Rough translation of the Vogue Arabia article (aka my one-minute modeling career!) – here you go!
How did you become a feminist and an activist in defense of gender equality?
I was born into this! I am Lebanese-Palestinian Arab-American born into two different religions and yet firmly secular. Feminist activism has always been how I orient myself amidst these identity markers. I had a strong sense of equality and justice from a very young age. When I was 14 I took a course on women’s history where we studied the different forms of violence that women are subjected to all over the world. And that was it for me! I had found what I wanted to do. At that point I did not know how to do it – but I felt so strongly about this issue. It is the most egregious violation of human rights and the greatest injustice I can imagine. And that’s all I’ve done ever since!
How has being an activist affected how you live your life and react to the world?
Being an activist is not just a job – it’s the way I see the world, the way I interact with it. My feminism is my moral compass. It’s the strongest aspect of my identity and the one to which I am the most loyal.
Are the challenges faced by Arab women different from those faced by women in general?
In the region we are in a state of perpetual insecurity – either full-blown conflict, or socio-political and economic challenges, or all these combined. In these settings, women’s rights are the first to be stripped and the hardest to revive. Look at the Global Gender Gap Report, or the Women Peace and Security Index – this region ranks last all the time.
At the Institute we don’t stop fighting – addressing critical issues like GBV in the region, what’s holding Arab women back from equality, violence, inequalities and challenges for Arab women, and repeal of Lebanon’s Article 522, the so-called “marry-your-rapist” law. We have a lot of work to do.
What do you think are the most important gender related struggles in Arab societies?
It’s important to note that NO country in the world has achieved full gender equality, but this region ranks lowest in the world, according to global measures. We are challenged by all forms of insecurity, plagued by patriarchy, and suffocating under conservative movements that are gaining power. We’re even seeing a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms.
For many Arab countries, instability is becoming the norm. The region’s multiple humanitarian crises – Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq – have destroyed systems of social protection, reduced access to safe services and support, displaced communities, and increased vulnerabilities.
We know that emergencies are more dangerous for women. Not only are women deliberately targeted, but conflicts also bring insecurities that compel women to resort to risky sources of income, such as trafficking and sex work, in order to survive. We’re seeing this in the region. And in so-called peace, new vulnerabilities emerge for women.
Research shows that the biggest predictor of peace in a country is not economics or politics, but how the country treats its women. We have a long way to go!
Gender-based violence is also a very serious issue in the region. This violence takes many forms here – but intimate partner violence is the most common and affects 1/3 of women in the region. But, social stigma and family and community pressures keep women from reporting it. All forms of sexual violence are present – and prevalent – here. Sexual harassment is an increasing problem – and most people don’t even know what it is, much less how to fight it.
Arab women are economic disempowered – they are an underutilized economic force. In this region, only ¼ of women work outside the home – making this one of the lowest rates of female employment in the world! Those women who do work are often stuck in traditionally feminized sectors. And women are promoted less, protected less, and have less access to decision-making positions. Imagine – if we keep going at this pace, the region’s 39% gender gap will take another 356 years to close!
Laws, systems and structures are stuck. We’re not able to advance because we can’t access positions of power that will bring us the changes we seek. It’s obvious that Arab women are absent from politics and leadership. This lack of political participation is largely due to cultural barriers, a lack of access to economic and financial resources, and the absence of successful active role models in politics. Arab men still rule the political sphere – meaning that men continue to make decisions that govern the lives of women.
The underlying message is this: unless we’re addressing inequalities everywhere, we will achieve equality nowhere.
Where do you start building a new attitude towards women’s rights? With education, laws or culture?
All of these! And all of them at the same time. I come from many years of work in humanitarian emergencies, and now I’m working in academia. These are separate areas – but equally important in terms of building a culture of women’s rights and equality. This should be a collective commitment – not just a women’s issue or a job for women. It’s actually not the job of women and girls to fix the historic inequality and discrimination that has been perpetuated by patriarchy.
In this region, laws are changing slowly – and incompletely. And changing legislation is not enough. What exists on paper and in practice are often very different things.
We could be better at implementing the right messages in education – starting with the very youngest. Messages should address equality, human rights, social justice. They should defy stereotypes and combat discrimination. We also need basic education on sexual and reproductive health and rights – consent, bodily integrity, safe/unsafe touching, etc. We need to learn about our bodies and how to own and honor our bodies from the very beginning. This will help us create our own boundaries in order to stay safe.
The history of the Institute tells the story of the region, in many ways. The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World exists under the Lebanese American University, an institution founded as a school for girls in the 1830s! And the Institute itself was established in 1973 to honor that legacy and preserve our commitment to equality, empowerment, and education for women and girls. It was the first of its kind in the region – and among the first in the world! The existence of this place as a global pioneer gives me hope that change is possible in the region.
Has social media helped shed light on gender inequality and the struggles for gender equality? And does social media create new forms of gender violence and inequality?
Social media has helped connect the feminist movement in unprecedented ways. It reminds us that we are part of a bigger movement – that we are together in our collective struggle. Social media helps to build good practice and disseminate global guidance. Online we are able to share strategies and overcome challenges. Most importantly, social media fuels our movements – #YesAllWomen and #MeToo and #16Days and many more.
And yes, social media has presented new risks for women and girls. It has unleashed a new form of violence against women in the form of trolls whose vitriol is both damaging and frightening. We don’t know enough about how to regulate this, given the freedom and fluidity of this form of media. But the violence with which trolls harass women is on the rise. Their goal is to control and silence us – but we are not going to keep quiet!
What explains the recent waves of men in powerful positions being exposed for sexual harassment?
It has been extraordinary being a part of the MeToo movement. Every single woman I know can share a MeToo story – sadly. I think it comes from an anger that has been brewing for a long time. We saw the power of this on the streets during the Women’s March in January 2017. And the momentum continues. In this region, we still need our MeToo moment. And yet, we’ve been whispering MeToo for a long time. Maybe now we’ll be able to raise our voices as well. Because this MeToo movement has brought a justice that is much-deserved and long overdue. I hope this justice is contagious!
This region needs examples of feminism beating patriarchy – it will fuel our fight and give us courage to continue!
Are you optimistic about where we are going vis-a-vis women’s struggles in the Arab world? And why?
I am cautiously optimistic. I have to be optimistic or I would not be able to sustain this kind of work. I honestly believe that equality is a possibility, and that empowerment of women and girls in the Arab world WILL happen. But I’m not sure I’ll see the results I want in my lifetime. Still – I wouldn’t do anything else. And I will do this with every bit of energy I have – for as long as I have. It’s not just a job – it’s a life commitment.