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Posh women’s rights in the Arab World

2 Dec

The New Arab Woman Forum is an elitist club for ladies who lunch. It desperately needs to become more diverse

Dalila Mahdawiguardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010

Today, hundreds of women will gather in Beirut for the fourth annual New Arab Woman Forum (Nawf).

Bringing together prominent personalities for two days of “analysis of the changing position and role of women in Arab society, politics, and economic life,” Nawf claims to be the region’s “leading and most relevant women’s event”. If that’s true, then the Arab women’s movement is in serious trouble.

When I attended Nawf as a journalist last year, I was given a luxury leather notebook-holder as a welcoming present. Sadly, the notebook-holder was pretty much the only thing of substance to emerge from the proceedings. The file’s fashionable pink and brown colour scheme represents all that is wrong with Nawf, which seems to be more a gruesome parade of plastic surgery operations and couture outfits on the relatives of male political leaders than anything remotely to do with women’s empowerment.

For many involved in the struggle for gender equality, Nawf is as genuine a women’s event as many of the noses of its attendees. Last year’s session on political quotas, arguably one of the most important debates for women in the Arab world, for example, was butchered down to about 20 minutes so as to ensure it didn’t run into the obviously invaluable lunch break.

Besides a struggle with priorities, one of the biggest obstacles to the forum’s legitimacy is its outrageous price tag: it costs $300 (plus 10% VAT – more than £200) a person to attend, with no discounts for non-governmental or other community-based organisations. Why organisers have repeatedly chosen to host the event at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel, the ultimate symbol of opulent excess, is another mind-boggler.  Perhaps Nawf didn’t get the memo that it is women who make up the bulk of the Arab world’s illiterate and impoverished citizens. If the organisers switched to a free or cheaper venue, it would automatically open up the event to a more diverse community of women.

Activists have also complained that Nawf denies invitations and speaking opportunities to important grassroots groups in favour of big names. Nawf could learn a lot from those it excludes, including those on its own doorstep in Beirut, such as the feminist collective Nasawiya, who recently invited the prominent gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughoud to deliver a free public lecture. Instead, Mohammad Rahhal, Lebanon’s male environment minister, is delivering a speech.

The gilded hotel doors are firmly shut on precisely the women who should be listened to but wide open to those who have no real involvement in improving the lives of Arab women.

Another particularly irksome feature of Nawf is that organisers have stubbornly insisted on holding it in Beirut for a third time. The choice of location has repeatedly been justified with the old cliche that Lebanon is the most open society in the Arab world. But just because some women in Lebanon can wear a miniskirt doesn’t mean they enjoy substantive equality. Far from it: the Lebanese government considers women as juveniles in many aspects of the law, forbids them from passing on nationality to their children, and does not protect them from domestic violence, including marital rape. Until recently, Lebanese women were not even permitted to open bank accounts for their children.

Lebanon also has one of the lowest regional figures for women in politics, standing at a mere 3.1%, compared with Iraq’s 25.2%, Tunisia’s 27.6% and Syria’s 12.4%. As recently as 10 November, Lebanon balked at UN recommendations to improve women’s rights. Nawf’s real motivation to host its event in Beirut, therefore, seems to revolve around the idea that the allure of a trip to Beirut, with all its glamorous boutiques and restaurants, will entice more participants to cough up the hefty attendance fee. After all, there’s nothing like a vague two-day conference to take away the guilt of spending thousands of dollars on yourself.

No doubt the organisers had the best intentions when they envisioned Nawf. Any efforts to initiate discussion on the problems facing Arab women are to be commended, but if Nawf wishes to be taken seriously as a platform for all Arab women, it must make immediate and serious changes to become more inclusive of those whom it claims to speak on behalf of. Until then, the conference will remain an elitist club for ladies who lunch and a source of dismay to the real, anonymous women fighting for equality in the region. They might not have designer handbags but surely their ideas and experiences deserve just as much recognition.

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Robert Fisk: Western media fails to report ‘real horrors of war’

14 Jan

Journalist’s lecture slams bias in American journalism
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BEIRUT: Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, as he notes in one of his books, has lived a “charmed but dangerous life.” He has been a resident of the Beirut seafront for 34 years, covering the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and its numerous atrocities, most memorably the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias and their Israeli Army allies. The British-born journalist has reported on 10 other wars, several insurgencies, Iran’s bloody 2009 elections, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden no less than three times.

