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Voices of Anger Echoing in the Streets of Beirut

Diaa Malaeb, 7th of December 2019

By Vanessa Zammar

More than 50 young women denounced their harasser, serial harasser who then came on TV on the 2nd of December only to deny everything. This case was too emblematic of the rape culture we live in for us not to voice our anger, and so we did.

After a wonderful Independence Day, pictures of the parade flooded social media. One face caught the attention of a young woman. She opened the Pandora box: as soon as she wrote her story, other women started speaking out. In 10 days no less than 50 women had come forward, with some stories dating back to 2015. Women would encourage each other to share their stories. The first woman that spoke out had to delete her message, but pictures and testimonies kept going around social media, warning one another about the man’s behavior.

On Monday 2nd of December, MTV organized a talk between the serial harasser Marwan Habib and the lawyer who offered to file a lawsuit against him to anyone ready to testify. Offering the floor to a presumed serial harasser to defend himself is unfortunately all too common in our societies. As if people had to empathize with the aggressor, to humanize him, which is the tone that Habib used during the 30 minutes interview. On set, he started by claiming “that those jealous and envious women” wanted to “spoil his reputation by staining his image”, him being an “athlete, a personal trainer”. Don’t the women accusing him have a life of their own too, a job, a talent, a passion? Him having a job like everyone else should only be considered to illustrate how society allows those behaviors in our daily lives, how normalized they are, done by “banal” people; surely not to discredit the testimonies of the survivors.

Why is the harasser’s reputation even brought up? This TV show was an epitome of rape culture. 50 women testifying, with video proofs of his behavior in clubs and the host normalizing the whole thing as he declared that “these are things that happen in clubs between men and women”. When the actual footage shows how bothered the women are, pushing him away, three women in the same evening. And Marwan stubbornly denying all kinds of acts even as the owner of a club called to testify that he had to ban him from the place because of he was bothering women on multiple occasions.

The problem is here, an alleged serial harasser, known by people as one was not intimidated even once by the judicial system. Thus, he blames the women for not having filed a lawsuit and used social media instead. Women actually did file complaints, but their cases did not reach further than the police station. Following this intervention, Harasstracker, a Lebanese website compiling case of sexual harassment on a map and aiming at raising awareness throughout the society posted this message shortly after the intervention which demonstrate why survivors might not file complaints, and how the law fails them.

“To all the women who were considering coming forward to file a legal case against serial harasser Marwan Habib; and who are being intimidated, bullied, or threatened by Habib or his lawyers or his bullies through dodgy social media accounts creeping into direct messages, you have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear. Threats of defamation lawsuits are nothing but scare tactics that serve to intimidate survivors and prevent them from acting. He might be able to silence one survivor, or two, or three. But he doesn’t even know how many others are compiling evidence against him to bring him to court. To Marwan Habib and his buddies, we dare you to act against us, in the courts and on the media. To all powerful survivors, have no fear. We are ready for justice to be served. And we got you. #JusticeWillBeServed” (2nd of December 2019, 10 pm)

Strong reaction also sparked on social media during and after the show, and from those emerged the idea of marching to denounce him, sexual harassment in general and the whole culture that allows such behavior and its impunity. Sexual harassment, rape and victim-blaming unfortunately operate across borders, so does the anger against them. The most recent manifestation of this global outrage, two years after #MeToo, is the flash mob organised by Lastesis a Chilean interdisciplinary collective of women with their singing performance “un violador en tu camino” (a rapist on your path). Women in other countries organized similar mobilization, translating and adapting the lyrics to their specific context. It was quickly decided that Beirut was going to be the next city. The following day, the lyrics were translated, adapted, recorded and spread through WhatsApp groups. The march was announced with powerful wording and design we joined forces with Abaad, an organisation advocating for gender-justice that released a video on the 4th of December under the title #notyourhonor (ممنوعة من العرض):

“From the thousands of rebellious women in Lebanon, to the survivors of sexual assault in the Arab world – we dedicate this song to YOU. Let us raise our voices and be heard”.

Thus, we raised our voices. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds gathered on Bliss street, where most of the assaults had taken place, chanting as a “feminist revolution” and calling for the “end of the oppressive patriarchal regime”. Freeing ourselves from the heavy rule of silence, we marched in a flow of overwhelming energy. Slogans such as “Not asking for it”; “My body is the red line”; “The fault was not mine, not where I was, not how I dressed” filled the streets. A total rejection of the blame that too often survivors have to endure, to a greater extent than the perpetrator.

