Shadow Feminism in Lebanon, Part One
by deema kaedbey
In the summer of 2011, Sawt Al Niswa issued a call for papers (CFP) for an upcoming new anthology, called Banat Tariq, that will explore histories of Arab feminisms.[i] The CFP was circulated at a time when a feminist movement in Lebanon seemed to be gaining momentum. It also came in the context of North African and West Asian popular revolutions, with their inspirational victories and painful setbacks, and the discussions that these uprisings stirred. The anthology was seeking to participate in these discussions through a critical feminist reflection on the political and social changes taking (or not taking) place. In addition, it aimed to push for more meditation on the history of Arab feminisms, and to invoke alternative narratives from women in Arab homelands and their diaspora. As the call for papers stated, “Writing about women’s presence while their past isn’t fully revealed is a dubious way to move through the future or change the present… When we look at our pasts, what pasts are we looking for or writing about?” (Abu Ghazal, email to anonymous mailing list). The anthology, then, recognized the political act of choosing what past to highlight in order to explain our present.
Banat Tariq—forthcoming in 2015, thus reveals a need for movements to ground themselves in their local contexts and to look for resonance and purpose in their history, rejecting colonialist lenses, and accusations of being “westernized.” It also reflects the need for many feminist groups and movements to challenge male-centered histories, and feminist narratives seen solely through middle and upper class women’s experiences. Banat Tariq proposes that writers connect to West Asian and North African indigenous myths and figures to re-assess the present, while also relying on the women’s lived experiences to personalize history. What this anthology offers may not be a mainstream feminist position in Lebanon, yet it is similar to tried feminist strategies around the world that search for women-centered, non-western paradigms (Anzaldua; Moraga; Allen; Perez).[ii]
One of the reason I was attracted to the idea behind Banat Tariq is because I truly believe that there is more to our feminist history in Lebanon than narratives of mainstream women’s rights organizing—such as the one that Rita Stephan recounts in “Four Waves of Lebanese Feminism.”[iii] I am more concerned with putting together a different, more complex narrative assembled from histories of women's participation in various struggles across multiple time periods.[iv]This obsession with finding an alternative feminist history led me to write my PhD dissertation on exactly that: shifting our perspective on what constitutes feminism, how we tell its story, and who its subjects are. To do so necessitated a centering of women in Lebanon who are not Lebanese, for example, such as refugees and migrant workers, as well as Lebanese women who do not identify as activists or feminists. For this reason, I called this feminism shadow feminism.
My dissertation used what I called a queer feminist methodology, informed by queer of color theories, as well as indigenous and women of color politics. I also relied on the concept of a non-linear serpentine, multi-directional and cyclical temporality—also found in many indigenous and women of color writing and theories. These foundations allowed me to draw the connections between different movements throughout different time periods. This paper thus seeks to challenge boththe separation of feminism and labor organizing, as well as a linear conception of time and history.
To go briefly into what I mean by a queer feminist methodology, I cite some theorists who have informed my way of looking at feminist struggles in Lebanon. Queer theorists of color in the U.S, such as Cathy Cohen in “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens” (1997), Jose Esteban Munoz in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), Gayatri Gopinath in Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005) and Jasbir Puar in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007) question the norms of sexuality and gender. Yet in doing so, they underline how norms of class, race and citizenship (that are closely tied to sexuality and gender) also need to be challenged. As Black feminist scholar/activist Cohen explains, queerness is not only tied to same-sex sexuality, but to the crisis that some individuals and groups pose to the dominant system by their mere existence and daily resistance (24). For Cohen, working class women of color in the U.S, even if they are heterosexual, are pushed to the margins of a standardized white well-off heterosexual norm in ways that wealthy white gay men are not. More importantly, working class women of color are also being kept at the margins of queer politics (21-5). Therefore, queer of color politics recognizes the interdependence of struggles, and it is this movement towards mutuality that also informs my work about feminism in Lebanon.
In similar attempts to theorize privilege to understand interconnection of privileges and struggles, in 2012, queer activist/theorist, Ghoulama, wrote a critique of sexuality politics in Lebanon. In “نقاش في آليات التنظيم المثلي في لبنان" (trans. “Discussion around LGBT Organizing in Lebanon”) Ghoulama argued that class, race andgender divide the LGBT movement, and that “weas sexual rights activists arenot the mercyof the law.” Ghoulama explained thatclass privilege protects activists from state persecution based on their sexuality, for“how manyofus have sexin their cars because theydo not have the means to lead afinanciallyindependent life?” (Bekhsoos).
Queer theory is also relevant to my project in its breaking away from linear temporality. Elizabeth Freeman, for example, challenges a linear mode of thinking and asks that we examine “relations across time and between times” (quoted in Puar xxi). Jasbir Puar makes use of Freeman to explain how different histories are at play in any given act or discourse (xxii). Similarly, I argue that at any given moment of contemporary feminist activism in Lebanon, there are histories of women's resistance that are at play. Some feminists in Lebanon, as I show, recognize and underline how the past lives in the present. My methodology is also heavily influenced by the challenges in temporal paradigms that indigenous epistemologies pose to linearity. M. Jacqui Alexander critiques the separation of disciplines, practices, and temporalities, divisions that we have inherited from colonialism (5). She urges us to seek interdependent frameworks that “interrupt inherited boundaries of geography, national, episteme and identity” (281). Accordingly, my paper aims at challenging boundaries of time, communities and identities, as well as of social justice struggles.
