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What the “They Hate Us” debate ignores

9 May

By Dalila Mahdawi

This article was originally published on the Common Ground News Service website.

London- Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy unleashed a veritable media storm on Arab gender relations with her recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, provocatively titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” referring to male attitudes towards women.

Amid the controversy, however, important questions risk being overlooked. Instead of dwelling on whether Arab men really do hate women, our attention might be better focused on formulating strategies to achieve gender equality.

Eltahawy may be doing gender relations a great service by raising awareness about the need for supporting women’s rights, but her tone is controversial. The article, illustrated with photographs of a naked woman covered in black body paint suggestive of a niqab, is an impassioned diatribe against the poor condition of women’s rights in the Arab world. The author lists a catalogue of abuses women suffer, including her own beating and sexual assault at a protest in Cairo last year, attributing such attitudes to “a toxic mix of culture and religion”. The crux of her argument is that Arab women live as second-class citizens because they are “hated” by men. “Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought – social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms”, she writes.

Her critique immediately led to a crescendo of emotionally charged responses, with some lauding the Egyptian writer for her bravery. Her detractors have been more vocal, accusing her of promoting simplistic views that pander to Western stereotypes of Arab women as victims in need of rescuing from a misogynistic Islam.

Eltahawy certainly did not start the debate on women’s rights in the Arab world, but she has helped popularise it. On social media websites and in cafes, Arabs of different economic and religious backgrounds are busy contemplating the status of the region’s women.

But ignored in the debate is the existence of many Arab men working in solidarity and partnership with women to exorcise the scourge of gender inequality from their communities. A sizeable number of men are equally or increasingly involved in family duties traditionally seen as women’s work, such as child-raising, cooking and housework. We would do well to consider ways to further improve men’s involvement in the struggle for gender parity.

More and more Arab men are joining in women’s struggle for greater freedoms, accompanying them on demonstrations and viewing gender equality as integral to their vision of a better society. Some, like the Egyptian writer Ahmed Kadry, have taken to the blogosphere to call for an end to sexual harassment of women. Indeed, Arab feminism has found supporters among men throughout its long history- men who realise that they are equally held captive by strict interpretations of gender expectations.

Loaded language about hate has the advantage of drawing attention to an issue, but risks alienating the very audience that needs to be engaged with. Viewing men as hateful does little to promote the end goal of all gender activists, which is greater freedom and dignity for women. Instead, initiatives that increase men’s involvement in and sense of ownership of gender equality must be fostered. Grassroots projects to rehabilitate male perpetrators of gender-based violence, such as those run by the Lebanese organisations KAFA (Enough), an organisation working to end violence and exploitation, and the ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality, are doing just that, helping transform misogynistic attitudes towards women.

As Arab women and men, we must harness the angry indictments of inequality that Eltahawy has rightfully brought to our attention into proactive action. Rather than laying the blame for women’s disempowerment at the doorstep of “men” or “culture”, we should use peaceful and inclusive dialogue to reinforce the idea that women’s rights are everyone’s concern.

To paraphrase the physicist Albert Einstein, one cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. Finger-pointing and blame games will only create further antagonism. Until women and men unite to throw off the chains of strictly dichotomous gender roles and identities, we are all culpable in perpetuating the disempowerment of our societies as a whole. The so-called Arab Spring may have disappointed many, but it is not over yet. These tumultuous times present an important opportunity for the region, and indeed the world, to engage in an inclusive and peaceful battle for greater freedoms for all.

Let Eltahawy’s article be a rallying cry to improve the communication lines between women and men. Their lives, as the United Nations Population Fund has noted, “are interdependent and … the empowerment of women benefits everyone.”

Inside the mind of a Lebanese politician

3 Jun

In all countries of the world, politicians are meant to serve their constituents. In Lebanon, politicians (except a minor handful) serve themselves and then, if they have enough energy to spare, their religious community. Samira Soueidan, a Lebanese mother of four, apparently committed a crime when she married an Egyptian man. Her husband is now dead but she continues to pay for this crime- the Lebanese government does not recognize women’s right to pass on citizenship and so her children are stateless. They have never been to Egypt and do not have nor wish for Egyptian citizenship. They are Lebanese to everyone except the State.

