A Retrospective of a Lebanese Arab Feminist Intellectual and Activist, by Evelyne Accad

My engagement to women’s causes over the past fifty years has driven my travel, research, teaching, singing and writing. I interviewed women all over the Maghreb and Mashreq. I discussed the role of women in the literature of these countries, attended and participated in major conferences with women at the helm of many movements for the emancipation of women in societies where women are subjected to many laws and customs that impede their most basic freedoms. I would like to assess the current climate in relation to the role of Arab women and their emancipation, report on my experiences with women and women’s movements encountered during my research trips, activities, writing, singing and being committed to feminist and humanitarian causes.

Some of the questions I have been asked to answer are:

– Has there been any progress in the women’s movements?

** I feel it is going backward given the violence and wars in the world, women and their movements are going backward.

– Where are we at presently? What has become of feminism?

            ** Many intellectuals and thinkers believe that women’s movement will save the world which is in such a bad shape presently; movements like “Metoo” or “balance to porc” as well as the election of an amazing number of women to the US congress, do present real hope, but these are just a drop in the ocean faced with the real oppression of most women we witness around the world.

– What is the role of literature in analyzing women’s issues?

** Eversince my PhD thesis, I have used literature to analyze women’s issues. I believe literature is the most complete domain as it deals with all the others combined (politics, sociology, religion, philosophy, arts, etc.)

– Can you tell us about your journey from Beirut to the United States? How was it initiated? Did you meet any resistance to the idea of doing a PhD in the States? How did you negotiate the various contradictions characterizing your location both here and there?

**  I left Lebanon at the age of 19 as I did not want an arranged marriage and wanted to find out who I was. I applied at various colleges in the States and got a small scholarship and grant-in aid at Anderson College in Indiana. I worked on Middle East airlines to earn my trip going there and reached New York with only 5$ in my pocket. I used to go around playing music to earn pocket money. It is my move to another country and continent which gave me awareness about being Arab and more of a feeling for the abused and down-trodden (like the Palestinian) an awareness I already had before. At first it was not easy to live the various contradictions of belonging to different cultures but with time and maturity, I see it more as an advantage.

– What are your reflections on how you (and your work) are “labelled”? Are you an Arab-American, a Lebanese-American, a Francophone and/or a Lebanese writer? How would you assess the impact of these labels on how your work is/was received? Any specific examples and episodes you can share?

** I would say I have all these identities : Arab, Lebanese, American, Swiss, Francophone, etc., and I see the grafting and mixing of these identities as positive and not negative, enrichement rather than conflict. I like Andrée Chedid’s writing on these issues and I make her analysis mine. I once told her how I felt inadequate about using anglicism when expressing myself. She replied : « mais c’est très bien, tu aères la langue » !

– What are the main elements mediating the relationship between literature and resistance to violence? How are these elements reflected in your own work?

** One of the major studies I did and published is called « Sexuality and War : Literary Masks of the Middle East. » In it I analyse the literature of men and women during the war in Lebanon and I compare their writings and what they say about the subjects of sexuality, gender roles and violence. I found that both men and women writers have similar views on their male or female protagonists in the novels. One of my propositions was that if men and women developed different attitudes in their relationships such as love, equal sharing, tenderness, regard for the other rather than possession and exclusiveness at the expense of the other, society could change and the world could become and more liveable place.

– What is your connection with place in general, and with cities in particular? How did Beirut and Paris (also Illinois, Tunisia, etc.), for instance, impact your work and your thinking about place and identity? 

** I love cities and I have a special connection to Beirut, Paris, Chicago, Tunis, etc., all the places I have lived in extensively. I have written at greater length about these places in my novels and studies. 

– A number of North African writers, including Driss Chraibi, Albert Memmi, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Marguerite Taos-Amrouche, see their relationship with different languages and cultures as a source of cultural alienation and psychological fragmentation. How did/does your living between cultures and languages impact your critical and creative writing?

** The writers you mention, specially the male writers have written about the alienation they feel having to speak in several languages and having to navigate between them, never sitting on one chair but in between two chairs. They talk about having to destroy the language of the oppressor (see Kateb Yacine for example), etc etc. I prefer Andrée Chedid’s vision (as mentioned before) who sees the grafting of various identities and languages as something positive and gratifying !

– What is the link between your experience of pain and your feelings of urgency regarding political activism and the need to create spaces of healing?

** It was my feeling of injustice that led me to run away from my condition of woman in Lebanon and the hurt and pain I have felt while reading about their oppression around the world, specialy in my place of the world, led me to write about them in both creation and studies. And it was this feeling of pain at the suffering I was reading about or witnessing during my research trips which led me to see that academic activities around these issues was not enough, they needed to be transformed into activism, and this is when I joined my sister in her efforts to create a center for abused women which became Beit el Hanane.

– Can you identify some of the links between your writing, music, and activism?

