Archive | October, 2009

Participants turn on each other at forum on women

16 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, October 16, 2009

BEIRUT: An elite group of Arab women gathered in Beirut Thursday for what was supposed to be a lively two-day forum on the status of women in the region, but which quickly descended into bitter exchanges between several attendees. Picking up the threads of last year’s meeting, the third annual New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF) brought together prominent women from across the Middle East to muse over Arab women’s poor political and economic participation and women social entrepreneurs, media workers and business leaders, as well as sexuality and Arab writers. But participants will more likely remember this year’s gathering as the date Lebanese journalist May Chidiac reduced Belgium’s first veiled MP, Mahinur Ozdemir, to tears.
During a panel on the role of media in shaping public opinion on women’s issues, Ozdemir spoke of her own experience with the Belgian media, who attacked her joining the Christian Democrats party when she wore the Muslim veil.
Her presentation was met with scathing words from Chidiac, who called the Belgian-Turkish politician divisive and compared the veil to her two prosthetic limbs, the result of a car bomb assassination attempt in 2005. Chidiac also suggested Ozdemir’s presentation was uninteresting and off-topic, prompting tears from the politician.
Chidiac was in turn criticized by several members of the audience, who called her attack on Ozdemir unwarranted. “We all know the story of May Chidiac, and so we thank you for not telling us, but we don’t know her story and it’s interesting to hear what she has to say,” one participant interjected.
Some attendees took advantage of the heated discussion that followed to criticize the forum’s high-profile composition: At $300 a ticket, attendance at NAWF isn’t available to everyone. “Surely you have to include grassroots activists in such a conference or you’re excluding the majority of the region’s women,” said one participant who declined to be identified. “But how can they afford to pay?” Other participants regretted that the forum’s first panel on women in politics had been cut short.
During that discussion, Aman Kabbara Chaarani, president of the Lebanese Women’s Council, urged Beirut to adopt a quota system for women politicians and to implement international resolutions calling for gender equality. “Instead of moving ahead we are falling behind,” she warned, saying the Lebanese government lacked the political will to advance women’s rights.
Kicking off the forum earlier, caretaker Education Minister Bahia Hariri said NAWF, organized by the Arab League, women’s magazine Al-Hasnaa and Al-Iktissad Wal Aamal Group, embodied “the pillars of rebirth to which the Arab countries and the Arab nation aspire today.”
Sima Bahous, assistant secretary general for social affairs at the Arab League, outlined the main issues needed to further women’s rights in the Middle East. “Although we are very proud of the achievements of Arab women in the fields of education, labor, economic rights, politics and legislative bodies, these achievements still fall short of our aspirations and needs,” she said, pointing in particular to the region’s staggering illiteracy levels. Some 100 million Arabs, 67 percent of whom are women, are illiterate, according to the 2008 International Review of Education.
Concerted efforts in the education, social welfare and health fields were needed, she said, adding that women’s economic and political participation also needed boosting. Despite recent victories by women in politics, overall participation in the region remains less than 9 percent, while economic participation stands at about 30 percent, Bahous said.
A brief award ceremony honored former first lady of Lebanon Mona Hrawi, Ozdemir, Kuwaiti writer Leila Othman, and Saudi professor Suhair al-Quraishi for their efforts to promote women’s rights in the region.

Zina’s take on Lebanon

8 Oct

Cartoon from Zina's Ups and Downs blog

The last part roughly translates as: To hell with this country! (though it says this through the sexist phrase that makes reference to your sister’s vagina.) Lebanon is smaller than the US state of Connecticut but 24/7  access to electricity and water remains problematic. Many people who can afford it buy personal generators and end up having to pay two electricity bills each month. Illustration from the blog, Zina’s Up and Downs

