art of resistance, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

Without Peace, We Can’t Have Women’s Rights.

obey_middle_east_mural_20141202505809/photo: Shepard Fairey, Obey Middle East Mural/

More than a century has passed since the famous strikes of female workers in the American textile industry. For more than a century, all around the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March. A century later, inequality isn’t gone. To discuss the issues of inequality and representation in the Middle East, a region often in the spotlight for violation of women’s rights, we talk with female lawyers, poets, aid workers, directors and activists from the region – Jehan Bseiso, Hind Shoufani, Roula Baghdadi, Fatima Idriss and Nagwan El-Ashwal.

In the honor of International Women’s Day, in the name of continuity of the struggle, we’re in discussion with women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. We tackle the issues for women in general, and in the Middle East particularly. Western media usually doesn’t do justice to this topic and the mainstream discourse on Middle Eastern women is highly problematic. It’s not only about the stories written, it’s equally about the imagery that follows them – in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news about Middle Eastern women are less than representational of the story at hand. Let’s change that. The struggle continues, but solidarity continues too!

Jehan Bseiso: Between victims and superheros – too much of a burden

Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published in Warscapes, The Funambulist, The Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) is the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. Bseiso is co-editing Making Mirrors a new anthology by, for and about refugees. She is also working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

In Jordan and Lebanon, women continue to carve out a space across all spheres at home and at work. There is a lot of incredible progress, but also so much work left to do in confronting unjust laws , like the one that lets a rapist marry his victim, permits a brother to shoot his sister in the name of “honor” and forces women to “declare pregnancy” when applying for a job.

I find that women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden, it needs to stop.  The ordinary is extraordinary and we forget that. Western media is particularly obsessed with the trope of “the oppressed Arab and Muslim woman” to an extent that first it misrepresents that story, and it overshadows any other narrative.

Concerning change – each step, however small, if it’s in the right direction it counts. The struggle for change and improvement of the situation for women in the MENA is historical and ongoing, it predates the “Arab spring” and it must necessarily continue to be allied to any call for systemic change.

Hind Shoufani: Legal system written against women

Hind Shoufani is a filmmaker and a writer, working and living in many cities in the Middle East. She’s Palestinian by blood, born in Lebanon and at heart a Beirut girl, raised in Damascus, but also lived in Jordan and held a Jordanian citizenship her whole life. Shoufani currently lives in Dubai and considers herself from all of these places. She is the founder of the Poeticians collective, where poets from all backgrounds read multilingual spoken word and poetry in Beirut and Dubai. She performed her poetry in various cities in Europe, the US and the Arab world and currently works as a freelance director/producer/writer in the UAE and the Arab region at large. Shoufani is currently making a video art feature length documentary on the sensuality, politics and religion present in the poetry and life of six female Arab poets. 

Aside from the violence against women, issues such as honor killings, assault and abuse that goes unreported and unpunished, women in the Arab world suffer the most from the legal system that is written against them. Whether based on Sharia law or civil rights law, women are never treated equally in the eyes of the law. We do not inherit assets, money or land the same way men do, we cannot pass on our citizenship to our children if their father is from a different nationality, and Christian women can be robbed of their children/assets/money if they marry a Muslim man who either divorces them, or passes away. Lebanon just removed the law that says if a rapist marries the woman he assaulted he will not be prosecuted under the legal system.

There are attempts in various countries to improve the standing of women in society as a legal citizen with rights, but it has not yet fulfilled any equality with men. This is mostly due to religion being the key reference for most arbitration in court, whether its issues of childbirth, divorce, inheritance or marriage in general. The personal status laws in the Arab world when it comes to women are abysmal and need a complete overhaul. Issues like violence against women are international issues and not specific to the Arab world, but our legal system really needs to be completely rewritten. A separation of “Church” and state is very much needed here. Sadly, there are very strong forces in the region who want to see us go back to a thousand years ago, and a massive clash of ideology is currently playing out, to very bloody and sad results.

That being said, a lot of mainstream discourse is offensive to Arab women. No one outside the region quite understands how amazingly strong Arab women are. We defy the odds and persevere every single day, we rise from swamps of hatred, prejudice, narrow minded beliefs, obstacles, violence, a legal system that treats us as inferior citizens, and we make life happen. We are doctors and poets and mothers and cleaners and dancers and teachers and warriors. This holds especially true for the Palestinian women who have resisted such a cruel occupation for over seventy years, and more recently Syrian women who are doing best to hold the sky together for themselves and their families dispersed in camps, prisons, street corners, homeless and refugeed and hated and besieged and starving.