** Music has a power of persuation which talking, writing or analyzing does not have. I would like to tell you about an experience I had at one of the African studies association meeting in Michigan where my song on excision in the evening had a much greater impact than all the speeches done during the day !

– Has there been any progress in the women’s movements?

– Where are we at presently? What has become of feminism?

– What of the role of literature in analyzing women’s issues?

– Where do you locate your work vis-à-vis feminism?

– How has your scholarly trajectory shaped your creative writing and vice versa?

Political and Social Context:

Recent years have seen dramatic changes in the Arab world.  9/11 was followed by the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by American forces, the fall of Saddam Hussein, Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and most recently, citizen revolts in Arab countries against their tyrant leaders.  

The revolts began with a lot of hope the day a young Tunisian set himself on fire in protest at the injustices of his country.  They continued on to Egypt in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak dictatorship then spurred on similar revolts in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Syria. These uprisings, often referred to as the « Arab Spring » for the newness and hope that they seemed to bring with their demands for more democracy, freedom and justice for the people, for the fall of tyrannical regimes and the corruption that plagues our societies became uncontrollable storms, hurricanes and now total chaos.  

There’s been a rise in all kinds of fanaticisms like the return to Sharia law (Islamic law -disastrous for women) the persecution of minorities, the return of religious wars, the infiltration of Al-Qaidah and Salafist movements in groups that were protesting peacefully secularly and democratically, the chaos of Iraq propagated itself in the surrounding countries.  

What has become of women in the aftermath of these steady “spring showers” transformed into relentless “thunderstorms”?  What has been their role in these revolts and what is their place now? What are they communicating to us through their struggles and demands? Can we envision other means of escape from the crises we face?

Women’s Involvement:

            In December 2010, I was involved with many feminists from around the world at a conference organized in honor of Nawal el Saadawi, woman of courage and vision, whose commitment to the cause of women’s writings and novels studies have influenced and continue to influence an entire generation in the Arab world. We could sense in a tangible way a societal uneasiness expressed by dissatisfaction with government corruption, suffocating pollution from which many participants departed sick, and a fatigue mingled in with the hope these women had.  One of the conclusions of the conference was that women’s rights were severely threatened, even inexistent in some places, and that we would have to work tirelessly to advance these rights, often changing laws in order to enforce them.

            Shortly after the revolt began in Tunisia, it extended to Egypt, and then it spread to other Arab countries.  The leaders / tyrants of these countries (as in Tunisia and Egypt) were forced to flee, with the exception of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, NATO and Western countries compelling them by force of arms and violence to abdicate.

            In all these revolts, women took on remarkable roles as they participated actively in organizing marches and citizens’ movements, and came forward as candidates for election.  Even Nawal el Saadawi, aged 80, participated in the sit-in of Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the movement was born, place of peaceful resistance.  In fact a few years ago, she even ran as a presidential candidate to break up the hegemony of Mubarak’s single party and try to change the system. El Saadawi is considered the “Simone de Beauvoir” of the Arab world because she was the first to reveal the deplorable conditions that women faced (see in particular the books that made ​​her famous, written in Arabic, translated into several languages.  In her book, « Al Wal Mar’ah wal gins « ( » Women and Sexuality « ) she denounced female circumcision – which she suffered from, polygamy, the veil, repudiation, and all kinds of other abuse women in our countries suffer from.  Her book, « Al Mar’ah Inda Niktat el Sifir » translated as « Women at Point Zero », tells the tragic story of a woman in Egypt calling into question the whole of society. Her books were banned and censored. El Saadawi was driven from her work in Egypt as a doctor with the Ministry of Health. It was in the seventies.  She found refuge in Lebanon, where her books were reprinted and became bestsellers.

            As Georges Corm expressed: “It should be reminded that the feminist movement in the Arab world began before the modern European drive to acknowledge equal rights to women. Names as Hoda Shaaroui and many others have entered history with Nawal Saadaoui being today an icon of political and feminine activism. Shaaraoui herself was both a feminine activist and a vibrant nationalist. Nowadays Saadoui activism is centered on fighting State dictatorship in Egypt. Many Arab women in Egypt and Tunis fought for their political and economic rights during the early past century. Remarkable is also the participation of men like Kassem Amin & Mansour Fahmy in Egypt, Abdallah El Yaffi in Lebanon, Taher Haddad in Tunisia who devoted their time to analyzing and criticizing the status of women in Islam. … Arab feminism can in no way be described as an Islamic feminism, but on the contrary should be viewed for what it has been and still is, i.e. a secular movement whereby both men and women fought the traditional views and interpretation of the Islamic sharia. More recently, Fatima Mernissi who passed out this year, became famous as a great feminist and novelist.”

