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

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The Human Rights Film Festival taking place in Beirut from January 27-30, 2011 is going to feature a day of films focusing on women’s rights in the Arab World! Here’s a quick preview of the films selected for screenings.  For more information, visit their website here.

27 January 2011 – Women’s rights
“My Nationality is a Right for me and My Family” by the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A), 2007, Arabic / English subtitles

If an Arab woman marries a foreign national she is not entitled to pass her nationality to her spouse and children. This is not the case for Arab men who are allowed by law to pass their nationality to both their spouses and their children.
Across the Machreq-Maghreb countries, women are being denied their universal right to nationality. They do not have the same legal entitlements to citizenship as men. The inability to extend her nationality not only denies a woman her full rights as a national, but also denies her children their basic rights as human beings. This exclusion may deny children basic rights to health care and education, or to marriage or travel. Furthermore, children excluded from nationality rights can be denied residence and deported, thus breaking families apart.

“My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family” campaign (Jinsiyati 7ak li wa li Osrati) tries to put women’s-basic-right-to-nationality under the spot light; Its major goal is to amend the nationality code in Lebanon as well as in other Arab countries.


“About Latifa and Others…” by Farah Sami Fayed, Future News Production in cooperation with Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation, 54 min, 2010, Arabic / English subtitles
Latifah Kassir was killed. Her death was not the most tragic part of her story. At the beginning, ten years of marriage to an abusive husband, and later a traumatizing divorce process that left her and her two children at the mercy of a violent drug addict, unjust laws and an alienating society.
There were days, towards the end, when she believed she can write a new story for herself and her family. She was wrong. On a sunny April morning in 2010, her ex, Ibrahim strangled her to death with a towel in her house.

It was her children, who discovered her a few hours later, when they came home from school.

It is this story, and that of two other female victims of abuse that About Latifa and Others tells. Another of the film’s character, Amina Beydoun, was also killed by her husband, while the third, Almaza Hourani, has been the victim of a legal system that rarely gives justice to women.


“Survivor”, by Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation, funded by the Italian cooperation/Italian Embassy in Beirut, 6:25 min, 2008, Arabic / English subtitles

“Survivor” is a combination of drama and live testimonies of Lebanese women, who are beneficiaries of Kafa (Enough) Violence & Exploitation’s Listening and Counselling Center. The film highlights the legal obstacles faced by each woman victim of domestic violence and shows how the absence of a specific law that protects women from domestic violence limits, in many cases, the chances of women to become “survivors” of violence.


“For you” by Mirna, Nidaa, Ruwaida, Almaza, Lina, trainer Cindrella Mizher, “Multimedia Virtual Space for Human Rights” project funded by the EU and carried on by COSV, KAFA, PPM and CLDH, 6 min, 2010, Arabic / English subtitles

A group of women discussing their custody experiences with each other… They demand a just law that assures equality to all of us.
This documentary was done during a workshop with 25 women beneficiaries of the Ngo Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation.


“The Adventures of Salwa”, created and directed by Amanda Abou Abdallah, Designed and animated by Wahm productions –Helene Sawma with the support of the Netherlands Embassy in Lebanon, Nasawaiya – Indyact, 1:30 min, 2010, Arabic / English subtitles

Salwa is an average Lebanese woman who is sick of sexual harassment that has become part of her daily life and decided to take matters into her own hands. Her superpower lies in her bag.
Salwa is the mascot and the image of the Anti-Harassment Campaign launched by a group of young feminists.
We’ve had enough of the sexual harassment (verbal, and physical) we face on the streets, in public transportation, in our homes, schools and jobs.

“CEDAW” by Mirna, Afaf, Samar, Sona, Samar, trainer Cindrella Mizher, “Multimedia Virtual Space for Human Rights” project funded by the EU and carried on by COSV, KAFA, PPM and CLDH, 7:50 min, 2010, Arabic / English subtitles

Within any discussion about women’s rights, an international convention always seems to pop up…
We wanted to know more about it in our society, so we went to the streets and talked to people.
A group of 25 women participated in making this film and they are all beneficiaries of the Ngo Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation.


“A house among many houses” by Sana Atrissi, 15 min, 2010, Arabic / English subtitles

A thousand mile journey starts with one step and breaking the silence in an entire society starts with one woman. She decided blow a whistle in a deeply patriarchal society on a taboo subject: sexual harassment. A journey that starts with one family travels to every home



“Empty Talk” by Amanda Abou Abdallah, 11 min, 2009, Arabic / English subtitles

5 Lebanese women talking about their inner struggles, fears, dreams and self-image.
Each one has a different story to tell but somehow they are all connected.
Awards and Festivals: 16th European film festival 2009 – Winner of best short film; 3rd NDU film festival, Lebanon 2009 – Winner of 2nd prize; 5th Monaco film festival 2010 – Official selection; 8th student film festival 2010 – official selection; 18th Damascus international film festival 2010 – official competition



Originally posted by McClatchy Newspapers

By Shashank Bengali, January 17 2010

CAIRO — The big screen shows a man eyeing a middle-aged woman on a jam-packed bus and sliding up quietly behind her. Even before his hands reach for her hips, the young women watching in the darkened theater squirm in their seats. They know the offending move all too well.