The blame must change sides, though the flash mob embodied this will to switch roles. As we pointed fingers at the parliament we were chanting:

The harasser is you
The harasser is you
The rapist is you
The rapist is you

It is the Media
The Society
The Police
The Judiciary
The State

All of these participate in the silencing of survivors, and it must come to an end. For the survivors to be heard, listened to, believed. This wave of mobilizations across the globe is a sign that survivors will not accept to be silenced and bear the burden anymore.

My City! My Space!

On December 5th, AiW in collaboration with UNESCWA, some powerhouse women got together at LAU to discuss safe cities for women and girls. If you weren’t able to join us, look up some clips from the event @Ai4women or read the transcripts from the discussion below. Scroll further for the bios of our impressive discussants!

Panelists:
Ms. Haifa Subai, Yemeni street artist 

Ms. Enas Hamdy, Head of the board of trustees of HarassMap

Ms. Nay El Rahi, co-founder of Harass Tracker and instructor at LAU

Ms. Mona El Hallak, architect and heritage preservation activist
Moderator:
Ms. Daina Moukalled, Journalist and co-founder of Daraj Media

Diana: The discussion regarding GBV in cities and workplaces has become essential today. We have lost the right to the Downtown after the Civil War and we are seeing that being revived today through discussions in the tents that are not necessarily reflected through mainstream media. I will start with Mona Hallak. My friendship with Mona started from the 90s and she started a campaign against the destruction of the Barakat building and succeeded.

Mona: Unfortunately, we are very limited in public spaces. Our priority was to take a street to make it pedestrian friendly, which is Jean-d’Arc street. The streets of Beirut is virtually impossible to walk on for mothers and people who aren’t able-bodied. A way to make spaces safer is the creation of a safe passage where mothers and the disabled can walk and travel on without having to worry about calculating the next road to embark on. At intersections, the street would be at the same level as the pedestrians. We forced the municipality to talk to the people and take their point of view, and there was a large presence for mothers. Even when there is a slope there is a need to devices to lean on and benches to rest on. Today, the benches have been immediately been utilized and some places on the pedestrian sections are colour coded for colour-blind individuals. A testimony by a woman because of the changes revealed that it changed her life because she was able to take her husband out for a walk while he was on the wheelchair. The farmer’s market in Jean d’Arc has become popular as well with a 90% presence from women proprietors. Some interactive installations have been created as well for playing board games like backgammon. An example was two girls playing a board game at 4am, which is a testament to this new space. There is a curved portion of the street that is numbered and represents testimonies of the people living in the area and reflects their stories of love, and family. The ACS school made an initiative that involved planting and harvesting rocca where children from the school can learn to harvest from the earth.

Nay: Good afternoon, thank you for AiW for this invitation. Thank you for the introduction. I teach in this university two subjects: gender and communication, and public speaking. At times, students would be too shy to introduce themselves in class whereas in the field of the uprisings they are being as vocal as possible, which was noteworthy. Then, when classes resumed they insisted that the real classroom was out with the protesters and their place right now wasn’t in the university. Today we will talk about HarassTracker that has been established three years ago, and it started in Egypt. It specializes on reporting harassment anonymously. We have three aims. The first aim is that as women in the city, we want to stop being constantly harassed by exposing and shaming harassers, so this was an initiative to come up with solutions. The anonymous reporting helps overcome the obstacle of women not being believed and their voices being erased. A second aim is to create an elective accountability. Everyone has the same answer and they say, why didn’t you tell us. So we strove to create this responsibility and hold authorities like the police accountable. As Mona mentioned about broken streets, this also contributes to the lack of safety of women. A third aim is that we want to create a conversation and an open discussion about harassment, because we always hear about women telling her friends not to tell parents because of stigma. We want to bring the power of reporting to result in accountability. In discussions on TV it is also often overlooked and the stigma is still prevalent. These were the goals. Now, we have been here for three years, and we have 250 reports on the map. When we receive a complaint, we screenshot the map and post it on our Facebook page. An incident took place in the backyard where there was a group of pubs and restaurants. We tagged the establishment where the harassment happened and there was an immediate response from the managers. So it was important to have a mechanism in place so that managers of establishments can have an approach to harassment. We can talk about the Marwan Habib case. We worked with the syndicate of lawyers in harassment and rape cases. The current situation makes it very difficult for the victim to achieve justice because of lack of hard evidence. It was important to establish precedents in order to solve this. On Independence Day, the case of Marwan Habib was a prime example. Fifty women came forward with their own experience with this man when a girl took a picture of him during the Independence Day march. He has been banished from several gyms, cafes, universities campuses because of him being a serial harasser. Because we know that if a girl came forward and said her name she would be exposed to a slander lawsuit. So we asked for help from a lawyer to hold this man accountable once and for all. This lawyer said that our options are limited because the victims don’t have a relationship with each other and the different locations made it difficult to construct a case, so we encouraged women and girls to come forward with their own stories. What will be done now is that up until now 8 women will push for a mass lawsuit against Marwan and it will to presented to a judge. They want it to be at the judicial level and not at the level of law enforcement. What we are aiming for is making people come together in order to pave the way for a legal mechanism to combat against harassment. HarassTracker will work with LAU and other universities in order to make it work.

