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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.

“Lina?!”

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.

Love/hate.

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.

How to build a better world? Start where you stand.

A new year. And, as usual, an array of resolutions and a bazillion ways to “be a better you.” And, as usual, too few ways to “be a better us.” This is the time of year where I consciously recommit to my bigger goals — not just personal stuff like reading more books with less pictures, and fitting into my pre-pandemic pants. I’m talking about the BigStuff. My big fat why.

I know my why. I’ve known it since I was a kid, actually. I want to end men’s violence against women, I say. And that’s all. But sometimes, I need to remind myself of where I’ve come from, as a way to more strongly face where I’m going.

This story is my why

In May of 2015, I got off a plane from Kathmandu and onto a red circle placed in the center of a stage in London. It was the first time I was on a stage to speak about myself — my story. Until that moment, I had gabbed about my work all over the place, but never about who I am and why I do what I do. So I had to think hard about what I wanted to say. I had to make it personal.

And this is what I said:

It was Tuesday, May 12, lunchtime. I was sitting in the office at the United Nations in Kathmandu, Nepal, busily typing away. Suddenly, things started to feel a bit shaky. Could it be serious? When I saw the look of fear on the faces of my colleagues, I realized that yes, it was serious. We were on the third floor, we couldn’t get to an exit, so we wobbled our way to a column in the center of the room. We hugged the column, we hugged each other, and we waited for the earth to stop growling.

I heard colleagues praying in Nepali, and others saying “No, not again, not again.” And me, underneath the fear, I heard myself think: Did I save that document I was working on? Who’s gonna look after my dog? I just made coffee — will it spill? But more importantly, I remember wondering what Nepal was going to look like when the shaking stopped. This shaking came just two weeks after that first big earthquake. The fear hadn’t even subsided, and now another earthquake, more damage, more fear. Once you feel unsafe in a place, it’s hard to ever feel safe there again.

Read the full story here!

48 Blips for my 48th Year…

I turned 48 on December 25. Yes, I know. Christmas. Also known as LinaMas — to a select few. This has a nice ring to it, I think. In Spanish, this means “Lina… more.” And sure enough, with every passing year, there’s more of me. And I’m “more.”

I used to always be told I was “too much.” I think people meant it as an insult. I now prefer it — far better than being “not enough,” I say to myself. So, in the spirit of “too much,” I decided to write down the 48 fortune-cookie blips of wisdom I’ve gathered in my 48 years. Maybe some of them will resonate with you too.

  1. Start where you stand, as has become my mantra. Meaning, if I care about something, I need to get up and do it. I can do good now, wherever I am, otherwise I’ll never do it. And no one will do it for me.
  2. Start here. I followed a path that led me around the world, but it didn’t need to. There’s plenty of work right here, wherever we are. When it comes to women’s rights — and most social causes — we don’t have to go far to do good.
  3. I live with the voice of teenage-me telling me that everything is terrible and my body is a blob. I’m ignoring her. Instead, I’m learning to love my body now. It’s only going to deteriorate, so I might as well enjoy the chaos with grace. And appropriate women’s healthcare.
  4. Accept your quirks. I accept that I will never own wine glasses that are real glass — because they won’t last a day in my life. And I accept that I cannot put on pantyhose without making at least one small hole and having to clear-polish it and ending up with nail polish/pantyhose stuck to my leg. Some things I cannot change.
  5. Defend your space. I have often found that people expect you to take on the issues they care about, in addition to the ones you care about. Why are you working on x? Why aren’t you working on y?! They might ask.Why aren’t YOU?! I might ask
  6. Similarly, someone will always ask What about (insert group here)?! Defy WhatAboutery and believe that doing something for someone is better than doing nothing for no one.
  7. It’s probably wise to always have extra undies and socks. Can we ever have too many?!
  8. Smile on the phone. I’m sure people can hear it in my voice when I do. It makes a difference, especially if I’m trying to get something I need. Smile at strangers — without looking creepy or insane. We can see each other’s expressions again! So much better than having to read eyebrows.

Read the full blog here!

Whose name am I?! Musings on patriarchal naming practices.

I need to change my Virginia license to New York. Why is this interesting or relevant? I hear you say. Well, I have long wanted to claim a certain middle name, and the renewal of official documents and identifications presents such an opportunity. 

OK, so what?! I still hear you say. Is this a feminist blog or what?! 

Yes. Hang on. 

My last name – AbiRafeh – is my father’s last name. I think this is true for most of us. What’s more, in Lebanon, where I was born, your de facto middle name is your father’s first name. So you are: (first name) (father’s first name) (father’s last name). And you’re required to fill out your father’s name on every official form. 

Where’s my mother!? I kept asking. Doesn’t matter, I was told. 

I love my father, but surely I could do something to bring my mother’s name into my own? And so this quest was born. While it is primarily about patriarchal naming practices, it’s also political in more layered ways. My mother is Palestinian. I’d like some of that identity in my name as well. The patriarchy has denied my mother in two ways: negating her role in the process (of me!) and also erasing her country of origin.

So, here was my plan: I’d add my mother’s maiden name as my legal middle name. Problem solved! Or so I thought. This would (should!?) satisfy my principles as a feminist and as a half-Palestinian. Well, not so simple. My mother’s maiden name is her father’s name. So, that’s still a patriarchal line…

And now I have to decide: Where do I draw the line?! 

(Meanwhile, I also hate the word “maiden,” which means girl, maid, servant, or – unsurprisingly –  virgin.) 

So here I am, reflecting on patriarchal naming and family lines and identities and feminisms and trying to unravel it all – ideally before I go to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and commit to one name or another!

