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The writing is on the wall for Lebanon’s government

13 Apr

Lebanon may have escaped the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, but the country’s ruling classes seem illiterate to its main message: that conceited rulers who do little to assist ordinary people in their daily quest for dignity will one day face their wrath.  

Compared to elsewhere in the region, things look calm in tiny Lebanon. But underneath the photo-shopped veneer promoted by the Ministry of Tourism lies a steadily boiling pot of despair and ruin.

Today marks the 37th anniversary of the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. In 15 years of horrific violence, up to 300,000 people were killed and 17,000 are still considered missing. Lebanon never had a truth and justice commission and ignored its international obligations to investigate the whereabouts of the missing. Instead, it introduced a sweeping amnesty law in 1990, which allowed many militia leaders to return to Lebanese politics as ministers. Their sectarian grievances now mostly play out in Parliament, but followers of their personality cults occasionally still fight it out on the streets or on television. Because of the constant political bickering, issues of critical importance to the nation are being left to rot, quite literally.

An on-going scandal has exposed a number of factories selling meat products years past their sell-by dates to the country’s supermarkets and restaurants. Only a few arrests have been made, however, and commentators are pessimistic that government pledges for a full investigation will translate to meaningful action.

In January, a residential building in Beirut collapsed suddenly, killing 27 people. This was followed by several other collapses, including a school wall, which crushed three pupils to death. But despite the urgency for new building regulations, the government is doing little to prevent further similar catastrophes, choosing only to demolish one bridge experts have been warning might buckle for years.

The country’s list of woes goes on and on. Migrant workers not protected by Lebanon’s labour law are committing suicide at startling rates and Lebanese women continue to struggle against institutionalised discrimination and misogyny. Lebanon’s overcrowded prisons have been described as tinderboxes teetering ever closer to disaster, as have the country’s landfills. The worst one, in the Southern city of Sidon, regularly collapses, dumping tonnes of hospital and chemical waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Gas and food prices have steadily increased over the last few months, making it virtually impossible for Lebanese living on the minimum wage (around £280) to make ends meet. To add insult to injury, Lebanon endures mandatory daily electricity cuts, ranging from three hours in the capital to around 12 hours daily in rural areas.

If this Sisyphean list of problems isn’t enough to stir the Lebanese leadership to action, one might think the crisis in Syria, which is slowing seeping its way across the border, would. Earlier this week Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban was shot dead, allegedly by Syrian soldiers, while on assignment near the border. There is frequent sectarian fighting between pro- and anti-Assad supporters in North Lebanon and the number of Syrians (mostly women now since Syria has placed a ban on all men between 18-40 years leaving the country) seeking refuge in Lebanon from the violence is growing steadily.

And yet, with all this trouble mounting, what does the Lebanese government choose to focus on? It is currently prosecuting a graffiti artist by the name of Semaan Khawwam, for  “disturbing the peace” after he was caught spray-painting figures holding big guns.

Use of graffiti is widespread in the Lebanese capital. In the absence of a coherent protest movement, street art is increasingly being used to convey people’s grievances with the state, whether it be over the lack of a marital rape clause in the criminal code, widespread corruption, drink-driving, or high unemployment.

Khawwam’s soldier-like figure doesn’t clearly attack any person or institution, so it remains a mystery to many why his case is being pursued out of many thousand possibilities. More importantly, graffiti art is not actually illegal under Lebanese law. Yet he faces a fine and possibly three months in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Adel Houmani, made an important point when he questioned the legitimacy of the case: “If this artistic work is vandalism,” he told Al Akhbar newspaper, “then what do we say about the photos of leaders that are posted everywhere, in addition to all the random posters and ads?”

The case against Khawwam shows just how muddled the logic of Lebanon’s leadership is. This is a country where politicians struggle to identify the country’s most basic priorities, mainly because their priorities are to stay in power, leading luxurious lifestyles deeply out of touch with most of their constituents.

The writing, it would seem, is on the wall. It’s not only Lebanon’s meat, fish and poultry that is way past its expiry date- its leaders are too.

NOTE: The travel ban on Syrian men has now been rescinded.
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Cluster Bombs: The weapon that keeps on killing

12 Sep

By Dalila Mahdawi

A deminer with MAG searches for buried cluster munitions in Kfar Joz village in South Lebanon. Credit: Dalila Mahdawi/IPS.