In overcrowded, male-dominated Cairo, four out of five Egyptian women say they’ve been brushed, rubbed, squeezed, teased, catcalled, trailed or otherwise treated inappropriately by strange men in public. Now, what experts describe as Egypt’s epidemic of sexual harassment is the subject of a new feature film that’s sparked debate over an everyday crime long shrouded in silence.

Released last month and inspired by true stories, the film is titled “678,” for the number of the bus that one of the main characters rides to work each morning, where she becomes the helpless object of lewd behavior. Writer-director Mohamed Diab said the numerals also signified a problem that was increasing steadily as Egypt confronted a complex mix of social issues: economic stagnation, rising religious conservatism and changing attitudes about women and sex.

In the film, a mob of men assaults a jeweler outside a soccer game; afterward, her husband says he can’t bear to look at her. A pretty young woman from a well-to-do family chases frantically after a truck driver who grabbed her breast as he drove past.

The two victims form an unlikely friendship with the working-class woman on the bus, and together they plot to exact violent revenge on Cairo’s men.

After a screening one recent afternoon at a Cairo shopping mall, a gaggle of college-age girls nodded enthusiastically when they were asked whether the stories rang true.

“It’s so real. I loved it so much,” gushed Nariman Farouk, a 20-year-old fine arts student.

“Every shot is real. Those things happen all the time,” Farouk said. They happen so often, in fact, that she’s taken to carrying her keys in one fist when she walks through the city, the sharp metal edges ready to strike in case someone tries anything.

Experts say the phenomenon risks pushing women further into the shadows of Egyptian society.

In this proud, polyglot country of more than 80 million people, however, the film also drew criticism.

At least one lawsuit already has been filed against Diab, who’s 33, accusing him of inciting women to violence. Another accused him of sullying Egypt’s image; that suit was thrown out of court.

“I knew this would happen,” said Diab, a screenwriter with several blockbuster films to his credit. “It’s creating a huge debate, which is the reason I made the film: to break the silence.”

American moviegoers might recall “Disclosure,” the 1994 Hollywood film that featured Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in a he-said she-said battle over harassment allegations in a corporate executive suite. In Egypt, sexual harassment is a street-level phenomenon that experts say is rooted in the shrinking public space for women, an idea that “678” drives home in every shot of a bus, market, stadium or theater filled with men.

In 2008, a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, an independent advocacy group, revealed a startling statistic: Eighty-three percent of Egyptian women reported that they’d been sexually harassed. A majority of incidents aren’t physical, and very few are outright violent. Most happen in a flash, women say: A man grabs you from behind on a busy street and disappears into the crowd, or he lets his hand linger for a moment as he brushes past.

While 53 percent of the men in the survey blamed women for “bringing it on” by wearing provocative clothes, the study showed that most incidents targeted women who were dressed modestly, often wearing the traditional Muslim head covering known as hijab. In the film, harassers equally victimize veiled women and those in Western outfits; one of the characters goes jogging in a sweatsuit through a tony Cairo suburb and elicits catcalls from passing cars.

“When I interviewed girls, I discovered that it doesn’t matter who you are, if you look good or not, if you’re covered or not,” Diab said. “If you’re a female, it’s going to happen to you.”

Experts are divided over the causes. Some see the spread of a more conservative form of Sunni Islam, imported by Egyptians who went to study or work in Persian Gulf countries starting in the 1970s, that relegates women to subordinates and treats sex as taboo.

Others blame President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year stranglehold on the country, which has tightly restricted political speech and used security forces to control dissent rather than promote the law. Chronic underemployment also has forced many men to delay marriage until their 30s or 40s, contributing to sexual frustration because cultural practices frown on sex out of wedlock.

“We don’t have personal security. We have political security,” said Nehad Abu El Komsan, the chairwoman of the rights group that conducted the survey. “There is no interest if a woman goes to the police station to make a report about harassment. It’s become a safe crime. You can commit it once, tens or hundreds of times without any consequences.”

Many Egyptian men, however, think that women exaggerate the problem.

“It’s not that big a thing. It’s definitely not that common,” said Mohammed Attef, a 22-year-old musician who said he’d heard of “678” but didn’t plan to see it.

