(Conference at LAU, May 2007)
The problematic of my talk:
As a Lebanese haunted by the fate of my country, victim of forces sometimes too big and difficult to comprehend and deal with, I have been trying to understand the connection between women’s condition and the fate of Lebanon. It was the subject of one of my first books Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East (New York: NYU Press, 1990). In this paper I propose to look at the discrimination women suffer from in our part of the world, the connection it has with patriarchy, the clans, men’s domination of politics, of religion, of nature, of the earth, and how it can be articulated to the recent attack of Israel on Lebanon. I will also examine the possibility of tolerance that Lebanon holds in its multiculturality, plurality and acceptance of the other as one of the major answers and solutions to our world’s problems.
Here are some of the burning questions that came to me last summer during the war as I was trying to come to some understanding about what was going on and why. They led to the book Kathleen and I are working on:
Is there a specificity of Democracy in Lebanon?
What are the connections between the various Religions and the State?
What is the role of its Multiculturality?
Is secularism possible?
Why is Lebanese multiculturalism so difficult to accept by countries like Israel or Iran?
How does patriarchy and clans in Lebanon interact?
Is competition between various communities in Lebanon a cohesive strength for each community?
Is Patriarchy as crucial a problem to real secularism and to women’s freedom, therefore to the country’s true liberation?
How is Non-Violence connected to notions of martyrdom?
Has it been tried by certain groups and been successful?
Finally, how does the destruction of the environment belong to total war? The destruction of the Central electric of Beirut and its effects on the sea, the use of cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs and depleted uranium bombs are good examples. Like the rape, excision, beating and killing of women, the destruction of the environment means the end of the earth and of human kind.
On 9/11, the world reacted with shock and horror, and sympathy for the victims. But it is important to bear in mind that for much of the world, there was a further reaction: « Welcome to the club. » For the first time in history, a Western power was subjected to an atrocity of the kind that is all too familiar elsewhere.
Chomsky (There’s Good Reason to Fear US by Noam Chomsky 09/07/03: (Toronto Star, 2003)
«Children here find refuge in their hopes to die. The fact that death is equated to life is horrifying me. How are we going to deal with this generation in the future, how can we talk about life?»
(Message from Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, working in the Palestinian Balata camp during the Israeli raids, March 2002)
In these opening quotes, I cite a passage from an email message I received from Nadera, an extraordinary woman I met in Istanbul several years ago, she lost several people in the bombing of Kana last summer. Her lines very much sum up the place we have reached in our present world: million of children around the world hope to die, their lives offer them only despair, injustices are the order of the day… How can it go on like this? How can we go on living in such a world? The cries, tears, despair of someone as strong and beautiful as Nadera keep ringing in my ears and are haunting me day and night. How can the world remain so indifferent to those cries? Why should the tears and despair of the World Trade Towers orphans be more important than those of the Palestinian camps or of the village of Kana, or of Iraq, or of other villages in the South of Lebanon?
Despairing over the situation in Lebanon last summer, I wrote the following lines:
How to speak of you, Lebanon? How not to speak of you?
How to express the unbearable suffering when faced with destruction repeated a thousand times, more violent and crueller each time? With more capacity for total extermination of humankind each time, the earth crying out its strangulation through suffocating pollution?
How to express our earth bleeding from all its wounds?
How to find words to describe the carnage repeated ad nauseam, bodies buried under buildings smashed with fragmentation bombs, phosphorus bombs, depleted uranium bombs, all made in the USA, stones reduced to ashes, sea reduced to a pool of fuel and tar, fish and birds dying with children desperately clinging to their mothers till their last breath.
I wanted to scream to the world: « Aren’t you all Lebanese? » when the houses collapsed upon the ill-fated, innocent people of Kana, of the Dahyé and of Ba’alback, when the power plants went up in flames, when the old people were left starving to death, abandoned in the debacle, I wanted to scream: « Aren’t we all Lebanese » just like you had screamed and we had screamed with you: « We are all New Yorkers » when the towers collapsed upon the ill-fated, innocent people of New York and the sky darkened in the asphyxiating fumes and smoke, as if both reflecting and foreshadowing the bombings of Beirut !
But no one seems to be there to see the analogy, the link between all of these world’s miseries intertwined. Few people want to see; Lebanon is a small country, a tiny country geographically, yet so vast in its acceptance of diversity! Yet diversity has no meaning in a worldview where only might makes right, and what can be mightier than the USA/UK/Israel alliance?