            I was a witness and participant in one of these movements the summer of 2011 when I visited my friend, a leading feminist and activist in Tunisia, Amel Ben Aba. I accompanied her to her meetings and one day we went to the theater to see Nadia El Fani (the Tunisian Agnès Varda) movie, a film entitled: « Neither Allah, nor Master », where we were attacked by Islamists who came in fury with batons and tear gas to prevent us from watching the show.  They managed to break the doors and windows of the theater and injure the director of the theater, but did not succeed in intimidating the audience that blocked them through creating a wall of people. I admired the attitude of the spectators who even tried to calm them and to involve them into viewing the film and the discussion that would follow, but in vain. It took the intervention of the police one hour later to dislodge them and allow the film to start. I learned a few months later that this theater had been forced to close its doors, a real shame given it was one of the few places in Tunisia where one could see and hear shows and films at the cutting-edge of artistic creation. We did not know that summer that these events were significant in light of the Islamic movements rapidly spreading, we naively thought they were just small clouds passing over an otherwise sunny springtime which would soon shine through.

I often visited the feminists whom I had known in the 80’s. Thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, I spent a year in Tunisia and was able to attend the conscious awareness meetings organized at the Club Taher Haddad.  At the same time, the bilingual magazine, “Nissa” (“Women”) was born.  It was part of the awakening of an entire movement of women living their daily lives.  I spoke of these reported encounters and discoveries in one of my books « Wounding Words: A Woman’s Journal in Tunisia (Blessures des Mots:  Journal de Tunisie) » published in Paris by Côté femmes, Collection Prémices, June 1993. Among the extraordinary women met there was Rachida Ennaifer, President of the Association of Journalists of the Arab World- an amazing job for a woman, positioned as head of a group composed primarily of men. Siham Ben Sedrine, recognized so many times for her courageous stance against a corrupt, failing and tyrannical state which put her in prison and under house arrest several times, finally banishing her to exile, from which she returned that summer in order to participate in what she believed to be a profound renewal of her country.

And Amel Ben Aba, my friend, pioneer feminist, teacher, philosopher and journalist, imprisoned under the ruling of Bourguiba for revealing the mining conditions in the South, and many other wonderful women described in my book. The Moroccan feminist, Fatima Mernissi came to lead a writing workshop, the results of which were two collections of essays: « Tunisiennes en devenir (Becoming Tunisian Women)” (1992) in which Amel published an article entitled « Clore pour éclore (Closure to better to hatch). »  She published in « Women and civil society in the Maghreb » during the 80s, that’s what framed the Maghreb.  She participated in the film « Tanitez moi » in ’92, in the development of the screenplay and film preparation. And also the film « My Heart is Witness » about Arab women -a film by Louise Carré in Canada which received the “Vues d’Afrique” award and Ahmed and his review of the article in the issue of the journal « Mémoire et Horizons de Citoyennes des deux rives (Memories and horizons of female citizens from both banks) »dedicated to Simone Lellouche. There were also the articles in the weekly newspaper « The Maghreb » under the rubrique « Femmes en 83 et 84 (Women in 1983 and ’84) » and a few articles in the journal “Nissa” that the women created in Tunisia.

            My novel, « Blessures des Mots » was adapted into a play and shown in the theatre by the women about whom and for whom it had been written.  This play, that I was able to attend and participate in during the ‘90’s and the year 2000 was entitled, “Les filles de Taher Haddad (The girls of Taher Haddad)” in honor of the liberator of women whose books and thoughts inspired President Bourguiba’s reforms helpful to women, in particular his new Personal Status Code, away in spirit from the reforms the Islamists tried to put into place in Tunisa, like changing the Constitution to say that women were complementary to men instead of equal.

In the liberation movements, mistakenly referred to as « spring » being in fact, “storms”, there were frightful reports of women being raped, arrested, and imprisoned. These reports were quickly stifled by the media too preoccupied with military interventions and wars, factors considered more important than women’s rights in any given country.

Women who participated in the protests, particularly in Egypt, were arrested and subjected to virginity tests to prove their « good behavior ».  When found “non-virgin”, their reputations were blackened and they were called “loose women”. They were persecuted and ostracized, “The Honor » of their movement called into question. In Tunisia, the « mut’a » marriage (meaning ‘for the pleasure’, (-the man’s pleasure, that is), where the woman is at the mercy of the man sexually, physically, morally, and socially- without any rights) was reintroduced, effectively erasing the reforms of Bourguiba – that had eliminated polygamy- and suspended other women’s rights thanks to its reinterpretation of the Personal Status Code. (As Rachida Ennaifer made me notice, the laws were not changed to introduce the mut’a but it is a practice rapidly spreading).

            Despite all these setbacks, women do not seem to have lost hope and they’ve continued to fight. Movements calling for greater democracy and human rights have spread to other countries including Bahrain, Syria and Yemen where a remarkable woman, Tawakkul Karma, raised her voice in protest against the injustices and lack of human rights in her country.  Shedistinguished herself in a battle so amazing (especially in her demands for radical transformation of Islamist movements), thatshe won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011.