“It seems like the media are overinflating the issue. If I ever saw a girl getting harassed, I would definitely step in to stop it.”

Diab said this was the reaction he expected from Egyptian men.

“My father, he would take this issue very lightly,” he said. “That’s why this film needed to be made by a man, because when women say these things they don’t have any credibility in Egypt. When men talk about it, the community takes it seriously.”

Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-born, Brooklyn NY-raised poet and activist.  On December 7, she joined other women’s right activists from around the world at the TEDWomen conference in Washington, DC.  She performed her poem “What I Will” with those gathered at the conference:


What I Will

I will not
dance to your war
drum. I will
not lend my soul nor
my bones to your war
drum. I will
not dance to your
beating. I know that beat.
It is lifeless. I know
intimately that skin
you are hitting. It
was alive once
hunted stolen
stretched. I will
not dance to your drummed
up war. I will not pop
spin beak for you. I
will not hate for you or
even hate you. I will
not kill for you. Especially
I will not die
for you. I will not mourn
the dead with murder nor
suicide. I will not side
with you nor dance to bombs
because everyone else is
dancing. Everyone can be
wrong. Life is a right not
collateral or casual. I
will not forget where
I come from. I
will craft my own drum. Gather my beloved
near and our chanting
will be dancing. Our
humming will be drumming. I
will not be played. I
will not lend my name
nor my rhythm to your
beat. I will dance
and resist and dance and
persist and dance. This heartbeat is louder than
death. Your war drum ain’t
louder than this breath.

By Maggie Abu Khadra

Originally published by Sawt al-Niswa, November 16, 2010

Abu Khadra, a guest contributer to the Lebanese feminist webspace Sawt al Niswa, has written this eloquent piece on the tribulations of a single girl’s life in Beirut.



Whether I am single or not: People always tend to meddle. I do say “people.” The term is vague. So are the borders.

Where does society draw the margin between the private and the public sphere?

It is unacceptable to enter someone’s house and rummage around. Yet, isn’t it deplorable when you pry into my privacy?

Would I be chaste had I pretended to fit into what is morally acceptable? I could have been promiscuous. I could have been the loose, wanton foreigner. Would that have made me a saint had I been acting in secret?

I did find myself the topic of discussion. I have no doubt. Did I care? No.

Their venomous words were vainly detrimental.

My faith-in-myself shut them up once and all.

I conquered the cynic and the criticism.

I don’t want to pretend I was “untouched.” I am not!!!

I am proud of who I am – whether or not my acts are appropriate, I be the judge.

Not you, my neighbor.

Nor you, old lady peering high and mighty.

Yes, the guy you see is my boyfriend.

That guy holding my hand is the same guy.

Oh yes, he hugged me on the street.

“Has she no shame?” I could hear them thinking.

Indeed, you saw right, he kissed me on the mouth and drove off.

He kissed me and came up. Those times, I looked happy, not arrogant, nor defying.

I was simply happy and I held my head up high.

I was happy because I was free. Free to love.

Free to live purely.

I did not put on a show to please.

I did not live a sham. My privacy was unsullied.

In their eyes and esteem, the tarnished became untainted.


Says Syrian poet Adonis:

“Right now we feel Arab culture is paralyzed. We suffer from women’s sense of their lack of freedom, of being deprived of their individualism. It’s impossible for a culture to progress with men alone, without women being involved.”

“The person who is oppressed is the woman, but the real slave is the man, caught up in defending his enslavement. Women should help him become free.”

On poetry: “Poetry cannot change society,” Adonis said. “Poetry can only change the notion of relationships between things. Culture cannot change without a change in institutions.”

New York Times

October 17, 2010

The BBC has shared an interview done with a group of young, female, Egyptian designers living in working in Cairo. Not only are they proud of their artistic and entrepreneurial achievements (and rightfully so! Their work is beautiful), but they expressed pride in the fact that their work represents Egyptian work: it’s unique, and the products and patterns have an Egyptian spin to them.

Flip-Flops by Shibshibi

Watch the interview (and admire the clothes!) on the BBC.

When art and activism join forces, you can expect some truly remarkable results! Here is a video featured on YouTube by Nasawiya, a self-declared Feminist Collective based in Beirut.  Nasawiya has worked to reign in the Internet as part of the feminist-activism campaigns, using the creativity and technical skills of the collaborators and participants to create art that doubles as a public messaging campaign. In this film, a young woman in Beirut opens her door over and over again only to hear judgmental, sexist comments about her appearance being lobbied at her from the street below. Every time she goes to the door, opening it becomes harder and harder.

Nasawiya works on many other projects, including tech-based trainings for women, cooperating with other women’s rights and feminist forums in the Arab World, and supporting a migrant-worker task force.

Check out Nasawiya’s website, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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