There’s a lot of politics around name-changing. See for instance the hoopla around J. Lo morphing into J. Aff (or whatever). Everyone’s got an opinion on this, it seems. 

Meanwhile, most women still take on their husband’s names upon marriage – 70% in the US and nearly 90% in the UK. In the US, the first woman who refused to take her husband’s last name was Lucy Stone – in 1855! Later, she was denied the right to vote. In 1975, only 3 percent of American women kept their names, with some states requiring this by law, also in order to vote. Why?

Read more here!

I want to end violence against women. That’s all. 

I was only 14 when I walked into the course that would change my life. I took a seat in the back of the class, close enough to the door that I could be neither in nor out. I was an awkward, immigrant brown girl you’d hardly notice, in a liberal all-girls high school full of people who didn’t look like me.

Who knows why I signed up for that class, but Comparative Women’s History caught my attention. And 34 years later, it still hasn’t let me go.

In that classroom, this little brown girl learned that women’s history — her history — was one of violence. There, she learned how one binds a foot, the now-outdated Chinese practice of breaking and remaking the feet of young girls in order to keep them small. Or — permanently disfigured.

There, she saw the video footage of a young girl being held down while her genitals were cut by a barber in Egypt. The practice of female genital mutilation persists today and has affected over 200 million girls and women across 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. What’s worse, lockdown measures due to COVID presented opportunities to carry out FGM “undetected,” meaning an additional 2 million girls will be affected.

Before the age of 14, I had never heard of these kinds of things, seen these things. I already knew that the world sees women and girls as unequal, as less-than. I did not know that the world too often seeks to actively destroy women and girls.

So there I was, the brown immigrant girl with no idea who she was or where she belonged. Until she realized that she belonged to women.

Sometimes you gotta recall who you are so you can remember why you are.

Fast forward a few decades. And I’ve seemingly built my entire existence around my anger, and my desire to eradicate this violence. I’m not doing a very good job, it seems.

Now we’ve just come to the end of the international campaign we call the “16 Days of Activism.” In case we don’t know, this extends from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) until International Human Rights Day (10 December). But really — what does “human rights” day mean, when women’s rights continue to be denied?

On paper, we’ve got all the language in place. Or so we think?! The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948. That document defined what we are, as humans, and what we are all entitled to, as humans. Yes — all of us. In principle.

74 years later, it’s worth asking: What has changed?

Catharine MacKinnon, American radical feminist legal scholar, activist, and author, asks: “Are women human yet?”

In examining the declaration, she questions the “spirit of brotherhood” and asks if this spirit also includes us? And what if the document said “spirit of sisterhood”?! She goes on to critique the “spirit” of the articles in the declaration, asking where women are. Articles in favor of “just pay” and participation in government still fail to include women. Women are not paid the same as men. Women are more often relegated to the informal sector. Women’s work still does not count as work. And it continues. What about government?! It seems to me that most countries are still run by men, with women being the exception, the first, the “woman leader.” An anomaly. Not the norm.

Read the full blog here!

The (in)compatibility of Feminism and Football

What is a feminist doing at a football game? I asked myself, as I looked at the crowd (of mostly men), screaming at a team (of men). The floor of our seats was littered with beer cans. The air reeked of sweat – and ketchup. 

The team wasn’t doing well. The guy behind me yelled: “Stop being pussies, defense! I’ve got a box of tampons for you!”

I cringed. Should I have been surprised? Nope. There’s a stereotypical fan base for football. A cliché. Built on so much truth. Sundays watching football, drinking beer, eating nachos, while the women hang out in the kitchen. 

“Honey, could you bring me a beer?”

It’s the 1950s – most of the time.

Football culture is – by and large – a hyper-masculine American tradition that tends to exclude women. The game is – for the most part – played by men, for men. Yes, there are exceptions (and I’m sure I’ll hear from all the exceptions!), but, undeniably, American football is about guys. 

There’s a dominant “football culture” that is obvious – not just at games. And there’s an image of masculinity attached to watching/playing football – or even understanding it. Young boys who don’t show an interest in this game (or sports in general) are often not viewed as particularly masculine. And there’s “locker room talk” – please don’t get me started. Sure, it applies for all sports. But still. Oh, and, cheerleaders. The objectification of women continues. There’s just so much to unpack here! 

Even the term “football widows”  –  referring to a woman whose husband often leaves her alone while he plays or watches football – reminds us that football is men’s domain, and men are acceptably “absent” (or: as good as dead) for football season because clearly, football takes precedence over all else. 

As with most things in the world, the sport comes with inherent sexism. Young girls who show interest in playing the sport too often lack the opportunities to do so. The inherent message is that girls would be less worthy on the field than boys. And so the few who show interest are discouraged. And if they enjoy watching the sport, they inevitably fall into the “one of the guys” trope. 

So there’s a gendered element to football. The sport isn’t played – or viewed – equally by women and men. 

According to a die-hard football fan, he says: 

Football is a guy’s game. Sure, women can watch. And we like when women know a lot about football – for a girl. But please don’t ask me dumb questions while the game is on! Wait for the commercials. Most women only like football because their brothers or fathers or boyfriends taught them about it. And that’s not too many women. And when girls go to a football game, don’t wear a pink jersey – real fans wear the jersey colors of the team. And no teams are pink. It just shows you don’t know anything about football – that’s just a fashion statement. And make sure you know the name of the player whose jersey you’re wearing, and a little bit about them. In other words, don’t watch if you don’t care about the game! If you don’t like the game, the other women are in the kitchen. That’s the way it goes. 

Read the rest here!