II. Serpentine Time
In Lebanon, what a different feminist history—a shadow feminism—necessitates, I argue, is a different understanding of time and how we re-narrate women’s history. One image that I rely on throughout this paper is that of serpentine and cyclical motions of time. Using Chicana feminist philosopher Gloria Anzaldua's descriptions of the serpent, the serpentine moves underneath, in the shadows, connecting issues, past and present, and twisting binaries into wholes. For Anzaldua, the serpent represents a feminine energy that moves through paradoxes and different levels of consciousness to make manifest what has been suppressed by patriarchy and colonialism (48-9). The serpent is the repressed and feared sexual, and instinctive feminine energy of individuals and collectives (57).[v]I find the image of the serpent useful for my own visualizing of a non-linear movement of time, gliding across various histories and geographies, making time multi-dimensional. What I will argue in a later paper is that a cyclical and multi-directional temporality is already operating in present day feminist organizing in Lebanon.
In Dreaming the Old Council Ways: True Native Teachings from the Red Lodge, Forest explains that for the Mayans, cycles of time move in “clockwise and anticlockwise motions” simultaneously, with “currents of energy penetrating each other.” She continues:
In their infinite concept of time, time itself cannot be seen as linear, for it is not a single continuum. Time is circular, moving inward and outward at this very moment…. Our current linear perception of time merely conceives of time as a line that goes away, in a progression of moments we are leaving and ones that we are heading towards. If humanity could adopt this new vision of time, clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time, we would have no need of making or holding onto human history. Our societies would be perpetually stable and centered (205-6).
Time, then, moves in different directions simultaneously— in a cyclical fashion, moving away and moving towards any given moment at the same time. History is not a series of events in the past that we leave behind. And can such a concept also mean that we may also access, on an individual and a collective level, a kind of hindsight, if future possibilities are already latent in present moments, just as the past is?
A unidirectional motion of time feeds into both historical amnesia and a disregard for the repercussions of our actions, while a multi-directional understanding of events acknowledges how the past lives in, and informs, the present. Forest visualizes this movement of time through the image of the “cosmic serpent.” In one illustration of this concept, she shows two serpents, one facing clockwise and the other in the opposite direction, each holding its tail in its mouth, forming two layers of full circles. I too have found that the serpentine imagery useful to connect time periods and to weave together seemingly isolated themes or political struggles.
Alexander connects non-linear temporality with the decolonization of spirituality, and of colonial, heteropatriarchal capitalist history. For Alexander, part of an activist’s spiritual and political responsibility—as these two are tied together, is a process of “rewiring the senses” (310). Such rewiring includes our sense of Time, so we are able to do the healing work of understanding “who walks with you” and thus of knowing the work that we are meant to be doing (300-3). In feminist organizing, I see the relevance of Alexander’s theory through a desire to deeply understand all the political, socio-economic and historical factors that influence any situation that we are involved in.
I started above with indigenous and women of color thinkers based primarily in the Americas because they were the theorists that I found first, who encouraged me to think beyond linearity. Yet I also found similar conceptions of time in ancient and contemporary narratives from West Asia that do not follow a direct chronology. Here I am thinking of examples such as Elias Khoury’s باب الشمس(Gate of the Sun), where past and present, fact and fiction are inseparable. There are also ancient narratives that reveal a more complex movement of events, and thus of time. When Firas Al Sawah, for example examined Mesopotamian myths, he observed two models of storytelling: a simple/straightforward model and a complex model. The first model is linear and chronological (49-50); while the complex model of narrating myths sees “events move in more than one direction, and intersect within a [more complex structure]” (50; my translation).
To begin with, the story that Al Sawah presents to exemplify the complex model is a Babylonian origin story where the gods are creating the four directions; hence, we see that the structure of the text (its complexity/non-linearity) and the content of the text (the creation of the four directions) mirror each other. In this particular ancient narrative, the sub-stories seem to be disconnected, yet they ultimately return to each other. This is not unlike the complex cyclicality of ألف ليلة وليلة, or A Thousand and One Nights. In this epic tale, there are multiple stories and digressions, yet we always come back to the original point with the story of Shehrazad and King Shahrayar. This point of origin and return, then, is also the larger framework that holds all the tales together.
What I see in this examination of the models of storytelling in ancient myths not only a study of narrative structures, but a different consciousness of time. Linear time does exist, just as the simple chronological model of narration exists, but it is to be understood within a bigger structure, a more complex model. Like the stories of Shahrazad and the Babylonian creation myth, time moves in cycles, patterns, and seeming breaks, yet it is always connected. As Forest explained it, movements of time are always meeting each other at any particular point. And as artist-scholar-activist Nia Witherspoon once said, indigenous thought “maintains several fundamental features” throughout different geographical locations (personal conversation, April 2012).
