By Paola Salwan Daher *
I believe becoming a feminist activist creeps up on you. You don’t wake up one day thinking: « Mmm, right, after coffee I’ll just go and advocate for women’s rights, now shall I? ». At least this isn’t how it happened for me. Becoming an activist was the result of an internal process fuelled by observations: a condescending attitude from a man , a patronising comment , an inner sense of difference because I am a woman, and because I am an Arab woman who lived in a small French town rife with prejudices and misconceptions about Arab women. In general, all of this conspired to render me attentive to stories of oppression from a young age.
My studies as well as my jobs at the International Federation of the Red Cross and at the World YWCA, showed me the extent of the oppression of women at all levels. Women are vulnerable in times of conflict as their bodies become battlefields, a woman’s body is never truly her own, women still bear the brunt of juggling work and family, and are still underestimated and underpaid in their workplace, the list could go on and on. I therefore decided that, apart from my job in a women’s rights organisation where I was focusing on young women’s leadership in Europe and the Middle East, I would join a feminist network in my country, Lebanon.
While I was outside of Lebanon, my activism translated into blog posts especially on issues that I thought did not get enough attention such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Arab World, HIV, and how the prevalence is linked with Violence Against Women, the Rights of Palestinian Women in Lebanon or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign for example. To me, feminist activism means not only advocating for women’s rights, but also entering the struggle for a more egalitarian society as a whole.
The more I engaged with activist women from the Arab region, the more enthused and amazed I was by the energy, commitment and dynamism that emanated from their work. They are on all fronts, putting solidarity in everything they do, whether they are advocating for a change of laws in Lebanon to enable women to give their citizenship to their family or to have a law protecting women from violence and domestic abuse, or whether they just go on the streets to talk to women about their rights and about how they feel as women in Lebanon, to reaching out to domestic workers in a state of vulnerability, activists never tire of speaking up and demanding our rights. More and more women have thus been touched by our awareness raising campaigns and are joining ranks with us, shifting mentalities and opening and widening debates, challenging the politics and having them face and fulfil their obligations.
Now that I have gone back to Lebanon, I follow meetings and activities organised by the feminist collectives and organisations I belong to, and I’m often reminded of a young women’s leadership dialogue I organised and participated in in Nigeria back in 2009. It was a moment of firsts for me: it was my first time in sub-saharian Africa, and it was my first young women leadership training. I remember sitting there, not talking much outside of my presentations, and just listening to what all these wonderful young African women had to say. Some of them had had terrible experiences facing violence of all kinds, yet there they were: their charisma, their will to overcome the hardships of their lives and their courage to demand their rights was humbling and eye-opening at the same time. Listening to them, I understood the universal essence of the struggle for gender equality. Be it in Africa, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, women have to face the same old enemy: patriarchy, harmful traditions and oppressive beliefs, imperialism trying to sell itself as feminism, lack of political will and adequate laws. I also remember how much I had admired the eloquence and the presence of some of these young women when we were just between ourselves as young women, but also, how this eloquence instantly dimmed when we were in plenary with older women, as if what the young women suddenly had to say had no importance at all or at least was not as important as what their older sisters had to say. This issue also made it very clear to me that as young women, we don’t only need to fight external patriarchy, but also how women can oppress each other even within the women’s movement.
As feminist activists everywhere we need to keep ourselves in check not to become what we’re struggling against, and to learn to take a step back when needed. Always been in solidarity with one another, always push for our rights, always let the most oppressed fight for their cause first and foremost, while being right there behind them.
* Paola is a writer and an activist living in Beirut, Lebanon. You can learn more about the organization she’s involved with in Lebanon, Nasawiya, by visiting the website, www.nasawiya.org, on twitter @nasawiya and by visiting the Facebook page of the organisation https://www.facebook.com/nasawiya.