LEBANON: Feminist Group Reclaiming Gender Roles in Lebanon

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The Daily Star
Western Asia
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Nasawiya, a feminist collective in Lebanon about to celebrate its first anniversary, is seeking to change the discourse about women's issues in the country by creating a safe space for discussion and initiatives to educate Lebanese society about feminism.

“I didn't know what feminism was when I was younger because I never learned about it in school. It's not a word you hear often,” said the coordinator for Nasawiya, Farah Salka.

“It's a word that scares people. People say ‘No, I'm totally not a feminist,' even when they agree with the same principles I do.”

Nasawiya – or “feminist” – is not a women's rights organization of the traditional, issue-based model. It was set up in February 2010 specifically as a collective of members who adhere to a common, feminist ideology and want to work together on gender-related issues.

“[Women's rights] are more of a checklist like participation in politics, work, education, etcetera. When you get those rights you check it off and think, ‘finished,'” said Salka, adding that Nasawiya's mission is, “much deeper than getting the law right, thinking about how to make society actually adapt to it and accept it.”

There are currently 52 core collective members, both men and women, who embrace feminism not just as activism but as a holistic lifestyle.

“Feminism is a whole state of being. It's having lenses on your eyes, your ears, all your senses all the time. You're not a feminist just when you're doing activism work, you're a feminist all the time. You're a feminist when you're watching a movie, where you decide to go out, the way you make your economic choices. All the smallest details and the biggest details,” explained Salka.

The organization's programming reflects this outlook. The collective holds weekly film screenings and discussion groups as a part of their “internal education” efforts. Recent discussions have delved into topics such as masculinity and Islamic feminism.

Education at Nasawiya also takes the form of training sessions. Nasawiya's technology initiative, “Take back the Tech,” offers workshops on blogging, social media, photography and Web site design.

The organization also hosts an online feminist forum, “Sawt al-Niswa,” that reaches a wider audience and where the organization posts interviews with Lebanese women, research, and position papers.

“We empower ourselves through technology,” with the aim to reclaim “the image of women in media,” said Salka.

Nasawiya recently launched a media campaign addressing sexual harassment. The campaign is based around a character named Salwa who “always answers back.”

In each episode Salwa encounters and fights sexual harassment in different environments: the workplace, a taxi and the cinema.

Salka's hope is that “Salwa is someone to look up to for the many girls who have not been brought up to answer to sexual harassment, because they've been told, ‘it's okay, let it pass.' Salwa can be sort of a wake-up call that we should speak about the issue.”

The Salwa campaign, for which seven episodes are planned, is part of Nasawiya's outreach and training program, “Feminist Tools for Change.”

Salka has conducted trainings at non-governmental organizations, schools, and universities on, “anything they need from a gender lens including technology, advertising, body image and self-esteem, anything.”

Yet, the organization's ultimate goal is to impact the debate on issues that face women in Lebanon, a long list of societal and structural problems, according to Salka. “Wherever you look there are still problems … If you are a woman you are not a citizen. You are either the daughter of somebody or the wife of somebody. And if you're not one of those you are nobody … At the same time there is no law on sexual harassment, the law on domestic violence hasn't passed yet, and women's political participation is very low.”

But first, Nasawiya wants to dispel assumptions about feminists.

“Many people make fun of you when you say you are a feminist. Being a feminist is not something that's gender-related. Being a feminist is an ideology anybody can take. We need more women and men. We need to break stereotypes on the issue of feminism.”