The mainstream media is also missing a massive point. While there are hundreds of thousands of women who are struggling for a better life in the region, there are very large numbers of women who were born free, into educated and progressive and open minded families, who are leading brave and exhilarating lives. Not all of us are fighting oppression. Not all of us are in a camp, attempting to escape terrorists such as ISIS and so on. Not all of us have a brother or father who beats us. I personally know hundreds of women who have university degrees, live on their own, make their own money and are economically independent of their parents, choose their lovers, are lesbians, are artists, are outspoken activists and lawyers and nurses and teachers and poets. Many are atheists, some are spiritual, some Muslim or Christian. Free. The mainstream view of Arab women rarely showcases these stories because they are not considered sexy.

Roula Baghdadi: Without peace, we can’t have human and women’s rights

Roula Baghdadi is a Syrian lawyer. She is a part of supervisor’s legal team In Equal Citizenship Center inside Syria, and works with a legal team which defends abused women. Baghdadi is also currently doing her Master in Public law.

On the International Women’s Day, I am hoping for peace, in all of the world, for all of the people. Without peace we can’t achieve respect and fulfillment of all human and women’s rights.

Women in the region are in the worst situation, by the effects of religion and the Islamic extremism, but also totalitarian regimes. Our women today have to fight the long and strong history of thoughts and ideologies, wars, poverty… They have to deal with all of these problems to reach their rights. I believe women’s rights can’t exist without democracy, social justice, and full respect of human rights in general – in constitutions and laws and society. As a lawyer, I believe laws help societies evolve, but that still needs real development in the region.

In Middle East, women do their best. These issues will still need decades to be resolved, but we are on our path, we reject the old systems of the world – in which there’s discrimination between women and men, between black and white, between poor and rich. We reject the regime of profiling, we reject tyranny. And that is not easy.

Syrian women are sold in the markets and are whipped and are still being arrested and abducted. They are being targeted and used as a weapon of war, raped and sold, forced into marriage – particularly minors. All of the parties in Syrian war agreed to one thing, which is targeting of women. That’s why I’d like to say, once again, on the International Women’s Day – let’s work for peace, peace and peace. For all of humanity.

Fatima Idriss: It starts with people addressing immediate issues of daily life

Fatima Idriss is a general manager of Tadamon Council (Egyptian Multicultural Council for Refugees) since 2009, and one of its founders. In 2013, Idriss published a research booklet on education for refugees, which was mainly written by children and young people. She has participated in many international conferences in Europe and in the Arab world. Idriss has been working in the human rights field since 2001, with different international organizations based in Egypt, including: Save the Children – Regional office Middle East and North Africa as Child Participation officer (2004); or CARE Egypt on an awareness-raising project on SIDA (2006).

It has been proved that women still struggle globally – to be considered an equal human and citizen, and those struggles are not ending, due to multi-dimensional factors preventing women to achieve a decent amount of their basic rights.

In Middle East and Egypt particularly, being a woman is a trouble for the community on a daily basis. Women in Middle East have been heavily torn under the concept of “women rights defenders” by those who declare themselves as protectors of the rights of women, but are full of hostility and hatred for women – they are not happy as long as women don’t complete the form that they want and not what women really want. Every violence against women and sexual harassment is still seen as women’s liability, they are the ones blamed by the whole community.

Freedom is not always about grand political debates. It often starts with people addressing the immediate issues of daily life. When it comes to women controlling their lives, the current mainstream discourse on women is different  – the example of Tunisia is completely different from Egypt, and then there’s Gulf area, which is totally different from the rest. When questioning the current mainstream discourse on women as an act of justice to the reality, the answer is “NO”.

We are witnessing massive deterioration of women’s rights. We’ve gone from taking on the roles as active citizens after the Arab spring to passivity – due to limits of change in the social, economic, and political atmosphere in general. At one level, community members kept back to undercurrent burden of economic situation (Egypt as example), it keeps them so busy with the daily needs. The economic situation got the priority and that created limited space for all citizens to engage in public life – so women have less opportunity to be active.