Like Banat Tariq-- the upcoming anthology that I highlighted at the beginning of this article, I see some aspects of feminism in Lebanon attempting to reveal these connections between older repressed histories of organizing and more contemporary mobilizations. Additionally, I also perceive in many of these feminist attempts an insistence on understanding the links and mutuality between different social/political struggles that are seen as separate. Such an inclusive lens would embrace women in Lebanon who are not Lebanese, or who have never identified as feminists. While I am not imposing a feminist label on them, I am arguing that their stories need to be remembered and acknowledged by those of us who do identity as feminists in Lebanon. We do need to remember the stories of women working in factories and mobilizing for their rights; of Palestinian and Lebanese militant women resisting occupation in the 1980s; of women in prisons. And we do need to incorporate into our feminism the stories and resistance of women/mothers/housewives (Lebanese, Armenian, Palestinian etc.) who are not activists, but who, in times of crisis and violence, mobilized to help their families and communities; the stories of domestic migrant workers resisting exploitation, racism, classism and sexism; and the resistance of queer women who break the shame and taboo of talking about sexuality. A serpentine understanding of time works best to unleash these histories that are not always apparent or acknowledged, because it is the temporality of what has not yet been resolved or healed and lives on in the shadows.[vi] These are some of the narratives that appeared in my dissertation, and some of which I will be publishing here in Sawt al Niswa, beginning with women in the labor movement.
III. Queer Feminist Thought and the Labor Movement
The beginning of May 2012 witnessed the contract workers of EDL (Electricite du Liban), Lebanon’s electric public company, declaring a strike against layoffs, demanding permanent employment and fairer wages (Abouzaki). Holding their protest inside the EDL building and its courtyard, the workers wanted the public to know that their pay had been withheld, and that the injuries some workers suffered on the job had not been compensated. Twelve of their fellow workers had been killed on the job (Abouzaki “Electricite de Liban”; Kob “Intifadat”). The strikers were also making a statement against privatization, arguing that it would take away their rights, their social security and other benefits (Kob).The strike would continue for two months, garnering national attention, both in sympathy and criticism.
I am not claiming that all feminists in Lebanon engaged with this strike, yet the feminist thought that I propagate here is one that connects with labor rights, materially and conceptually. In true serpentine cyclical motion, I open this section as I close it, by presenting feminist responses to the events that I recount in the above vignette. I will show how these responses supported labor struggles from a feminist perspective, contextualizing them within older histories of workers’ mobilization, and connecting them to different social struggles. Similarly, I also position this strike within the histories of women’s participation in labor and labor struggles from the 19th century, to the 1940s and 1970s. Yet I also call attention to the queer presence of women in factories historically, and the challenges that they posited to heteronormativity.
Feminist solidarity with the 2012 EDL strike appeared not only in feminist spaces, but pushed into more widely-read national publications. In an example of the latter, journalist Rasha Abouzaki wrote “Electricite du Liban: Striking Workers Test Their Powers” in Al Akhbar newspaper. Abouzaki gave an overview of the workers’ demands and the government’s response, yet she interviewed only women strikers, of different political backgrounds. She was thus reminding readers that women are a central part of the demonstrations. And when workers burned tires in the company's courtyard in protest, Abouzaki revealed, it was the women workers who were “closer to the smoke than the men. Their voices rising with others calling for an end to the injustice.” In other words, if feminist journalists, scholars and activists, do not deliberately focus on women and document their participation in organizing, the history of labor struggles will continue to be told in the male pronoun. Centering women in the narrative allows us to see a continuity in women's resistance. It also reveals gendered anxieties and demands that are rooted in older histories of women's labor struggles, as well as historical perceptions of working class women in Lebanon.
When Abouzaki interviews women workers, she highlights their struggles-- the human suffering, as well as their radical voice, and their coalitional consciousness. The significance of this tactic is that public opinion of the strike was cut across political (and sectarian party lines), as well as class lines; political analysis that dismissed class struggles, or that was loyal to the Minister of Water and Energy and the political party he represented, portrayed workers as angry and irrational people (Kob). Workers were accused of trying to score a political gain rather than fighting for their rights.[vii]Alternatively, Abouzaki may have introduced the women's voices to counter such reasoning. Importantly too, Abouzaki presents the past by recalling history as a cyclical movement, and by drawing connections between the current event and demonstrations that drew national attention in the 1970s.
In November 1972, workers of the Ghandour candy company went on strike to demand “higher wages, equal distribution of wages between men and women, and the right to organize in unions” (Traboulsi A History of Modern Lebanon 167). Calling attention to the “echoes of the Ghandour strike” that she believes were still reverberating in the 2012 protests, Abouzaki writes that in 1972 “1,200 workers from the Ghandour candy factories took action that shook Lebanese public opinion. Their demand was similar to those of EDL’s contract workers, but their numbers were less.” The 1972 demonstration were met with brutal suppression, as police fired on the demonstrators, killing and injuring workers (Abouzaki; Traboulsi; Abu-Mjahed).[viii]What Abouzaki does not mention was that one of the workers killed was a woman organizer-- Communist party member Fatima Khawaja, as well as Yusuf al Attar, another communist organizer. While a mainstream middle class perspective may not remember these events, women face double erasures, as even contemporary feminists are not always aware of this history.