 But the voices of power and of weapons seem stronger than those of democracy and human rights and we are currently witnessing a return to the traditions and Islamic laws so damaging to women and people in general.  The new recently established Libyan regime proclaimed Sharia as state law to be implemented soon.  (This proclamation was barely mentioned by the media because the media has been too preoccupied with showing the good side of this revolution, preferring to ignorethe warning signs of danger to women and all people). Ennahda, the Islamist movement that took power in Tunisia is not far from the doing the same as Egypt has done, where the army controls the country and is itself subject to the Islamists. In Syria, Al-Qaeda and the Salafists have infiltrated the democratic and pacifist movements of opposition and struggle against the Syrian regime still in place, shuffling the cards and making this Syrian situation inextricable. Where armed elements are unleashed in a country, the presence of peace, harmony and women’s voices are muted. Chaos, anarchy and violence take over and settle inforce, this is what is going on.

When religious fundamentalism, militarism and nationalism nourish and feed the myth of masculinity, women’s freedomdisappears. Iraq is a good example: more than one million widows, booming prostitution, immigrant women from surrounding countries (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) selling their bodies to be able to eat and to feed their families, a country in a state of total disintegration after the fall of the regime and its occupation by American forces, armed struggles between different ethnic and religious groups, acts of terrorism sowing fear and fragmenting the country even more, opposition between the various factionson the backs of women forcing them to dress a certain way according to the codes given by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, subjecting them to veil, even in non-religious schools. The politico-religious movements are almost always detrimental to the interests of women. When people are constantly subjected to abuse, war, violence, bombs, terrorism and terrible atrocities, how can one believe in the future and a brighter tomorrow? The youth are without hope and women are giving birth to cannon fodder.

Women’s Lives:  incredible forces of life in the present chaos of the world:

In this presentation I would like to give you a few cases of women I met on my various trips to the Middle East, Africa, and North Africa. They are examples of the incredible forces of life and energy women have in some of the most desperate situations.  In 1978 and 1983, I travelled to Egypt, the Arab Gulf (specifically Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), the Sudan, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal.  In 1993, I went back to Cairo, Egypt and in 2002, back to Lebanon for additional research on women’s lives to how they cope with their condition, living in war zones and how it affects their sexuality.  On these trips, I met women from all levels of society.  I interviewed many of them, asking them about their lives, and I directed my questions most particularly on sexuality, meaning both the physical and psychological aspects of the question.  In this essay, I have chosen women who really stand out, the ones that have marked me and made me realize what incredible courage women can have against all odds.  They all talk about their tribulations, dreams and hopes.  Their stories are encouraging, a beam of light in an otherwise extremely gloomy world!

The Tribulations, Dreams and Hopes of Women in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Camps

(Beirut, Lebanon, 2002)

In 2002 while on a Fulbright, I interviewed women in the camp of Sabra.  The condition of the Sabra and Shatila camps is beyond words:  one walks through garbage and sewage, the houses of “tanak” (tin) are riddled with bullets.  Many houses are in ruins, remnants of a war, of spilled blood, of massacres, blood that has flown, still freshly present… And this week I went again to this camp where I interviewed a woman who had had breast cancer, ten children, one of whom is mentally disabled! She was breast-feeding her newly born baby with only her left breast (even though the doctor had told her not to bring another child into the world, fearing that it would kill her!).  She was carrying the baby like a trophy, triumph over illness, miracle of a renewed body!  After describing her illness and how she was treated (mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation) she talked mainly about the massacres (Sabra and Shatila) of which she is also a survivor.  Her descriptions were chilling, and I still feel sick about them!  Real butchery, slaughters and collective rapes (I had been under the illusion until then that there had rarely been rapes in Lebanon, it shows how hidden such a problem is in our society).  She described the militias as young men heavily drugged and drunk, going from house to house to cut the throats of all living human beings, taking the young women to make them sit on bottles and then collectively raping them before slaughtering them.  The niece helping me with the translation and transcription of the interviews told me she would have a hard time working on it, the descriptions being so unbearable. 

It was hard to listen to this Sabra woman’s stories, her surviving the massacres and the cancer (two plagues of our century)…  But she was beautiful, so alive, and seemed happy with her good-looking husband; they looked like they were in love and had a sensual relationship, but we could not ask her intimate questions because of the presence of her husband and of their eldest son, there with his wife, pregnant, who had already lost four children, still-born…  The hardest was misery, poverty, surviving…  I go back to the camps in 2007 and learn that this woman died from her breast cancer and that her husband is desperate from sorrow.