KFAR JOZ, South Lebanon, Sep 12, 2011 (IPS) – Even in the summer heat, the hills of South Lebanon are an impressive sight – a patchwork of green, brown and red fields interrupted only by sleepy villages, rock formations and dirt tracks.

Most residents here have traditionally depended on agriculture to provide for their families. But instead of sowing crops or herding their flocks through the grassy terrain, for the last five years locals have viewed the surrounding hills with caution. Lurking in these fields are hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions, silently waiting to claim their next victim.

“Every day we find cluster bombs in between the houses and in the fields,” says Ali Shuaib, community liaison manager at the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organisation clearing landmines and other remnants of war in Lebanon. “There are tens of villages like this all over the South.”

Although Lebanon has been plagued by landmines since its 1975-1990 civil war and subsequent Israeli occupation, it faced unprecedented contamination levels from cluster munitions after Israel launched a 34-day war in July 2006. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s use of the weapons was the most extensive anywhere in the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

In the last 72 hours of fighting, at a time when the United Nations Security Council had adopted Resolution 1701 calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, Israel dropped more than four million cluster bombs over South Lebanon. Of those, at least forty percent failed to explode upon impact, according to the UN, becoming de facto landmines across Lebanon’s agricultural heartland.

These are the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare; 95 percent of all victims of cluster munitions are civilians, according to the NGO Handicap International. Since the cessation of hostilities five years ago, 408 Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions, 115 of them under 18 years old. Unless properly disposed of, the weapons keep killing and maiming for decades.

Cluster munitions continue to wreak havoc on the Lebanese economy, too. With an estimated 36 percent of contaminated land being used for agricultural purposes, the already deprived South Lebanon has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in income, says Major Pierre Bou Maroun, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Regional Mine Action Centre in Nabatieh, which oversees all demining operations in the country. In 2007 alone, Lebanon lost an estimated 126.8 million dollars in agricultural revenue because of cluster munitions.

Israel’s use of the weapon in Lebanon helped galvanise an international ban in May 2007, when 107 countries voted for the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of all forms of cluster munitions. It also requires countries to clear contaminated areas within 10 years, destroy supplies within eight years and provide assistance to victims.

Lebanon was among the first countries to sign the convention in December 2008 and although it only entered into force in May this year, officials have been keen to take an international leadership role on its implementation. This week Beirut hosts the second international meeting of states parties to the Convention. Delegates from over 110 governments, UN and other international organisations will attend the week-long conference along with survivors of cluster munitions to discuss how to further advance the Convention’s obligations.

The meeting “is a golden opportunity for Lebanon,” says Haboubba Aoun, one of Lebanon’s representative members of the Cluster Munition Coalition and International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and a member of Lebanon’s National Committees on Risk Education and Victim Assistance. “We hope the people of the world will take a closer look at the cluster bomb problem in Lebanon and decide to continue supporting clearance activities and victim assistance activities.”

Clearance teams have made formidable progress in Lebanon despite almost continuous funding concerns. “We have 2,259 well-known minefields” in addition to thousands of other contaminated areas, says Bou Maroun. Some 1,578 minefields have been now been cleared and returned to residents, but 22 million square metres of contaminated land remains. This figure does not include heavily contaminated areas along the so-called Blue Line border area between Lebanon and Israel, whose clearance has been left to the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

“Our vision is a Lebanon free from cluster bombs, land mines and explosive remnants of war,” Bou Maroun tells IPS. With sufficient funding and support, he says Lebanon could be cleared of cluster munitions by 2016. Following international pressure, Israel provided the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with maps showing the areas it targeted with cluster munitions. But, says Bou Maroun, as these maps do not show the coordinates of those targets, they are merely “papers for the trash”.

Mine clearance is painstakingly slow and dangerous work. Deminers sent to the field must abide by strict regulations and are flanked by ambulance and medics. “It’s a calculated risk,” says Daniel Redelinghuys, MAG’s Technical Operations Manager. Two MAG deminers have lost their lives and 18 have been injured in the five years since hostilities ceased, he adds. The LAF and other clearance organisations have also experienced considerable losses.

Yet the possibility of an accident doesn’t deter Hussein Tabaja, a mine clearance site supervisor with MAG. “You’re working for your country,” he says with a shrug. “When you see the faces of people after you have cleared their land, you see how many people you have helped, who can go back and use their fields again, it makes you happy. Sometimes during the holidays I actually miss coming to work.”