Samira wanted recognition her children are Lebanese, and so she went to the courts. The first court said yes, her children should be granted citizenship. Then the Justice Minister decided to appeal.  I repeat, the Justice Minister. He wins, Samira’s children and by extension all Lebanese women lose. The irony is too much to bear.

If you want to read more about the case, here it is:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BEIRUT: A landmark ruling which granted citizenship to the children of a Lebanese mother was overturned by an appeals court Tuesday in a move that has left human rights activists reeling.

Samira Soueidan filed a lawsuit five years ago demanding her four children be granted citizenship rights following the death of her Egyptian husband. Lebanese law permits men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but bars women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same.

Leaving the courthouse in Jdidet al-Metn, Soueidan said she had “lost the battle but not the fight” and vowed to take her case to the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s highest appeals court. “I’m not going to stop here,” she said, adding that her children had been born and raised in Lebanon and should be viewed as Lebanese.

In a breakthrough ruling last July, Judges John al-Azzi, Rana Habka and Lamis Kazma ruled in favor of granting Soueidan’s two sons and two daughters citizenship. The judges said their decision was based on the fact there was no law prohibiting a Lebanese mother from passing on her nationality to her children after the death of her husband. They also noted that aspects of Lebanon’s nationality law were “obscure” and that current legislation favored foreign women over their Lebanese counterparts.

The verdict was applauded by civil society organizations and suggested a breakthrough for thousands of other families suffering because of the sexist legislation. Ironically, however, it was appealed by Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar.

The Court of Cassation, presided over by Judge Mary al-Maouchi and two other women consultants, accepted Najjar’s appeal and overturned Azzi’s ruling, saying it contravened Articles 3 and 537 of Lebanon’s Civil Law code and the nationality law. “Judicial courts are not concerned with granting nationality rights [in cases where it was not granted at birth] as this is a right only enjoyed by the president,” stated the 17-page ruling, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Star. Soueidan will have to pay all the legal fees incurred in the case.

Representatives from the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action [CRTD.A], a Lebanese non-governmental organization that has been supporting Soueidan in her fight, said they were disappointed but “unsurprised” by the legal setback. “The approach of the Lebanese government since Azzi’s ruling has not been encouraging,” said Roula Masri, CRTD.A gender program coordinator.

She claimed the judge had been subject to harassment and “humiliation” from leading officials in the Justice Ministry.

Azzi was also reportedly unofficially banned from talking to journalists, who were required to submit interview requests to the Justice Ministry. A request submitted by The Daily Star several months ago was never answered.

There are around 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese in Lebanon, according to a study by the UN Development Program. Around 80,000 children and husbands are potentially made stateless by the current legislation.

Deprived of state protection and recognition, those without citizenship live in a precarious legal vacuum and cannot benefit from state education or health care, work in the formal economy or vote. They are vulnerable to arbitrary detention, have difficulty accessing the legal system and live under constant fear of deportation.

Lebanon’s nationality law was formulated in 1925, at a time when Beirut was under French mandatory rule. “It’s about time to amend such an outdated law,” Masri said. That the law continues to be applied flies in the face of “claims that we live in a democratic country that can compete in the international arena.”

A 1994 amendment of the nationality law gave the child of a Lebanese mother and foreign father the right to obtain citizenship. But in order for it to be granted, the child must marry a Lebanese citizen and live continuously in Lebanon for at least five years, including one year after marriage.

Tuesday’s ruling, together with the discriminatory nationality legislation, contradicts Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution, which guarantees men and women equality before the law, Masri said. “The only way women can win their rights is by amending the current nationality law,” she said, adding that CRTD.A would respond to Soueidan’s defeat with a major public event. Masri also decried the fact that Soueidan’s hopes for nationality rights were thwarted by women judges. “It’s a pity to find women not supporting other women’s rights.”

Is it right to show graphic images in the press?

