BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)–The New Arab Woman Forum kicked off Feb. 1 under the patronage of Wael Abou Faour, Lebanon’s minister of social affairs, and was opened by a speech by Bahiya Hariri, a member of parliament and the sister of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
It didn’t bode well for the content and impact of the forum.
Both personalities represent the Lebanese confessional system, which emphasizes and upholds the political sectarian divide of Lebanon and leaves civil matters such as inheritance, marriage and divorce, among other things, up to clerical authorities. This creates a discriminatory society where citizens, especially women, are not equal before the law.
Spotlighting these two figures–who represent the system as it is, and not how many Lebanese would like it to become–set the deeply conciliatory and mainstream stance of the New Arab Woman Forum, which was supposed to address the burning and somehow controversial theme of women and the Arab Spring.
The organizers–magazine El Hasnaa and the Iktissad Wal-Amal Group–said the conference would take “full account of the historic dimensions of the ongoing ferment and revolution in the region as it continues to follow up, analyze and discuss leading political and social issues of the hour.”
To do justice to the struggles of women in the region, that would have meant taking an in-depth look at the roles of women within the revolutions, their prospects in transitioning democracies and the problems of abuse and harassment women have confronted, and continue to confront, in the revolutions. It would have also meant addressing the gender political dynamics before, during and in the aftermath of the revolutions.
However, such issues attracted superficial, if any, attention.
Speakers such as Octavia Nasr, a former editor for CNN, and Butheina Kamel, Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, discussed topics such as the shifting perception of the “West” vis-a-vis the “East” following the Arab revolutions and the role social media has played, and continues to play, in the uprisings.
These are not the crucial topics for legions of Arab women facing state-sponsored and social violence, economic hardship and limited opportunity for political participation.
Before the meeting took place, Lebanese feminists issued a protest statement that was endorsed by the Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya, based in Beirut, about all the women who would be excluded and ignored by the gathering. The statement also addressed the forum’s content and format, as well as the march organized for the end of the conference.
In a region where the vast majority of women work in the informal economy, with no protection or recognition of their work, where the middle class is slowly diminishing, where women are constantly faced with harassment, activists challenged the organizers’ focus on business women and feminine entrepreneurship in the private sector. The speakers who addressed these issues were all CEOs or founders of companies, members of a microscopic privileged percentage of women in the Arab world.
By keeping a safe distance from the real lives of so many real Arab women, organizers ensured that the stated goal of the event would not be reached.
In terms of format, feminist activists also questioned the price tag: $300 for a day and a half.
That fee is more than a simple number. It’s a “keep out, no trespassing allowed” sign to all but the wealthy or sufficiently privileged to attend free of charge, such as Lebanese organizations who were invited to attend as the organizers’ guests.
No Economic Diversity
The entry fee made sure there was no real economic diversity in the rooms of a deluxe hotel, in a country where the average salary is $700 a month and where many households need to have two jobs or side occupations to make ends meet.
In this economic context the question that needs to be raised is whether this money couldn’t have been used to serve a better purpose.
With the amounts paid for that lavish hotel and with the money the sponsors poured into it, couldn’t a more creative approach been taken?
Imagine, for instance, if the money had been used to hire a bus to take participants around the country, touring all of Lebanon, visiting female refugees, listening to the stories of other women. Sharing all that with the scheduled panel of speakers would have been a real effort at solidarity and understanding.
Instead the sessions lacked a participatory approach, with panelists sitting in front of the audience, talking more about women as mothers than anything else and leaving little time or opportunity for questions from the floor. It felt less like an enriching debate and more like watching people have coffee. In other words, we were a long, long away from real women in real revolutions.
Where were the women who slept in Tahrir Square for days and nights and are still being harassed by Egypt’s military rule and its thugs, facing an uncertain future? Where were the brave Tunisian women of the Kasbah? Where were the women who live and breathe the revolution on the streets of their countries, in Syria, in Bahrain, in Yemen, and in each and every Arab country that has seen its political landscape shift dramatically?
At the end of the conference, participants held a march, called Sawa Sawa, meaning Together Together.
And here I ask you, together with whom?
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Paola Salwan Daher is a Lebanese feminist activist, currently based in Beirut. You can follow her two blogs Café Thawra and Myrrh and Mint and contact on Twitter at CafeThawra. For more updates about her work, visit her Facebook Page