Lebanon’s new miracle
Youssef Bazzi - 17/05/2005
From the very first demonstration women began arriving in huge numbers, spontaneously and totally unexpected. Their enthusiasm and unprecedented presence at these events broke with the conventions of party political, union and "popular" demonstrations that women traditionally stayed away from.
On the day of Rafiq Hariri's funeral march the women of Beirut left their homes as they had never done before. Rich and poor together, the secretaries, doctors, housewives, students, clerks and professionals--even pop stars, models and intellectuals--poured onto the streets and joined the march, driven by feelings of calamity and rage.
From that day onwards not one of these women, young or old, held back. They were there for the funeral marches and the major demonstrations; they made daily visits to Hariri's tomb; they held strikes; they devised slogans, made signs and carried banners.
This female presence came as both a surprise and a shock. Even the most conservative estimations it constituted a profound transformation in Lebanese society. Uncertainty, even avoidance, had always characterized women's response to political activity, whether in demonstrations, populist rallies or organized politics.
This dramatic shift, which neither the opposition nor regime loyalists nor observers had managed to predict, could be considered as the opposition's most important political achievement, albeit an accidental one. In other words, the country witnessed a vitally important social change that leapfrogged the gulf between Lebanese women and politics and went far beyond the Kota projects for female political representation that had been so tentatively and uncertainly proposed only a few months previously. So powerful was the shock that some regime loyalists, bitter at the opposition, set about denigrating the morals of the demonstrators in Freedom Square on the grounds that women and men were mingling together thus making a mockery of the idea of Freedom Square itself, and denying women their freedom. The greater part of their statements lauded the "manliness" and "masculinity" which distinguished their own (armed) factions and described the opposition demonstrators as "effeminate", mocking the sizable female presence amongst the opposition groups. At some of the loyalist demonstrations banners were held up that talked about the effeminacy of the opposition, calling opposition activists "Foufou" and "Nono". The clash between the opposition and the regime loyalists mirrored a deep socio-cultural divide that went far beyond politics. The loyalists drew on a Arab nationalist heritage rich in a violent militaristic and militia based machismo. The opposition on the other hand grew from Lebanon's experiments with modernism, democracy, urban life and social plurality. The 27th April was yet another demonstration of the opposition's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for innovation. The all-female demonstration, a-flutter with the white handkerchiefs of the women participants was a powerful signal of the Lebanese woman's growing political strength and an official admission by the opposition parties of the role they would play in advancing the cause of gender equality in Lebanon. Yet this demonstration was not an opposition initiative, or a reflection of their political priorities, but derived instead from the insistence of Lebanese women on their right to political participation.
As per usual the organizers of the loyalist demonstrations, having failed to include women in their initial demonstrations, were forced to take notice and play catch-up. In their last demonstration outside the American embassy in Okar they gathered together women and girls and sought to play down the images of waving fists, grimaces and the generally combative atmosphere that characterized their previous efforts.
The story of Maria Hebri, a rich Lebanese woman, exemplifies Lebanese women's struggle for their independence. This university educated woman who owns a shop selling art works and restoring antiques was afflicted with deep shock and sadness by Hariri's murder, She called her son who is studying in America and told him: "Don't come back to Lebanon. This is a country where they kill dreams." She had opposed him leaving to America, but on the day of Hariri's funeral she shook off her lethargy and resolved to act. She called up all her son's friends and formed a group with one purpose: to hand out Lebanese flags to people and encourage them to hang them from their balconies.
Without knowing it, her little initiative captured a general mood amongst other Lebanese women who had, like her, decided to do something. This mass mobilization was yet another sign of Lebanese civil society's hidden reserves of strength; strength that gave unexpected impetus to the opposition movement.
It would be no exaggeration to claim that, symbolically at least, the opposition's moral and spiritual strength was Janus faced: on one side, the sad silent countenance of the widowed Nazik Al-Hariri, the victim's wife, and on the other the angry face of his sister, Bahia Al-Hariri. While Nazik's expression moved from placid happiness to tragic despair, Bahia's proud contentment was transformed into tormented rage. These transformations reflected the change in Lebanese women, who rose up of their own free will, pouring onto the streets and engaging in direct action, changing in their turn, the face of Lebanese politics and the hoary conventions of mass rallies and demonstrations.