While there is growing international support for a universal ban, there remains staunch opposition from the world’s biggest producers, traders or users of cluster munitions, such as Israel, China and the U.S., who have not signed the Convention. As recently as late August, Handicap International censured Israel for laying fresh landmines along the border of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

And for many, any international ban will come too late. “I wish I could change my leg and get a new one,” says 12-year-old Mohammad Abd al-Aal, who has been left with a prosthetic leg after stepping on a cluster bomblet while herding his family’s goats. (END)

27 Jul

Wanted: Women for Lebanon’s Cabinet (op/ed)

25 Jul

A woman-free zone: Lebanon's new Cabinet comprised entirely of men (AFP)

Beirut, LEBANON:In 1776, the first lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, wrote a letter to her husband John and to Congress, imploring her countrymen not to overlook women’s interests. “Remember the ladies,” she urged, adding with considerable defiance: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

More than 230 years later and thousands of miles away in tiny Lebanon, Adam’s words have gained renewed urgency. In mid-June, after five months of intense negotiations, Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally unveiled his new Cabinet. Not one of his 30 appointees is a woman.

“Women hold up half the sky,” as the Chinese proverb goes, but in many parts of the world they are still being forgotten by the governments that are supposed to represent them.

While the absence of women from political life is typical in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Lebanese women have enjoyed at least symbolic representation in their government since being given the right to vote in 1952. Before the previous government was brought down in January, there were two women in the Cabinet, holding the finance and state portfolios, and four women among 128 parliamentarians. Though this amounts to a paltry 3.1 percent, most activists were optimistic it would, in time, gradually increase.

If being deprived a share of the Cabinet wasn’t bad enough for Lebanese women, their role in society has been further called into question by the disappointing comments of the country’s most senior Sunni leader. Grand Mufti Mohammad Qabbani recently condemned efforts to introduce legislation protecting women from domestic violence as a Western plot against Muslim family values.

These seem like strange words indeed when one recalls Lebanese citizen Charles Malik’s pioneering role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document firmly committed to ending gender discrimination and one that the Lebanese have enshrined in their Constitution. Mr. Qabbani seems to have overlooked the fact that Lebanon helped articulate those very values he now accuses of being foreign and which many other Muslim leaders would call an integral part of their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the masculinization of Lebanon’s government is just the latest in a string of major blows to women’s political participation in the Arab world as a whole.

Women were at the helm of the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, but only one has been appointed to the new 27-member Cabinet in Cairo and plans for a woman’s quota introduced last year have been abandoned. In Tunisia, where women formerly held over a quarter of parliamentary seats, they head only two of 31 ministries now. Developments in Lebanon thus may well herald the beginning of retrogressive steps on women’s rights throughout the region.

This apparent sleepwalking backwards increasingly goes against the grain of global attitudes towards women, whose participation in decision-making is now an internationally recognized marker of social progress and is on the rise every year.

The United Nations has, since 2000, led initiatives to mainstream women’s active role in the public life of their countries, issuing several resolutions in this regard. Lebanon should embrace its historical role as a defender of human rights and implement those resolutions in good faith.

Without women, Lebanon’s political jigsaw puzzle is glaringly incomplete and calls for transformative change will go unanswered. As one local group put it recently, “How can we arrive at social justice for all when we exclude half of society in the decision-making process?”

Women must become an integral part of decision-making bodies if Lebanon and other Arab countries want to enjoy real democracy and truly serve the needs and aspirations of their people.

The political participation of women is a matter of justice, not a privilege they should have to fight for. The sisters of Abigail Adams should not have to wait any longer for their rights to be recognized.

Prisons See Institutionalised Injustice

18 Jul

In April, the biggest prison riot in Lebanese history broke out in Roumieh penitentiary,  prompting relatives of inmates to protest conditions inside [EPA]By Dalila Mahdawi

When Joanna Bailey (not her real name), a British journalist formerly based in Lebanon, became the victim of a sexual assault in Beirut, she sought help at a local police station. As she was giving her statement, the police dragged her assailant into the room. The man had been beaten up, and was subjected to further violence in front of her.

“One of the officers took off his belt and began beating him with it for what felt like ten minutes.” When Bailey asked the officers to stop, “they said it was the only way he would learn,” she recalls.

