resulting in as many as 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies.

So what does this look like around the world today?

Find out here!

This V-Day, love your OWN DAMN SELF!

I was a chubby kid. I never thought of myself as beautiful. I remember looking at myself in a full-length mirror, thinking I would never be able to love my body. I decided that my body was working against me, and I would have to do whatever I could to fight it. And so began a long — and futile — battle. I was probably 12 at the time.

Fast forward decades. My story is not at all interesting — or unique. In fact, it is painfully ordinary. As women, too many of us grow up hating our bodies, fighting against them. This starts as girls — younger and younger. I hear girls as young as nine use words like “diet,” and I’m absolutely horrified. I could say so much about where we get these ideas: society, media, and my favorite enemy — patriarchy. But today’s musing isn’t about where the negativity comes from. I’m dedicating it to channeling the positive. How do we learn to love our bodies?

Admittedly, I don’t know. On bad days, I still look in the mirror and see the chubby 12-year old. Loving ourselves — loving our bodies — is a daily practice. To me, it is well beyond bite-size affirmations and celebrity body-positivity. It is beyond mental-health days filled with bubble baths and pedicures. All those things are delightful, sure. But there are tons of resources for that.

And at the same time, there are tons of stats to remind us how pervasive negative body image is. For instance, 50% of teens are “self-conscious” about their bodies, and 70% of college women say they feel worse about how they look after reading women’s magazines. We’re also inundated with information about loving ourselves and treating ourselves well.

It doesn’t seem like we’re listening. In some cases, we’re getting worse. In 2021, 1 in 3 individuals who attend a health club reported symptoms of body dysmorphia. And 1 in 2 women say they are more concerned with the way they look as a result of the pandemic.

Beauty is a currency. It is political. It is cultural. And, it is fueled by patriarchy. The classic book from 1990, The Beauty Myth, exposes this, showing us that beauty standards assign “value” to women according to a culturally-imposed physical standard. All of this is fueled by a (male) perception of what women should be, and how they should appear. Yes, women help fuel this as well, but beauty standards — and the insecurities we experience for failing to meet those standards — are all products of the patriarchy.

In her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, feminist author Roxane Gay punches us in the gut with this: “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”

So, it’s about all the deep, ugly shit. And how, on bad days, we can still come face to face with that deep, ugly shit — even decades later. Or so it is for me, anyway.

Link to the full blog here!

An earthquake, an emergency, and endless trauma

On Monday February 6, in the early hours of the morning local time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Türkiye and Syria followed by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake mere hours later.

It is estimated that more than 5,000 people have died as I write this — with numbers still on the rise. Exact figures of the injured are unknown, but they are in the tens of thousands. Others remain trapped. It is still impossible to count how many people, how many communities, are displaced.

In short, millions will be affected.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has declared a state of emergency in 10 cities. Emergency response teams have been deployed but rescue efforts and search missions have been hindered by multiple aftershocks, collapsing buildings, and freezing temperatures. Appeals for urgent help have been made — and the international community is mobilizing. The question is: are we doing enough, and doing it quickly enough?! In a situation like this, it is clearly never enough. The urgence is overwhelming.

I know, because I used to be one of those who mobilized for emergencies like this.

At the same time, I know that aid and assistance will not be equal. Geopolitical lines are drawn. Countries are still in conflict. And these conflicts have implications on aid allocation. In particular, the Ukraine/Russia war, sanctions imposed on Syria, and the Northern Syria de facto autonomous state will create complications.

One of these days, we need to have a (louder) global conversation about how to decolonize and depoliticize aid. Meaning, who does — and does not — get aid, who decides, and why. Blog for another day!

For now, as always, we lean on local organizations — on community groups and women-led groups and those who have always been, and always will be, on the frontlines. Even after our fleeting attentions have passed.

At the same time, these are the organizations we too often fail to fund fully, fail to support adequately, and sideline all-too-frequently. These organizations are already stretched beyond capacity. This time, how might we support and equip them to deal with a disaster on this scale? And to prepare for whatever may come next?

Zooming in on Syria for a sec. Why? It’s one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. And that is pre-earthquake.

Conflict has been ongoing since 2011, with the outbreak of the civil war. The consequences are both long-term and devastating. This country has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world — 6.9 million. In American terms, that’s more than the entire state of Indiana.