The specificity of Democracy in Lebanon:
Lebanon is not a democracy in the Western sense of the word since Power is divided between the various communities and not between political forces with representatives elected on the choices of society. But some of its institutions hold a democratic form: an elected President, a Prime minister responsible in front of a Parliament, etc. And all the concerned parties jealously watch for the rules to be respected. We are in a constitutional State, at least in its tendency.
At the same time, each community seeks to have relations with outside powers in order to increase its own power on the internal scene. All the communities rely in one way or another on some outside support. And this is not compatible with democracy. It led to the « civil war » between 1974 and 1992. Syria’s games in Lebanon behaved less as an external power than as an occupying force.
What is paradoxical is that these communities in perpetual struggle with each others have never accepted balkanisation (cantonization) which was Israel’s aim for Lebanon. All the communities in Lebanon are Lebanist and Lebanese. They all believe in Lebanon in and for itself without which they would be nothing. Compared to Iraq or the Balkans, this is perhaps where the origin of the Constitutional state lies.
Religions and the State, Multiculturality, Secularism, Lebanon as possible example for other countries in the region, and why Lebanese multiculturalism is so difficult to accept by countries like Israel or Iran :
Lebanon, how can I speak of you, you who torment me in what is most human, most beautiful, most noble, most harmonious in me?
How can I make the plurality of my childhood places spring forth once again? How can I brandish its multi-coloured mantel of protection against the current reign of fanaticism?
Lebanon, land of the cedar and the olive tree, the orange and apple trees, the terraces of vineyards climbing the mountainside under the sun, a sun all but extinguished now, buried under the dust of pulverized homes, each flattened like a house of cards.
In that part of the world, where else but in Lebanon, do we find a political system in which the various communities are represented, power shared between all of them, cultural diversity accepted within the political institutions? Even if their representation is not equal enough, is there not a certain equilibrium between them?
The same cannot be said about Saudi Arabia where minorities, Shiites or Yemenis, are deprived of political rights and repressed in their beliefs. It could not be said either about Iraq before the invasion, a State supposedly secular in principal but whose Sunni minority insured its control, the Shiite and Kurdish population subjected to Sunni violent domination.
Lebanon, I am hurting with and for you, I hurt from all your wounds, I hurt from the fury unleashed against you. Bound and gagged, you are a hostage to geopolitical circumstances tightening their stranglehold to the point of suffocation.
Patriarchy and clans in Lebanon, the competition between various communities in Lebanon as a cohesive strength for each community. Patriarchy as crucial problem to real laicism and to women’s freedom, therefore to a country’s true liberation.
The importance of incorporating a discourse on sexuality when formulating a revolutionary feminist theory became very evident as I started analyzing and writing about the Lebanese war of 1975. The war itself seemed closely connected with the way people perceived and acted out their sense of love and power, as well as their sense of relationship to their partners, to the family and to the general society. Usually the argument has been made that women’s issues detract from the war effort, that wars create such conditions of despair that, within this context, women’s issues are unimportant, and if the « right » side in a war were to win, women’s problems would automatically be solved. I argued the reverse. I suggested that sexuality was centrally involved in motivations to war, and if women’s issues were dealt with from the beginning, wars might be avoided, and revolutionary struggles and movements for liberation would take on a very different path. Justice cannot be won in the midst of injustice. All these levels are interwoven.
I analyzed how the whole range of oppression women suffered from in the Middle East: forced marriage, virginity, and the codes of honour, claustration, the veil, polygamy, repudiation, beating, lack of freedom and the denial of the possibility to achieve their aims and desires in life–practices, some of which motivated me to run away from Lebanon at the age of twenty–were closely connected to the internal war in Lebanon (I was not referring to the Israeli and Syrian occupations, nor to the foreign interferences).
The clan and the tribe, as well as the parental structures linked to it are characteristics of the Arabo-Moslem civilization…It is very significant that the conjugal couple as a base of the social reality does not exist, but instead, groups of kinship superior to the immediate family dominate. It is also very significant that in these kinship structures, women’s condition should be extremely particular, notably in its links with the conception of honour so much valued in the society. Thus, woman’s condition in the midst of the family, enlightens all the prejudices and the commonplaces which characterize it, including the crimes of honor, the harem and the veil…1
Women’s lives are regulated not by national laws but by community ones. All legal questions related to individual status are legislated by denominational laws. Each creed has a different legislation according to its religion. For example, there is no civil marriage in Lebanon. Marriage, divorce, separation, custody of children and inheritance are resolved according to one’s confession–one’s religious denomination. Each of the group’s laws, rites, practices, psychological and sexual pressures aim at keeping their women exclusively for the men of their community. As El Khayat-Bennaï says: « Adding that inside each community, one keeps the women only for oneself and is careful not to have them taken by a rival opposing community, one would have concluded the question of the Lebanese woman. »2 This is why it seemed to me then, and still seems to me today, essential to start reforming and revolutionize such a system if we wanted a solution to the horrible war that was taking place. And this is why I felt these were such pressing issues to be dealt with at the time, and then in connection with the Gulf and Iraqi wars, and feel it is even more urgent today. If we want to reach solutions to the conflicts plaguing our world, not only for Arab society but also for the American one which holds its share of violence and oppression against women, and for most societies in the world, we need to look at these issues very carefully.