Samira, a 27 years old Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian:

Before my marriage, I was living with my mom and dad, we were six at home. I stayed there until I turned 17.  I lived at Mathaf, next to the National Museum. At that time East and West were divided during the war and we were living on the green line. I hadn’t met my husband yet. My father and mom used to quarrel a lot and they split up. I stayed at home and left school because I had the responsibility of my brothers and sisters.  I couldn’t take care of them and study at the same time. Mom left us and moved to live with the man she married.  At this time I met my cousin who didn’t used to visit us. He used to live in the camp here, but I met him when he was a grown up, 20 or 22 yrs. I was 17 yrs. We fell in love and we grew very attached one to the other. Maybe I found in him the tenderness I lost with my mom. After my father had left my mom he forbade me from marrying my cousin, he didn’t want to go back to my mom, and he didn’t want me to marry my cousin (who is the son of my mom’s sister). There were lots of problems but I showed everybody that I loved my cousin and really wanted him.  All I wanted was to marry the one I loved! I was very young, there were lots of problems, and I couldn’t marry my cousin easily. 

When we were married, we didn’t have a house or anything else. We had nothing but our clothes. We didn’t even have our parents’ consent. My mother was dead, my father in prison and my brothers and sisters were scattered. My aunt took my sister and she lived with her, and then they took the two girls to an orphanage and the two boys to another orphanage. Not all of them were together, but they used to see each other every fortnight. Sometimes they wouldn’t be visiting all of them in the same house, they hardly got together. This situation lasted 5 yrs. When I married I was 18, and I immediately got pregnant and had my eldest son, and then two other sons and we had rented a flat. 

My husband used to work and get paid a fairly decent salary per week. We lived in different flats before coming to the camp here.  We didn’t have furniture, just a mattress and pillows. I was young I didn’t know how to handle a home, a husband and a family. Little by little my husband lost his job so we decided to come live here in the camp. There was this house in which we live now, it belonged to his grandfather and served as a stable. 

It was 1993 or 94, I am not quite sure. My husband suggested we live here for a while until we got the money to buy a flat later. But he changed. The Sami I used to love was no longer the same and I couldn’t handle it… we lived here for one year without his finding a job and it was very difficult. He is a blacksmith, but he stopped working.  My eldest son would get sick and needed diapers and I didn’t have any of my parents close to me. My mother-in-law (who is my aunt) has also been dead for a long time, and her father got married to another woman and he used to take care of the other woman’s children and not his own. So there was nobody to encourage or help us. If he worked we would eat, otherwise we would not. I didn’t know I could take contraception to stop myself from having more children brought into this miserable life.  When his job stopped, problems started. We started arguing more and more, and you know when you don’t have anyone older than you to advise you, it can get really tricky. So he would do whatever he wanted. We tried to get over our problems but we couldn’t. With lack of money and work, it is hard to get over one’s problems. I was surrounded with kids and couldn’t go out to work. After my second baby the problems really started. I didn’t know anything about contraceptive methods. I was very scared even though my husband is Palestinian and our hospitalization was covered by UNRWA, it’s all free, and anyway we couldn’t pay anything. When we started having problems, I went to the UNRWA and told them I needed contraceptives so they gave me some pills. I took the pills that made me cranky and we started fighting, and the doctor told me to stop them if I got cranky. So I stopped them and got pregnant. When I found out I was pregnant, I started crying because I didn’t want any more children, I went to the doctor to ask him for an abortion but he didn’t agree because it was Ramadan. This is how I got my younger daughter. And of course the problems started increasing and increasing. Naturally when you’re full of anger and frustration you start moaning and shouting and this is what happened with me. 

So I preferred going back to him. But it wasn’t me who came back.  He came begging me to go back to him saying “I miss you, I can’t live without you, I am sorry and so on so forth …” The women at the dispensary would tell me not to believe him, that someone who wanted to change would change immediately and would not drag on and on. 

So this is the last time, and it is for real, it is the last chance I give him. We’ve had a lot of fights ever since then and I would run away to my friend but he would come running and begging me to go back with him and I would refuse whilst insisting I wanted immediate divorce. Then people would tell me “what will you do with your three kids, you need to accept your fate, etc.” I am ready to accept my fate but he also needs to change. I am not asking you to work but change your language. Yesterday, for example I worked at the school and I worked here, and I was so tired coming back at home at 2 pm, all I was asking was to hear a nice word. I am used to a dry and distant relationship with him even though he assures me he loves me, nothing inside of me tells me he does.

I don’t want children any more so I use contraceptives. I have had a diaphragm (I think she means an IUD) for four years.  I have medical check-ups.  Every six months I go to URWA for help. I’ve been suffering from back pain and I need to remove it and take pills instead. It’s been causing me some pain because I work here, at the school and at home too with the children who visit on weekends; I am very tired and my husband has now been sick for 4-5 months and is becoming weaker and weaker. He is thirty years old and weighs 50 kilos. He was wounded in the war with shrapnel. He can tell you when exactly. He has been a hero the Palestinian struggle. He also had shrapnel everywhere in his body and has one plastic knee. He says he left work because he cannot work with metal, he cannot lift heavy weight … but I object because he could do other things that don’t require weight lifting or the like. I swear by God if I wasn’t a woman I would have bought a cart and displayed some goods on it for sale in the market, even if it brought me only 5000 LP a day, it would be good for my children. When they come home they look at me and ask me “why do we go to an orphanage? We don’t want this school we want another”, but I don’t have an answer for them but the usual “it’s ok, be patient”. When I came back home my husband said we would work for both of us and within one year we would be able to take the children out of the orphanage back home, put them into a regular school and they would live with us. This way we would be able to get out of this camp where our life had turned into a living hell ever since the day we arrived here, ever since his step brothers started giving him the bad stuff. But nothing has happened. 

