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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Originally published by Sawt al Niswa, November 8, 2010

By Farah Salka


I found this photo on one of the “WTF: Only in Lebanon” Facebook pages today. I fell in love with it and the woman on the bike. She really inspired me for all of what the picture represented. Then, while I was still in the middle of falling in love with this and getting all inspired, I scrolled down and checked the comments.
Surprise, surprise? Not really. Just the same Lebanese traumatic sexist, classist and racist comments intertwined together in one, the one unified skill that most Lebanese people share and excel at.

Mahmoud Abboud: “ana rayhaa jeb graad la madam.” [I am going to get things for the “madame”]

Mohamad Fakih: “mish haydeh yalli kanit tinzal bil mouzaharat?” [Isn’t this the same one who used to go down in the protests?] (Referring to the suddenly-turned-famous-photo depicting an old Lebanese woman (yaani “madame”) hitting the streets in one of the “cedar revolution” protests in 2005 with “her” migrant domestic worker who, in the photo, was holding the Lebanese flag for “madame”.)

Princess Soleil: “ken ba3ed na2sna haydeeeeeeeeee!!” [That is what we needed]

Mohammad Ajouz: “2aywan ba3ed na22eessss”. [Same as above, but different, more sarcastic wording]

Shahen Ian: “hayda yelli modern..” [Wow, very modern]

These are but a few of many other comments, mirroring the crisis situation we are in today, where not only the older generation – but also young Lebanese, many of whom self-identify as leftists – are being raised with all possible options for education but no peace education, love education, rights and responsibilities education, feminist education, etc…
We have a whole generation, as young as it is, as fresh as it is, drowning with racism (and other similar “isms”) in their everyday language, comments, jokes and appraisals.

They think they are better off than other “species,” especially better off than Nepalis, Palestinians, Sri Lankans, Syrians, Ethiopians, Filipinos, Romanians, Indians, Egyptians and this list can go on forever to include every non-white person coming from a developing country (yes, yes the premise is that Lebanon is a developed country). They are better off in terms of their smell, of what they wear, of how they speak, of where they work, of where they go out, of their education and of all the other smaller miscellaneous things similar to this small act of owning and/or riding a motorcycle.

What does it mean that such a photo has enraged so many and has incited reactions of either anger or mockery?
Is this just a person on a bike at the end of the day? Or maybe not. A woman on a bike. A migrant woman on a bike. A black, migrant woman on a bike.

Apparently, then, having such an identity on a motorbike in a place like Lebanon is in itself problematic.

For starters, a woman’s place is not on a motorbike. We Lebanese can barely take seeing women in cars and we make fun of them and bully them 24/7. Now they want to ride bikes too? Helou.

Besides, a migrant woman’s place is not out of the house of her employers, unless she is out to purchase things for her employers. Sri Lankans* are born to work in Lebanese homes behind closed doors, to be oppressed, to be paid – if at all – unfair wages, to shut up and listen to orders, to eat what is left for them, to not expect days off or hours off, to not possess their passports and personal documents, to not communicate with their families, to not have friends, to not find someone from their country to talk to in the same language lest they forget it, to not nag, to not feel pain, to not get sick, to not watch TV, to not leave the house to see something of a country they’ve lived in for 3 years plus besides the rooms they clean, to not get fed up, to not be allowed into private beaches and clubs, and to not, not, not and more not’s.

And after all those not’s, Sri Lankans die. Commit suicide. Get thrown off of balconies. Drink detergents. Hang themselves with whatever clothes they manage to find. Go back home in coffins. No one ever links all of those “not’s” with the fate of 1 to 2 migrant domestic workers dying per week in a country as small as Lebanon.

But wait a second. Lebanon is a still very modern country. This is what some of the people commenting on this photo said. So what if we constantly look down on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans? So what if we have no clue that in Sri Lanka, a beauty in its land and people, women and men drive motorbikes and no one looks at the women as though they are aliens? No one notices it there, because it is just plain normal that women, too, can drive a motorbike.

In any case, I am in no position to be comparing most Lebanese to most Sri Lankans**. There is no base to even start from. In my very few days in Sri Lanka, I talked and interacted and lived with these people. And as much as I was unconsciously guilty from my background as someone coming from Lebanon, they were whole-heartedly welcoming and hospitable and loving, even when they knew where I came from. They did mention that they hear stories here and there about some women facing troubles in Lebanon, but they then continued that sentence saying that there are so many Sri Lankan women traveling for work to Lebanon and they appreciate all what we are doing for them. I would nod and change the subject.
If only they knew.

They were the friendliest of people and we are the most barbaric. They treat US tourists so positively. And we treat them as workers like slaves and objects. The motorcycle-riding woman who I bow to was just a reminder of this slavery crisis in Lebanon, long forgotten and ignored.

* Which, in the Lebanese context of course, is less a nationality than a noun that includes 12 or more migrant nationalities
** And I say most because I do acknowledge that exceptions are present


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