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The Lebanese student saving lives with his mobile phone

17 May

At 26 years old, Yorgui Keyrouz has accomplished an extraordinary feat: saving over 15,000 lives. By starting a blood database from his mobile phone, he’s put those in need of blood in touch with a growing number of willing donors. In doing so, he’s filled a gaping void in the Lebanese health sector, which has no centralised blood service. Listen to my report for Deutsche Welle:

http://blogs.dw.de/generationchange/wp-content/plugins/audio-link-player/xspf/player.swf Blood Bank in Lebanon

Yorgui Keyrouz

Yorgui Keyrouz started the blood database on his mobile phone

Samar Khoury

Regular donor Samar Khoury is ready to give


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27 Jul

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

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.

Lebanese protest in front of Parliament for civil marriages

19 Mar

Activists dressed in wedding outfits react as they take part in "Chaml" (union) campaign that is trying to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon during a gathering in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, March 18, 2010. In the Middle East, civil marriage doesn't exist and no religious authority will perform an interfaith wedding. But Lebanon recognizes civil marriages as long as they're performed abroad, and the closest venue abroad is Cyprus, 150 miles from Lebanon. The banners in Arabic read:"A wedding with a stay of execution." (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Demonstration organized to mark day of ‘freedom of choice’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, March 19, 2010

BEIRUT: Bassam Jalgha, 23, has decided he doesn’t want a religious marriage. There’s only one problem: civil marriages are not performed in Lebanon.

Jalgha was one of around 200 people who marched on the Lebanese Parliament Thursday to demand politicians amend the law to allow people the option of marrying outside religious establishments.

The demonstration was organized by the Non-Violent Non-Sectarian Youth Lebanese Citizens association (CHAML) to mark the day of “freedom of choice,” which the Lebanese National Campaign for Personal Status designated years ago as March 18.

Wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, the protesters marched across Downtown Beirut to outside Parliament, ululating and chanting their demands. “It makes no sense [not to have the option of civil marriage], especially if they want us to live together and survive together as one population inside one country,” Jalgha said. “They should allow people from different religions who love each other to get married in their own country.”

The Lebanese state recognizes 18 different religious groups, which preside over personal status matters like marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. Marriages across the sectarian divide are allowed, provided one of the partners converts to the other’s religion, and are registered in the husband’s jurisdiction of birth.

Although Lebanese cannot have a civil marriage at home, the Lebanese state will recognize civil ceremonies performed abroad, so long as the marriage is registered at the Lebanese Embassy or consulate in the country where it took place.

In nearby pluralistic countries like Israel, Jordan and Syria, civil marriages are also not an option. As a result, numerous travel agencies in the region advertise one or two-day civil marriage packages in countries like Cyprus or Turkey.

But these trips are prohibitively expensive for many of those wanting a civil union. In addition, “this forces couples to get married alone, without their friends or families,” said Diana Assaf, a volunteer with CHAML. She said it made little sense for Lebanon not to allow civil marriages when they recognized those performed abroad. “We’re just asking for the simple right [for the Lebanese people] to get married in their country.”

 

The protest also fell on the anniversary of a bill by former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi in 1998, which almost succeeded in introducing the option of civil marriage. The bill gained approval from Cabinet members but was vetoed by the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He possessed both Saudi and Lebanese passports, and was said to have heeded the rulings of Saudi clerics who said granting civil marriage rights contravened Islamic Sharia law.

A number of Lebanese politicians still back civil marriages, though. MP Ghassan Mokheiber, who works closely with civil society, was outside Parliament to lend his support to the protesters. He told The Daily Star civil marriage should be one of the “basic rights” enjoyed by the Lebanese people. “There has been a lot of talk about de-confessionalizing Lebanon,” he said. “This could be one of the tools to bringing people closer together.”

 He noted that protesters were not looking to abolish religious marriages or confessional laws. “It is an optional law that would not deny faith nor good morals nor religious weddings. It is simply an alternative that now the Lebanese have to find in other countries,” he said. “It’s time that we recognize our own marriages in Lebanon.”

Although the option of civil marriage doesn’t seem like it will be granted anytime soon, the movement for greater civil freedoms is picking up momentum.

In February 2009, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud issued a circular granting Lebanese citizens the right to remove their religion from their Civil Registry Records. Baroud said the initiative was in line with the Lebanese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Lebanon helped author, and several other international human-rights treaties signed by Beirut.

An online petition and Facebook group demanding civil marriage are also gaining more and more supporters. In addition, CHAML will soon present a draft law to parliamentarians granting the option of civil marriages, Assaf said.

But until that option comes to pass in Lebanon, those wishing to marry outside of a religious institution will still be forced to travel abroad to do so.

