Sunday, 18 April 2010

Education as Aberration

Clap your hands if you learned about Hoda Shaarawi at school. Now clap some more if you studied Nawal Saada’wi, Margaret Atwood, Agnes Varda…Silence, as I expected.

The issue of education in the Middle-East, but particularly in Lebanon can be easily paralleled in politics:

Just as the problem is NEVER about who is to acquire power, since laws and/or pacts generally regulate who is to become president, monarch or minister, the dilemma basically lies in the very transmission of power. How can we deal with this in-between state when a ruler dies and a new one is to take over? This period of transition is of utmost value and fragility thus it is usually when most coups d’Etat take place. To put it in the context of equal rights- even if the legislation stipulates that women can have and implement their full civil rights (by some miracle), how these very rights be transmitted? Having acquired them would indeed be a great first step, but what about their assimilation into our culture and that of our generations come? It makes no difference if a country- which is fresh out of wars, acquires by some divine outer hand- a very sophisticated constitution, its implementation would most likely be thwarted by the people who requested it in the first place and asked to be liberated from old regimes.
Think of it in terms of intellectual shift before legal shift, and the first is done by means of education at schools (which is more like passive, mind-numbing cerebral stuffing of data and little to no requirement of analysis), knowledge procured at a personal level and last but not least, the culture preached by the existing feminist NGOs.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that our curriculum is biased. Usually, that gets said exclusively about our history books which, for the life of them, cannot come to terms on a definitive account of events since the 1975 Civil War (reminder: it’s 2010 now) and has a hard time interpreting the period even before that. However, literature and philosophy deserve a relook as well; the disequilibrium is staggering and surprisingly NOT gender-based.

Thinking that only female authors are omitted from the curriculum is false for in fact, many male authors are as well: Both politically incorrect and women writers are equally disregarded or wrought to fit academia standards; think Sade, think Genet, think VĂ©nus Khoury-Ghata, think Nizar Kabbani, think even Abou Nawas.
The issue that this brings about is not so much the need for a gender-quota in our education but the fact that diversity of authors should be a given. Not only are we restricted to mainly male literature (which I have no problem with, for the record) but precisely to politically correct male literature. Why are we restricted to Voltaire’s views on religion while his contemporary de Sade is conveniently “forgotten”? What’s wrong with Genet’s depiction of homosexuality? How come Saadawi’s fight against gential mutilation in Egypt was hurled into oblivion? Why wasn’t Venus Khoury-Ghata ever mentioned? In case you’re wondering why female authors do not make appearances as frequently as men do, the answer can be found in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”.

Naturally, we’d think that all this would culminate in women wanting to revolt against this system and establish some NGOs or movements to retaliate, claim rights, spread awareness, and so on and so forth. Maybe we should think again. In all fairness, there have been numerous attempts. One would think that when a collective (or an individual) is preaching a certain ideology, the logical step would be to dig up a bibliography of oeuvres in relation, whether written or filmed.
But our NGOs are an exception, their work is reduced to annual dinners and poser meetings which amount to nothing productive (aside from shaming women nationally when they voice their opinions), or simply flaunting their body hair and their “let’s eradicate men” ideology. Add to this, their film-libraries are just about completely devoid of anything substantial, as if Sally Potter, Agnes Varda, Jane Campion never held a camera in their hands. So what we have here basically is people avidly preaching a certain ideology without so much as taking into account its manifestation in contemporary art. Why on earth would anyone want to talk Sara Teasdale?Atwood?Something?
For the life of me, I can’t possibly fathom it! Darn!

Written by Haneen H / Edited by Jay Feghali

Friday, 2 April 2010

My Feminism or: Why Your Body Hair Won't Change the World (pt.2)

If a boxing match took place between a man and a woman, who would you side with?
Amid pulling hair, breaking bones, swinging left and right and turning black and blue, who do you assume would throw a hell of a right punch, kick the hardest or get knocked out first?
Regardless of who you’d bet your buck on, the winner of such a fight would ultimately prove one thing: Who had the upper hand in that particular contest and nowhere else.

