The efforts of the women’s rights movement in Lebanon have remained unsuccessful for more than 70 years, says Hayat Mirshad, a member of the Democratic Women’s Association. The blame lies with feminists’ willingness to compromise, but also with women’s rights organisations’ hunt for sponsorship money. Juliane Metzker spoke to her in Beirut.

What are the differences between the womens rights movement in the Arab world, and those in Europe and America? 

Hayat Mirshad: Of course the forms of discrimination differ between these places. But women all over the world basically suffer the same symptoms. Whether at work, in the family or within marriage – we are discriminated against constantly, everywhere. However successful a careerist a woman is – if she isn’t also a good housewife and mother, she automatically loses value in society. That’s the case in Lebanon just as it is in Europe and America.

In comparison with other Arab countries, Lebanon is quite liberal. The proportion of women at universities is just over 50 per cent. How emancipated are Lebanese women?

Mirshad: If you compare the rate of enlightenment on these issues among women in the capital, Beirut, with rural areas, I don’t see any significant differences. I meet a lot of female Lebanese senior managers and lawyers who don’t want to know or hear anything about sex discrimination or women’s rights. They want to be more economically independent than the women outside the big cities, but their mentality is patriarchal. And by denying women’s rights, whether consciously or unconsciously, they are allowing themselves to be oppressed by society.

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What educational work does your association do in Lebanon?

Mirshad: We offer seminars to women from all levels of society, where they learn about leadership qualities and economic independence, for example. We also campaign on a legal level. At the moment we’re working on a bill to prevent child marriage: up to now, family matters have been the sole preserve of the religious communities in Lebanon. And that means that in some places, young girls under the age of 18 are still getting married. Furthermore, there’s no law to protect women from sexual harassment. Rapes frequently go unreported. For one thing, because there is no legal ordinance to deal with it. For another, because these women are ashamed, and they’re frightened that the police will hold them responsible for what has happened. Society and their families drum into them the message that if they are the victim of a sexual assault, it’s entirely their fault.

Are there many feminist organisations campaigning for womens rights in Lebanon?

Mirshad: In my opinion there are too few women’s rights organisations here, but there are also a number of women’s groups with no feminist agenda. These groups work, for example, to strengthen women in the economy. To achieve that, they teach women English. And that’s it. But they don’t teach women that they have to fight for their rights. One of the reasons for this is that in Lebanon, and in the Arab world, feminism is still regarded as a western import, which means feminists aren’t taken seriously in society.

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Counteracting this kind of prejudice requires a strong feminist collective…

Mirshad: …And that’s exactly what we don’t have here. There are huge problems in trying to coordinate the few women’s rights organisations. We’re not all pulling in the same direction, which is largely due to the sponsors. Of course, they determine which projects they want to realise with which organisations. It can happen that two organisations are working on the same issue, but being financed by different sides. Then it’s just about investing the money in the project on time and according to the contract regulations. There is seldom an agreement, let alone a communal strategy, between the women’s rights groups. And that’s the problem: we all put so-called “project-oriented activism” before a strong women’s rights movement.

Who finances feminist projects in Lebanon?

Mirshad: The sponsors are first and foremost European embassies, the UN and international women’s rights organisations. All the money comes from outside the country – which means feminism is becoming big business. There aren’t any women’s rights groups that are driven solely by the suffering of women and the belief in equal rights.

So what needs to change, in your view?

Mirshad: You asked me at the start what made Arab feminists different from western feminists. Well, in Europe and America, women’s rights campaigners were only successful when they joined forces and developed a feminist solidarity. In Lebanon this unifying feeling obviously doesn’t exist yet. There has been a women’s rights movement here for over 70 years. But what have we achieved so far? Mothers still can’t pass on Lebanese citizenship to their children. It remains the father’s privilege. And women are still facing discrimination at home and in the workplace, and are marginalised economically and politically.

But why are we so weak? Because we’ve spent the last 70 years dutifully sitting at the negotiating table with people who just don’t want equal rights. They forced these discriminatory laws onto women back then, and generations later we are still having to beg for equality. We have to put an end to this. We should rebel. And that means finally breaking off negotiations and rebelling against the system.

You are calling for a feminist revolution. Why didnt Arab feminists make more forceful use of the 2011 Arabellion for their cause? 

Mirshad: That was partly because women weren’t sufficiently prepared for making women’s rights an issue in the revolutions. Although they were the ones giving the demonstrations a face – their call for freedom was the loudest. But when the situation stabilised again, they were sent home – without any more rights on a political and social level. In retrospect, the uprisings were a big disappointment for them.

In spite of all the setbacks, I stand by my words. We need a feminist revolution. But we need to prepare the women in Lebanon for it first – and join forces as much as possible to do this. We have an important task to fulfil, which our mothers have so far failed to do: we have to create change, so that one day our daughters can feel they are fully-fledged citizens in Lebanon.

Source: By Juliane Metzker © Translated by Ruth Martin