Enas: I’m happy to be here, and I don’t feel that Lebanon is different from Egypt. We started HarassMap in 2010 because harassment was rampant without anyone reporting, and under the excuse of “he didn’t do anything that bad” or “you obviously did something wrong for him to harass you”. We deduced that there should be a type of supervision on society as a whole in this context. In the workplace and the house even. The important thing is to provide a safe environment. People never talked about harassment because of stigma and fear of worsening reputation about the victim. Even in cases of rape the victim would be silent because of a culture of victim blaming. Excuses are always made for the harasser and the rapist. The concept of harassment wasn’t even recognized. So this initiative was launched with the utilization of the internet that is based on reporting from victims in different situations involving harassment. This caused us to understand the exact nature of harassment taking place which was not available before. This inspired us to change the understanding of harassment for the population through awareness campaigns. For example, with the excuse of women’s clothes we would refute that women wearing the Hijab (veil) and mounaqabat (covering their faces) would get harassed. Same with children and married women. Our aim is to establish a legal mechanism that involves not only sanction against touching but also verbal types of harassment. Because of the security situation, it was not easy to work on gathering testimonies, so we settled for working with individuals in the workplace for example. These initiatives extended to schools and universities as well, students and employees alike. The level of students helped bring forward this awareness so that the usual excuses that reinforced stigma wasn’t used that erased the voices of victims. This system paved the way for personal support for individuals. We aimed to reinforce out cause with a study based on political science and it was about how the political situation was taken advantage of that helped the rise of harassment in order to keep women activists away. In terms of corporations we strive to make sure that the upper management and leadership positions are sure what exactly harassment is and that is enforced. In some cases the corporate bylaws related to harassment aren’t known to victims and women employees so we work to empower them and let them know that these mechanisms are in fact in place to protect them. Regarding community partnerships, we meet with women from the community so that they can have access to information about what constitutes harassment and how they can fight against it. Finally, we conducted research and a survey on women where 95% of women under 45 have been exposed to harassment. This survey proved to be essential as a building block for future research initiatives. We also focused on children in 2018. A three-year-old girl was raped and as a result, a campaign was launched using a hashtag condemning the act where attention was given to the plight of children in the context of harassment. This would also put mechanisms in place to approach this issue on a legal and personal level. We try to compile as much information as we can so that people can access this information and make women more motivate to come forward and speak up.

In terms of public spaces, one of the most prevalent places that harassment happens are places that are poorly lit and underdeveloped.

Haifa: I worked in Yemen from 2015 in street art but I have been an artist since I was 4 years old. The war in Yemen is unfortunately not over yet. In 2012, I took part in a mural campaign. When the war happened, almost all the infrastructure and historical sites and schools were destroyed. In 2017, I launched the campaign named Silent Victims, which was a mural. When I sought to ask for permission to draw a mural in the Northern part of Yemen that was controlled by the Houthis, I was threatened along with my friends. When they see a strong woman standing tall, they will think that she is with the enemy. I haven’t been detained but intelligence and security offers were sent to question me. The situation in Yemen is very bad and is going through the worst poverty crisis. This war that UAE, Saudi, and Iran are participating strove to put Yemen in a negative light when in reality it was nothing but. Women would stand in long spaces to get water. And harassment is no exception as an issue. The harassment is in form of comments on my clothes even if I’m wearing a niqab. I experienced harassment not only from men but from women as well, because there is the engrained belief that the woman belongs to the kitchen no matter how educated she is. No burden falls on the man, it’s always on the woman unfortunately. Even though if we talked about history and culture we would find that there are still tribes that exalt women and their status within the tribe. In the war things changed and ended. People are dying of starvation so the usual excuse is this is not the time to talk about harassment.

