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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Live blogging the sex workers' debate in the FC house

the first issue is to understand the diversity of sex-work (paid intercourse, phone sex, internet sex...)

The second thing that is often overlooked is male sex-work and how a great majority is from non-white men, another great percentage is transgender individuals.

I had students that worked as escorts. From these conversations I realised that often sex is not involved. Sometimes escortship evolves into sex.

If we want to look at sex-work rights as labor rights, then we need to work on it in order to establish sex-workers unions in order to get rights. Because there is a lot of exploitation and exploitation needs to stop.

Why is there this so much exploitation, according to radical feminist theorists this is the nature of sex-work. According to Marxist feminism it's because there are very little rights, most of this work is done in the dark.

I don't know how this form of activism takes place on the ground, but I know one case study is from the UK where the unions worked to provide english language courses to the sex-workers, the language is one way to help them acquire the material they need to protect themselves (condoms and STDs for example). But also to push them to lobby.

Live-blogging the sex workers' debate in the feminist collective's house

Our speaker is Sarah Bracke a gender studies background. next generation, a feminist network in europe, there were an issue with sex work.

At some point NG, first network that evolved in europe in the social forum.

The conflict started in the 2nd forum, in 2003, in paris. That social forum started with the women's day. The day became de-politicized, which was a problem for us. The 2 great issues were: the headscarf and the sex-work. There was a law-project against "passive soliciting. It was supported by many feminists in the forum. We had proposed a woman that worked a lot on trafficking for a panel. They wanted a young eastern european woman from a trafficking issue.

Then they asked about an abstract, so she was going to talk about how this problem is used for anti-immigration. SHe was excluded.

Then there was a workshop about gender-based violence. As we predicted there was a lot on sex-work (more than work).

We found it problematic that sex work is only discussed as a form of violence against women. So when one woman of our group that wanted to voice her opinion they cut the electricity from the mic.

There was a final report that was very miserable and negative, so a couple of us (in the mass of 3000) stood up and started shouting that they are not saying everything.

A group from barcelona, that had pink umbrellas (for another project) so those who couldn't shout they opened the umbrella... and then women with other umbrellas started opening theirs.

So they had to give us the mic, so I spoke and said that there is an official line before the debate. Then we started talking about the scarf and sex work.

So on the spot, we improvised a position and we refused to answer that, but they wouldn't listen and it degenerated into a "you take our husbands" kind of conversation.
After this we had to go home, over the years we tried to continue the conversation and to reflect on the issue.

Definition of trafficking:
There are different legal definition of traficking. It's usually when people are exploited because they are smuggled or helped by traffickers to come and lose their papers. This work can be anything, but it is usually associated with sex work.

We had a position about trafficking, since everyone has "policies and position" about it. The woman, (get her name) would explain to you, how these women that wish to migrate, they don't have access to routs of migration other than trafficking. They don't want to go home! These women keep on coming back, time after time.

For us it is clear to us, this "saving" project is a feminist political issue. So we decided to go and talk to them, to inform them if they don't know or expose their complicity with anti-migration policies.

There is a great problematic gendered view on trafficking.

It was clear for us that this position of "saving the poor other" holds a very sad history, colonialism and such.

But still we were not prepared to the prostitute debate. People concluded that we were the "prostitutes collective".

A dichotomy emerged for us: it's either you're a pro-prostitution or you're an abolition. For us this was not interesting. We said, wait maybe the problem is the way we see it. Sex work is an umbrella term for very different situations. So we voiced our interest in looking at it different.
In feminism it matters a great deal how you imagine the source of gender oppression. This is why there are so many feminisms.

This fear of economics and this fear of sexuality, are both represented as two separate things. This separation is something we could say really works against the feminist debate. hence the sex-work's difficulty.

If you combine these fears, we start looking at other things, like marriage where economics and sexuality come together. So sex-work is not just this marginalized groups, it's maybe marriage.
And when you start looking at it this way, you start seeing it differently.

Marxist feminism also looks at reproductive rights. And this idea that all the affection and care, that are seen as unpaid work, and it is very much gendered.

What we also see in europe, as women start entering the working field, where the traditional women is replaced by another "type" of women, that are economically and ethnically inferior!

We start seeing things differently, we look back at marital love is not so just affection, economics come into the picture too... and sex-work is not that isolated from marriage after all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Women and elections

After the "Sois-belle et vote" turmoil, adnkronos an Iranian presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaie, also targets women. But Mohsen on the other hand is not just stating that pretty women should vote [for him], he is pledging to pay house-wives for being housewives.

