Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fighting without violence

Why, at every juncture, with such frequency, do I feel like being a woman is having to fight?

Whether it's against the bouncer in the bar, who tells me that he won't let my 3 male friends into a bar because they don’t want a “cock fest”. So I ask him if he would prefer a “tit fest”, and he says yes. I say that he’s being sexist, staring him straight in the eyes. He smiles; I don’t. He realises how serious I am, so he capitulates, “Yes, fine, your friends can come in. And by the way, I’m not sexist”, smiling again. Yeah, right.

Whether it's against a male acquaintance, a friend of a friend, who I have known for some years. He has always been fond of me, has manifested his attraction physically, and in a way that I have never been comfortable with, mostly because of the fact that for the vast majority of the time that I have known him, I have been in a long-term, stable relationship with another person. The friend is well, well aware of my boyfriend. So why does he still hit on me, does he still place his fingers on me invasively, does he profess to harbour a shallow love for me? Why does he not adhere to my articulated clear-cut boundaries of “friendship”? Sometimes, though, I am doubtful: where I am normally more forceful, in reaction to random guys who harass me in the street or bars, my rebuffs of him have always been mild. Yet, I thought, firm. They were not the venom that I reserve for random sleazes because he comes under the category “friend”. I suppose I was more tolerant of his advances, though undesired, because of a supposed friendship and respect. But the advances never stopped.

Whether it's against my own boyfriend, or “husband” as he is known to some (we feign marriage in order to legitimise our collocation in the eyes of the more conservative segments of society.) I told him that this guy, the supposed friend, who had been with us all night had been speaking to me and touching me in a way that made me uncomfortable, compromised. I told him this, not because I wanted to start trouble, not because I wanted to stoke tensions in our social group, but because I was disturbed. And I voiced my disturbance to the person I trust most: the man who I have spent the best part of five years with. Obviously my words, my vulnerability, did not resonate. My words spoke to him more about his own insecurities, his own pride, his own frustrations or regrets that sprung from not dealing with these repeated incidents coming from the same person, than my own well-being. I had sought comfort, while instead he sought to challenge those boundaries that had been crossed. He insisted that enough was enough, and he was going outside with the bloke “to talk about it”. I asked him not to, but perhaps was not forceful enough, as he did go out to “sort it out”. Five minutes later, he’s walking back into the bar with blood on his hands after having punched the guy in the face. Great, what a really mature, thoughtful, unselfish way of dealing with the situation, oh enlightened male partner of mine. I leave the bar overwhelmed in embarrassment, guilt and rage.

Whether it's against a faceless stranger who assaults me on a deserted flight of stairs as I try to escape all the stifling chauvinism that surrounded me that fateful Friday night. I see him descending the staircase behind me, him on the right and I on the left. About half-way down, out of the corner of my eye, I notice him moving in my direction. My immediate thought is that he is going into one of the entrances of the apartment buildings that line the staircase. But before I realise it, he is putting his arm around my head, his hand around my mouth, pressing his weight against me and pushing my body down towards the ground. Somewhere there is something sharp, maybe a key, and it scratches against my neck. His other hand yanks at my handbag. I scream with all my fucking might, scream. Screaming, over and over and over. As I scream, the thought flashes into my mind that I know, I know in all my time spent engaging in issues of violence against women, that screaming is the best way of deterring an aggressor. So I scream until it rips the back of my throat. And it works. I hear a window bang overhead, and he lets go of me and starts running back up the stairs, reaching the top just as a door at the side opens and a man steps out. I have stopped screaming, and I am caught between hysterical sobs and choked words of explanation. “Harami”, I manage to utter. “Thief”, as I enter the safety of a shard of light escaping from the open door.

Whether its against that very sleepy shop owner, that angel in disguise, without whose presence I dare not think what would have happened on that staircase. That kindly man who offers me water and tries to calm me down, but insists on saying “women should not walk alone at night.” But why? Why can't a woman effectuate a short 10-minute walk home in her own neighbourhood? Why are we made to be afraid?

All this occured, believe it or or not, within half and hour on a Friday night.

Now, the next day, I cannot wrap my head around the violence. The violence of prejudice, the violence of sexual objectification, the violence of uncontrolled jealousy and pride, the violence of harsh assault.

Why is there so much violence?

Why are women so often reduced to the sum of their physical parts?

Why are women used as an excuse for men to be violent towards one another?

Why do women have to be afraid to walk alone at night?

Why is there so, so much violence?

It is the fear of violence that oppresses us. Yet it is the anger about such violence that mobilises us.

Yes, I am left with a festering anger. I'm angry at the bouncer for his shameless exhibition and denial of sexism. I'm pissed off at my so-called “friend” for repeatedly groping me, disrespecting me. I'm angry at myself for not having been forceful enough. I'm furious at my boyfriend for his lack of self-control and punching someone in the face. I'm livid at the prowling assailant, whose footsteps and approaching silhouette will now haunt me when I walk alone in the dark.