I invited many artists to take part in my campaigns but there was a lot of fear. The aim of the murals is to reflect GBV that goes on in houses especially, where it is sometimes deadly. (Case of daughter that died because of GBV). Sometimes people don’t let us finish painting the murals, especially Houthi militiamen. They keep repeating the same excuses over and over about poverty, starvation, political instability and that it’s not the time to talk about GBV, about victims who died, about underage marriage. One example where an underage girl in court was killed by her brother while she was testifying. It is so bad that the brother receives sympathy and support for his actions. Currently, I’m trying to get out of Sanaa and I tried to do my work in Aden as well but it has been very difficult and unsafe. Electricity has been out for more than 4 years in the north. To me, I’d rather go out with a male member of my family in order not to get harassed and it came to a point where I had to carry a weapon. All these excuses of clothing and provocations get repeated in order to defend the harassers all the time. I was in Singapore a week ago for a mural and I’m nominated for a prize in Japan.

Questions:

1. You talked about Marwan Habib and the greater message. My question is that the people who addressed this on TV were men. How do we get them more involved?

Nay: We don’t need to get men involved, they need to get involved themselves. Marwan Habib says a lot about what society is and less about what we should do as women. When we talk about gender justice in this society, it’s about both men and women and it’s not in anyone’s interest that there is a criminal like Marwan on the loose. A misogynist who can’t see anything but his own privilege won’t be susceptible to change. Either they should go to jail or be rehabilitated. We can’t do more than we are already doing now. On the show, they didn’t let the girl on the phone testifying tell her entire story and that reflects out society in general regarding how men’s voices are valued more. We at HarassTracker don’t give validation to platforms such as Joe Maalouf’s show. We have been asked to come on and we rejected. Our work is underground and through that we got 7 testimonies and we will put forth a lawsuit on Monday as well as a press conference, and the girls who are comfortable coming forward will speak out. Joe Maalouf’s platform should stand aside.

2. Why was it difficult to gain that space and the municipality to grant these safe spaces?

Mona: It’s very difficult because we have corrupt public agents. They don’t care about the well-being of the city and its people, only making money. Why should we even care and do something that costs a little bit more. Why should we destroy our heritage buildings when the money is already there? Why build empty towers that are just hanging there? Who would ever build the Bisri dam in another country, a resort on Raouche. It has been destroyed by private resorts and you have to pay money to enter. And only a little bit was left from it and it became closed off with barbed wire for a private hotel. It is not the people who are taking these decisions. What we all hope for is that this revolution puts accountability in the forefront. Our first and foremost challenge is the next elections. We have a lot to do but we have to be given the opportunity. One building I fought for took 25 years of my life, and it reflects a lot of problems of the male architect that was responsible for it. Today, it’s a public space for exhibitions and it was supposed to be a memory of the city. Nowadays you could see an exhibition for the Saudi embassy which was not its intended purpose. 25 years and I still hope I see the museum is done the way it’s supposed to be. You cannot imagine the effort I put forth to stop the damage and it’s important that stopping the damage is translated into positive work.

3. Women have taken the initiative in the streets. What is your take on this?

Mona: It is only natural that women are on the forefront because they want to protect their children and the people around them. This is our natural role as women and mothers. The emotional aspect of mothers is a strength and it doesn’t need support and they reflect their own motivation when they are holding hands with each other from different sects. We cannot wait anymore time for a new personal status law and a law against harassment.

4 I want to ask the three of you about your causes regarding not making use of the mainstream media and utilizing social media.

Nay: They excluded themselves and we never saw them siding with a cause without doubting the people behind it and attracting attacks on them. With all due respect, sloganizing the women revolutionaries isn’t okay. We are working 2-3 jobs, paying 2 bills, working in unsecure jobs. They see more and more women is not a new thing. Our natural place as women is calling out the parties that no longer have legitimacy. We’re always doing the homework and we’re not waiting for political analysts to come up with a solution. Joe Maalouf flip flops his support between the victim and the harasser and that isn’t benefiting us.

Enas: The media was utilized to demonize the protesters in Egypt, especially women. We are focusing on GBV, underage marriage and women’s rights and we expect the media to focus on them, but they do so very temporarily at best. The media’s rhetoric reflect support for women’s rights but does not reflect that in reality. Even the word “victim” was taken from women by the media.