Israel, Patriarchy and Women
The implications of patriarchy on the status/fate of women are well known. They have been denounced for centuries: rapes, crimes of honour, condemnation of women to silence, political exclusion, etc. The most astonishing is that in spite of this long time denunciation, the same attitudes, the same behaviour keep on going as if nothing had happened; the same discourse is being held as if it was self-evident. When a woman, foreign to a patriarchal group, protests, she is told that she does not understand anything about tribal honour, and that, consequently, her words have no weight. She is immediately disqualified. It is therefore evident that the value of honour is being questioned, it is this value which must be questioned by women, must be criticized and abolished. But how? Look at the actions of women in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
The colonial/colonialist powers have always leaned on the traditional customs of the dominated societies, in particular of patriarchal institutions. These institutions, weakened by the ideals of liberty and of liberation were opened to collaboration. Israel pursued such a strategy in the Middle East; we know the efforts that were deployed in Iraq to encourage ethnic-confessional fragmentation. In Lebanon, Israel tried twice such political strategy, in the eighties and recently in 2006. There was a will to divide Lebanon according to its ethnic-confessional communities. Twice the failure to do so was obvious. The Lebanese communities are, we have already said it, too Lebanist to accept such a division.
Did the failure in dividing the country into communities reinforce patriarchal institutions? This is not sure at all; “total” war against Lebanon encouraged, in a certain way, stronger ties between the various communities beyond community institutions, therefore to the formation of a civil society beyond communities.
The struggle of women against Lebanese patriarchal institutions takes place in particularly complex conditions; only practice will allow us to define its theory.
And the women, the women from Kana, the women from Jenine, the women from Ba’albak, the women from Gaza, the women from Rafah, the women from Dahiyé, the women from Baghdad, the women from Fallujah, some whose menstruation ceased from the shock, others who bled to death, Nadera writes us from Palestine. An analysis of their lives illustrates the rejection of war and of violence; they refuse the form of death foisted upon them and on their future children. They are afraid of this warrior’s world, afraid of the prevailing machismo ready to bleed them dry, afraid to give birth to monsters capable of perpetuating the carnage.
How can we open the eyes of the world’s powerful men to a non-warrior answer to our planet’s woes?
And the women and men from the Civil Resistance: Ayse, Rasha, Huwaida, Samah, Wadih, Rania, and all the others, all the courageous people of Lebanon, and all the others who came from all over the world to join this event; they met at the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, as shells exploded within earshot, to form a peace march that was to make its way to the South with truck loads of food and medicine, with messages of resistance and support to the population of the South decimated by war. In the end, they were not allowed through but their message will triumph because it is in the heart of all the Lebanese who believe in this hope!
Communities and individuals :
Communities are the necessary intermediaries between the Individual and the State. Each community is in reality a mini-State with its own civil laws (inheritance, civil state, marriage, etc.), so much so that the Lebanese State is almost a Federal one, while on the other hand, individuals are in some way prisoners of their communities from which they cannot free themselves.
But there is Ras-Beirut, a space where individuals from various communities co-exist and mix. Ras-Beirut is not separated from the territories of communities; it is their meeting space. A real pluri-ethnic space, secular, has constituted itself and finds its origin in movements aspiring to be deconfessionalized or decommunitarized in Lebanon. In the great period preceding the “civil war”, and, again during these last years, Ras-Beirut has been the place of inter-community manifestations claiming their independence from Syria and later, in 2006, to maintaining privileged relations with Syria and Iran. Ras-Beirut is the space where one learns ethnic mixity, the going beyond communities.
Inside each community exists therefore a tension between closing oneself into the group and aspiring to the liberation of the individual. Some communities seem to be more open than others; the Druze one for example.
Women’s status is linked to the power of patriarchal institutions. “Civil War” we had been told, had contributed to undo certain patriarchal constraints. They must have been re-established in strength since then. Is the Shiite community an exception to it? In spite of being the most marked religiously, the status of women might be the least tight, consequence of Shiism?