My life is all the same, I have tried to stay with my parents but it was worse and I couldn’t stay with them, so I’ll stay with this man for the sake of my children. I’ll count it as though I was living alone. 

I used to wear the veil but I took it off on purpose to annoy him. I was veiled and dressed legally according to the sharia’a (Islamic law) when I first came here. He beat me and pushed me outdoors with my hair, I had very long hair and he exposed me in front of everybody. I was very strict with my veil but then I thought the man who wants his woman to wear a veil does not expose her publicly with shame and cursing her with denigrating words; he also gathered all my clothes and burnt them. All my clothes were burnt, and I had spent a lot of efforts to be able to find the type of clothes that would fit me. He burnt everything I had knickers, bras dresses, veils … everything. He burnt everything because I ran away and he couldn’t get a hold of me. I ran away to my grandfather’s house. My sister in law told me he burnt everything even my photos. He knew too well how hard it had been for me to find clothes that are respectful and fitting, although it was all second hand clothes. 

So this is it, I live for my children and perhaps if all is well next year I may have them enter a school and leave the orphanage. Perhaps the best thing I can think of that my parents have ever offered me was education. They put me in a good school until I turned 11 years old. I learnt some French then, so it was good that I can speak French because it allowed me to work in this dispensary.

            I don’t think my husband is this way because of the war he fought because we got married after the war.  I don’t think this is what affected him.  He is very patriotic; if you go to our house you will see the Palestinian scarves, flags; he is very active and gets involved in the demonstrations. His brothers’ house is close to here where the Palestinian flag is flowing. 

The stuff his brothers used to give him affected him. Before then, he used to come home and ask me to lie next to him and ask me about my day and all. But he says this is not true, he says he’s changed because I have changed and he blames me saying I don’t care for him anymore. He is jealous of the affection I have for the children. He wants me to leave it all behind and dedicate myself to him. Today I have my work too and he resents it. 

            I have gotten used to him, and I wouldn’t allow any harm to happen to him. Sometimes they have a fight and the police comes to get them all, and you see me amongst the first ones running to the police station to rescue my husband. He’s never made it to prison yet, thank God, but their parents are known to have a lot of fights. 

I have a few friends here and they see how I struggle; they see everything, I do not need to talk to them. They tell me I have to bear this for the children’s sake. I have a friend of mine who has a similar story but the difference is that she didn’t suffer like me, and also her parents support her. She also got married and divorced hundred times, so to speak. If you think of all these women you may find out that they have all suffered during their lives. Perhaps my story is nothing next to other stories. This friend of mine for instance has funny stories of finding things, the remains of a woman’s presence on her husband’s body, or clothes or anything. I didn’t have to go through this. Her husband left her and married an older Palestinian woman for the sake of money, and I didn’t have to go through jealousy you know. She is living in a posh area in West Beirut and has a pharmacy here near the camps and lots of buildings that she rents out.  He destroyed the life of 3 kids and deprived them of their mother. These are the consequences of leaving one’s children. They would become like my friend’s husband: lost. I don’t think too much about my life, perhaps I could have another man better than Sami but I wouldn’t want to deprive my children from any of their mother and father. Sami’s mother died of cancer and he was brought up by his grandmother. 

I live every moment at a time. I hope my children will have a better life.  There is nothing we can do to try and return to Palestine, so my husband will feel exceedingly more frustrated ….

If I could, I would have chosen a different life. What makes me bear this one is that I won’t let my children grow without me. But if a rich man would come and tell me he would take me away with my children, I would leave everything and go. 

The stories of these two women in the camps of Shabra and Shatila in Beirut are very revealing about the struggles women go through in some of the most desperate parts of the world that have been ravaged by war:  the first one lives with a man she loves and with whom she has ten children; they have a hard time feeding them and getting health care especially when she gets breast cancer which finally kills her; she describes the massacres of 1982 in the camps, which they lived in all of its horrors.  They live for their children, the last one conceived in spite and against the doctors’ warnings! She seems to share a relationship of love and understanding with her husband who is quite tender with her.  I wonder what happened to him after her death from cancer; .the second one, married to a Palestinian out of love, quickly falls out of it because of the daily difficulties of finding jobs, putting food on the table, raising children, etc.  Her husband has been wounded in the war and becomes increasingly desperate and addicted to drugs, she has to put her children in an orphanage for lack of means to raise them, she gets temporary jobs and tells us how all her life now is geared to seeing her children progress.  Both have had to give up their children: one to the sister of her husband, the other one to orphanages in order to give them a better life.  Both women are in desperate situations nevertheless expressing incredible courage and faith in life!