Honor killing in Lebanon

12 Mar

This AFP story filed on Friday March 12 describes the latest honor killing in Lebanon. It says honor crimes are rare in Lebanon but a recent report I read said around 88 had occured in a seven year period (I can’t remember where I read that so don’t quote me on that), which is 88 too many. Sadly Lebanon’s penal code grants leniency to such killers, as it does rapists, who are pardoned if they propose to their victim. The good news is that a family violence bill is in the works, which might herald a new era in how Lebanon views perpetrators of gender-based and child abuse.

BEIRUT: A Lebanese man has been arrested in northern Lebanon for killing his sister earlier this week in what authorities described as an honour killing, a security official said on Friday. “The 24-year-old victim was single and apparently had a boyfriend,” the security official told AFP. “(Her brother) admitted shooting her twice in the head to cleanse the family honour.” The woman was only identified by her initials, as was her 28-year-old brother. Her body was discovered on Tuesday on the main road of the village of Hakr al-Daheri, in the northern Akkar region. “This kind of crime is not common in Lebanon but we have a few every year,” the official said. Lebanese law stipulates extenuating circumstances for so-called honour killings, in which male relatives kill female kin they suspect of illicit behaviour with men. In 2007, Lebanon’s top Shiite Muslim cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning honour killings as repulsive acts that contradict Islamic law.

Lebanese women more likely to vote in spite of poor representation

26 Feb

Poll finds wide support for female quota
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, February 20, 2010

BEIRUT: Women in Lebanon may not seek out political leadership positions as often as men but they are potentially more likely to vote in elections, a new study has found.

Results from “The Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa Project” were released on Wednesday and Thursday to non-governmental organizations and academics, who also received training on how to use the data effectively to advocate policy change.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) carried out the study with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency as part of survey data collection in Lebanon, Morocco and Yemen.

“The general goal was to collect data on the status of women, especially in areas where there are gaps,” such as social attitudes toward policy change and women’s perceptions of themselves, said Rola Abdel-Latif, a research officer at IFES and the survey’s specialist.

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in June 2009 were widely acclaimed as the most competitive in years. Out of a total of 587 candidates, however, only 12 were women, a figure that translates into about 2 percent. Out of those 12, only four were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament. In contrast to poor political representation, the IFES/IWPR survey found women had a “slightly higher voter turnout” than men in the elections, with 80 percent saying they voted, versus 78 percent of men.

The results confirm those of a January study by the Lebanese Council of Women, which found slightly more women had gone to the ballot box than men.

“While civic engagement … is relatively limited, voting in the elections, which is a more direct form of political participation, was high for both men and women,” the survey said. It added that there was no difference in women’s participation in the elections “when looking at urban versus rural areas or when looking at voter turnout by sect.”

IFES/IWPR said improving the status of women was at the bottom of the agenda for both men and women voters, with only 13 percent of women and 8 percent of men mentioning it as one of the issues to be prioritized. Men and women both prioritized the same three factors that influence their votes: candidates who are not corrupt, services that candidates provide to their area, and candidate’s platform.

The survey also found widespread support for the adoption of a women’s political quota, Abdel-Latif said, with more than two-thirds of respondents supportive. Nevertheless, “this is in contrast to what we seen in Lebanon, where very few people actually go and vote for women,” it said.

Researchers also noted some “surprising” results, such as the fact more women (64 percent) than men (54 percent) are opposed to creating an optional civil marriage law, which would give couples the freedom to marry outside of religious establishments. “Unfortunately women are more opposed to this, even though the personal status laws in Lebanon are more against women than men,” Abdel-Latif said.

She pointed to the important role to be played by civil society organizations in raising awareness about the benefits of a civil marriage option. Currently, Lebanese can only be married by a religious authority, although Beirut does register civil marriages performed abroad.

The survey found an overwhelming majority of Lebanese, both men and women, supported reform of Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law. Lebanon’s current citizenship law allows men to pass on their nationality to non-Lebanese wives and children one year after their marriage is registered, but prohibits Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same.

The results of 82 percent of women and 73 percent of men supporting a change to the law were “pretty encouraging,” Abdel-Latif said.

Although the survey found that there was equal access to education between the genders, it also found a considerable gender gap in income. “Men who work for pay make much more money than women who work for pay,” Abdel-Latif said.

Almost six in 10 women in Lebanon make less than $500 a month, compared to 30 percent of working men.

Some 20 percent of men make more than $1,100, compared to only 7 percent of women. “There are still a lot of Lebanese women employed in traditionally feminized fields,” such as cosmetology or teaching, Abdel-Latif said.