Nagwan El-Ashwal: The issue of democracy

Nagwan El-Ashwal is from Egypt. She is PhD researcher at the European University Institute – EUI- Florence, Italy and she works on Jihadi movements in the Arab region. Also, she was a visiting PhD scholar at the Institute of International Studies at University of California at Berkeley and the chairperson of Regional Center for Mediation and Dialogue. El-Ashwal was involved with a lot of different organizations related to justice, equality and democracy in Europe and in the Middle East.

The main issue for women in the Middle East today is the issue of democracy and freedom from repressive regimes. Those regimes close the public sphere when confronted with any kind of activism.

I think that women activists in the first years of the Arab spring have enjoyed a lot with the free space where they could take part in all political activities and push society forward to get more rights – in terms of political and economical struggle. However, after what occurred – either in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya, women involved in activism are getting back to the first step. The situation is better in Tunisia but it is still dramatically bad in other cases.

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This article was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, Jordan, Syria

The Champs-Elysées in Zaatari Camp.

cover1loresj/photo by Toufic Beyhhum/

The photo pretty much says it all. The following is a photo-essay by Toufic Beyhum and Nadim Dimechkie. You must be wondering about the connection between one of the world’s largest refugee camps (which is gradually evolving into a permanent settlement) and the famous boulevard (the paradise for dead heroes) in Paris? Well, read on, and find out all about it – thanks to the work of Beyhum and Dimechkie, titled What remains when all is lost?

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“The salesman on the Champs-Elysées displays the shiny black shoes in neat, even rows. Each time the wind picks up, each time a truck roars past, they are drowned in billows of fine desert sand. And each time, the salesman dusts the sand off each shoe, wipes it down and places it back in line. Another cloud of sand may come along any moment, but the shoes will stay clean.

Named by French aid workers, this Champs-Elysées is the main high street in the Za’atari refugee camp, a three year old Syrian city in Jordan where 130,000 refugees are trying to make a living somewhere they do not wish to live. Most have left their homes, trades, families, and material possessions behind and they want to go back now. But until they do, they must manage with what they have left. And what they have left lies within.”

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“Atallah has revived the family bakery here on the Champs-Elysees: the bread is delicious. Mounib has established an impressive perfume shop—which he insists is nowhere near as good as the one his family ran in Syria for generations. Rashed, 14, leaves the camp to buy furniture from Jordanian merchants and comes back to sell it, much as his family once did back home. Where tradition fails, resourcefulness steps in. There are no cars here, and law and order is the preserve of the UN. So Abdul Mansoor, once a policeman in Syria, now makes phenomenal falafels. Omar was a car mechanic; now he sells second-hand clothes.

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“Some jobs have been invented before anyone’s come up with a name for them. What do you call the kids who use wheelbarrows to help people with their shopping for tips, or to resell UNHCR blankets and tents so they can buy what they really need? What do you call the welder-joiners who fuse impossible things from impossible combinations of materials, or the makers of custom-made flat-bed trolleys designed to shift shipping-container homes between buyers and sellers?”

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“A combination of good governance and the opportunity for dignity has quelled many of these less desirable elements, while providing opportunities for the better instincts to grow. For some, there is even excitement here—in the relative law and order, in the electricity (which some Syrian villagers had never had on tap before), in the entrepreneurial opportunities. But nobody wants to be here. For all their ability to survive the present moment, no one can build lasting happiness here, for that would mean accepting their fate. Still, there is enough tradition and resourcefulness to make life bearable.”

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“And there is always pride – another resource from within. Pride keeps the streets tidy and the wedding dresses moving. Pride keeps the homes orderly, the teenaged boys groomed and fragrant, the barbershops busy. Pride keeps the shoe salesman in business.”

/all photos © Toufic Beyhum/

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This is not the full story and these are not all photos. Please read & see it all on Toufic Beyhum’s official website.

For more on Zaatari refugee camp, you can see some previous posts:

Inside Zaatari: Being a Teenager in a Refugee Camp

The Women of Zaatari Refugee Camp

The World(s) of Refugee(s)

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Afghanistan, art of resistance, Jordan, Syria

A Refugee Footnote.

According to UN data, more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution, the highest number since the mid-1990s.

More than 15 million of the uprooted are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands — so-called ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs).