Knowing that each confrontation has its own premise, whoever walks out alive from any brawl, may it be man, woman, child or animal, says nothing about the group it represents. Thinking that the particular (a certain individual) would offer insight regarding the majority (a gender) and can thus be stereotyped is a serious generalization. Me losing a Judo contest to a male competitor does not make women inapt anymore than guys should be considered clumsy if I beat one of them at a round of Pool. Therefore, the virtual battle of the sexes is impossible; which man VS which woman? A trained soldier? An obese couch-potato? Who are we talking about?
Ultimately, winning comes down to the individuals themselves and their personal merit as opposed to their gender.
However, this by no means justifies the allegation and the use of terms such as “weaker sex”, simply because weakness is not a classification (as no classification can ever be made), it is an accusation. One woman is enough to debunk the theory that females cannot fight as ferociously as men or become high-ranking officials. For this reason, this appellation is discriminatory towards half of the earth’s population as it relies solely on unfounded claims to attribute certain characteristics to women. The worst part is, it is acceptable in our language.
Assuming that this discriminating speech is a rare occurrence nowadays gravely misses the point. A society’s language and colloquial terms are its mirror, they project its “un-thought” and the collective consciousness which binds it together; there’s more to it than what meets the ear, so to speak. Knowing that our reflections are encoded in the expressions we use and having these trait associated to women, testifies to this segregation, especially in the Arab World. The worst part is that these thoughts get transmitted via communication without being second-guessed and saying that women are “nawa3em” or “al Jens al Latif “denote a certain attitude which individuals may not have or want to have.
The tool in the hands of each and every one of us is the conscious step to challenge the baggage of words that we received from the generation before us and better monitor the adjectives we associate to one another. A word is never just a word. It almost always reveals more than we mean or want it to, regardless of who uses it.

Written by Haneen H / Edited by Mazen Zahreddine

Saturday, 27 March 2010

My Feminism or: Why Your Body Hair Won't Change the World (pt. 1)

Sexist fucks and radical feminists are just a couple of the many stereotypes we run into nowadays, and although both seem to share just about the same level of testosterone, they stand on opposing ends of the spectrum of women's perception. The emancipation of the latter has become an important topic addressed by many sociologists, religious figures and economists. Although in Europe and the States, the “weaker sex” enjoys a relatively larger freedom margin and acceptance, the Arab World still struggles to let that “soft sex” perform even the most petty trivialities, such as driving a vehicle and voting.
Feminist waves flourished abroad some time back (19th and early 20th century for first-wave feminism, 60s and 70s for second-wave feminism, and finally the contemporary third wave) and many must-reads have been published by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, and others to provide us with substantial food for the mind. Also, feminist claims have indeed done their best to enhance the situation in the Middle-East and bring media attention to it, for example: Hoda Shaarawi’s participation in the first women’s street demonstration in 1914, and Nawal El Saadawi’s writings about female genital mutilation to name a few. However, the work that should be maintained by the public on a regular basis has proved to be highly lacking and insufficient.
In fact, far from deified ideologies, imported ideas, and leaders put up on a pedestal, the pragmatic aspect of what any feminist collectivity in Lebanon believes in and most importantly knows, should stay the main focal point. My point is, what do you as a contemporary woman fighting for her rights know about feminist authors, filmmakers, female painters and theorists?
How do you, as a feminist individual or collective, go about changing the world? And even more so, how do you alter people’s (men and women alike) preconceived ideas?
The dilemma of today is not so much identifying the problem and its origin, but our very approach to the predicament itself. Knowing that our education is biased and lacking, the figures with which we identify are questionable and our very frame of mind has been wrought, shaped and conditioned by the male gaze, how can we go about reversing all of that before committing ourselves to causes, beliefs and world change?
A current trend that is easily noticeable in Lebanon is reducing feminism to a symbol. As is common with all "ideologies", or let's call them "isms", a distinct trait more often than not gets associated to an ism, and in this case, it’s body hair. Not that such a symbol is by definition irrelevant, but it IS futile. All action is stopping there, and by action, I do not mean street marches but cerebral, intellectual stimulation. The danger of hiding behind, or putting in the forefront this body hair symbol, is the fact that body hair never changed the world - and never will. Flaunting your unshaved armpits or Amazonian bush rarely got people to reconsider their views or shed light on the lack our pedagogy suffers from.

Written by Haneen H / Edited by Jay Feghali