On June 14, 2021, the Asfari Institute held its first webinar from the Feminist Circle Series entitled entitled “Young Feminist Futures: Revolutions and Intersectionality“. The Feminist Circles Series, organized by the Asfari Institute, Oxfam, and Marsa seeks to engage feminist activists, international organizations, and scholars in dialogue and discussions around contemporary feminist activism issues whilst at the same time reflecting on potentially feasible solutions. This discussion focuses on the feminist narratives that evolved during and post-revolutions, the role those young feminists play to reclaim the public sphere, and the ways in which the boundaries have been pushed.
Origins of the speakers’ political activism
Doja Dawoud explained that political awareness comes from her country, Lebanon, which discriminates against everybody due to the lack of awareness. Political awareness was always present for Doja but was developed by interacting with people and knowing why such things are happening to her. She identifies a system that tries to silence and oppress the people and disperse them and that she should fight against it.
Hashem Hashem explained that his political activism started from the moment in school when he was not allowed to play football because he was a girl. Moreover, the hierarchy that was felt and seen by society and the wider family made him question why he didn’t have a choice in going to private universities or schools. He had never thought that all these elements could be linked until he got acquainted with feminist ideas and oppression of gender, nationality, race, and sexuality. He put his experience into an organization of thoughts when he met queer people and feminists who resembled him and told him that being different is a richness and not only marginalization.
Dayna Ash sees how all these elements are interconnected and reflected in the political sector. She had taken the white man’s approach to art by only expressing herself and not getting involved and thinking that she needed to have a certain amount of money, then she started questioning what happens if she didn’t have money or degrees and stepped out needing the confirmation of society. It took the feminists around Dayna to show her that and help her reconcile both.
Challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Doja thinks that COVID-19’s impact was very bad personally due to the effect on the collective and personal well-being caused by sitting at home, not meeting people, not gathering in one room, sharing ideas, and protesting on the streets. She talked about the systematic sexual harassment that women in media are subject to, which is not talked about. This is caused by the Lebanese law which distributed the media people into many groups without a commonplace to talk about their problems.
Doja also mentioned the challenge in connecting the voices of women in media in Lebanon and knowing what they face and struggle with. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the oppression of women increased as well as violence against women. According to Doja, these additional challenges need 20 years to recover from. She stressed the importance of physical, on-ground presence in making a larger impact and a higher echo.
Hashem faced challenges in meeting people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which to him was necessary for the organization. This stood in the way of meeting for the revolution and standing up against the government. He talked about organizational challenges before COVID-19 due to the political challenges and the capabilities of the government to stand up against movements such as his, but the challenges increased with the pandemic.
According to Hashem, the COVID-19 lockdowns had advantages, such as reading books, writing ideas, and meeting more frequently virtually. It helped them see the raw government and how it deals with people in their homes and controls them in times of crisis. Hashem also explained how COVID-19 pressured political parties since they were responsible for the access to hospitals, vaccines, and medicine… Being able to see this government was beneficial for shaping the political image in his mind. Hashem had a gender change within that period which according to him brought with it many political ideas.
Dayna finds it hard to see COVID-19 outside everything else. It has become intersectional with the blast and her life. For Haven, they were supposed to be doing a play about gender and identity and the concept of their closet and were supposed to travel to perform a play on the concept of their closet and to discuss it live on stage. Covid made the play into a film which affected the ability to connect on the piece, trying to write the script alone while contacting the other artists who have an emotional stake in it which held them back but allowed a reflection on each person’s points.
Each was entrenched in the needs of now, then covid hit and made them take a bird’s eye view and think that now is every second of every day. Urgency will always be there and will not be removed from their lives. This reflection allowed them to come back with fire and to connect the concepts to make them fortified and strengthened and find sustainability within them. Dayna also gave the importance of being present and seeing each other and how it affects mental health and empowerment and being ok because you know you’re not alone.
Hashem also added the explosion to the conversation which most people are still in denial of. The lockdown came with an economic crisis and the explosion which affected the communities-especially the queers who live in proximity of the areas where the explosion affected had a huge impact on the organization of activities.