Looking through a serpentine framework reveals that the strikes of 2012 and of the 1970s were themselves a continuation of earlier movements from the late 1960’s. During the labor organizing of the 1960's, workers demanded “equal pay for men and women, family allowances, maternity and sickness leave” as well as “outlawing sexual harassment” in their jobs (Traboulsi A History 167-8). Women, therefore, were able to include their demands and experiences into the labor movement. And in order to demand protection against sexual harassment, the workers must have talked openly about their experiences, therefore breaking what we assume has always been a taboo subject for women. Moreover, in 1972, the heads of the Ghandour company must have acknowledged women as leaders, because both men and women were considered agitators, and were not allowed to go back to work when the strike ended and the company resumed operation (Traboulsi A History 168; Traboulsi “Al Harakat Al Ijtima'iya fi Tarikh Libnan”).[ix]
Labor struggles, therefore, have long been feminist sites; these are sites were women took leadership, and were they called for gender equality as part of improving work conditions. Yet if we only equate feminism with a mainstream women's movement, and labor organizing only with men's experiences, these feminist stories will continue to be repressed. AbouZaki also observed that the workers she talked to, who are often from poor families, worked collectively. Amhaz, for example, was not only striking for her own benefit, “but for those of all her colleagues.” Hers was therefore a collective consciousness that insisted on justice for everyone involved in the struggle. Another interviewee, Rida, countered negative publicity that showed them greedily agitating for unearned rights. Rida declared “we are from good families, we have pride” (Abouzaki).
I pay particular attention here to Rida’s quote “we are from good families,” as a response to a history of questioning the morality of women working in factories. It is this history that I turn to next, as I show that feminist alliances with labor movements today is grounded in multiple sites of historical struggles. I read the 2012 strike as containing echoes of women’s struggles dating back to the 19th century, and to consecutive decades, such as the 1940's tobacco strikes that led to the killing of labor organizer Warda Butrus Ibrahim.
Historically, women’s entry into the workforce has been a dilemma for the heteropatriarchal system in Lebanon. In the mid 19th century, Mount Lebanon experienced its entry into the global capitalist system, with the French-backed silk industry, manufacturing the silk in factories, and exporting cocoons to Europe. This industry changed not only the economy and its labor, from one based on land to one that is part of capitalism and factory work; it also transformed gender and class relations and expectations, as women and girls from poor families were the prime workers in silk factories (Khater 325-6). Akram Fouad Khater describes the changes in peasants' economic patterns, where “French mercantile houses” would lend farmers money to purchase silkworms, thereby tying them to debt. In addition, with the monopoly over the industry, farmers were no longer growing food that sustained them, they had to borrow more money to buy basics, such as wheat and other grains (328). Fluctuating prices (and French control of these prices) meant that farmers were not prospering (328).
The poorest of the peasants, threatened by debt with the loss of their lands and livelihoods, had no choice but to send their daughters to work in the factories. For those who could not--or would not, have their daughters work in factories, male immigration to the Americas was the only other option (329). Yet women were also seen by the French industrialists as better options for industries. They were considered more submissive and therefore less likely to protest their conditions than men; they were believed to be naturally endowed with “nimble fingers”; and they were undervalued, and could thus be paid less than their male counterparts for work they were supposedly better suited at (329-30). Fawwaz Traboulsi also writes that the girls and women recruited from orphanages were not paid at all (Hareer wa Hadeed 128).
By the 1880s, “one out of every five families had a daughter working in these factories” (Khater 330). And they worked in horrible conditions. Girls (some as young as seven) and young women labored in the cramped, dark, unventilated, hot spaces for ten to twelve hours. On the one hand, the money they earned did eventually give them “the power of independent and individualized decision-making” in their families, which they did not have before (333). On the other hand, their work in factories “tainted” their reputation. Eyes followed them disapprovingly when they passed by the village. Their job, which included contact with men, meant that their morality was questioned. As a result, their chances of marriage were also jeopardized (334).
The image of the factory woman/girl turned into a salient image in Lebanon, and it was one that attracted negative connotations. Parents would reprimand their daughters by yelling at them “are you going to behave like a factory girl?!” (331). Thus, the “factory girl” became a queer presence in her context, a representation of what “good girls” should not be and behave like. Khater describes this change in gender and class dynamics as a “crisis in patriarchy” (332). Yet a crisis in gender relations was also a crisis in heteronormativity, as the “factory girl” disrupted gender roles and sexual norms, and triggered anxieties of family's “honor”. Thus when Rida, the organizer in Abouzaki's piece declared that “we are from good families,” her statement carried the hauntings of this past, where women working outside the house damaged their reputation as good women, just as agitating for their rights damaged their reputation as good workers.
