Monday, January 18, 2016

The Pioneer

Dr. Lina Abirafeh, the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), in Lebanon, has nearly twenty years of experience, addressing gender issues in both development and humanitarian settings. Her focus is on gender-based violence in emergency settings - conflict, post-conflict, and natural disaster. She has worked with many UN agencies and international NGOs in countries such as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Lebanon, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, amongst others. Dr. Abirafeh has also conducted research trips to Bangladesh, Fiji, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda on various gender issues and has published much of this work in books and journals.
Here’s an excerpt of an interview we had with Dr. Abirafeh.

The beginnings
I was born into GBV activism, really! I think I was destined to do this before I was born! I am Lebanese on my father’s side, and Palestinian on my mother’s side. There were so many aspects to my identity and nothing was taken for granted. I came from different conflicts. Being female in this context is a conflict in itself. After being born in Beirut, we moved to Saudi Arabia, and I remember having questioned gender issues all the time. My parents were liberal and had strong feminist principles – although maybe they didn’t realize it at the time. I remember wanting a doll and my mother telling me no, and that I was going to do more in life. I wound up with a gender neutral childhood that affected me profoundly. We lived in a compound and did not quite integrate with the mainstream Saudi population, but I did see the state of women. My mother would have to wear an abaya in order to move about outside the house, even if she was wearing shorts underneath. I moved to the US when I was 10. For high school, I went to a liberal all-girls school, called the Madeira School.  They had a class called Comparative Women’s History. It was an earth shattering experience. We spoke about foot biding and FGM, they showed us videos and talked about it. That class set my career in motion. They even talked about violence in a western context, to clearly demonstrate that no one is immune to it. It cuts across every boundary one can think of. GBV was the most unbelievable and most egregious form of violence against humanity! 

What was ironic was that I picked up on the subject and obsessed over it, and marinated in it – and I’ve pretty much done nothing else. It’s like I’m this one-trick pony that can do this one thing. My first paper was on FGM. My mother asked me, “Where do you get these grim things from? You’re such a depressing child!” I could not let it go. You could put me in any class – European History or whatever, I would always write my paper around something from about gender issues, such as the oppression of women in World War II or something on these lines, or a World Religion Class – would have a paper on Women and Alternative Religions. I could not get over it. I was constantly customizing every class I took towards my interest. I did it for the rest of my high school life, I did it throughout college, and then graduate school, and then while doing my PhD, as well. I went through a Development Studies framework, but it was still all about gender issues. That was the lens through which I knew the world. Once I put the glasses on, there was no other way. It was cemented into my head. 

It’s funny because people ask me things like – You have so many conflicting issues, you’re Palestinian, shouldn’t you be addressing that cause? As much as I am an advocate for all those things, gender inequality trumps everything. That is the most salient aspect of my identity. We come in with all these hyphenated identities - which issues are you going to fight for? and what are you going to do? and who do you feel like being this morning? That was it for me!

Challenges while focusing on GBV Activism
There are so many challenges. This applies to so many countries - across the board. The first thing definitely is insecurity. It is hard to work in places where bad things keep happening. Women are more vulnerable even without added insecurity, but in these contexts, they’re even more vulnerable. There’s no chance of building anything sustainable, there’s no chance of stability, conflicts recur, and violence is cyclical at every level – in the home, in society or in the country. There’s really no way to ever strike a balance. Especially now, with all those figures we’re hearing about how human displacement has been at its worst since World War II, we have a global picture that is pretty bleak. I want to find some optimistic strands to hang onto, but I’m really not finding them. That’s the hardest part. 

I work in these countries – whether it is in the Central African Republic, or here in Lebanon, or in Afghanistan or wherever else, for five minutes you think it’s good, but the next two years it’s terrible. And then you may have this window where things are working and the situation again deteriorates for one reason or the other. I think contexts like that are exhausting, because people no longer have the energy to pick up and rebuild. I find that to be particularly taxing. There are a lot of socio-cultural obstacles, also. There are a lot of excuses that cultures and societies find to oppress women and they might be based on culture, custom, religion, traditions, or might be a reaction or backlash to perceived, imported or imposed “western elements”. Women become the poster children of this sacred cultural ground. That becomes the cornerstone on which all social movements or lack thereof (backward-moving social movements) rest. In gender issues, those are the last rights to be granted and the first to be taken away, at every level. There’s also a level of policy and legislation. I believe that it helps, but transcending it into lower levels is also challenging. It’s education, the role of men, the ideas about this being a secondary issue especially in the context of an ongoing conflict. That continuously trumps the issues that are fundamental to more than half the population. 