An additional 5.6 million people are registered as refugees in neighboring countries. As of 2022, before the earthquake, 14.6 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. That’s all of Arizona plus Massachusetts.

A lot of people. In need of a lot of help. Conditions were continuously deteriorating, meaning more and more people cannot meet their basic needs. More poverty, more lives at risk, and more conflict. And more people affected, especially those who are already vulnerable — women, children, and marginalized and minority groups.

And that was before the earthquake.

Link to the full blog here!

America from afar… we are a violent society.

America is a violent society. Yup. I said it.

What does that mean?!

Violent societies are often defined in relation to what they are not. They are societies without open conflict and without ready access to violent weapons. They are societies where justice is equitable and accessible, and where perpetrators of violence don’t roam free.

But, definitions are slippery. Violence in society — just like violence against women — exists everywhere. No country is immune. Violence — as defined by the World Health Organization — is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, with a high likelihood of harm, injury, death.

Yes, more violence occurs in countries experiencing conflict. But violent deaths, as one measure, are not restricted to conflicts. In fact, 80% of violence deaths occur outside of armed conflicts.

Looking at the U.S. from across the oceans, I’m shocked as to how deeply violence is embedded in U.S. society. It has become — for better or worse — our way of life.

And yet, we continue to howl into the void about the extent of gun violence in the country. 2023 is only 31 days old, and we’ve already had 40 incidents of gun violence. Since 2020, there have been on average 600 mass shootings in the U.S. each year. That means that more than 600 incidents where four or more people were killed at one time.

But what’s interesting is this… the U.S. doesn’t necessarily see itself as violent. It sees those of us across the oceans as the violent ones.

Spending time out of the country offers me a different perspective. And this — like all my writings — is a personal musing on a supremely complex subject. One that is written from the perspective of an Arab-American woman whose life’s work is built on the unfortunate existence of violence.

The thing is, no matter the context, where there is violence in society, there is always violence against women in particular.

The full blog here.

Lebanon: a story of love and hate

I walked to the farthest end of the terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. They always give us the last gate, I say to myself. Because we’re rowdy.

Will I bump into someone I know?

Most people don’t expect to see a familiar face on a plane. But going to Lebanon, you do.

Anyway, I think, I’ve been away for years. Do I still know anyone? Will anyone know me?!

I could probably slip in quietly. Like you do in most countries. All countries, in fact. Just not this one.

I’m one hour into the four-hour flight, face buried in a book.


Most days, Lebanon feels microscopic.

We land. And then passport control: Lebanese to the right, foreigners to the left. A cultural crossroads.

Which way do I go? Which way do I feel?!

A little bit of both. The perpetual insider/outsider. But there’s no third option. No middle ground.

I go right.

“Welcome home,” the officer says, as he takes my Lebanese passport. I see his forehead scrunch for a second.

“You’re expired,” he says.

I am, I think. In so many ways. It had been over two years since I was last here. This trip is long overdue.

“So sorry!” I fumble with broken Arabic dripping out of a rusty faucet. “I didn’t even check!”

“It’s ok,” he says. “We’ll manage it.” Only in Lebanon.

“You’re Druze,” he says. A statement — not a question.


Here, I have to pick an identity and stick with it. As a Lebanese-Palestinian, Arab-American, Druze-Greek Orthodox-atheist, I want to be all of those things at once. How many identity-hyphens can I manage?

“Should I go back through the foreigner line?!” I ask my passport officer. The left side was empty. The whole flight was Lebanese.

“No. You’re home now,” he says. “Get yourself a new passport while you’re here!”

“Thank you,” I say, as he hands me my stamped-expired passport.

“Where are all the foreigners?” I ask.

“The days of foreigners are long gone,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” I say to him, to no one in particular. For many things.

But now I’ve officially arrived. I’m in the country that is my half-home. The place I lived for four years.

Read the full blog here!

Tuesdays with Zazoo: What a dog and a doctorate taught me about work-life balance

I always get mushy in mid-January. My birthday has passed (December 25). Christmas has passed (also December 25, it so happens). Holidays have passed. January 1 has come and gone, and with it a suite of admirable resolutions that were made and swiftly unmade. Even “dry January” has gotten a little, er, wet again.

So, what’s the big deal about the middle of January?