Patriarchy may have been challenged, but not smashed in the process of these economic and gender changes in 19th century Mount Lebanon: in fact, it was women’s work in the factory that allowed men to not work there, and to continue to do the more socially accepted labor in the fields (331). Still, when we look at the intersection of sexuality, gender relations and class positions, we see how this historical period created a new queered segment of society, and an image of the factory girl that represented this crisis. It may be worth noting here that after the decline of the silk industry in the early 20th century, some of the factories were said to have been turned into brothels (Al Raida Women and Work editorial 3), another venue that only the more impoverished women would work in, and would be further queered by. One factory was converted by the educator, Emily Trad (whose father was the owner of the factory), into a school that was devoted to orphans (Al Raida 3; Khairallah 235).
One may also wonder about the shifts in relations amongst women workers, as what bound them was not blood relations, but shared spaces of exploitation and struggle. Even though the factories were commonly too loud to allow conversations during work (Khater 333), it is likely to have produced different ways of relating to women from outside one's immediate kin networks. What were those relations, and how were they lived, sanctioned, and forbidden? While such homosocial relationships are not the focus of my project, they are worth pointing out to. Though we may never have answers for these questions, they are nevertheless part of a shadow feminism because they are part of the histories, relationships, and resistance that have been erased, particularly because they were threatening to heteropatriarchy, and to colonial domination.
In addition, given that women were seen as less likely to defy those in power at the factories, the threat they posed was both effective, and unexpected to colonial and local patriarchal powers. Women in the silk industries gained awareness of competition among different factories, and started to negotiate their employers for better salaries. The women would have factories compete for them, as they chose the factory that offered better wages (Khater 332). Women workers came to recognize the value of their labor to the capitalists, and they were thus able to exert agency in the hiring process. Workers also slowed down the pace of the work, in order to slow production. Yet women's resistance was also direct and public: they resorted to strikes to demand better working conditions. In one particular strike, the workers were able to secure their demands within a week, as the managers agreed to grant them “twenty days of paid vacation and fourteen months of pay per year” (332).
Moving in a serpentine motion to connect past and present, when we come to understand the direct and indirect ways that women workers in the 19th century resisted exploitation, we can start to recognize similar patterns of resistance in later decades. Furthermore, we can begin to see recurrent anxieties around gender and sexual norms that working women provoked. In the 1940s, for example, while women in factories pushed for justice based on gender, class and national independence, many elite women's rights activists stood in opposition to changing gender roles. The 1940s was a watershed decade in Lebanese (and Arab) history. It was the decade that began in the midst of the Second World War, and ended with the loss of Palestine. It was also the decade that saw the independence of newly formed Arab nation states, including Lebanon. Elizabeth Thompson shows that the 1940s was a turning point in terms of colonial/nationalist and gender relations in the region. Class based struggles interconnected with nationalist aspirations, and gender dynamics. In the early forties, communist groups-- among other parties, organized hunger marches in Lebanon and in Syria, and women were at the center of organizing (233).
The Aleppo march went on for several days, as the women chanted, “We’re hungry, we want bread!” In Beirut as well, thousands of women filled the streets, and their slogans called for low bread prices (Thompson 233-4). These public acts of defiance focused on workers’ livelihoods, and were influential enough to lead to changes in the politicians’ rhetoric (which is what I also observed from the 2012 EDL strike). One main reason that women played a large part in those mobilizations was the dire economic circumstances created by World War II, which propelled them (back) to work in the factories (Thompson 238-9). Anxieties were high that time: World War II had triggered memories of the famine and locust invasion that had devastated Lebanon during that previous transnational war (233), but many women may have also been carrying traumatic histories of genocide, exodus, rape and forced marriages, such as what Armenian women had experienced in the early 20th century before they settled in Lebanon (Tachjian 66).These histories, from Armenia and from Palestine, also have to be remembered in the feminist history of Lebanon.
Thompson and Abisaab point out that well-off women responded to the economic difficulties of the forties mainly through charities, and through writing about socio-economic issues in women's magazines. Yet it was frequently a discourse where women’s domesticity was emphasized rather than challenged. Thus, well-off women supported those working in charities and in schools, but distanced themselves from women laboring in factories. It was more important, they stated, to make men appreciate the work women provide in the home “before even thinking of replacing men in the job market,” as Al Mar'a al Jadida stated (Abi Saab 40).
As in the 19th century, more women were entering the paid workforce in the early 1940s, which provoked (yet again) a crisis in gender relations, challenging the dynamics of the home and workplace (Thompson 238). It is through this crisis, Thompson argues, that in 1942, Mother’s Day became an official holiday in Lebanon—to remind women that their personal glory and their patriotic contribution should happen through motherhood. In 1943, birth control was outlawed. In that year too, the first president of the independent Lebanese state, Bshara El Khouri, refused to grant women the right to vote. And that same year, the Women’s Social Democratic League was formed by school teachers as a forum to reprimand working mothers (240-1). Simply put, in the midst of the struggle for national independence, colonial rule and the anti-colonial Lebanese elite were working together to ensure the institutionalization a specific concepts of gender that was upheld by elite women. Simultaneously, the activism of working class women, struggling against gender and class inequality, as well as against colonialism and capitalism, were being erased, even by women's rights activists.