Dayna thinks 2020 was a very long year that has still not ended. The explosion was devastating especially to the LGBTQ community in Gemmayze and Mar Mikael and the media houses there, especially since it is the only stretch that represents the largest amount of such groups. They reached out to the community and artists and creatives locally and internationally to start sending in money to rebuild the offices and spaces. Then, they converted the offices into shelters until they were able to relocate the people. Haven reacts to the needs of the community and not the other way around. It remolds the needs of the community. The principles and reality should be a reflection of the principles of the institution and by making the institution a stepping stone for the community people should be able to step on it to reach the next level.
In her organization, they raised 105,000$ and distributed them for rehabilitation and relocation and launched the LGBTQ coalition for crisis prevention for the future -which Marsa is part of- to understand the fundamental needs of the future and make it easy for the community to find them and assess their needs prior to any emergency when things are rushed. The coalition has been working since covid and the covid blast has expanded its assessment into having a broader referral system and expecting to implement it nationally. The explosion highlighted the inapt inadequacy of the government and the ruling elite and capitalism and how it is entrenched in the institutions and how the idea is profit over people. For it to be people over profit, people need to take control over the narrative, and slowly from the syndicate to the union to the street movement to organizations put people in the place of politicians according to Dayna.
For Doja, the first challenge faced by media people was sitting at home and the second was the trauma that came with the explosion. The streets that were the organizations’ spaces through the revolution fell to the ground. The issue was devastating and affected work and the energy that they were able to give to the country rather than to themselves. The media people needed to be on the ground and cover what happened no matter how they were affected. One of the reports that she worked on was on how media people dealt with the explosion after losing their offices and how it affected them on a mental level and being able to go back and start from zero as well as the houses that were destroyed yet they still mobilized to the streets to document.
Emotions appeared in many cases in their reports although they are supposed to be neutral (as part of their job) to portray the image of all that was going on, their human nature and feelings appeared. Many publication centers were destroyed adding to the economic collapse which was paid for in addition to the trauma. Managing all the attacks from every side of the government was a challenge in itself as explained by Doja.
Organizing for patriarchy during the COVID-19 pandemic
Doja spoke about freedom of the press in Lebanon which is present to a certain extent. Before freedom was suppressed there was an attack on women more than any other gender. There is no protection within press and media companies and women are forced for sexual favors this is known locally but there is not enough activism to battle it as Doja explained. The coalition of women in the press was needed to raise their voice and say that there is no difference between the different forms of press and freedom of speech. When the political parties tried to take control over media, it was important to show that some hosts are not part of this system.
There was a need to show how everything was counted when it related to women, how much they appear on television, what happens to them daily, and the sexual harassment challenges that every woman in this industry has faced. Very few media companies are led by women and there are not any no-tolerance policies on sexual harassment or equal pay. Women are attacked constantly by society. Doja needed to show that there is something that is suppressed and needs to be talked about. Doja then addressed how she dealt with abuse and translated it through her activism, then Hashem explained how his transformation affected his activism.
Hashem’s transition started with COVID -during which he found a safe time to transition- and before which he didn’t identify as a mainstream woman. He used to dress and cut his hair differently. With the transition, he got the other side’s view on how much there is discrimination against women and how much he is unseen when he walked on the streets as a man as well as how people treat him. He started noticing that the conversations targeted the man rather than the woman.
Dayna’s activism is very community-based and she was desperate to have a community to connect with and open conversations that lead to a solution or a standing. The community made her able to continue. She talked about when she wrote a statement and didn’t post it until many women activists were with her. The radio Beirut situation and reaching out to the network to face the situation together especially after being sued and getting help reaching out to lawyers. She talked about how they responded to the urgency of what she was going through. The hardest part according to her is unlearning that the current situation is not normal and it is not radical to be looked at that way or treated that way or to be asking for reasonable safety, equality, and equity.
The most amount of fear she has ever felt was with the electricity cuts at night. Streets are not her friends, they have well-lit sections where she feels slightly safe but now this is gone. People are able to understand and be empathetic to that constant fear and according to her, they can either be very afraid or react to keep themselves safer for one more day. Although her mental health deteriorates, she spoke about keeping it together because safety is very important. She stressed that it is time to get to a point where activists not only return to business as usual or clear over and die but make feminist circles and allow fear to feed into and re-channel their action.