Over the years, Fisk has provoked as much anger as admiration, enduring two kidnap attempts and a beating by a group of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. His critics dismiss his writing as lies and embellishments, and his numerous awards and books, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are a source of some jealously for other correspondents in the region. No one in the world of journalism, it seems, is quite as divisive as Robert Fisk.
Kicking off a series of “Distinguished Journalists” lectures at the Lebanese American University of Beirut on Tuesday, however, he was firmly among friends and admirers.
Speaking to hundreds of journalism students, Fisk was quick to condemn “the lethal way in which [Western] reporters support war,” manipulating language to change meaning and historical context. Editors were also to be criticized for avoiding shocking photographs of war victims, an act which he said sterilized and hid the consequences of conflict.
One example of this was a newspaper that published a photograph of an Iraqi father carrying his supposedly injured daughter. The girl, Fisk said, was in fact already dead and her feet, which had been blown off in an explosion, had been tidily cut out of the photograph. “I’m against all violence, but because we protect our own readers from it, we produce a clean war,” he said. “For all the criticisms I have of the Arab press … at least your pictures in your newspaper … tend to show the real horrors of war.”
“A lot of journalists do not see their job as a vocation,” he continued. “Many journalists regard their job as the same as working in a bank, driving a truck or becoming a lawyer  … But I think journalism should have responsibilities over and above just earning a salary to pay off the mortgage.”
His strongest criticism was reserved for the American media, where there was an “osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power.” Since the Bush administration, for example, Fisk observed US newspapers had followed on from Washington’s example in referring to the occupied Palestinian territories as the “disputed territories” or “the so-called occupied territories.”
Such glaring bias and half-truths have led, Fisk argued, to the “normalization of war” among Westerners. An additional reason for this was journalist’s obsession with reporting “50/50” from all sides of a story. “But the Middle East is not a football match, it’s a bloody tragedy,” Fisk said, adding journalists had a “duty to be unbiased and neutral on the side of those who suffer.”
Though he is best known for his reporting on Arab countries, Fisk avoided discussing the problems faced by the region’s journalists or the political woes of the Middle East, dedicating only a few closing lines to the subject.
But does Fisk, with over three decades of experience in the region tucked under his belt, see any prospect for peace? “I have no optimism about the Middle East. The chances of a Palestinian state are less by the day,” he said. And as for Lebanon, where Fisk calls home, it is a “Rolls Royce with square wheels” that won’t be a modern state until it has secular governance.

Stolen Lives: Lebanon suffers problem of child brides

10 Nov

Economic crisis pushes children from poorer areas into early marriage
By Dalila Mahdawi, Daily Star staff
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

BEIRUT: Early marriages are making an unwelcome comeback in impoverished Lebanese villages and among the Palestinian refugee community, spurred on by the global economic crisis and harmful gender stereotypes, women’s rights activists warned Monday. Child brides are seen as more of a problem in countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen but have been steadily increasing in poor areas throughout Lebanon over recent years. Girls as young as 13 are being married off by their parents with damaging consequences on their education and psychological and physical well-being, experts said.

The remarks came at a regional women’s rights conference organized by the non-governmental organization Developmental Action without Borders (Nabaa) and Movement for Peace (MPDL) with support from Spain’s embassy in Beirut.

Faten Sabah, a researcher at Nabaa, said the global economic crisis was pushing poor families to marry off their daughters in an effort to relieve financial pressures on the household. “In Lebanon, the phenomenon of early marriage is reappearing … This is the start of violations against women’s rights,” she said, noting that early pregnancies could have dangerous health implications for both mother and baby.

Out of 77 Palestinian girls interviewed in south Lebanon by Nabaa, some 46.75 percent of 17 year olds and around 32 percent of 16 year olds were already married, she said, adding that there was a clear correlation between the girls’ education level and age at time of marriage.

“Most acknowledged their marriage was early and expressed some regret,” she said, with some 74 percent of all child brides saying family pressure had pushed them into marrying. Women who had married early were more likely to fight with their husbands, experience social isolation and less likely to return to formal education, Sabah added.

The poor villages of Mujid and Bibnin in Akkar, north Lebanon, are witnessing similar increases in child brides, too. After Israel’s 34-day war on Lebanon in July 2006, observers also noted an increase in “exchange marriages,” where a person’s sister is given almost as a dowry in exchange for the sister of someone else, said Jou­mana Merhi, executive director of the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering.

Lebanese law has adopted the same definition of “child” as described by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Beirut signed in 1991. According to the convention, and for the purpose of civil obligations and contracts, a child is any person below the age of 18. The marriage of anyone under this age, then, is considered a breach of the convention.

But in some Muslim circles, girls as young as 9 are deemed suitable for marriage, Merhi said. The minimum age at which girls can marry is lower than boys in all of Lebanon’s religious courts, which govern personal status affairs such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Lebanon has signed several international treaties on the rights of the child, but enforcement remains problematic. Beirut became party to the Convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, in 2004. It also signed the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in February 2002 but has yet to ratify it.