Upper class women were therefore acting as the guardians of class-based heteropatriarchy and respectability. While they called for education and medical care to be available for all segments of society—it was more of a charitable stance than any of a desire for social change and cross-class coalitions. Instead, they considered only the well- off as the ones deserving of political participation. Rose Shahfa for example, head of the women’s delegation to the 1944 Arab Women’s conference in Cairo, stated her belief that educated women have “more right to political privileges than the ignorant man who enjoys these privileges” (Thompson 273). Clearly this was not an analysis of socio-economic conditions and their effect on access to education for all, but an offense at the idea of “ignorant” working class men having more rights than upper class women[x].
These classed dynamics are predecessors of what contemporary feminist activist, Leen Hashem, calls “"حركات فنجان القهوةor the “cup-of-coffee movements.” Referring to the social custom in which Lebanese/Arab women regularly visit each other and talk over coffee, Hashem sees a branch of organizing that is similar in its social conformity. The “cup-of-coffee” movements consist of socialites, wives and relatives of wealthy men, who meet in luxurious spaces, take part in charities, and then advertise their charitable donations in magazines. Their organizing is thus centered on a politics of respectability, on maintaining their social positions and on preserving the status quo. These women, Hashem declares, seclude themselves from communities outside their socio-economic class and individuals who are not like them, including individuals and communities who defy heteronormativity (“Cup of Coffee”, Sawt al Niswa).
Hashem's critique of the wealthy and charity-based facet of the women’s movement is crucial, because it challenges the privileged position of elite women as the primary women's rights activists. However, paying attention to working class women's struggles also reveals that women-centered practices such as visitations and meetings over coffee has been mobilized by working class women too, as I will later show. That is, less privileged women may also meet over “cups of coffee” and use these meetings as grounds for politicized and mobilizing for their communities; these tactics may additionally hold some potential for alliances amongst feminists of different age groups and political orientations. Indeed, since then, Hashem herself has come to self-reflect on the term, and to see the potentials of “cup-of-coffee” organizing beyond that of “wealthy charity wives.” But she has also come to critique movements that see themselves as radical and inclusive, and to see the elitism at work in them (personal correspondence, August 2013).
Historically and presently then, it would be too limiting to circumscribe feminism only within upper class women’s organizing—or only within self-identified feminist circles. Searching for women's participation in various struggles also opens up different aspects of gendered relations. AbiSaab shows that in the 1930s, bourgeois women tied their anti-Regie discourse (Regie being the tobacco company, Régie Co-Intéresse Libanaise de Tabacs et Tombacs) to their position as mothers of their family and their nation. The women who worked in factories, on the other hand, had a different discourse and a different way of organizing, as their activism drew correlations between anti-colonial protests and demands for better working conditions (42-6). Abi Saab lists, describes and analyzes a number of strikes from the 1920s till the 1960s. One of the more prominent action was the 1946 strike in the Hadath branch of the Regie, which was predominantly organized by women (and which was helped by the solidarity of the workers in Syria).
During this particular 1946 tobacco strike, the management wanted business to go on as usual, distributing cigarettes to the market despite the protest. Yet the workers, in Lebanon as in Syria, disrupted the trucks’ movement. In Beirut and its suburbs-- Mar Mikhayil then Furn el Shebbak, the strikers—predominantly women, lay on the ground to block the truck from unloading, as they shouted, “let the truck pass over our bodies!” The police, in line with management interests, rejected this act of rebellion, and they clashed with the protesters. One woman worker and prime organizer, Warda Butrus Ibrahim, was killed. As unionist, Dr. Mary al-Dibs, recounts, “some workers that day backed down [and] Warda yelled at them to return to their positions and stay put. Suddenly, a policeman stepped forward, drew his gun at Warda’s chest, and fired” (qtd. in Al-Hajj, Al Akhbar 2012). Sixteen other women and thirteen men were wounded and rushed to Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut. To help their injured peers, the workers raised money to cover the costs of their hospital bills and to provide support for their families (75-6).
This deadly confrontation between workers and authorities, as I have shown earlier, would emerge again in the late sixties and the early seventies, as with the 1972 Ghandour strike where women also sacrificed their lives and their jobs. Yet as I've also argued earlier, women are seldom remembered in these histories. Women workers are absent, for example, in the monograph of union leader, Aziz Saliba, whose work is an otherwise meticulous documentation of the history of the Lebanese syndicate movement in the agricultural valley of Beqaa. When Saliba mentions women, it is usually in official women’s rights organizations, such as the branch of the Lebanese Women’s Rights Committee in Zahle (in Beqaa, a region east of Beirut). Through the Women’s Rights Committee, women mobilized mainly around issues of teaching and education, gathering petitions and meeting with the Minister of Education around issues such as free education and building more public schools in the region (65-6). While Saliba notes women's participation in labor rights events (143), he does not address their contribution to labor movements in Beqaa.