Doja spoke about her experience surviving abuse. To her, survival was not an option at the beginning. She thought she would need to live with it indefinitely until death. To her and her brothers, they weren’t convinced as to why they had to live this scenario. Surviving and overcoming are not easy and it drains the mental energy of people being abused. After Doja went to university, she started to see that her situation is not the norm and that she didn’t have to shut the door on the harassment that was happening within her family. To comprehend this was not easy for her but it then turned into activism. To her, telling your own story and not the story from the side of the harasser -which is what society listens to is essential.
She needed to claim her voice and her right to live and understand that there are people that have the same experiences and are willing to help. There was an incentive through that and the power to speak up and change the rules. She stressed the presence of shared experiences and the need to be able to go to someone and get comfort when facing a problem, the need to have a place where there is safety, to think together and push fear away as survivors and women and LGBTQ and people that are discriminated against by the system. To her, this awareness could have avoided abuse by knowing that the problem is from the other side.
These problems can be overwhelming and devastating and suck out the ability to live with people, but having gone through such an experience, she now has the strength to help others. She strived to create a future that was not available for people like her who don’t see this as possible. People are always able to make changes, even if small, and just existing is part of that until they regain the energy to change and help others and be fully involved politically. Having a community makes victims feel less alone and proves that they are a victim and are not victimizing themselves.
Aspirations for the country and foreseen transformations
Dayna has become more radical in her view regarding this topic. She doesn’t believe in reform and walks away from it. She is anti-compromising and reforming. There is no such thing as a compromise for her especially given the power dynamic. She stands for changing the system and not dismantling it because it means patchwork which she does not believe in as it exhausts the environment, the people, and the land. It makes sense to her to remove it altogether, but this is harder in Lebanon as not only one system is being removed but rather 18 systems rooted into one.
The syndicates and unions are the way in and the government pushing these out reflects how much power the syndicates have. The way everything is connected in the current system is hard to patch out. It is absurd that after August 4th the same people are still in power according to Dayna. Activists in Lebanon have to be a lot more diligent and have to keep pushing. She is hopeless because of all that she has faced, and her mental health is exasperated living in Lebanon is destructive but her hopefulness is that the people wrote the constitution.
This summary was written by Antoinette Abou Jaoude.
Meet the speakers and moderators
- Diana Abou Abbas is the Executive Director at Marsa Sexual Health Center in Lebanon. Her work in Marsa has been recognized globally through the distinguished UNAIDS Red Ribbon Award. She serves on the Resource Allocation Technical Committee of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, is the Co-Chair of the NGO CSW New York for the Arab region, and is a board member of the Doria Feminist Fund.
- Nadine Chaar is a Media and Communications student at the American University of Beirut.
- Dayna Ash is a cultural and social activist, a writer, and founder of the Haven for artist nonprofit based in Beirut, she was named as one of the 100 most inspirational women in 2019 by BBC, received the 2020 women distinction award from the NGO Committee on the status of women NY and the 2021 leader in LGBT health equity award from LebMASH for advancing LGBTQ wellbeing in Lebanon.
- Doja Daoud is a Lebanese feminist journalist. She has worked with a variety of Lebanese and Arab news organizations throughout her career, developing strong views on civil and individual liberties, which led to her being a known advocate of human rights and a defender of journalists. Doja is a survivor of abuse, and she has been battling patriarchy long before comprehending the term. Doja fights for a better future for all the residents in Lebanon, demanding human rights, equality, and justice. She co-founded “Nakaba Badila” (Alternative Media Syndicate) during the Lebanese Protests, raising her voice against all violations of media workers, and defending Free Speech.
- Hashem Hashem is a poet, writer, editor, and performer based in Beirut. He holds an MA in gender and sexuality studies from SOAS University of London and is part of local and regional queer and feminist groups. His essays and translations have been published in a number of newspapers, magazines, and websites. He has worked as a researcher and advisor at multiple organizations and institutions, including the American University of Beirut and FRIDA: Young Feminist Fund.
Watch the full recording here: