SIDON, Lebanon: It’s been a week since Sheikh Ahmad Assir and his supporters began occupying the Sidon highway. Since then, the demonstrators, who are protesting Hezbollah’s weapons, have set up tents, bathrooms and places to perform wodou, the Muslim ablution, as well as separate tents and prayer areas for female supporters. Dozens of women, almost all of them wearing the niqab, the full facial covering, and long black dresses, are taking part in the demonstration.
Sitting next to each other in one tent, the women type on their Blackberries and iPhones to stay in touch with family.
“We left our home for justice and dignity and in order to seek a drastic solution to the issue of [Hezbollah’s] arms,” says Amal Shamseddine, Assir’s wife.
“We stay in touch with our parents and they visit us,” she says.
“I’m prepared to stay here until our demands are met,” she adds.
Assir, who has said that he won’t back down to public pressure, is expected to deliver the Friday sermon at the sit-in, which could reveal his plans for the demonstration.
Umm Mohammad, another protester, says there are committees for the protest, with both men and women participating The women, however, pass along their thoughts and ideas for consideration through their husbands, fathers or sons.
“We receive directions and carry them out and we give our input as well,” says Shamseddine.
“Our men respect women. My husband tells me that Islam and the Quran ... hold men and women as equals in everything and that many Quranic verses mention women as mothers and wives and say that they have rights like men,” she continues.
“We stand by our men in sickness and in health.”
At this point, Shamseddine calls the women to prayers, which are performed in a large area blocked off by a curtain.
Pizza, hamburgers and fried chicken are delivered regularly to the tents, where the food is distributed among the protesters.
Many of the women bring their domestic helpers along to care for their children, but the workers don’t have to take part in sit-in activities,
“I’m here with my children. I don’t see them often because there’s so much to be done here and my wife is taking part,” says Sheikh Youssef Hneineh.
“We and women cooperate with each other. The women have their own work to do. They have complete freedom within bounds of Islamic Shariah, the most important of which is not to mix with strangers [men who are not related by blood],” says Hneineh, who has not returned to his home since the first day of the sit-in.
“I love to play here because it’s a big place and no one yells at us and there’s nothing to break,” says his daughter, Hadil, who is playing with her friends.
There are toys, including plastic guns and board games, for the children.
Rima Shaaban says that people support different causes, but the sit-in is important for her and the other women.
“It has done some harm and changed the day-to-day lives of people, but all that will fade. What’s important is that the sit-in achieves its goals,” she says.
“We monitor the news and correct media reports that are mistaken. We also encourage people to join us on Facebook and What’s App,” she says, explaining how the women contribute to the effort.
“I apologize to people if we’ve caused them harm, but the biggest harm is illegitimate weapons. We here are not infringing on people’s freedom or public or private interests,” says Maysa Sabbagh.
The sit-in has been condemned by business owners who complain that the protesting is the hurting businesses in the area.
There was some suggestion that Assir might move to an area that would do less harm to local economy, but for now protesters remain blocking the northern part of the highway connecting Sidon to south Lebanon.
Sabbagh, who has a master’s in Islamic Studies and has taken time off work to participate in the sit-in, says one of her roles at the demonstration is to keep the area clean.
“Cleanliness is godliness and it’s at the core of our beliefs,” agrees Umm Mustapha, who also helps clean.
“The men do the largest amount of the cleaning and we help,” she adds. “Our men respect us and have consideration for our feelings; it’s not like how people say that we’re slaves to men.
“Yes, we obey them as God has ordained,” she adds.