3 May

NOTE: After last week’s lynchmob attack, which was shown in graphic detail by local TV stations and newspapers, I questioned whether I had made the right moral decision about posting pictures on my blog (see below posts). I decided to put this question to media workers-their opinions can be read below. I stand by my decision to show explicit images from the murder in the belief that people should be given the choice to see for themselves what goes on around them in this world, rather than live in happy ignorance. If we tolerate gruesome horror and slasher films, why shouldn’t we accept violence when it happens in real life?)

BEIRUT: As public outrage over Thursday’s lynching in Ketermaya grows, many in Lebanon are questioning whether media outlets were right to show images of the brutal crime.

Circus leaders sent packing after activist alert

10 Jan

This lion cub faces negligence and mistreatment (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)

Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, January 09, 2010

BEIRUT: For two weeks, a lion cub has sat in a small cage in Beirut with dirty bedding and no natural light, nursing its swollen paws.

 The lion cub was brought to Lebanon with five other lions, three tigers, two snakes and a number of domesticated animals to perform at the Monte Carlo Circus in the Beirut suburb of Dora. But in a rare victory on Friday, the animals’ owner was ordered to leave Lebanon within 24 hours.

Lebanese Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan declared the circus illegal and ordered its immediate closure after animal welfare campaigners alerted his office to the circus’s mistreatment and incorrect paperwork.

“I would have preferred for the animals to be confiscated and the minister indicated that’s what he would have preferred to do, but the legal framework just isn’t there,” Jason Mier, Executive Director of Animals Lebanon told The Daily Star.

Although Hajj Hassan seems keen to advance animal welfare legislation, there are very few such policies in Lebanon. Lebanon and Bahrain are the only Arab states who have not signed up to the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), to which 175 states are a party.

While Lebanon is not a signatory to CITES, it is required to monitor any trade of animals between countries who have ratified the convention. But in this case, border officials failed to notice that the animals were “in a terrible state,” Meir said.

Animals Lebanon was first alerted to their plight after the Princess Alia Foundation in Jordan raised the alarm on December 24, when it contacted the organization to say the animals were stuck at the border and hadn’t been fed or watered for days. The animals spent a total of six days in transit, finally arriving in Lebanon on December 27.

In addition to “serious concerns about paperwork,” Meir and veterinarians have accused Monte Carlo Circus officials of inhumane treatment of the animals. An independent vet appointed by Animals Lebanon to examine the animals wrote in a report addressed to Hajj Hassan that they were visibly neglected, dystrophic and malnourished. Only two tigers and two lions had access to water in their cages, but the quantities were insufficient and “filthy,” said Ali Hemadeh, who is also the Beirut Representative of the Lebanese Veterinary Syndicate.

While the lion cub is receiving medicine for infected paws following a declawing operation, Hemadeh noted that “none of these treatments have been prescribed by a vet, and no vet is currently overseeing this treatment – it is being done by one of the circus employees.”

A second opinion also highlighted serious concerns for the animals, calling the declawing of the lion cub “barbaric.” John Knight, an independent zoo veterinarian and senior veterinary consultant to the Born Free Foundation, described the condition of the cub as “appalling” and suggested its owner “fundamentally lacks an understanding of the management” of such animals.

The family of circus owner Hussein Akef, which has operated circuses for the last 100 years, has in fact been investigated in several countries over concerns for animal welfare. One such investigation in Mozambique led to the family having their animals confiscated in 2007 and re-homed.

At Friday’s meeting with Hajj Hassan, Akef and his Lebanese business partner Suheil Obeid reportedly attempted to resist the minister’s ruling and “tried to use their connections” to have it overturned, Meir said. Attempts to reach both men were unsuccessful.

“This shipment could have been stopped long before ever entering Lebanon, but now is the opportunity for the [Lebanese Agriculture] Ministry to make a strong statement that Lebanon will no longer be used as a hub for smuggled animals,” said a statement on the Animals Lebanon website. Although Lebanon currently allows animals to be used in circus performances, Meir said he hoped the ruling would push Lebanon to ban the practice and pursue serious legislation.

In September, an abandoned lion cub was discovered in a Beirut alleyway. The starving animal, which had been kept illegally, died shortly after. Elephants and chimpanzees have also been smuggled in and out of Lebanon.

The lion cub's paws are infected and painful after a "barbaric" declawing operation (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)