“Another choice other than early marriage must be given to these women,” stressed Merhi. “It is very important to find opportunities for these girls.”

Jesus Saenz Denis, International for the Middle East at MPDL, praised Nabaa officials for their work among the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.

These activities “demonstrate they don’t just come and talk about women’s rights, but enforce them” through concrete action in the camps, he said, pointing to the organization’s work in providing education and vocational training to Palestinian girls.

Despite the encouraging work being done, Denis said more work on women’s rights was needed. “This conference will not be enough. You must keep fighting in your communities every single day for women’s rights, which are human rights themselves.”

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

Offering a hip alternative to the cherished plastic bag

16 Jun

Flex bag

BEIRUT: Grocery shoppers in Lebanon simply can’t get enough of the non-biodegradable plastic bag – they are used here in abundance, with enthusiasm and without scruples.

But all too often, these bags end up at the bottom of a mountain or bobbing along the coast. They can remain there for up to 500 years until finally picked away at by the elements.

Disturbed by Lebanon’s love affair with the toxic product, young professionals Stephanie Dadour and Waleed Jad established their own company, Waste Lb, and created a hip alternative: a reusable bag made from salvaged flex.

Flex is a composite plastic most often found in Lebanon in the form of billboards. Like the throw-away plastic bag, it is 100 percent non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. But being water-proof, study and tear-resistant, it is ideal material for a shopping bag.

Waste Lb kills two birds with one stone: reclaiming old flex that would otherwise be dumped into Lebanon’s overflowing landfills, and encouraging consumers to switch to reusable shopping bags. “We know we’re not here to change the world or to educate people, but we thought we could sensitize people to reduce their use of plastic bags by promoting a product that can be reused,” Dadour told The Daily Star on Monday.

The Lebanese use over 6 billion plastic bags annually, according to Waste Lb. “If tied together these bags would form a chain that is long enough to go around the world 37 times.”

Creatures like turtles, dolphins or birds often mistake plastic bags for a tasty meal and can choke to death trying to eat them or become entangled and asphyxiate. When dumped, flex poses a similar threat.

But despite being a pollutant, Lebanon’s output of flex is astonishing – according to Jad, there is “24/7 continuous production.” 

While he and Dadour readily admit their bags are not “saving the planet,” they hope they will at least help change the attitude of Lebanese consumers, who can easily plough through piles of plastic bags in a single shopping trip.

“It’s a question of lifestyle” and whether people in Lebanon are prepared to make a small change to their wanton carrier-bag habits in the interest of the environment, Dadour said.

Unlike other eco-friendly products that come with wallet-unfriendly price tags, Waste Lb’s signature shopping bag, the Kees Dukanne, will be sold for a fixed price of LL25,000. The fashion-conscious need not fret about bumping into someone else with the same bag – as the fabric is stitched from a reclaimed billboard, each flex bag’s design is truly unique. Other than the Kees Dukanne, Waste Lb’s bags currently come in three other styles – oversized grocery bags, clutch bags for women and beach bags. Jad and Dadour later hope to expand into flex furniture and luxury items.

The practice of reusing billboard material is by no means revolutionary, and indeed exists in most Western countries, Dadour said. But the launch of Waste Lb’s flex bag this month comes at a time of growing interest in ethical consumerism among Lebanon’s more educated classes. Even so, the duo also hopes to appeal to buyers who aren’t so finely tuned to the seriousness of the world’s environmental woes. “If people start to use this [bag], maybe they will go home and try to see what’s written on their packaging and think more ethically” about what products they buy in the future, said Dadour.

Waste Lb will officially launch at Beirut’s Souk al-Tayyeb market on Saturday June 27. The bags will thereafter be available at boutiques and major shopping malls in the capital.

In Lebanon’s Christian district, March 14 holds the cards

8 Jun

BEIRUT: Constituents in  Beirut I, a predominantly Christian district, crowded into polling stations on Sunday to elect five candidates to join the country’s next parliament. As The Daily Star went to press Sunday night, exit polls showed the March 14 coalition winning a clean sweep in the district, with voter turnout estimated at 44 percent.

Twenty candidates, ten of whom were Independents, battled for the seats covering the areas of Achrafieh, Rmeil and Saifi. The March 14 list of Nayla Tueni (Orthodox), Serge Torsarkissian (Armenian Catholic), Jean Ogassapian (Armenian Orthodox), Michel Pharaoun (Catholic) and Nadim Gemayel (Maronite), stood against Issam Abu Jamra (Orthodox), Vreij Sabounjian (Armenian Orthodox), Gregoire Kaloust (Armenian Catholic), Nicholas Sehnaoui (Catholic) and Massoud Al-Ashkar (Maronite) of the March 8 coalition. Two of the district’s seats will go to Armenian candidates, with one each going to Orthodox, Maronite and Catholic candidates.