Women are often an ignored minority in most society, and even more in the Middle East. In our patriarchal systems, it is the man's eyes that see the world, therefore a virtuous man would have virtuous eyes that don't give women indecent attention. Which often leads to women getting no attention at all.
But in fact we are there, in societies like Lebanon and Iran, women have almost equal chances of education and unsurprisingly they are eager to get an education. So we fill up universities, in Lebanon I can't really find statistics (if someone has information about this issue it would be greatly apreciated), but if we were to believe adnkronos, then about 70% of annual graduates in Iran are women.
These female graduates are not translated into the money generating sector. Why? Stupid tradition, gender-based underpayment, sexual harassment, lack of social support for family units... The list is long, too long even. But the truth on the ground is that women often end up as housewife (aka overworked, underrespected, unpaid individuals for the great majority).
This is exactly what Rezaie is talking about and/or exploiting. Women are educated and they are housewives, if he can draw their attention and convince them to vote for him then he is winning the votes of a a very big target group.
Resaie is not the first one to see this potential in women. The issue is how to convince the women to vote for him. And that is one of the three interesting points about this statement.
Resaie wants to pay women for being housewives, is he trying to appeal to women? Is he trying to improve women's status? That is not certain, in the end, upperclass society doesn't care if women make money or not. It is the working class that would care the most. So in fact, Resaie is appealing more to the more deprived layers of the iranian society rather than women per se.
And the million dollar question is: Hypothetically speaking, if Resaie wins the presidency and implements this plan, will that improve women's situation in Iran?
The answer is unfortunately no. Women's will not have a better life if their work at home is validated more. The problem is not that women's work is not legally rewarded (afterall, Islam does valorize women's labor and imposes on her man to pay her). The real issue is that women are just housewives. Framing housewiness into a money-generating business will reinforce that idea, women will be even more forced into becoming housewives and sexists will have an additional argument to convince women they should stay at home.
Hm, this is even trickier than I initially thought :)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sex work. What’s feminism got to do with it? - Discussion

We don't usually promote events or discussions on the blog, but this discussion is different. This is one of the most controversial issues that we are supposed to deal with as the feminist collective per se, or as feminists in general.
Please find below the invitation to the discussion.

Sex work often puts feminists in difficult positions. On the one hand, many feminists consider that ‘selling one’s body’ cannot be understood outside of patriarchal mechanisms that keep women, and gender non-conform persons, oppressed. That it amounts to violence against women. On the other hand, many feminists know that self-organizing and claiming one’s rights is the way to transform the world. And that this by no means differs for sex workers. “Only rights can stop the wrongs,” says the slogan of sex workers groups all over the world. This talk tells the story of how within a transnational European queer feminist and anti-racist network, called NextGenderation, we came to wrap our heads and hearts around sex work, when we were confronted with the strong refusal of a mainstream women’s movement to acknowledge the complexities and the issues at stake in sex work. We’d like to share our trajectory until now, in order to continue the discussion together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I am not my hair - pseudo-review

As I was running around the Internet and youtube, I stumbled upon a song for a certain India.Arie, the song is "I am not my hair" I had never heard of either the song or the singer.

The message is clear, she is not her hair, she is the person behind the appearances.
In theory we all agree that we are not our hair, we are not our appearances we are the humans within. A human being is a human being regardless of the color of the sink, the fair, the shape of the head, the waste and anything else related to appearances.
But what is interesting about this song (and the message behind it) is not the simple statement, it should be common knowledge. I agree that it's sadly not true when it comes to the actual life, but in theory everyone agrees we should be seen according to who we are not to the way we look.
But anyway, put that aside, what is interesting about this song, is the way the message is formulated. The singer is not arguing with the gossipy-gossip girls gossiping about the way she looks and the way her hair is done... No she is saying who she is!
So thumbs-up for Arie, you are not your hair, you are the person behind those appearances and judging from this first encounter, it's an awesome person behind.
Interesting fact #2: in the third paragraph, India mentions women struggling with cancer. And not surprisingly, this song became a symbol for women's struggle against cancer. With this paragraph Adrie certainly hits the right cord. A woman is so used to putting so much importance into appearances that when she loses a fundamental component to that beauty (such as a woman's crown aka her hair) she loses a lot, though she is fighting for her life she finds herself attacked with either disgust or pity, because she "lost her hair" when did hair become more important than life?

If you google the song you might find dedication made by women to women fighting cancer and those who have lost their hair if not their lives in this battle. India wrote this passage as a dedication to Melissa Etheridge (Female rock star, Lesbian activist, Environmentalist, survivor of cancer in 2007, mother of 4, blond... you pick the identity you want to label her with) inspired by the latter's triumphant performance during the Grammy awards where she appeared bald and alive.
Her performance brought tears to my eyes," Arie says. "At that moment in time, her performance was a juxtaposition of pain and beauty. It symbolized the beauty of strength

Interesting fact #3: check out the lyrics of "I am not my hair"... there's an adsense bar at the bottom of the page, I would bet you anything that it is an ad for cosmetics, non? You see, even if the singer is literally attacking shallowness and attachment to appearances, a robot like google ads would assume that the people reading this article would also be interesting in reading about products that help them cheat to improve the appearances.

Just thought like sharing :)