The tribulations, dreams and hopes of Um Ziadé, a 42 years old woman from a poor district of Cairo, Bashtil, 1992, 1998 and 2005.

On December 5th, 1992, I went with N., a young Egyptian woman helping me with the interviews, to the working class district of Bashtil.  No taxi wanted to take us at first.  Then one accepted.  I thought it would be very far.  In fact, it was about ten minute drive from where we were staying.  But because the district has no asphalt roads, big holes, bumpy, rough paths, cars usually avoid the area.  To reach Bashtil, we followed a branch of the Nile, miles and miles of dirt, papers, garbage, washed clothes hung up everywhere along the canal which women used to do their laundry.  We were told there is a terrible problem with water in Cairo.

The taxi dropped us at the entrance of the neighborhood.  N. took my hand and we crossed roads filled with mud and open sewers, houses in which one could see and hear goats, donkeys, cows, chickens, and other animals mixed with humans, covered with the stench from the sewers.  At the center, between two rows of sand houses, there was a space filled with sewage, planted with enormous cabbage.  I had never seen such gigantic cabbage in my life.  It looked surreal.  I had the impression of being in an unreal countryside, a polluted one, hit by a disease slowly sapping away the beauty of life and nature.

Marriage :

Um Ziadé was married by her family when she was twelve years old; three years later she had a boy.  One year later her husband died.  She was working at the time.

The woman I used to leave my son with had a brother, and he started chasing me everywhere. Everywhere. Problems. Fighting. I mean if I got on public transportation, he would be there. So I was very tired of that. So the people from the neighborhood would ask him, “What do you want from her?” I was essentially afraid of marriage, for my son’s sake. Anyhow, he said, “I’ll marry her.” I didn’t know him. I was afraid when he used to say, “I’ll do this and that to her face”[1]. I was afraid. So the men from the neighborhood stood together and said to me, “Get married, it’s better than working,” so I agreed. I said « I’m not about ready to leave my son for anyone to bring up. » So he said : “I’ll take her son.” I hadn’t known him, so got married. Hardly a week passed when I found him staying up late at night, drinking, taking drugs, sitting as if he wanted to sleep. So I made trouble all the time. Most of my problems with him were because I wanted a man who would support me. Anyhow, there used to be problems. “All right, people, you married me to him; now get me divorced.” The men of the neighborhood cannot, and till now I can’t. 

Number of children :

The interviewer – You have a boy and a girl, how many children would you have liked to have had ?

Um Ziadé – I only wanted a boy and a girl, so that I raise them well and this is what I got. It’s enough to see my son’s manners and his politeness. I’m not praising him because he is my son. I would be concerned about him even if he was late coming back home, or if he hung around with such and such a kid. I had to keep an eye on him all the time, even without him realizing it. I don’t allow staying up till two and one in the morning and such things.

In the anomic universe that Um Ziadé is plunged into, children’s education rests principally on women, even after the age of puberty when, in previous days, boys used to get out of women’s world to enter the men’s one. So the conditions for socialisation are profoundly transformed. Women, mothers are not only preoccupied with moral rules. And see in other passages how Um Ziadé wants her children to succeed in school ; in those passages she does not refer to the maktoub, or destiny, but she wants to force fate, and dreams of professional success for her son which the economic structure renders very uncertain.

Relationship to justice:

Um Ziadé’s husband has taken a second wife, along with all of Um Ziadé’s possessions, and has left without leaving an address. Um Ziadé takes him to court to get a divorce and the restitution of her belongings.  She gets a lawyer.

       The lawyer had taken the money from me. So when I went, I looked for my lawyer among the lawyers and didn’t find him. I found his clerk … it’s not even his clerk, it’s his janitor … I said to him, « Where is the lawyer, uncle Ali? » He said to me, « Be quiet! » I said to him, « He didn’t come? I hired a lawyer to stand by me, to tell him my problems so that he stands by me. » He said, « Will you be quiet or should I slap you in the face? » By God, it’s just as I’m telling you! So I said to myself, « I shouldn’t have an exchange with an old man » and I walked in to attend the hearing. The judge called me and my husband. He wasn’t there, he had sent his lawyer. The judge said to his lawyer, « Is that the wife? » He said, « Yes. » He said, « What does her husband do? » He said, « He’s a poor man knocking on God’s door » and I don’t know what. The judge said to him, « We are all knocking on God’s door. I could own an international trade office and still be knocking on God’s door! » So the judge really replied to my husband’s lawyer. He asked me, « How long have you been married to him? » I said, « Since 1970. » He asked me, « Does he have a second wife? » I said, « Yes. » He asked, « Does he have children from you? » I said, « No. » I tell him exactly what happened. He asked, « What is his income? » I said, « At least …  » He asked me first, « What does he do? » I said, « He trades in Port Said merchandise. » He asked, « What approximately is his income? » I said, « At least 800 pounds. » So he wrote all that. His lawyer said, « There is a court order for obedience. »[2]

And he sued me for obedience, but he gave a wrong address for me. He sued for obedience, but did not give the right address. So the case went on and on. I had an order without knowing the address.