Reckless motoring continues to claim lives of young Lebanese

1 Oct
By Dalila Mahdawi
Louaize: When Aldo Abboud, 25, got into a car with a drunk driver two years ago, he thought nothing of it. “I was on drugs and drunk, so I don’t remember anything” about what happened, he said. The speeding driver, who had polished off two bottles of whiskey earlier in the evening, attempted to overtake a car without realizing a car traveling in the opposite direction was doing the same. To avoid a collision, the drunk driver drove onto the pavement with such force that Abboud, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was thrown 100 meters from the front passenger seat. The driver and two other passengers escaped mostly unscathed, but Abboud spent the next six weeks fighting for his life in a coma.
The consequences of one night’s blurred judgment will remain with him forever: Abboud suffered brain damage which impedes his ability to write and completely lost his sense of smell. “Honestly, I didn’t have any brains back then,” he said with a hint of regret. “People shouldn’t drive if they’re drunk or tired. If they can’t afford to rent a hotel room, then they should stop and rest.”
Sadly, Abboud’s experience is common in Lebanon, where car crashes are the leading cause of death among young people. According to statistics provided by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Tuesday, 354 people were injured and 35 died in car crashes this September.
Road-safety activists blame poor lighting and road maintenance, disrespect for traffic signs and lights, speeding, drunk driving and lack of enforcement by police. Having only been installed in 2008, traffic lights are more often used as mere suggestive measures than a legal requirement.
On the first day of classes at Notre Dame University (NDU) on Wednesday, officials from car-safety organizations YASA and KunHadi, the Lebanese Red Cross, and Michelin Tires appealed to students to exercise prudence while driving. Dozens of photographs of youngsters killed in crashes were displayed, transforming the cafeteria into a makeshift memorial. The most recent addition was NDU student Toufic Ibrahim, killed by a speeding driver on prom night in July. A photograph of his severely mangled car had also been tacked up.
“You don’t ever think it will happen to you,” said Rana, a student who stopped to glance at a road-safety video. “People think they’re invincible. I know so many people who’ve had accidents, but they’ll still drive after drinking or not put their seat belt on.”
“Most students aren’t aware” of what constitutes responsible driving, YASA board member Kamel Ibrahim said as he manned an information stand. “In 2008, there were more than 850 deaths in Lebanon and over 11,000 injured,” he added. He attributed the high numbers to an outdated traffic law dating to 1967. While the law has been amended, it does not make the use of seatbelts compulsory.
Furthermore, a 1995 amendment to illegalize drunk driving remains vague, providing no de­finition of the word “drunk.” Ibrahim also lamented the level of police enforcement. “When police enforce traffic laws, accidents decrease,” he said. “This is what happened in 2008,” when Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud cracked down on speeding drivers and ISF officials checked for seatbelt use. During that period, the number of accidents fell by 50 percent, Ibrahim said.
But it seems it will take constant awareness days and police enforcement to change drivers’ lax attitude: leaving NDU, The Daily Star’s car was nearly hit by a student driver who appeared to have mistaken the campus roads for a racetrack.

Search for Common Ground in Lebanon

1 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: Religious pluralism is a defining feature of Lebanon: so much so it is enshrined in the country’s political system, designed to give political representation to all communities. But with Lebanon’s  population divided across 18 recognized sects, the country’s politics and society have historically been wrought with bitter ideological differences. 

These differences are often perpetuated by the prejudices parents pass on, intentionally or not, to their children. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Le­banon’s youngsters at times find themselves reinforcing the country’s religious, socio-economic and political disputes with peers at school. 

Aware of the need to reach out to youth, as well as the underfunding of teacher-training programs in Lebanon, one of the biggest conflict-resolution organizations in the world has instigated a national program to train teachers on ways to communicate, promote respect for diversity and mediate disputes. 

The idea of peace education is not new, but in Lebanon it has yet to become common practice in schools or universities. 

“The best way for us to really be effective [in creating a tolerant society] is to begin with children and youth … the future of tomorrow,” said Sarah Shouman, director of Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) Lebanon office. 

The pilot project is currently under way at four public and three private schools across the country, where an average of 20 teachers receive practical training in “instilling a culture of listening and problem solving in schools,” Shouman added. One exercise teachers are learning to pass on is how to frame their grievances in more neutral language, as opposed to adopting accusatory stances that usually elicit confrontational responses. 

While the project comes at a time of relative calm in Leba­non, bloody clashes in May 2008, uneasy relations with Israel, and the current political deadlock over the formation of a national-unity government, mean the possibility of renewed conflict is never too far away from people’s minds.

Teachers and school administrators were initially reluctant to participate, Shouman said. “I think some schools are sick to death of people coming in and telling them they’re doing it wrong. That’s not our intention at all. We understand that there’s a lot of pressure in the education system … we’re trying to build on what is there already.” This approach seems to be working: “Every hour in this workshop has value … every action has a new goal in my life,” said one teacher who participated in the training. 

Building on the success of the pilot scheme, SFCG will embark on similar teacher training projects in 80 schools nationwide over the next two years, in partnership with Lebanon’s Education Ministry, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, and the Hariri Foundation. “We want to capitalize on the expertise already in Lebanon and also make the most of expertise around the world in peace education,” Shouman said. 

While SFCG’s Lebanon office only opened in October 2008, the organization has already made considerable strides in promoting a culture of tolerance and conflict resolution. 

 SFCG’s first project here was the much-acclaimed television series, “Kilna Bil Hayy,” English for All of Us in the Neighborhood.” The show, whose first season just wrapped up on LBC International, follows the adventures of six families from Lebanon’s biggest communities – Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis – who live in the same apartment complex. A supernatural presence, personified as Lina, teaches the children to look beyond the political, religious and socio-economic prejudices of their parents and to build friendships with their neighbors based on commonalities, respect for diversity, and trust. 

 The series was adapted for the Lebanese context after the huge success of “Nashe Maalo,” a similar SFCG television series in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding. SFCG Le­banon is now looking for funding to produce a second series. 

 The group is also organizing a traveling film festival on truth and reconciliation for October. The film festival has been running in other countries since 2001, screening films or documentaries that show the human face of war and contribute to preventing and reducing conflict. The festival will travel to 12 schools and eight universities around the country and will be followed by moderated talks.