“After that they made him strip down to his underwear in front of me and jog on the spot for about 30 minutes.” Bailey left feeling not only profoundly disturbed by the assault on her, but distressed at the extrajudicial punishment meted out to her attacker.

Such stories of ritual humiliation, mistreatment and beatings are familiar to many detainees in Lebanon. A lack of training and poor human rights awareness among police officers means many turn to violence to obtain confessions from suspects.

According to a report released earlier this year by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), around 60 percent of detainees experience some form of torture or mistreatment. One death as a result of torture was recorded in 2010, the report said.

Those suspected of espionage, drug dealing and religious extremism are most likely to be subjected to abuse by the police. All this takes place in a culture of impunity, says Wadih Al-Asmar, secretary- general of CLDH: “Police officers are not well trained and there is no real accountability. In the very few cases that have been investigated, the results remain confidential.”

Prison conditions are just as bleak as those at police stations, with inmates being locked away without trial for years in grossly overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. With almost no rehabilitation services available, most prisoners spend their days confined to their cells, chain-smoking, chatting and, when tempers flare, fighting.

In the last three years, 400 people arrested on security charges have been subjected to procedure violations that made their detention arbitrary, the CLDH report found.

“It’s a disaster,” says Ghassan Moukheiber, an MP who heads the Lebanese Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and who has produced a detailed report on prison reform. “The situation is dire. I qualify prisons as fitting into the following categories – bad, very bad or inhumane. The prison conditions are themselves equal to torture, cruel and degrading treatment.”

Lebanon’s 20 prisons can officially hold 3,653 inmates, but in 2010 provided an uncomfortable abode to some 5,324 prisoners, an earlier CLDH report found. Roumieh, Lebanon’s biggest men’s prison, built with a maximum capacity of 1,500 inmates, held about 3,500. According to Moukheiber, with the exception of Roumieh, none of Lebanon’s prisons were built specifically as penitentiaries.

Lebanon is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as its Optional Protocol, but has not yet fulfilled its obligation to establish a National Preventative Mechanism against torture. It is also several years overdue in submitting a report to the Convention’s Committee on the measures it is taking to implement the treaty.

In a damning 2009 report to the Lebanese government by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the body which overlooks prison administration, two-thirds of all prisoners were found to be awaiting sentencing. Around 250 foreign prisoners remained in prison after completing their sentences, largely due to deportation complications, Rifi said.

Most were imprisoned for lacking the necessary paperwork to remain in Lebanon and included a number of refugees and asylum seekers.

With minimal funding being allocated to penitentiaries, Moukheiber told IPS that the Lebanese state was failing to provide prisoners with the vital rehabilitation, health and educational services they needed in order to reintegrate back into society.

But despite the gloomy outlook, criminologist Omar Nashabe insists slow improvements are under way. The number of inmates at Roumieh has fallen, he says. “That’s a big step forward because it allows the prison administration to better control the prison.”

However, basic services and security remain problematic. Prisoners often have to undertake hunger strikes or other extreme measures in order to access medical care, and escape attempts are frequent.

In April, Roumieh saw one of the biggest prison riots in Lebanese history. Prisoners were able to break down doors and take control of much of the prison in a stand-off which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Although the government has allocated five million dollars to refurbish the prison, Nashabe admits the figure won’t even cover repair costs. “Some of the doors inside the prison are still without locks and there are still problems with electricity and water.”

Nevertheless, Nashabe says that the riot prompted the Lebanese judicial authorities to be more flexible with incarceration as a pre-trial measure and punishment. A five-year plan to transfer management of the prisons from the ISF to a specialised body within the Justice Ministry is also under way, he says.

But according to Moukheiber, “it is not a panacea just to switch prison administration from one ministry to another. The appropriate solution is much more complex,” involving a string of measures, including building new facilities, improving access to healthcare, rehabilitation services and legal aid, and specialised training of prison staff and judges.

For many prisoners, such improvements will come too late. Twenty-seven year-old Marwan (not his real name) has been in prison for two years awaiting sentencing for drug dealing. “It’s unacceptable that I haven’t been sentenced yet,” he told IPS via a smart phone he’d managed to smuggle behind bars.

The police “haven’t got any evidence against me, only testimonies from a few people.” Marwan, who hasn’t yet been able to meet with a lawyer, says he expects to be incarcerated “at least another three years.” (END)

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.