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

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We recently came across this wonderfully insightful piece on the Arab Spring, despotism, and gender liberation on the blog Kabobfest.  Give it a read!
By Andrew
Originally Published by Kabobfest.com, May 1, 2011

A young woman protests the treatment of one her relatives detained in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison

I remember when Amnesty International accused Egyptian soldiers of arbitrarily detaining women protesters in Tahrir Square and subjecting them to “virginity tests.” The cruelty and degradation to which these women were subjected is indicative of the broader misogynism and patriarchy that exists within Arab societies – phenomenon that have often been exploited by Arab despots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Arab men have some sort of inherent proclivity towards misogynism. To be sure, patriarchy and misogynism are universal phenomenon that affect communities across religious, ethnic, and geographic lines. However, in the context of the “Arab Spring,” ending discrimination against women must be a part of the broader revolutionary agenda. If not, protests sweeping the region will have been rendered useless, and the problems that continue to afflict our respective Arab communities – namely political despotism, civil repression, foreign occupation, and poverty – will only worsen.

The Arab world has known its fair share of women revolutionaries. For decades, Arab women have been the cornerstone of popular movements, organizing their communities within a politically progressive framework. And while many of these women have not been recognized as revolutionaries in the traditional sense of the word, their day-to-day activities – like the management of underground schools during the first Palestinian intifada in the process of maintaining a functional civil society – were integral to long-term movement building and sustaining Arab communities’ social fabric in the face of neo-colonial western hegemonic forces. From Um Khalil to Soha Bechara, every single one of these courageous women has had to overcome significant social barriers in their pursuit of national liberation and broader social justice. Considering that traditional gender roles make it difficult for Arab women to work within the public sphere, it is important to highlight the kinds of sacrifices Arab women are often forced to make in order to become effective political activists, organizers, and leaders.

Soha Bechara published her memoirs in a book titled, My Life for Lebanon. She spent ten years inside of the Khiam torture prison after she attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahad, the general of Israel’s proxy South Lebanese Army (SLA). During that time, Bechara never once betrayed her loyalty to her fellow Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) members, and refused to give up any additional information on resistance activities taking place against the Israeli occupation and the SLA. Her willingness to sacrifice, dedication to the Resistance, and steadfastness in the face of such brutality is representative of the strength, poise, and bravery Arab women have brought – and continue to bring – to national liberation and social justice movements throughout the Arab world.

As Arab leaders continue to greet popular protests against their undemocratic, despotic regimes with wanton violence, protesters should turn to Soha Bechara’s story for inspiration. In the years leading up to her assassination attempt on Antoine Lahad, Bechara underwent a personal revolution that reflected her nuanced understanding of the systemic consequences of Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon. At the age of 15, she swore off love and relationships for the sake of her commitment to the Resistance. According to Bechara, “Like all the other girls of my generation, I wanted to have a boyfriend, and I dreamt of having a married life and having a family and children. But all that was impossible because of the pressing circumstances we were living through; I thought then that if pepole could sacrifice themselves for personal ends, why should they not do so for national reasons?”

The point here isn’t to discourage rebels and protesters in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria from enjoying romantic relationships. Rather, the fact that Bechara felt pressure to choose between being in a romantic relationship and fighting on behalf of her nation is significant, as men do not generally feel pressure to choose between their nation and having a family. Additionally, Bechara’s decision to sacrifice her comfort and independence for the sake of national liberation is more about her repudiation of traditional gender roles than it is about swearing off interpersonal relationships altogether. In fact, Bechara took inspiration from other women around her that had already embraced a life of resistance: “I’m a peaceful person by nature, but when Sanaa Al-Mehidly, an 18-year-old Lebanese girl, blew herself up as an Israeli patrol was passing in 1985, that shocked me and made me ready for the struggle.”

For Bechara, the Resistance wasn’t an abstract idea; it was a way of life that defined her very existence. Rather than rejecting the reality of Israel’s occupation and ignoring the circumstances that made a “normal” life impossible, Bechara opened herself up to the possibility that a life of struggle was better than a life of fear and intimidation under occupation. To an extent, this is the same realization hundreds of thousands of Arabs make each day as they take to the streets in protest against their respective despots. Although not physically occupied by a foreign power, the same sense of despair Egyptians felt under Mubarak compelled them ot interrupt their daily routine, demand Mubarak’s resignation, and continue calls for a new, democtratic Egypt.

While imprisoned inside the Khiam, Bechara’s captors subjected her to various forms of sexualized violence, including harsh “interrogation” sessions laden with oppressive sexual innuendo and rape threats. Although Bechara never discloses whether or not she was actually sexually assaulted, she makes it perfectly clear that the Khiam’s SLA forces used sex as a means of intimidating her, framing her routine physical beatings within a genderized context.

Given that patriarchy and misogyny are tools that Arab despots – like Ali Abdallah Saleh and Hosni Mubarak – use and have used to manipulate and oppress Arab countries, gender liberation is not simply a part of national liberation; it is essential to realizing freedom, justice, and equality throughout the Arab world. The consequences of war, political strife, and economic instability in Arab countriesdisproportionately impact women, thus highlighting the need for Arab women to take a more prominent role in decision-making processes. Although women have been at the forefront of the “Arab Spring” – in Bahrain, women are taking the lead on promoting national unity in order to avoid the same divisive sectarian tensions that plague countries like Iraq and Lebanon – it is unclear as to whether or not their prominent role in popular protests will translate to radical structural change that will facilitate gender equity, economic justice, and political power.

Although My Life for Lebanon wasn’t an explicitly feminist narrative, Bechara’s memoirs represent one woman’s struggle to overcome patriarchy and sexual violence in the course of achieving national liberation. Bechara’s experiences further undermine the preposterous idea that gender liberation is subordinate to national liberation. The same way in which Soha’s personal revolution impacted all facets of her life, our people’s liberation struggle is incomplete unless it demands freedom, equality, and liberation for all regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, and other social identities.

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