Major refugee populations include Palestinians (4.8 million), Afghans (2.9 million), Iraqis (1.8 million), Somalis (700,000), Congolese (456,000),  Myanmarese (407,000), Colombians (390,000), Sudanese (370,000).

Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees. Many of them spend their entire childhood far from home and without access to basic education.

Following are the photos from refugee camps outside of Islamabad, home to almost over a million displaced Afghan children (registered and unregistered); and from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, home to some of the more than one million displaced Syrian children.

Refugee children from Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the "last breath" as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

Refugee children from Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the “last breath” as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

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An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY)

An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN )

 

/Photos by: Mohammad Sajjad, Mohammed Muheisen, Nathalie Bardou, Pedro Ugarte, Emilio Morenatti,  Faisal Mahmood/

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art of resistance, Jordan, Syria

Inside Zaatari: Being a Teenager in a Refugee Camp.

Zaatari refugee camp is the world’s second largest refugee camp, a home to about 150,000 refugees (Fall 2013 estimates). Couple of months ago, I wrote about Rena Effendi’s project The Women of Zaatari Refugee Camp, and today I am happy to present a lovely initiative from Zaatari I stumbled upon this week. The tumblr site Inside Zaatari is run by teenagers living in the camp:

“We’re teenagers living in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, seven miles from the border of our home country, Syria. We’re using iPhone photography to document our lives.”

The site was created following a visit to Zaatari refugee camp by Magnum photographer Michael Christopher Brown. Brown spent a week in the camp in August, teaching iPhone photography skills to ten teenagers displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria. Everything on the site is their photos, and their voices – a new and unique portrait of life as a teenager in a refugee camp.

Here are some of the photos together with their thoughts about this project.

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“In the future, if I become a good photojournalist and if I become famous, I’ll get the chance to leave this place to take pictures.”            ► Khaled ◄

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“When I hold the camera up to take a picture of someone I see things through the lens that can’t be seen with the naked eye.”             ► Samar ◄

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“Being a good photographer does not depend on the kind of camera you have but on the way you take your pictures.” ► Nour ◄

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“Photography gives me a space to express myself. It allows me to follow my dream to become a journalist.”     ► Hiba ◄

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“The iphone project allowed me to move around the camp more than usual and to go to places I did not know.” ► Rahma ◄

tumblr_nel020Ducd1u1loybo1_1280/all images via Inside Zaatari/

For more on this lovely project supported by Save The Children, visit the Inside Zaatari tumblr.

 

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Jordan, Syria

The Women of Zaatari Refugee Camp.

I already posted about Rena Effendi and her project Pipe Dreams. She is definitely a photographer to follow, with many great projects behind her.

One of them is The Women of Zaatari Refugee Camp.

Artist statement:

“Of the 124,000 people living in Zaatari, Jordan, the world’s second largest refugee camp, 54% are women and 42% of the families there are headed by women. The life of Syrian women in Zaatari is harsh and potentially dangerous – harassment is a reality and rape a nighttime possibility. The refugee women I encountered there told stories of death, deprivation, suffering and sacrifice. All of them went through major trauma of losing their homes and family members in the war. However, they refused to be portrayed as victims. As they struggle with the stigma of being refugees and cope with a loss of place and belonging these women showed remarkable resilience, definite dignity and an astounding ability to hope. They each had different ways to achieve some sort of normalcy in an inhumane situation – some by opening businesses, others by serving their community while always supporting each other. One woman I met there had even recreated – to the best of her ability – her kitchen from Syria in a small shipping container, where she lived in cramped spaces. It was the act of remembering that gave her the strength to survive.”

tumblr_n2ezbv5ANQ1rouua1o1_1280Schoolteacher Amal Hourani, 28 in Zatari refugee camp in Jordan. Hourani turned her volunteer teacher position into a paid job and now earns $310 a month. The first thing she bought with her paycheck was a washing machine.

tumblr_n2ezbv5ANQ1rouua1o5_500Zeinab Dagher, 20. “I came here with my family, there are six of us. I used to study, to read, then I stopped and started doing this work.” She works in a tailor workshop from 8am to 6pm, five days a week. She gets paid $4 a day. “I didn’t want to do this in my life, I wanted to just continue reading and studying… Our house was hit 3 days after we left it. I wish I brought so many things with me, I wish I brought everything. I left everything behind and came here.”