The great challenge, I suppose, is to allow neither my anger nor my fear to push me to reproduce violence. The challenge, now, is for me to transform these negative, traumatic experiences, into a productive outlook, a proactive stance that will say: I will continue to fight. I will continue to express my dissatisfaction with sexism; I will continue to not let people touch me in a way that I am uncomfortable with; I will continue to combat violent solutions of problems; I will continue to scream when I am most threatened.

I will not let my fear, my anger, prevail. I will stuggle to not give into them, allow them to harness me, to inhibit me, to silence me. I will sum up all of my forces so that, at the end of it all, it is the anger and the fear that will give me strength to keep fighting. But to fight with my words, because I feel that is the only way to exhibit a strong, viable alternative to the violence that I have seen.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Congratulations on "Democratic" Elections?

The results poured out late on Sunday and supporters of the March 14 coalition rushed to celebrate their victory of the majority of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament. "Congratulations, Lebanon, on a peaceful, democratic elections," said every media outlet there is. Congratulations to whom? For what? Democracy? Liberalism? Secularism? What empty, hypocritical words used to describe our elections.

Congratulations, Lebanon, shining democracy of the Middle East. You have dropped from ranking 126 to 131 (out of 137) worldwide in the percentage of women in parliament. Today, we have 4 women out of 128. A few days ago we had 6. You thought that was bad? What we have now is 3.125%. Yes, that is among the lowest in the world. See the 2008 stats for yourself.

Among all the things I am fuming about right now - sectarianism being at the top of my list, I am fuming most about the amount of money spent on this elections. It was one of the most expensive elections per capita in history. Millions of dollars spent on plane tickets, leaflets, all that paper wasted, campaigns, ads, and the billboards. Yep. Who can forget the billboards? Maya Zankoul can remind you here. Sois belle et vote.. sois egale et vote.. almar2a oum wa oumma.. What a waste of the people's money, time, and intelligence.

And you know what's sarcastically funnier? The guys blame us. Yep. It's our fault we don't get engaged in politics. Why demand a quota? The floor is equally open to men and women. Women should run. And look! You got 4 women! So to run and win a seat in parliament, who cares what you want to do for women's rights. You have to ride the FPM ticket like Gilberte Zouein. You have to run for the dreams of your assassinated father like Nayla Tueni. You have to be the sister of an ex- (also assassinated) Prime Minister like Bahia Hariri. You have to be the wife of a popular party leader like Strida Geagea (only because he can't run himself).

Independently running Magda Braidy got 1966 votes in Zahle. Bravo, Magda. Good for you.

Here is the plain and simple argument for a women's quota in parliament. There are visible and invisible power dynamics that prevent women from running and even more from having a chance of winning. The overall sexism is an invisible example. Sure, you can't see it in a law or in the consitution, but it is there. Here's a simpler argument for you sectarianly-crazed Lebanese people. You love and uphold sectarian representation because - God forbid - a sect is not represented in parliament? Well, we need the same for gender representation.

Don't get me started on sectarianism right now - I am disgusted to the bone with how acceptable and important it is for Lebanese to refer to each other by their sects. It feels illegal to me. It feels like anyone who calls another person by her sect should be thrown in jail. That's how terribly it disgusts me.

Those poor lobbyists for the women's rights to nationality campaign. It’s been over 6 years of them screaming and shouting, and once again they ride the roller-coaster of empty promises. The domestic violence bill? We got excited about it for exactly 2 hours when we heard it was listed on the agenda of the Ministers’ meeting. And then it got bumped, just like that. Countless days of hard work gets thrown into the recycle bin by a mere few words from some guy in power.

And they had the nerve - both March 14ers and 8ers - to address women in their campaign and ask them to vote. And the women were ignorant enough - those hundreds of thousands of women - to volunteer countless hours for them, to go and vote for them. 3ala shou? What for? I am so disappointed in our social activists. Scratch the skin of most of them calling for women's rights and human rights and you will find a deep-rooted, subtle, malignant sectarianism and fear of the other. I am so disappointed.

This coming 4 years - just like the ones that have passed - we have to propose our plans for legal reform, for equality, for fair treatment, for all social justice to the same exact men in parliament. Either those or clones of them. And unless women get together somehow - beyond sectarian and partisan divisions - and demand (not request or ask for, but demand) equality in the true sense of the word - equality in all the visible and invisible manifestations of the word - we're not going anywhere with our rights.

So instead of wasting my time on anyone last Sunday, my friend and I drove around the polling locations in Beirut. We watched them in dismay. We got handed hundreds of little papers with candidates' names on them. We took pictures. One young woman wearing a "Je suis belle et je vote" t-shirt struck a proud pose for us in the middle of the street. It's true. She was beautiful and she had voted. And then we walked down the empty streets of Hamra and had coffee. And we drew a picture for what we thought was a truly democratic Lebanese election. And then we listed the 1million things we had to do over the next 4 years to make that a reality. And then we promised each other that we would devote every minute of our lives to fulfill that plan. And then we argued over the number of seats we wanted for women. She said 75, I said 50. We settled on 64 and then smiled at the issue we were arguing over. We have a long, corruption-infested road ahead of us.

And we'll see you in 2013.