Saliba does mention the renowned writer Emily Faris Ibrahim and her involvement in a festival for Labor’s Day in 1946, though he does not give any details of what she may have said during her speech at the event. Ibrahim was an icon of the mainstream women’s movement, as she headed the Lebanese Women’s Council (LCW) for twenty one years. Like many mainstream groups, the LCW, which was launched in 1952 and which is currently an umbrella group for hundreds of organizations, is focused on legislative changes. Its tactics include forming close connections with politicians and figures of power to lobby for change.[xi] In 1966, Ibrahim published an important manuscript that documents individuals and organizations across Lebanon, and in different parts of the world, that are dedicated to women’s rights. Her book, الحركة النسائية في لبنان, or The Women's Movement in Lebanon, was useful, for example, for my own research into groups that once worked on women in prisons, and on labor rights; her inclusion of intellectuals and artists was also informative; and her documentation reveals another significant issue: that women’s rights organizers understood the importance of being aware of each other’s work and networking with each other, despite their different approaches and backgrounds (Zeidan 44). That, however, may not always have translated across class lines (38). Because despite women's networking with each other, what should we make of the fact that Ibrahim was part of the Regie administration, working as its head of publicity?[xii]
But there are, and have always been, feminists (whether or not they identify as such) in different sites of protest,[xiii]from different backgrounds (though many of them were working class), who were able to articulate their position as women and as workers. Linda Matar is an icon who represents such a segment that held both feminist and class consciousness. Coming from a working class background, she has also been part of the Lebanese League for Women's Rights since 1953,[xiv]and she headed the Women's Rights Committee in 1978. In one radio interview, Matar recollects how she left school at the age of 12 to work in a factory. Later, she would go to night school and work during the day. Having been employed in a silk factory as well, Matar experienced the realities of the workers. Their arduous labor, the discrimination they faced, long hours and minimal pay deeply impacted her politics(Sharika wa Laken episode 5).
Thus, despite the ideological distance between the mainstream women's movement and the workers' movement, there were few women who connected these positions, and contributed to a feminist thought that is steeped in socio-economic justice as well gender equality. As I've been developing an analysis of these struggles historically, I also connect them to more contemporary organizing. That is, these histories relate to contemporary feminism that connects different struggles and multiple margins together. Present day manifestations of such connections were evident in 2012, as a feminist perspective revealed that women were principal organizers in the EDL strike, as Abouzaki did. In 2012, many feminists in the Beirut-based feminist anti-racist collective, Nasawiya, were at the forefront of the supporters, with members often joining the strikers and propagating the workers' perspectives and their demands. Farfahinne Kob, member of Nasawiya who constantly blogs on workers' rights and resistance in Lebanon, continues to follow up on this particular story despite its disappearance from mainstream news.[xv]And in March 2012, journalist Fatin El Hajj reminded readers of women's accomplishments in Lebanese unions, historically and in the present day, by including the story of labor organizer Warda Ibrahim and her death during the 1946 strike (Al Akhbar March 2012).
As the events of the 2012 strike were unfolding, Hashem wrote the essay “I am the (Female) Contract Worker… and My Tent Reaches the Sky,” (my translation), a feminist article that was published in Assafir, a mainstream Lebanese newspaper. In it, she personalized the workers’ struggles, identifying with the contract workers, working women, and working class women. Through this identification with different struggling groups, Hashem linked the struggle for labor rights to the feminist push for a legal protection of women from domestic abuse—another urgent cause that feminists in Lebanon are working towards. Hashem’s title phrase, “reaching the sky,” is indicative of workers’ pride, but it also represents expanding an issue as widely as possible, by showing its connections and parallels with other struggles.
The attack on women’s rights is therefore, she shows, similar to the attack on women’s bodies. She writes:
I know that who ravages my body by force and arrogance, supported by power dynamics that privilege men, is the same as that who abuses our rights as workers, male and female, supported by power dynamics that place its very wealthy corporations and its protectors on the necks of the hard workers (my translation).
In what is a clear feminist coalitional stand, Hashem makes connections between different groups who are oppressed and exploited by entrenched power structures. In her essay, she urges the exploited and abused to stand together in solidarity, as she also defies the shame and repression that keep both women and workers from rebelling against those who abuse them (Shabab Assafir). I find her essay another example of shadow feminism that connects different struggles against the social-economic and political system by aligning with marginalized groups.
In conclusion, the methodology that I put forth here allows us to question assumptions of women's passivity, whether they are working in factories or in their homes. Instead, I look for resistance to different aspects of violence and exploitation. Another facet of shadow feminism, for example, questions the absence in documenting women's resistance to familial and domestic violence. As activists Rasha Moumneh and Ghoulama argue, women in abusive situations are more often portrayed as passive victims by Lebanese feminist and women's rights organizations (Moumneh, “Queering the Domestic Violence Law” May 2010; Ghoulama, Rihla 'ala Mal'ab al Dahiyya” Oct 2011). Also hidden inside the homes are the migrant workers, who have been historically Lebanese, Arab or Kurdish women, but since 1990, increasingly come from non-Arab Asian and African countries (Jureidini 77). Their stories and struggles, as I show in another chapter of my dissertation, for example, may also intersect with feminist and queer struggles in Lebanon. Migrant women, forbidden from creating or joining unions, as Amrita Pande argues, also form collectives that resemble unions in their resistance against exploitation and isolation (385-6). Whether in collectives or as individuals, the work that migrant women provide, and their resistance to exploitation and abuse also has to be a central aspect of shadow feminism from Lebanon.