Haifa: Internally on some social media, I put forward my initiatives. The foreign media sometimes comes to cover my work, but that is not the case with local media. On social media, we receive attention in the form of comments that are in support for my campaigns. Some comments challenge me and tell my why am I not devoting this much attention to the poor. My father was an expatriate in Saudi Arabia and he came back because of the ill-treatment he received as a result of the war. Our country is supposed to be rich in resources and foreign influences are always fighting over them.

Discussions around creating feminist cities are spreading worldwide, making all careers and cities battlegrounds for ensuring that women are reclaiming and creating space. To make their own cities a reflection of women, created in our image and for our needs.

Bios of the Speakers

Ms. Mona El Hallak is an architect and heritage preservation activist (B Arch 1990 AUB, M Arch 1994 Syracuse University). She joined AUB in January 2017 as the director of the AUB Neighborhood Initiative that aims to promote the livability, vitality and diversity of Ras Beirut through innovative outreach activities and multidisciplinary research. She is a member of ICOMOS and APSAD and has led several campaigns for the preservation of the built and natural urban heritage including the Barakat Building that was recently rehabilitated into Beit Beirut, the museum of memory of the City of Beirut.

Ms. Enas Hamdy is the head of the board of trustees of HarassMap since December 2018. She has a huge experience in advocating for girls’ and women’s right regarding feeling safe. She has more than 5 years of experience in the field of combating sexual harassment in public and private spheres, with huge focus on creating safe working environment. In addition, she has more than 10 years of experience in research working in topics pertaining to the elimination of gender-based violence in Egypt, health, education, women, human rights, and finance since 2009. Enas received a BA in Statistics, an MA in Gender and Development, and a Diploma in Research and Development. Enas worked for 5 years at one of the biggest research centers in Egypt. Besides, Enas has a good experience in the field of Monitoring and Evaluation; she worked as Monitoring and Evaluation officer at the National Heart Institute Fellows Association. In addition, she has an experience in other related gender based violence such as societal stigma and violence towards people living with HIV and AIDS in Egypt.


Ms. Nay El-Rahi is a feminist writer, activist, and ILO certified gender auditor. She has a BA in journalism from the Lebanese University and an MA in Global Media and Gender from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. Since 2008, Nay has been working at the intersection between advocacy for gender justice; and the production of critical knowledge around relevant themes. She has published on local and international platforms; and has worked with Hivos, Oxfam in Lebanon and Tunisia, and Raising Voices in East Africa among others. She teaches gender and communication at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut, and is the co-founder of the initiative HarassTracker to fight societal acceptance and normalization of sexual harassment in Lebanon.

Ms. Haifa Subay is a Yemeni street artist, who creates murals that call attention to the human toll of the war ravaging her country. Frustrated with the silence surrounding the conflict, Subay took to the streets of Sana’a on 17 August 2017, creating mural titles Behind the Destruction. It would be the first in her ongoing #SilentVictims campaign, a series of murals highlighting the humanitarian crisis cause by the war. Today, Subay leads and creates street art with a group comprising mostly women, with the team focusing on work that gives voice to the experiences of Yemeni women and children. Subay lives and works in Sana’a, Yemen. 

Islamic Feminism & Family Law Reform

After two years of work, Dr. Connie Carøe Christiansen, Reem Maghribi, Dr. Fatima Sadiqi, and Sara Abdel Ghany were able to share their research! We at the Arab Institute for Women are excited to take part as we have supported these women in their pursuits over the last two years. 

On Tuesday, November 12th, LAU in New York hosted a panel on “Islamic Feminism and Reform of Islamic Family Law in Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon” as a finishing touch on a conference where this topic was hotly shared and discussed. Islamic family law can encompass issues around citizenship, personal status laws, custody, marriage, divorce, and the perceived role of gender as it applies to social and family norms. The concepts of Wilayah and Qiwamah are considered highly important to these discussions by both the women of this panel and Islamic feminists and scholars more widely. The interpretation of these concepts and the ways in which reform is sought, is multifaceted.

The panel proved to be a lively discussion by prominent feminist scholars and otherwise highly impressive women, pondering some of the largest questions on the subject. How do we define Islamic feminism? How can it be used strategically to ward off the patriarchy in the quest to reform family laws and gain a just and equitable future for women? How does Islamic feminism influence other political trends and movements and vice-versa? What is the importance and role of each ‘level’ – transnational, national, and local as family law reforms are sought? Feminists do not shy away from asking the big questions. This, we know. 

