Wednesday, 18 April 2012

NASAWIYA: Feminists made in Lebanon

“Our main goal is to make women more active and aware of their legal, social and political rights…”

I just enjoy so much talking to young people who are so passionate about activism and human rights. When it comes to women rights activists, or feminists, or however you want to label them, my interest instantly grows to the extent of actually admiring their unbelievable guts. When those activists are from Lebanon then I gotta talk to them!                                                                                                                             

 My Yemeni friend Ghaidaa who is also a campaigner about women harassment in Yemen (a piece about that coming soon) told me about the Nasawiya movement in Lebanon. As described in their website, Nasawiya is a group of young feminists who are working together to recreate a world free from sexism, and all other forms of exploitations and discriminations that collaborate with it: classism, heterosexism, racism, capitalism, etc. Being aware of the fact that feminism is a multidimensional movement, the Nasawiyas insist on approaching matters from a progressive grassroots feminist perspective. The members of this collective are quite serious about defining themselves, “We are feminists, yes, but there is no one definition of what feminism means, so we sometimes refer to it as “feminisms” in the plural. This is part of the reason why we wanted to come together and create this space: so we could debate how we, as women and feminists, identify ourselves and our concerns. Because when we come together, we find out that we sometimes have contradictory views about what constitutes sexism, what we should do to end it, and how we should do it. This diversity, however, is not a liability at all; we strongly believe that it enriches our community.” A lot of brains are always better than one, right? And those activists surely know how to use them.

I spoke with two of them, Yara Chehayed and Rita Chemaly.  

Yara is an active Nasawiya who informed me about how life is for a woman in Lebanon, “There is no law for sexual harassment, no law protecting women from domestic violence, no law concerning marital rape. Most of the times, men that do such a thing, end up unpunished. Marital rape in Lebanon doesn’t even exist as a notion. Women don’t have the right to transfer their nationality to their children. All in all, it is still a sectarian system.” 

Rita who is an active blogger, researcher and campaigner for women rights issues adds, “Women cannot give social security to their husband (just in the case the husband is 60 years old and sick). We can add the problem of a women not being able to open a bank account for her children too. Let’s not mention the maternity leave.”

According to them, the situation of women in Tunisia or in Egypt, even in an Islamic context can be better than in Lebanon. “We have a fake freedom. You may have the right to wear a short skirt here, or to party and drink, but that doesn’t mean you have freedom. One woman dies from domestic violence per month in Lebanon.”

But let’s get one thing at a time…Yara, what about Nasawiya? How did those women join together?
Nasawiya was founded two years ago 2009, by a bunch of activists, women and men. They managed to build together some core values and created a movement. We would meet at a coffee shop or in some NGO, because we didn’t have our own space. Now we are 230 women.

We managed to grow through organizing events, parties, lectures and lots of activities and projects. So people got interested.

How do you work?
Yara: Nasawiya is a collective. There is no hierarchy. We have one coordinator for every initiative.
Everyone has the right to start up a new initiative, as long as it has a strong feminist perspective and corresponds to our core values. We deal with many issues such as sexual harassment in Lebanon. We have been working on it for a year now. We even created a video animation on YouTube called “The adventures of Salwa”. There is the anti racism movement, that report cases of racism, especially the ones concerning domestic workers.
As I read on one of these reports, apart from those domestic workers being abused, there is the added brutality of the agencies that provide them with their jobs, “The agency system in Lebanon has always been corrupt and seriously lacking in regulation and transparency. The authoritarian and violent behavior of many of those operating placement agencies has been known and accepted for years. We know that recalcitrant workers can be returned to the agency for “corrective punishment” if the employers are unable or unwilling to do it themselves. And the financial exploitation of domestic workers by the agents, who take the first three months of their salaries, is scandalous and should be stopped, because it amounts to human trafficking”
…also we try working on a political level to change the Lebanese mentality, because racism has become an increasingly normalized and familiar practice of our society.
We have also an international initiative that works on gender and technology. We organize two “geek camps”, for teenage girls in order to help them develop their technological competencies. We want to help them realize that they are not here only to be nurses or teachers, but also computer scientists. Another initiative is our feminist magazine “Sawt al Niswa” where we can write and document the feminist movements in the Arab world.

What about official or governmental organizations? Do they give a helping hand once in a while?
Yara: We don’t deal with governmental organizations. We only collaborate with NGOs and individual calls. We share contacts and support individual initiatives. We don’t deal with the government. We deal with people.

How is it for a feminist organization to exist within such a patriarchic society as Lebanon…How is it for you, for your families?
Yara: Some families are very supportive. Some others aren’t. There are 6000 women organizations in Lebanon, but the government thinks we aren’t making any change so there isn’t a lot of opposition.
However, we do face a lot of trouble with ultra religious people. For example we were supporting the enactment of  a law for preventing domestic violence. They eventually managed to become an obstacle to our cause. There is still no law for domestic violence. During those five years we were lobbying, we were working hard to push this law to the government. But our rights contradicted religious standards.

Target group
Yara: We are not focusing exclusively on women from urban areas. We organize seminars and workshops in villages and towns about sexual harassment, the rape law, technology. There is not much difference between rural areas and urban areas as far as their reaction is concerned. We don’t consider women from rural areas underdeveloped. Women are women everywhere.
We face the same difficulties in the city as well as in the village, but generally we adapt according to the area.

Do you accept women who are traditional or more conservative or wear hijab?Yara: I think as a feminist I can’t say I accept or I don’t accept something or somebody. Being a feminist is about freedom of choice. It is their choices to wear hijab, mine is not to wear it. It is their choice to do abortion, my choice isn’t. As long as you don’t put any obstacles in other people’s choices…

Do women who are members of parliament, or are politically involved, even if few, have a significant impact on Lebanese women? Do you see any changes because of women being more active politically?Rita: The number of women in politics in Lebanon has lessened: we don’t have any women in our current government, and in our parliament we have now 4 women;
The problem, in my opinion, is that the political sphere remains patriarchal and feudal. It is very difficult for women who are not of a political family background (a brother, husband or a father in politics) to enter the sphere.
Yara: Basically the percentage of women MPs in the parliament is 2.3%. Unfortunately, they aren’t representing women, at all and they’re not doing much for improving women’s lives in Lebanon. They are part of the system. We do care, though, about having more women in the parliament, even if they have no feminist agenda at all.

Are there any movements from the government’s side to promote projects so that Lebanese women citizens can become more politically active. If not, what is the role of the official- and unofficial-women's rights groups and organizations? The National Commission for Lebanese Women ( NCLW), the official body formed in 1998 by the 720 law and directly affiliated to the presidency of the council of ministers, is following up the national campaign to support women in decision making and in peace building; this campaign has been launched on the 8 of March 2012 by the First Lady in Lebanon.
The role of official organizations, such as NCLW is consultative, coordinative and executive, do not hesitate to check the website for more info ( the English part is available; as for NGOs, there are many working in Lebanon. Some created coalitions and networks to be more efficient and active while lobbying for certain causes.

What is a feminist from your perspective…Is there a difference in the feminist ideology between Europe and the Arab world?Yara: The context differs. For example, in the Arab world we have to work in a postcolonial context, tradition and religion are protagonists. We are not secular and we have major issues to solve: our land, our identity, our law.
Feminism has a genderless sense, women and men are equal. That is the main goal after all, to view people as genderless entities, with no boxes, no stereotypes.


Maria Sidiropoulou

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