Supporters of the Armenian Tashnag party, which is allied with March 8, took to the polls in particular force in the early morning hours, with convoys of cars bearing the party emblem and Armenian flag dropping off entire families outside polling stations. According to exit polls, 31,500 people in Beirut I voted, among them 6,700 Armenians.

Hagob Norunzayan, 42, got up early to vote for the March 8 ticket. The Armenians were coming “back from all over the world just to vote,” he said, denying allegations that they received cash to vote.

Hagob Norunzayan, 42, got up early to vote for the March 8 ticket. The Armenians were coming “back from all over the world just to vote,” he said, denying allegations that they received cash to vote.

“We want to live in a strong Lebanon. We will win,” he added optimistically.

Former US President Jimmy Carter was in Achrafieh Sunday to observe the voting.

Talking to reporters at the Zahrat al-Ihsan School polling station, Carter said he hoped Lebanon’s parties and foreign supporters would accept the election results.

“I don’t have any concerns over the conduct of the elections,” he said. “I have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties.”

Nadim Gemayel of the Christian Phalange party was seen midday touring the Rmeil II polling station in Achrafieh. “We saw a great evolution among the people,” he said of his electoral campaign. “We succeeded in making people vote against the weapons of Hizbullah. I am confident about my list: 5-0.”

Former LBC journalist May Chidiac cast her vote in Achrafieh’s Rmeil I polling station. Chidiac survived a 2005 assassination attempt that many blamed on pro-Syrian groups. She called Christian voters who support “pro-Syrian” and “pro-Iranian” candidates “misled.”

Hizbullah poster: My land is worth more than gold

Hizbullah poster: My land is worth more than gold

Constituents were “voting for their identity …We want a free, independent Lebanon,” she said. “Lebanon is a mixture of things, but we want it to be a pro-Occidental country.”

March 14 candidate Nayla Tueni later made an appearance at the same polling station, dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. The 26-year-old Tueni, deputy general director of Lebanon’s popular daily An-Nahar and the daughter of assassinated MP and journalist Gebran Tueni, has been called inexperienced by rivals. “It’s amazing people came so numerous,” she told The Daily Star in reference to the high turnout. “They want a change.”

At a number of polling stations, old men and women cast their ballots after being carried up several flights of stairs by relatives or able-bodied onlookers.

The Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union sent a complaint to the Interior Ministry lamenting the difficulties disabled people faced in accessing polling stations, often situated on the second or third floors.

Several March 14 and March 8 supporters interviewed at different polling stations said that they were voting to define Lebanon’s relations with the international community.

“Foreign policy is the most important element of this election,” said a 31-year-old March 14 supporter who did not wished to be identified.

“I believe in their foreign policy, they’re going to deal with how outside powers will deal with Lebanon,” he said of the rival coalitions.

Sandy T., 21, meanwhile said Aoun’s alliance with Hizbullah had prevented further sectarian violence in the country. “If he hadn’t made the alliance, there would be big problems between the different religions,” she said.

“We believe in what he and [Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan] Nasrallah say, and in what they can do to change Lebanon,” she added.

After voting, partisans sought refuge from Sunday’s blistering heat, eating sandwiches and chocolate bars packed in special lunchboxes bearing the logos of their preferred political party.

Although polling in Beirut I was largely peaceful, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) broke up a fight in the early afternoon at the Ali Abi Taleb High School polling station, LBC Television reported.

The high school was the only polling station for the constituency’s minority Sunni and Shiite residents.

An 85-year-old male voter reportedly died of a heart attack before casting his ballot.

According to OTV, four people were taken to hospital after fainting in the highly congested polling stations of the Zahret al-Ihsan and Tabaris schools.

Lebanese Armed Forces troops patrolled Achrafieh’s Sassine Square and detained a number of individuals after clashes broke out over party flags Sunday evening.

Despite the minor skirmishes, an election observer who wished to remain anonymous said the one-day elections had been “relatively tranquil.”

The observer nevertheless pointed to several violations, including several senior political figures and candidates campaigning inside the polling stations, defying a rule that they must stay at least 75 meters away from the polls.

“They were going around the polling station to try to rally the troops, shaking hands,” the observer said, adding that the incident was reported to the Interior Ministry.

Poor crowd control and incidences of intimidation within polling stations in Beirut I also occurred, said the observer.