Original Research

Starting off the evening, Dr Connie Christiansen, the lead researcher of the project, invites us to consider whether Islamic feminism at the transnational level “trickles down” and influences national contexts in their fight against oppressive family and personal status laws. At the root of this research is an assumption that gender equality is encouraged in Islam, or at least made possible in principle. She suggests, using their findings, that Islamic feminist organizations primarily take on two main battles: 1) advocating equal access for women in religious spaces and Islamic leadership, and 2) the reform of family laws to reflect the spirit of equality presented in the Quran. So, how are transnational feminism movements and demands influencing Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon at the national level?

Morocco

The Moudawana, the Moroccan family law often given credit for being progressive, was fought for by women from national and local levels, across spectrums of religious and secular identities. However, Dr. Fatima Sadiqi (the lead on the Morocco case study) is finding that this victory should not necessarily be seen as a reconciliation between secular and Islamic feminists at any level of advocacy. Instead, it marked a pivotal chance for the Moroccan state to paint itself as a ‘modern, secular state’ for its own political purposes. If feminism is instrumentalized by the state in small victories, there is a chance that movements for reform will be short-lived. (This will also undoubtedly be important in places like Lebanon where feminist demands are at the heart of the revolution.)

Egypt

In Egypt, many reforms have been attempted but only minor changes to gender inequality have been secured, and ones that fail to go beyond skin-deep. For example, divorce has become more accessible for women but it comes at the expense of economic compensation for divorcees. Sara Abdel Ghany, the research lead on the Egypt case, found that the private/public distinction in family laws lends itself to a patriarchal understanding of Islam. Specifically when it comes to Qiwamah, an Islamic feminist interpretation of Islam has the potential to lead a reform process along the lines of a more just, gender-equitable, religious interpretation. 

Lebanon

In Lebanon, there are 15 separate family laws for 18 separate sects, where sectarianism defines the political and economic structures. As the research lead for the Lebanon case, Reem Maghribi highlights an instance that shows the potential Islamic feminist influence over family laws. A network of Sunni activists recently helped raise the child custody age, strategically chosen as an issue because this matter is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran. Women’s groups in Lebanon are often focused on civil code. Could an Islamic feminist approach open up strategic possibiities to engage with religious leaders on matters surrounding family law? Dr Christiansen says that seeing religious leaders as possible partners “instead of a stomping block for reform” has the potential to create the kind of Islamic feminist knowledge building and strategy to affect reform processes.

Overall, Dr Christiansen suggests that their findings show a gap between Islamic feminism at the transnational level and reform at the national level. Yet, there is no doubt that the potential for reform exists. Early recommendations from the research indicate a need for “translators” – agents from groups like Musawah and Karamah (both of which were represented by their founders on the panel) to train and knowledge build with women at national and local levels.  

Islamic Feminism

Dr. Mulki Al-Sharmani gives us the most comprehensive explanation of Islamic feminism.

She considers four primary, defining factors:

  1. It is multidimensional! We should see Islamic feminism as a knowledge building project that includes the global north and south in a transnational space but also at the national and local levels. It is hinged on two truths: 1) “Gender inequality as reflected in muslim family laws is at odds with the Quranic principles of equality and justice, as are the lived realities of muslim women and men,” and 2) It is NOT “monolithic, fixed, or sacred, and can be revisited.”
  2. It is part of a new religious discourse, including new actors. She tells us about the new Congress in Indonesia of female religious leaders established in 2017 that holds the power to decide on fatwahs, child marriage, domestic violence, and environmental actions. 
  3. A feminist agenda that pushes for family law reform.
  4. It exists at the level of ordinary life! The knowledge building components include women who seek religious knowledge and see the discrepancies between their reality and the Quran when it comes to gender, but may not be part of women’s rights activism. 

Here, We All Agree on Patriarchy

Despite any disagreements of the evening, there is always one thing feminists can agree on. The need to identify and vanquish the patriarchy, in all forms. There was a consensus among the women at the panel that we must pinpoint the origins of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and redefine them in the pursuit of gender equity and justice. 