Bahia Al-Hariri MP, Sunni Muslim, social and educational activist and a lifelong Goodwill Ambassador for Unesco, is now the most popular candidate for the position of prime minister, whether she likes it or not. This unwanted and spontaneous popular acclaim exceeds the the most far-fetched political ambitions of the female population. After her decisive and powerful speech before the historic session of parliament that toppled the government followed by her address of the 14th April in which she introduced the opposition's discourse into an inclusive manifesto for the nation as a whole, it seemed as if her brother's death had made a leader out of Bahia Al-Hariri. Brushing away a tear with her thumb, a bewitching hoarseness emanating from her marble throat, the young Ghanwa Jalul took her place as one of the cornerstones of the opposition. Originally from Sydney in Australia, this professor of technology at the AUB, an MP in the Lebanese parliament since 2000 and mother of three, was an symbol for a generation of educated youth fascinated by the technologies and ideas of globalization, a generation that Al-Hariri gambled on to support him as he confronted the militias and traditional politicians. This young woman who once defeated President Salim Al-Hass in the elections is now a prominent voice in her own right, relentlessly attacking and challenging the status quo.
The secret to the defiance of the Freedom Square demonstrators is only known to a few: the preparation, organization and logistical support given to the opposition groups and demonstrations relied first and foremost on the feverish activity, long experience and precise management of Nora Jumblatt. Working round the clock and permanently exhausted, yet always shunning the limelight on the edge of the crowds, she made sure the young men and women in the Square were kept comfortable: food, water, mobile lavatories, media coverage, signs, transportation, posters, leaflets, even toothpaste, televisions and stereos were provided.
The daughter of the former Syrian Minister of Defence Ahmed Al-Sharabati and a Lithuanian mother, an artist, director of the Beit Al-Din festivals, owner of 50*70, a fine art gallery and wife and friend to Walid Jumblatt, today Nora is one of the least prominent and most effective women in Freedom Square. Nora is also part of a women's lobby alongside Hoda, the wife of former minister Bahij Tabara, Nada Basim Al-Sabaa and Dr. Samar Jabur Khouri, a drug-addicition specialist and wife of MP Ghatis Khouri. These women form a support and logistics team for these vast demonstrations, lending their superlative administrative and organizational talents for the benefit of all.
Naila Maawad, widow of former president Renee Maawad often seems to be the most enthusiastic of all. Possessed of an intelligence that transcends her poor command of Arabic and decisive and reasonable opinions she could almost be the Lebanese opposition's spiritual leader. Originally from Zagharta, an MP for Mashaksa since 1991 and a former journalist (she worked at the Orion newspaper from 1963 to 1965) naila is always independent. A politically ambitious woman she is a potential candidate for the presidency: stalwart, intuitive, with a wicked, satirical sense of humour and an unabashed love for argument and confrontation. These qualities means she is one of the few well known names from the Shahwan Corner group, and there can be little doubt that her presence in the opposition has been provocative. She is one of the first women to give the opposition its female stamp.
Strida Touq Jaajaa, who scarcely had time to enjoy her marriage to Samir Jaajaa before he was imprisoned in 1990, has a degree in Political Science and today operates as the effective leader of the young men and women who have joined the opposition, and now represent a significant political force of their own. Born in Ghana in 1967, and one time winner of a beauty queen contest in the Al-Ramal holiday resort, this unfailingly elegant yet sad woman has passed through years of political obscurity, shame and constant waiting to emerge as one of Lebanon's "women of politics".
Regardless of whether or not Samir Jaajaa ever emerges from prison, this Lebanese Penelope--if the expression serves--has come to embody a new strand of Lebanese politics that has the potential to achieve do succeed in elections.
Solange Al-Gemayel was one of the first to suffer from the wave of political assassinations that engulfed Lebanon. In April 1977 this beautiful young woman, an activist in the Kataib party, married Bashir Al-Gameyal, but was destined to face a bitter blow when her first born child was assassinated in 1980. Then in 1982, the grieving mother lost her husband, the president elect, in another assassination. Having retired to nurse her misery and pain, this young widow emerged transformed by her experience. She was now a woman of iron, dedicated to the institute she had set up in her husband's name so, as she put it, "Bashir lives on within us". Stubborn and never given to bargaining, she remained low-profile and instinctively wary of political professionalism despite the ring of advisors that surrounded her. Yet ever since the 14th February she has put away her reservations and, often accompanied by her son Nadim, thrown herself into meetings and street politics, working to help and support the young men and women of the Lebanese opposition.
These tragic, traumatized women have emerged as bearers of hope, fountains of beauty and elegance, strength and anger.
Lebanon's enchanting young women are beauty queens, artists, students. Liberated, they rejoice in their physicality and celebrate their desirability. They have snatched up politics and taken it to places that Arab eyes have never seen, beyond the limited horizons of the pan-Arabist mind and further than the expectations of our political and cultural elites.
They are Lebanon's new miracle. Youssef Bazzi