Notions of martyrdom, non-violence, actions taken by certain groups of women. (To prepare and conduct war is to play the game of Western and Israëli warmongers. Non-violence thraws them off, they don’t know how to react to it !) :
Since time immemorial, the notion of non-violence pervades the consciousness of the people from this part of the world. Gandhi’s forms of non-violence are in fact very close to the concept of martyrdom as expressed in the Iranian revolution. The form of martyrdom that drove Iranian Shiites to overcome imperial dictatorship consisted of bearing witness to truth and justice by their deaths. It meant negating within themselves, even unto death, what constitutes the power of the oppressor. It meant exposing the illusion on which injustice is founded, and which gets perpetuated through the compromise of its citizens; to refuse compromise disarms power. Power is powerless in front of non-violence; non-violence overcomes power.
A call to those willing to listen!!
The study of martyrdom is loaded with present day relevance ; it has recently been the subject of numerous articles, but has mostly attracted Islamologists rarely aware of its significance outside their specialty. A conference took place in Paris, March 2006, at the FMSH on Martyrdom and suicide in Contemporary Islam, a highly political topic where Moslem jurists debated if Moslem martyrs blowing themselves up were martyrs or committing suicide? No reference was made to either Christian or Jewish martyrdom nor to the anthropoligical connection between non-violence and martyrdom.
In Islam the official religious doctrine whether Shiite or Sunni is the same : the one who dies while fighting for Faith, Truth, is a martyr (see The Concept Of Martyrdom In Islam Ezzati, Tehran University, Al-Serat, Vol XII (1986), reproduced by the Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.). In reality, as Paul Vieille has shown in his analysis of the Popular Discourse of the Iranian Revolution (Paris : Contemporanéité, 1990), one must distinguish between representations of martyrdom in Institutional Islam and popular beliefs. In popular discourse, the martyr is a witness of Truth through his own death. He is a martyr because the acceptance of death testifies the Truth of his word, his death is the seal of Truth. Truth is justice (haqh) as « people » conceive it.
Such a representation of martyrdom immediately reminds us of non-violence as Gandhi defined it. He said :
« Satyâgraha means the strength of truth. I have also called it the strength of the soul or of love. While practicing Satyâgraha, I discovered that the search for truth did not use violence against one’s enemy; one needed to convince him of his mistakes through patience and sympathy : because what might appear as truth to one could mean error to the other. And patience implies personal suffering. … Therefore one defends truth not through making one’s enemy suffer but in suffering oneself. »
The parallel between martyrdom as conceived by the Shiite people and non-violence according to Gandhi is remarkable. In both cases no violence is exercised on the contested institutions. The contestant turns violence against himself while refusing to accept and apply unfair institutions, no matter how much such position might cost him. In his refusal, he can go as far as accepting to die!
The becoming of Lebanon in the Machrek:
Lebanon is an unusual State in the Mashrek. It is a small State, divided into communities, without strong military tradition, possessing if not a democratic culture in the real sense of the word, at least a culture, it is a place attractive to all of the Mashrek, with many lively Universities, a relatively free press, an intense cultural activity and a society which exhibits its democratic aspirations.
All the world and regional powers want to control it. It is sometimes criticized for its “Westernization”, its exteriority in relation to the Mashrek; but it is a space where one can breath in a region which stifles with its dictatorships, its religious radicalism, etc. The critique of « westernization » is an argument dating back to the time of decolonisation. Who could wish for Lebanon the fate of Iran or of Syria, of Saudi Arabia or of Egypt ? Certainly not the populations of these countries ! But the established powers in the region consider it as a dangerous example. At the beginning of the « civil war » when some were promising to liberate the whole Mashrek, Saudi Arabia was quite worried …
The example of Lebanon is situated in this form without form represented by its social and state system, its capacity to mix what does not seem possible to do. The example of Lebanon is the reconciliation of its apparent contradictions, its mixity and blending. And its examplary strength is exercised over the whole Arabo-Islamic world for which it represents an original way to « modernization ».
What can save Lebanon and what has probably saved it until now from an annexation from one or the other sides, is probably the multiplicity of interests, the concurent appetites it creates.
Agir au Liban, l’agir des Libanais
La lutte du Hezbollah contre Israël a été violente. Pour la première fois apparemment, une armée arabe – au demeurant peu nombreuse et peu sophistiquée – a mis en échec la puissante machine de guerre israélienne. Ce qu’il faut bien appeler une défaite israélienne (sans être une victoire du Hezbollah), n’en a pas fini de retentir sur les rapports dans la région.