Dr Mulki calls these patriarchal interpretations, ‘classical islamic jurisprudence’. Dr Azizah Al-Hibri encourages a historical approach as well, demanding answers to a universal question that feminists from all parts of the world could stand to seek. ‘At which point did patriarchy make an assumption and turn into law?’ While she was speaking about Islamic interpretations and how they become oppressive family laws, any woman reading this will undoubtedly find their own application. Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini asks why male dominance became a part of muslim tradition, refering specifically to Fiqh, a ‘set of time-bound interpretations that defines laws’, asserting that these notions of gender roles no longer fit in the context of our time.

History & The Political Moment are Key!

Social movements, the politics of the time, and revolutions have a direct impact on demands of Islamic feminism, and vice-versa. So how does Islamic feminism insert itself as a knowledge building project into already existent social movements and reform efforts? Dr Al-Sharmani encouraged us to examine our assumptions on the direction of change and progress, pinpointing the case of Egypt as a space where broad debates surrounding Islamic law actually created new space for Islamic feminism. Between 2007-2011 there were many debates about the possibility of new reforms, and it was here in part that new Islamic feminist scholarship formed. After 2011, people were holding workshops and collaborating, including those from religious backgrounds and feminist scholarship. Other reform/revolutionary processes can in fact make way for new types of feminism. We should allow other influences to change our notions of feminism and find new ways to strategize.

What is the transnational? Does it even exist?

Push back on the idea of a ‘transnational trickle down’ was apparent on the panel. Dr Mulki inherently challenges the idea that we must start at the transnational level at all, but suggests looking to the local level could be more strategic and fruitful. She further questioned whether Islamic feminist movement has a hierarchy at all. She mentioned Musawah, the organization she is affiliated with, and argues that all women who are in the organization are local actors, bringing their differences to the table, where they can all reflect on them. 

It certainly wasn’t the only time this concept came under scrutiny throughout the evening.

Dr Azizah Al-Hibri, one of the founders of Karamah, another influential Islamic feminist organization represented on the panel, interrogated the transnational analysis. She problematizes the ‘trickle down’ method by arguing that it typically takes on a secular approach rather than coming from a space of Islamic feminism, often trying to reach secular ends. Dr Al-Hibri asks why Islamic feminist organizations and other muslim spaces would want to get funding from western organizations to make sure muslim women at the local level are studying Wilayah and Qiwamah? What if their concern is not the same as ours? Will it inject secularism?

Dr Mir-Hosseini then spins this conversation a new direction, saying, ‘I want to be proud of a global, universal international feminism. Why should muslim voices not be reflected there? Why allow feminism to only be defined by the western feminists?’ She also pushes for human rights frameworks, citing CEDAW as a helpful starting place because they take the effort to define discrimination. She says that although the Quran does not define justice, the makings of a just world can be found in the interpretations. Helpful to the quest for a just world are transnational, universal efforts to help define discrimination so we can stop it in all manifestations. 

Closing

As Dr Mulki reminds us, the law-making level is never the end of the battle. We must also work towards building cultures of acceptance for the standards, making sure that is has meaning for the ways people marry, divorce, raise their children, have relationships, and are able to live in safety, security, and fulfillment. 

Check out this comprehensive report by Musawah on the positive developments in muslim family laws!

We do wish you all could have been there. If you’re not feeling satisfied enough by our summary, watch the whole event on our Facebook stream! Stay tuned as the research is further shared, written, and discussed! And please, reach out if you would like to write about any of these topics, and comment below.

World AIDS Day – Breaking the Silence


“When you are helping women and children you are helping the whole community. But we still have certain traditions and religious taboos. Already women are discriminated against for being a woman in a patriarchal society. In that environment, when you are a woman with HIV or from a key population or a partner of someone from a key population, this makes double, if not triple discrimination.” MENA Rosa

The virus in numbers

HIV/AIDS is a reality for 37.9 million people worldwide with 24.5 million accessing antiretroviral therapy at the end of June 2019. With the medical progress and awareness campaigns, AIDS-related mortality has declined by 33% since 2010. (UNAIDS 2019). 

Though, HIV/AIDS does not impact everyone equally: gender inequalities, gender-based violence and other harmful sociocultural practices continue to make adolescent girls and young women more vulnerable to HIV. Indeed, every week, 6000 young women between 15 and 24 years old become infected with HIV. In Subsahran Africa, four in five new infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years are in girls. Young women aged 15–24 years are twice as likely to be living with HIV than men. Globally in 2018, new infections among young women (aged 15–24 years) were 55% higher than among men in the same age group.