tumblr_n2ezbv5ANQ1rouua1o6_1280Hadiyee Malak, 27, sits in a beauty salon, waiting to have her eyebrows threaded. She used to be a hairdresser in Syria but is not working in Zaatari. “It takes a lot of money to set a place like this up,” Malak says, explaining why she isn’t working in her trade. “It’s for financial reasons, to be honest with you.”

tumblr_n2ezbv5ANQ1rouua1o7_1280Em Odai, the owner of a beauty salon in the camp, with her two-year-old son, Odai. “Here, there is nothing,” she says. “We try and recreate some things from our past, we try, but it can’t be done. It is not the same. It’s just that when you remember, when you think back to Syria, everything about it is better, even its air. That’s enough for me – just to breathe its air again.”

MCX030114_341Rana Mokdad, 24, works as an assistant in a beauty salon run by a fellow refugee.

tumblr_n2ezbv5ANQ1rouua1o10_1280Asil, 22, Nada, 22, and Siba, 24. The friends are Syrians who have been living in Jordan for years. They are university students, part of a group of 90, who are helping Syrian refugees living outside Zaatari adjust to their new lives. They rely on donations from family friends, and they also contribute $10 a month from their own pockets. They offer rent assistance to some families, gather and donate clothes, blankets and other essentials, as well as organize day trips for children to parks.

// all photos © Rena Effendi/INSTITUTE //

For more on this project, go to the INSTITUTE.

For more on Effendi and her work, go to her official website.

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Jordan, Syria

In between lives: Syrian refugees.

Valerian Mazataud: Syrian Refugees in North Jordan (fall 2012)

Syria was on the front pages of the newspapers but slowly drifting towards the end pages. Still most of the papers were about combat, and few about refugees, even less outside of Turkey. Jordan then hosted the second largest refugee community, and figures never stopped growing since then.
For the first time, I left with the idea of financing a personal project using media assignments. During my time in North Jordan, I worked with Montreal daily La Presse, Jobboom magazine, La Gazette des Femmes, as well as NGO Handicap International.
At the beginning of the project was a simple question. « What did you keep from your previous life ? » Sometimes it was an object, sometimes a memory, other times a simple gesture. Through these images, I am trying to portrait the transitory status in which these refugees live, neither present in, nor absent of the society. My approach is that of a metaphorical documentary, mixing concrete souvenirs with intangible feelings of uprooting.

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Psychiatre au camp de refugies Syriens de Zaatari

Refugies syriens en Jordanie

Un refugie Syrien du camp de Zaatari, dans le Nord de la Jordanie envelope dans le drapeau de l'Armee syrienne libre

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Bedouins Syriens refugies en Jordanie

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/all photos © Valerian Mazataud/

For more on Mazataud’s projects, visit Focus Zero.

For more on current events in Syria, read a story from Homs on The Guardian, and an article on Syria’s dispossessed on The Independent.

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art of resistance, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, United Arab Emirates

Picture an Arab man.

Tamara Abdul Hadi is a Canadian – Iraqi photojournalist. She was raised in Canada, and after graduation went to live and work for Reuters in UAE. Later on she moved and lived and worked all over the Middle East. Her personal photography projects deal with social injustice and deconstructing stereotypes.  She also initiated and taught photography and art therapy workshops to women and children in marginalized communities in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.

One of her most famous projects is Picture an Arab man. She spent years travelling around the world photographing Arab men and collecting material for a forthcoming book. About the project, she says:

The conceptual aim of this portrait series is two-fold: Trying to uncover and break the stereotypes placed upon the Arab male, and providing an alternative visual representation of that identity. Secondly, it is a celebration of their sensual beauty, an unexplored aspect of the identity of the contemporary Arab man, on the cusp of change in a society that reveres an out-dated form of hyper-masculinity. 

I have photographed men in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, UAE , Palestine and Canada. They have been Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese, Emirati, Jordanian, and of mixed heritage. My plan is now to photograph men from the remaining countries of the Middle East to truly represent the diversity of the Arab region.

In these photographs the men are no longer portrayed as faceless members of a politicized group, a statistic on the evening news, and this project helps them as much as the viewers, to regain their personal identity as complex and unique individuals.

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daffy smallall photos ©  Tamara Abdul Hadi

For more on this project and Hadi’s other work, visit her official website.

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