Therefore, a feminism that is informed by the shadows presents a different picture of women's activism in Lebanon, and represents women who challenge norms of gender, sexuality, and class. As I will show in part two of this study, shadow feminism may also find its roots in histories of women's militancy,in the narratives of Communist women, for example, who were reputed to be sexually liberated, and prone to have “free and easy amorous exchange[s]” (Bechara 55).
I would also like to thank the wonderful members of my dissertation committee: my advisor, Guisela Latorre, and committee members Theresa Delgadillo, Nadine Naber and Cricket Keating. It was also Cricket who came up with the term "shadow feminism" and-- along with my friend, Yu Chen (Brena) Tai, encouraged me to think more about this term.
[i] Banat Tariq can be translated as Daughters of Tariq, or daughters of the morning star. The anthology also shows how the term refers to “a tribe of Arab warrior women who lived on the periphery of the new-found Islamic community” (Banat Tariq CFP).
[ii] In Sri Lanka, the 1970s saw a feminist longing for a mythic pre-colonial past (Jayawardena and de Alwis 250). See also Robin D.G Kelley's Dreams of Freedom for a discussion of Black activism through looking at the past.
[iii] See also Stephan, Rita. “Women’s Rights Movement in Lebanon” in Mapping Arab Women Movements: A Century of Transformation from Within edited by Nawar Al-Hassan Golley and Pernille Arenfeldt. Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2012.
[iv]My methodology resembles that of Maylie Blackwell, whodocuments Chicana feminist history through an intersectional lens grounding it in multiple sites of oppression and resistance (25-9). Nadine Naber also looks at the “multisited feminist” strategies of “diasporic feminist anti-imperialism” embraced by Arab American feminists in the Bay Area. These are strategies, she writes, have long been part of radical women of color and third world women's politics (221-2).
[v] Anzaldua argued that the serpent was once revered, and that it represented the earth for the Olmecs (56). This reverence was lost with colonization, as Christian religion emphasized the body/soul split. Thus, for Anzaldua, to ‘enter into the serpent” means to get in touch with one’s instinctual ‘animal’ side (59; 48).
[vi] Here I am reminded of an online exercise by Black feminist Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who asks viewers about repressed violence in the places where we live. In her words, such exercise also asks “what are the voices of the forgotten, erased and violated ancestors teaching you today?” including what we can do to heal this violence http://vimeo.com/14916291
[vii]For newspaper articles that report biases against the workers, see Ibrahim Al Amin, “Lebanon's Electricty Crisis” Al Akhbar English. Jan 12, 2012. http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/lebanon%E2%80%99s-electricity-crisis last accessed Feb. 27, 2014; Farfahinne, “Intifadat al Mouyawimeen.” Farfahinne: Socialist from Lebanon. http://farfahinne.blogspot.com/2012/06/blog-post.html last accessed Feb. 27, 2014.
[viii]Abouzaki writes that three workers were killed, while Traboulsi names two, Fatima Khawaja and Yousef Al Atar.
[ix]Fawaz Traboulsi’s article is the source I use where he states that men and women—a hundred of them, were not allowed to go back to work, punished for allegedly leading the strike. http://history8archaeology.yoo7.com/t31-topic. Last accessed 20 April 2013. Fawzi Abu Mjahed, on the other hand, on the Lebanese Communist party website, writes that the company (and the government) terminated the jobs of four people, and not hundreds; yet he does not say if they were men and women. Abu Mjadeh, Fawzi. “A Nidaa 211: Mahatat Nidaliyya fi Tarikh al Tabaqa al Amila wa al Haraka al Niqabiyya.” Lebanese Communist Party. 8 May 2013. http://www.lcparty.org/website/index.php?option=com_content&id=2120:-211-. Last accessed 20 April 2014.
[x]In making this argument, I was influenced by Angela Davis' analysis of the women's suffrage movement in the U.S in her seminal work, Women, Race and Class, where she pointed the racism of the women's movement.
[xi]See the “Friends of LCW” page on their website http://lcw-cfl.org/en/Home/FriendsofLCW/tabid/319/language/en-US/Default.aspx. Last accessed 20 April 2014.
[xii]Be'ayni, Najib. “Emily Faris Ibrahim: Muhariba Anhakaha al Yaa's.” Assafir. 30 March 2011. http://www.assafir.com/Windows/PrintArticle.aspx?ArticleID=233098&ChannelID=0&ref=Toolbar. Last accessed 20 April 2014.
[xiii]See Walid Dao’s article on the history of workers’ struggles in Lebanon for these different sites of protest. Dao, Walid. “Al Haraka al Niqabiya wal Ummaliya fi Lubnan.” Al Thawra al Da'ima. March 2013. http://permanentrevolution-journal.org/ar/issue3/brief-history-oflabor-movement-lebanon. Last accessed 14 April 2014.
[xiv]Who is She in Lebanon? n.d. http://whoisshe.lau.edu.lb/expert-profile/linda-matar.
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