Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women.
BEIRUT: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: The problem is rather to understand why she accepts them,” wrote French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex in 1949. For Lebanese feminists Hayat Mirshad and Alia Awada – wearing white T-shirts with the logo of Fe-Male, the non-profit organization they co-founded – this could not ring more true. The dynamic duo have been indefatigably championing women’s causes over the last few years, and explained to The Daily Star that the way to impose change was to revolt against injustice.
“If you call yourself a feminist, and you do not believe that there needs to be a revolution, you need to change,” said Mirshad, 25. “The patriarchal society did not ask for permission when it controlled us and oppressed us, so we should not ask for permission to revolt against it.”
“There is no such thing as the word ‘shameful,’” interrupted Awada, 28. “If you were subjected to mistreatment, you need to say it out loud; it will allow you to move forward. The ones who talk about it will enforce change and will start that revolution.”
While many countries have introduced laws that support gender equality and protect women from violence, patriarchal societies are still prevalent, the pair said, and Lebanon is one of them.
“The stereotyping begins as soon as the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl,’” Mirshad said, explaining that girls who grew up with brothers usually felt there was a difference in the way they were being raised in the home, and again later on in school.
“You begin to feel that your brothers, your male peers in class, are different from you.”
She was not fully aware of the importance of gender equality as a child, but the turning point came when she stumbled across Egyptian feminist writer Nawal al-Saadawi’s “Al-Mara wa Al-Jins” (Woman and Sex) at the age of 15. It was a text that would have an enormous effect on her point of view.
“You realize that the things she wrote about 50 or 60 years earlier are still happening now, and will probably remain so for a long time. That’s what’s unfortunate, with all of this fighting, the circumstances remain the same,” Mirshad said.
The second turning point in her life was meeting her husband, journalist Bassam al-Kantar, a feminist who pushed her into a life of activism.
“There needs to be someone supportive of you ... because it is not easy to be a feminist activist,” she explained. “There are many people who call themselves activists, but they do not apply those values to their personal lives, maybe because it is not easy. Herein lies the importance of having someone who is supportive.”
For Awada too, the gender gap was not immediately obvious as she grew up. As a child, she and her four sisters would play football with their brothers, ride bicycles together, and even buy toy guns. It was only later that she realized that while she would always play with her brothers’ toys, the boys would never play with hers.
“It wasn’t until my first year of university that I began to read up on this [feminism] and get involved,” she said.
She majored in journalism, but soon found she much preferred working in civil society.
In 2012, after a few different jobs within the field, the two co-founded Fe-male, an organization dedicated to ensuring women’s rights in Lebanon.
“We wanted a space unique to us young women to launch our work,” Awada said. “We also wanted to start somewhere and expand.
“We found the biggest gap [in services], which is also the most harmful for women, is the media. The media is not very interested in civil society causes, and the image of the woman in the media is not being improved.”
Mirshad and Awada soon found themselves searching for a platform to discuss and raise awareness on a range of women’s issues that went beyond the fashion, astrology, and cooking content that were normally reserved for them.
“Who said women do not have other interests?” Mirshad questioned indignantly.
So they went in search of television stations who would agree to air their program, “Sharika wa Laken” (A partner, but not yet equal). None agreed to it, but eventually their idea was picked up by a radio station Sawt al-Shaab. Their show – produced purely on a volunteer basis – is aired weekly around noon, and involves interviews with pioneering figures campaigning for gender equality.
On top of all of this, both women also hold down full-time jobs. Awada works with international development organization Oxfam, while Mirshad is the media officer for the local Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering. Both are also married and have very young sons, whom they bring along to demonstrations, hoping to show them a different way of thinking.
Childhood and a person’s upbringing has as much of an influence on the way men see gender as it does on women, they explained. In patriarchies, men are usually raised to believe they should be the sole earner and protector of the household, and that any sign of vulnerability is a sign of weakness, a role they carry on into society at large.
“A girl is being raised believing that she is a broken wing, and a man that he is the strong one and that he needs to take the responsibility of the household,” Mirshad explained.
“If [a boy] sees his father cooking and cleaning the house, he will not see it as wrong.
“If he sees his mother with a career, he will not see it as wrong.”
While the women were pessimistic about the future, predicting a long and difficult path, especially for young feminists like themselves, both still had hope that change would happen, something they swore they would never stop fighting for.
“I say that there is a lot of time until then, but as long as you have that flame inside you to fight and revolt, hope doesn’t die,” Mirshad said.
“The more they oppose us, the stronger we get,” said Awada.