A violent silence

In the MENA region, the numbers are quite low, though it is not an exception, it reflects the culture of silence that surrounds such an infection. Indeed, according to Frontlineaids, it is due to the high levels of discrimination and criminalisation targeting the most affected groups of people: same-sex activity is still illegal in most of the countries, and women affected report facing violence before and after the diagnosis. During participatory, women designed and -led community dialogues held in seven countries across the region, 95% reported having endured violence during their lifetime and 73% in the past 12 months, 53% were living with HIV.

“Too often, women living with HIV revealed facing denial of care, stigmatising attitudes, discrimination, and breaches of confidentiality, particularly among health professionals who are not specialised in HIV care, regardless of how serious their health status was.” The Lancet, 2018

This is detrimental to their well-being both physical and psychological as even though the AIDS remedy was not discovered yet, it is possible to live with the virus and even give birth to healthy children with a proper access to treatment. In 2018, 82% of pregnant women living with HIV had access to antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of HIV to their child. 

“HIV stigma is entrenched in society, including in government, education and health settings. Women living with, and at risk of, HIV spoke repeatedly of how they are denied access to treatment and care, including maternity services. Their confidentiality is not protected, they are shouted at, treated inhumanely and humiliated.(Frontlineaids, 2019)

Breaking the silence fed by the stigma is an emergency as it would lift the burden of the shoulders of thousands of women that have to suffer twice: from the disease and from the lack of care, discrimination, violence following their diagnosis. The silence also impacts the spread of the virus, like Sabera’s case in Sudan, which reflects the reality of many women whose partner knowingly hid they were HIV positive.

“Had I known that I was infected I would have spared myself and my child that ordeal. What made my husband hide this from me? Aren’t we supposed to share the sweet and bitter as husband and wife? How cruel is our society to impose its laws on us?” Sabera, Sudan

Moving forward requires changing “the laws of society” to use Sabera’s words. By involving not only the woman that came to seek help, but also her family and partner, associations like MENA Rosa are doing a crucial work. The first step is for women to know that being infected with HIV does not strip them from their human rights.

It is not only a battle against a virus, but against a whole system that allows various level of violence on women that are living with HIV, which results in the spread of the virus. Women have a role in this shift, by being at the front, knowing and stating their rights, they confront the root of their stigmatization: patriarchy.


Happy Day of Independence

And [women] agitated for national independence,

Because without independence, women’s rights

were just a vacant promise (Robinson 2015: 7).

November 22. Lebanese Independence Day. The excitement is palpable, even from the window of my small, Buffalo, New York, office. The handful of Lebanese students I have are buzzing, as they have been since October 17. We are getting ready to march, with maybe 50 or so other Lebanese Americans, in the streets today, hoping that our chants and our dedication to seeing this revolution through will somehow reach our friends and family, our old colleagues and comrades, marching in the streets of Lebanon today. We are all marching for what will hopefully be the first of an infinite number of Independence Day celebrations in what some are cautiously calling a “new” Lebanon. 

Just as they were in the wake of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which established the French mandate, women’s movements are highly visible across revolutionary spaces in Lebanon. One quick glance at any news outlet today will confirm, once again, that women’s movements, and women generally, are leading the revolution. Women are protecting not only each other, but other protesters. They are demanding that the revolution take seriously the six demands articulated by women’s movements; and they are continuing to show up to the protests, alongside other Lebanese. 

Almost 100 years after the formation of the French mandate in Lebanon, women’s movements continue to make the same demands they have been making: there is no independence without women’s equality, and there is no women’s equality without Lebanon’s independence. It bears repeating: for more than 100 years women’s movements in Lebanon have been demanding the same thing. They want freedom; they want equality. They want to dismantle the personal status codes; they demand government accountability to survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional violence; they refuse to raise children who cannot claim their Lebanese nationality because mothers still cannot give their nationality freely. 

Women’s movements want true independence. 

On the streets today, you can hear people cheering, “We are going out to bring the system down.” The verb “going” is conjugated in the feminine (tal’aa). It is not an empty claim: women are angrily marching down the throats of the patriarchal, racist, ableist system that has denied them their freedom, and their independence, for nearly a century. Their ferocity and passion has become the symbol of the revolution, and their faces – painted with the colors of the Lebanese flag – fill us all with hope that this, indeed, is the path to a free Lebanon. 

And so, today, on November 22, we march for Lebanon’s true independence.