I find it so frustrating that people fail to see how critical this is. Even when rights are granted – I don’t quite like the word granted – rights are ours, to be seized, enforced and owned. To say “granted” is to make it tokenistic. To give you an example, in Lebanon, there was a protracted fight for legislation against Domestic Violence. That finally came through, but provisions against Marital Rape were removed. All religious leaders, legislators, government, parliamentarians and also men behaved as though to say, “Look here ladies! We got you your little law, this is awesome! Don’t go nitpicking on the small stuff like the marital rape thing!” That fell short, dramatically short, in fact! For me, that went to the core of the issue. Religious leaders said that including provisions against marital rape in domestic violence legislation would destroy the social fabric of the family. Why would they say this? Let’s unpack it. Are you saying that the social fabric of society and the community as a whole, is built on the fact that women are property of men at large? Starting out with her father, at first, and then her husband – she’s property, throughout. That includes – most dramatically -  sexually. They missed the whole point. 

We, as feminists must  find the delicate balance between politicking and a cultural way of discussion or diplomacy to get what we want. It is a constant source of tension to see what form the activism will take.  It is not a sellout to choose one over the other. Are we going to settle for the lowest common denominator, or is it all or nothing? These are tough things we have to negotiate. We have to have these critical discussions with the big picture in mind. We’re all fighting for agency, choice and voice – and then to interpret these in the many different ways in which we are entitled to.

Dealing with the challenges
I changed my activist strategy recently. I took up this position as the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), at the Lebanese American University. I recently changed my strategy because I was doing emergency and humanitarian work for many years. There’s a lot of importance and great value in donning that superhero cape and getting out there in the first 72 hours, with gender issues on the agenda, and a lot of integrated responses that are critical. But, this time, I decided that it might be interesting to do something with a foundation for longer-term change in a system that already existed. I hadn’t considered working with an academic institution in the past. I had worked with the UN, with local and international NGOs and even women’s organizations, but not academia. I felt that it would be an interesting opportunity to see things from that side. Young people congregate in this setting, so minds are waiting to be shaped. IWSAW offers full range of activities – education, research, development projects, outreach. And it has solid staying power. This Institute has been around for over forty years, and it’s going to be around for a lot longer. It has the power to influence. An academic institution comes with a certain amount of credibility, we can do the research needed to understand the situation, and to work on the field as well. This is an interesting position – and I realised it was a different way of doing the same type of work, while also having the opportunity to make a lasting impact. 

Milestones in the journey, Anecdotes on the way
I have to say that people ask me a lot for what my greatest success has been. I think they want to hear these things – to know psychologically that there is some traction and hope of positive gains. I have a few anecdotes of small things - although these things were big for me – they’re my aha moments, for I feel that change has happened – even if I won’t see it fully flourish. I have stopped looking for these moments because I feel that looking for success would leave me discouraged. Secondly, it’s not possible to see the immediate result of this work – it’s about social change. What I truly believe is that I don’t know if I would see changes in my lifetime – but it is still worth it. I can romanticize and talk about the next generation. I have a niece, and I don’t want her - or any person - to feel like their choices, freedom and mobility is restricted in any way. There are so many things that fundamentally bother me about how we are expected to operate as females, from the female foetus all the way to aged women. We curb our behaviour, restrict our lives, and manage everything we do because we have that extra burden, and live a life that is perceived to be fundamentally unequal. Everything from harassment on the streets to mass discrimination against women leading to what amounts to a genocide - Where does it all end? How do we build a society on human rights and equality? That’s the hardest part of it. The anecdotes are few and far between but it doesn’t mean that I should stop what I am doing. I am extremely excited by the small things. For instance - the Institute works with the Feminist Club at the University. In September, they told me that they wanted to launch a campaign for university processes to change their name from the Women’s Club to the Intersectional Feminist Club. They wrote this great piece about all the intersectionality of inequalities, and how they wanted to address these things, and become advocates and champions of the cause. I loved it! 