Well, on January 14, 2008, I walked into an office in London, took a seat facing two senior women I admire greatly, and answered their questions for an anxiety-inducing hour. What did you mean by this? they asked. Why didn’t you say this instead of that? What is your justification for quoting this person? What was your underlying framework? Your driving motivation? Your ultimate outcome? In short: Defend yourself! they demanded. The conversation twisted and turned along with my stomach. And after the one-hour-that-seemed-like-ten, these two women abruptly stood up, shook my hand, and said “Congratulations, Dr. AbiRafeh!”

I slid my damp hand out of their grasp and asked “Did I pass?!” as I wiped the sweat onto my dress. Yup. I passed.

Why pursue a PhD? people asked me. It’s not marketable in your field, said one knowledgeable friend. It’s not going to do much for your career in the United Nations, said one field-savvy friend. It’s intellectual masturbation, said one witty friend.

I was a field rat, after all, an emergency junkie, an aid worker. What would a PhD do that some hard-earned experience would not?

It started in 2002, on a plane to Afghanistan, veil bobby-pinned to my hair, $20,000 down my pants, and next to no clue what I was supposed to do.

As I climbed down the rickety stairs of the Ariana Airlines flight, the dusty summer wind blew my carefully-positioned veil out of place. I was twenty-seven years old, and the newest addition to an emerging army of aid workers. Expertise-in-abstraction, I remember thinking. How could I possibly be of use?

The full blog here!

Women are killed by people who “love” them

You’ve heard me say over and over… 1 in 3 women and girls will be affected by some form of violence in their lifetime. I didn’t make this up. It’s a global statistic. But really, I think it’s bigger – I know it’s bigger. I personally don’t know a single woman or girl who has not been affected in some way by some form of this insidious violence. 

And there are many forms. All of them are awful. All of them are crimes. But many of them – most of them – are perpetrated with relative impunity. Meaning, there’s hardly ever any justice. The perpetrator gets away with it. I can’t think of any other crime that continues unabated in this same way. If banks were being robbed at the same rate, society would stand up and say ENOUGH NOW. And we’d do something about it. 

Women have the right to feel free and safe in their own bodies, in their homes, on the streets, and in any public spaces, but unfortunately, that is not – nor has it ever been – our reality. Here’s our reality: we are far too often hurt – or killed – by those who claim to love us. 

The vast majority of cases of rape, for instance, are perpetrated by men we know. Every 11 minutes a woman or girl is killed by someone in her own house. This means globally 736 million women and girls worldwide are being killed by their intimate partners or family members. By the very people who “love” them.

There’s a word for this: femicide. The murder of women because they are women. 

In November 2019, we mourned the death of my friend Jennifer Schlecht and her daughter, Abaynesh. Jenn dedicated her life to preventing violence against women and to protecting women and girls. The painful irony of it all is that she lost her life to the very thing she fought so hard against. 

Intimate partner violence is the most common form worldwide. And it can often result in femicide. But we don’t even know the extent of it. 

Femicide is a tough problem to crack – as a result of lack of awareness and lack of legislation. The lack of legislation is also fueled by the lack of criminalization of certain types of gender-based violence. The judicial and security systems fail women when they fail to take the

situation seriously or dismiss it as a private matter or make it difficult for women to seek protection. As a result, support fails, safety is denied, and more women and girls end up trapped in dangerous situations. The law continuously fails women when they try to access justice, security, services, and support – nothing seems to work in the way that it should to tackle this overwhelming problem. 

In 2021, the global statistics available have shown that per 100,000 women, 1.4 will be killed by gender-based violence in America. The findings also show that with the onset of COVID-19, femicide had a significant increase. 

At the same time, femicide isn’t accurately labeled, meaning it isn’t accurately counted. Meaning, too often, it does not count. Collecting the correct data is challenging because most countries typically don’t report any gender-related motivations for murder. It is extremely crucial that we name it and count it in order to end it – when we fail to do so, we are failing women and girls over and over again. 

The numbers we do have are shocking, and the reality is likely much higher. A 2022 UN news story says this:  

While the numbers presented in the report are alarmingly high, they are the tip of the iceberg. Too many victims of femicide still go uncounted: for roughly four in ten intentional murders of women and girls in 2021, there is not enough information to identify them as gender-related killings because of national variation in criminal justice recording and investigation practices.

As long as femicide is not labeled as femicide, violence against women will not be addressed.

Link to the full blog here.