This passage tells un in few words the difficulties that the poor and women in particular, meet in order to get justice : dishonest lawyers and laws very unfavorable to them.

Woman in the city:

Oum Ziade-Why doesn’t the government help those who are suffering?  When I left my house in anger (against my husband), I stayed with friends- people I didn’t really know.  I want to say they were just acquaintances- not close friends.

… It’s not a shame for him to sleep in street, or to beg.  He’s a man.  If he went naked in the street, would that be shameful?  …It’s not a shame for him, but for me, yes it is.  A man has a lot of advantages compared to what I have.  There’s no shame in his talking to a woman.  But morally, for me it would be shameful to talk to a man.  Nowadays and where you live in (Mohandessin), it’s not a shame because one’s door is closed to his neighbor.  Each person tends to his own affairs, morally and ethically.  

These words by Um Ziadé clearly show the inequality between men and women. While we cannot say that she is a feminist, in the sense that feminism implies theorizing an experience, nevertheless it signals a latent feminism linked to the individuation of the society in Cairo. Um Ziadé is clearly a woman from Cairo living between myth, dream and reality.  She dreams of something different: a life less miserable, difficult, sometimes unbearable.  But her reality is quite insurmountable, and the lack of solutions to her problems led her more than once close to suicide.  She clearly represents the city of Cairo, emblematic, mythic, attractive and repulsive all together, on the brink of disaster and forgetfulness. 

Current Engagement :

I would like to talk now about the NGO’s that I helped establish during the course of these last years in Lebanon, and how I am associated with the work that is being done there.

  • Beit el Hanane, abused women shelter opened in Lebanon by my sister and me in 2010.

Beit el Hanane  (House of Tenderness) is a charitable, not-for-profit, organization without religious affiliation, non-discriminatory, whose mission is to take care of female victims of violence in Lebanon.  It contributes to community awareness in order to break the cycle of violence and abuse and offers an environment of encouragement, compassion, and support for all who are confronted by these abuses, thanks to a network of professionals and volunteers. 

Women victims of abuse find not only a place and a solution to their immediate problems but also opportunities to help them find ways towards healing in the form of workshops, counseling, education and employment. We have already had several workshops on trauma by specialists who came from many countries, one of them led by Maria Hagburg present here and who so kindly invited me to talk about these problems and is so kindly receiving us in her home here in Sweden. 

Tahaddi clinic and school opened in the camps of Sabra and Chatila about ten years ago, which I visit regularly.

Medical clinic started by a French woman doctor in a small bus roaming the camps, now a clinic opened at the entrance of the Sabra camp associated to a school.  

Nabaa al Hayet, Spring of Life:

Center opened by one of my nieces and her husband who welcome the refugees from Irak and now Syria, most of them being children whose parents throw in the street unable to feed or school them.  The center gives them schooling and one hot meal a day.  These refugees coming from the surrounding countries plagued by wars are not taken care of by the government, the children cannot go to school because they are too expensive and public school is not open to non-Lebanese. They could become beggars and prostitutes if the center did not open its doors to them.

Conclusion :

We have entered a new « cold war » displaced in the Middle East, with its new « Berlin walls » erected in many new places and all over the world to separate people, most of all in Israel between the settlers and the Palestinians, but also at the Southern frontier of Lebanon between that country and Israel ; but other walls more sneaky and invisible are being built to prevent the democratisation and all expressions of liberties and justice.  One of the perverted walls is the pact between the Moslem brothers, Saudi Arabia and the Western powers (United States/Israel, NATO, Turkey, Qatar, etc.) on one side and Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Hamas on the other.[3] Those who do not see the extent to which these pacts and walls are hindering the development and democratization of the region are blind.

   We, women and men of good will, shall continue to work for the liberation of people and women in particular, we shall do it through peaceful means and not through violence, through dialogue and international solidarity.  Every day women risk their lives in acts of protest, peace marches, courageous acts for liberties and against tyrannies and injustices. Their commitment to humanitarian causes to help and give support to the oppressed and to all those who are suffering is an extraordinary example that we must try to follow.  It is not through military force that we will reach liberty, dialogue and democracy. We shall reach true change in the Arab world only through secular movements, true secularism separating the State from religions. We must help and encourage the women’s movements working for democracy, equality and (w)human rights.


[1] He threatens to disfigure her.

[2] A husband can sue his wife and obtain a court order for obedience if she leaves the marital home and refuses to return. She will then be forced by law to live with him.

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