The university administration asked me what I thought, and I endorsed it. I loved watching them unpack their reasons for doing what they did – and cultivating their own feminist consciousness
In Afghanistan, I remember seeing women who were offered literacy classes turn them down because they didn’t see value. They sought safety and survival first – of course! They had starving kids and needed to put food on the table – and it wasn’t the right time. They went through programs that helped them receive vocational training, learn skills, and rebuild their lives. It was only later that a woman told me that she had been there for six months, and she was getting a little money, and had regained some power and control over her own life, and she just realized that she had never once written her own name. Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world for women – so making that demand was empowering for her. I watched this woman be guided in writing her own name for the first time ever – and I cried my eyes out because it was just so amazing to see that she came to that place on her own. She regained her sense of choice and voice and felt empowered about the other basic things in her life. Her fundamentals were taken care of.  Once that happens, other things had materialized and became important to her. 

An idea to end violence against women

Giving a TED talk was a fascinating process. I thought I could give a speech – and I can do that in “auto-pilot” mode. And so I wrote an initial  speech that sounded more like a training. But that’s not what these talks are about – they need to be simple, relatable, not technical. Something interesting and relevant to all audiences - to motivate the masses to take action, and to share that one big idea. My one big idea was to end it, end violence against women, because I couldn’t stand it. But I had to leave the audience on a positive note - with a take home message. I put it all out of my head when I was sent to Nepal as part of the humanitarian response for the April earthquake.

But then the epiphany happened exactly as I told it in the talk. On the day of the second earthquake, three weeks after the first one, I was walking to the office and I saw the message I wanted to convey spray-painted on the wall: Start Where You Stand. It was amazing . I wanted to tell people that it is everybody’s responsibility, ending this violence. We have to look around and see how pervasive it is, and the impact of such things. I wanted to convey the idea that it was personal – that we are all affected, all responsible. I was hung up on it. I saw this little graffiti, and it hit me. I wrote the speech on the plane returning from Nepal. When I went to London, I pieced it together.
The day of that second earthquake, all of us held onto that column, and there was so much fear in everyone’s eyes. It clears your head in a creepy way, and your priorities align. It is about survival. When it comes to GBV, it is REALLY about survival. It cuts right to who you are as a person. There’s no one who is immune to it. One of the things that still bothers me is that while making the case about the importance of GBV, there isn’t much of an understanding that it is a fundamental element of our existence, life-and-death, life-saving. People would rather go hungry than to lose safety and bodily integrity. Hunger seems small in comparison with the safety and integrity of my body. I wanted to leave people with that feeling in the pit of my stomach. That feeling has rendered me unable to watch movies with excessive violence – particularly GBV. For instance, I had to pause watching The Whistleblower so many times because I wanted to vomit. It makes me so sick! Without wanting to make people vomit in the audience, I wanted people to feel that feeling that is inside you – like a rot inside you. It bothers me so much. You don’t need first-hand experience to know that this is wrong.
GBV occurs because of inequality, fear, and a belief that power is a zero sum game. It is about the belief that giving women their rightful due will somehow affect men adversely. Of course it affects men and boys too – but we know women are the majority. It is the longest running violence that we’ve known to exist. It is the most ugly and unfortunate and unacceptable by-product of humanity. I don’t think this exists in the animal kingdom! And yet we feel it all the time, and at so many different levels and in so many different forms. We just need to recognize how pervasive it is – and scream This is enough!  

The coming days
The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World is doing a lot of exciting things. It is a critical time to address Arab Women’s issues - by and for Arab women. As we say: Nothing about us without us! All these global policies and dialogues and opinions without engaging Arab women thinkers, activists, academics - that’s not the way things should work. We should raise the profile of those voices and critically be the bridge, helping to ensure that what is said and done FOR Arab women is done BY Arab women. That is critical for us in the next year. We just launched a new Minor in Gender Studies and we have a Master’s in Gender Studies, and we’re also going to launch a program in continuing education for training on gender issues in development and humanitarian assistance. We have a bi-annual journal called Al-Raida, an Arabic word that means The Pioneer. I love that word – I like that idea and that identity - we need to embrace it strongly. There’s also other kinds of research, for instance focusing on economic empowerment, and to update a nearly twenty year old study on female labour force participation in Lebanon. We are also looking to continue our work on the human rights of female migrant domestic workers. Next year, we’re also launching a training program for police officers on GBV. I’d also like to create books for children that include GBV prevention and protection messages – we should start young! 

Follow Lina on Twitter as  @LinaAbirafeh. Follow the IWAW website for regular posts and updates from Lina.