On doit cependant souligner qu’existe au Liban une tradition de résistance non-violente. Dans le chiisme lui-même.
On peut en effet distinguer le martyre dans l’islam institutionnel, et le martyre dans les représentations et croyances du peuple chiite. De cette conception populaire, la révolution iranienne a été révélatrice. Le martyr y témoignait par sa mort même de la Vérité. A la différence de l’islam institutionnel, le martyre n’y était pas attesté par la Vérité (l’islam) pour laquelle la mort est acceptée, le martyre atteste par l’acceptation de la mort de la Vérité de sa parole, sa mort elle-même est le sceau de la Vérité. Différence essentielle qui renvoie la Vérité non pas à une instance extérieure (l’islam, l’interprétation légitime des textes sacrés) mais au sujet lui-même. La Vérité est la justice (haqh) telle que les « gens » la concoivent.
Le parallélisme entre la martyre dans la conception du peuple chi’ite et la non-violence selon Gandhi est remarquable. Dans les deux cas aucune violence n’est exercée sur les représentants des institutions contestées. Le contestant se retourne contre lui-même, exerce une violence contre lui-même en refusant d’accepter/appliquer les institutions injustes quoiqu’il puisse lui en coüter. Dans ce refus, il va jusqu’à accepter la mort.
Que le principe de la lutte non-violente puisse être appliqué dans la résistance à Israël peut se discuter. On veut seulement souligner ici l’existence d’une culture autochtone de la non-violence.
Les femmes libanaises dans leurs luttes ont proné et utilisé des formes non violentes.
Ecology and the environment, destruction of the environment belongs to total war (the destruction of the Central electric of Beirut and its effects on the sea, the use of cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs and depleted uranium bombs are good examples). Like the rape, excision, beating and killing of women, the destruction of the environment means the end of the earth and of human :
Israêl, le patriarcat et les femmes
Les implications du patriarcat sur le sort/statut des femmes est bien connu. Elles sont dénoncées depuis des décennies : viols, crimes d’honneur, condamnation des femmes au silence, exclusion du politique, etc. Le plus étonnant est que malgrè l’ancienneté des dénonciations, les mêmes attitudes, les mêmes conduites se perpétuent comme si de rien était; le même discours se tient comme s’il allait d’évidence. Lorsqu’une femme étrangère au groupement patriarcal proteste, elle se voit répondre qu’elle ne comprend rien à l’honneur tribal, et que ses paroles en conséquence ne peuvent avoir de portée. Elle est d’emblée disqualifiée. C’est donc bien la valeur d’honneur qui est en cause, c’est cette valeur qui doit être mise en cause par les femmes, doit être critiquée et abolie. Comment? Voir les actions des femmes au Liban, en Jordanie et ailleurs.
Les puissances coloniales/colonisatrices se sont constamment appuyées sur les instances traditionnelles des sociétés dominées, en particulier sur les institutions patriarcales. Ces institutions affaiblies par les idéaux de liberté et de libération étaient ouvertes à la collaboration. Israêl a poursuivi une telle stratégie au Proche Orient; on sait les efforts déployés en Irak pour favoriser la fragmentation ethnico-confessionnelles. Au Liban, par deux fois, Israël a tenté une politique semblable, dans les années 1980 et récemment en 2006. La volonté était de cantoniser le Liban en fonction des communautés ethnico-confessionnelles. Par deux fois l’échec a été patent. Les communautés libanaises sont, on l’a dit, trop libanistes pour accepter la division.
On peut par contre se poser cette question : la stratégie militaire israélienne n’avait-elle pas pour objet de favoriser la cantonisation ? La destruction de l’ensemble des infrastructures du Liban, alors que la guerre eut pu se limiter à la lutte contre le Hezbollah, avait pour objet de désolidariser les communuautés sunnites, chrétiennes et druzes des chiites.
L’échec des tentatives de division a-t-il cependant renforcé les institutions patriarcales ? Ce n’est pas certain; la « guerre totale » menée contre le Liban a favorisé les relations entre communuatés au delà des institutions communautaires, et donc la formation d’une société civile dépassant les communautés.
La lutte des femmes contre les institutions patriarcales libanaises se pose donc dans des conditions particulièrement complexes; seule l’a pratique pourra contribuer en en définir la théorie.
1El Khayat-Bennaï, Le monde arabe au féminin (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1985) pp. 56-57.
2El Khayat-Bennaï, op. cit., p. 244.