Feminist and Women’s Struggles in Lebanon’s ‘Popular Movement’: The Intersections of the Public and the Private

The historical division of public and private generates a number of challenges and obstacles, not least for women, and in particular when they engage in political work in the public sphere as happened with the Popular Movement (Al-Hirak) that formed in July 2015 in Lebanon to demand a solution to the garbage and other crises resulting from the corruption and inefficiency of the Lebanese regime.

Women and the roles they play have historically been linked to the private sphere. Within the domestic realm, traditional gender norms demand women’s submission to the authority of their fathers or husbands. Men, meanwhile, are associated with the public sphere and the economic, political, social and security functions this implies.

Because of these expectations, the public sphere in Lebanon has tended to be a difficult place for women to negotiate. Whilst their experiences might be mediated by their class, ethnic affiliations, age and appearance, not to mention the characteristics of whatever neighbourhood or region they come from, the public sphere is usually subject to mechanisms of control and censorship which make it a challenging place for women to fully inhabit. Customs and traditions around the appropriate place for women, the presence of security forces and surveillance through Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), as well as the public gaze all act to exclude women from public life.

The latter concern is a particularly effective deterrent. Men are more densely dispersed and affirm their presence in various ways; from raised voices, nakedness and public urination, moving around in gangs and groups and staying out late, to actual aggression and verbal and physical harassment against girls and women and anyone else who does not conform to traditional gender and social norms. Such members of society are targeted in order for their harassers to assert control over public places.

Such hostile and exclusionary behaviours are accompanied by societal rationalisations based on the principle of the public/private. These preserve male control of the public sphere by placing the blame on women and others who are subjected to male violence for leaving their ‘natural’ private sphere. By entering the public sphere at the wrong place, or the wrong time, or wearing the wrong clothes, or with the wrong companions, or for the wrong reason, they are seen to be inviting harassment. According to this logic the public sphere is the natural possession of men and the majority of their actions within it are justified and excusable; it is the responsibility of women to protect themselves by not entering this sphere and keeping to the boundaries of their homes or, at the very least, their immediate neighbourhoods.

However, these spaces are in turn subject to precisely delineated protocols of behaviour and censorship and the dynamics of male protection (and non-protection) which are enforced, for example, by the young men of the area. This narrative also ignores the fact that within the private sphere, women are not necessarily any safer; at home they also face male violence, which is protected and justified by customs, traditions, laws and religious edicts.

This exclusionary censorship of the public sphere is historically one of the most common forms of political, economic and social marginalization of women. It finds its most blatant expression in incidents of direct violence such as harassment, robbery, rape, detention, or state violence. As the margin for movement for many Lebanese women expands and sees them entering the public sphere with increasing regularity, these incidents increase. However, despite this, women have continued to defy obstacles and assert their presence in public places in a variety of forms, both in their daily lives and as part of organized frameworks such as political activism, protest, and popular demonstrations.

Women in the Movement: A More Overt Presence

Directly and indirectly, in both organized and spontaneous forms, women have long been part of political, national, union and rights struggles in the Middle East. [1] In Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and, of course, in Lebanon[2], women have drawn up and led mobilisation campaigns, participated in protests, organised meetings, joined the armed struggle against a range of mandate regimes and occupiers, comforted and protected their families and wider society, preserved their discipline in the most trying of circumstances, been subject to violence and detention, and gone on hunger strike. They have persisted in their struggles and often won out. What were the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, or the Popular Movement in Lebanon, except the latest steps along this road?[3]

Yet these contributions have always encountered neglect and suppression as a natural extension of the marginalisation of women and their actions, contributions, and histories more broadly. The written history with which we are familiar is mostly a history written by men about the lives and deeds of men who came before them, whilst due to this marginalisation, women’s histories have by-and-large had to operate within the framework of oral storytelling and tales passed down through generations. This is why it is so important that these histories be salvaged and documented.

This can also explain the sense of shock some have when they witness women participating in public struggle. Their histories of doing so have been excised from popular consciousness and official historical narratives, which, compounded by the historical stereotyping of women as willingly relegated to the domestic sphere, make it difficult for many to conceive of them as actors in political life. In fact, women’s political labour is not new, but it has always been marginalized and suppressed in formalised arenas of political action such as parties, unions, municipalities and civil society organisations which are dominated by a hegemonic patriarchal mentality and culture, in addition to not being taken seriously enough, or regarded with sufficient interest, to earn recognition, documentation or coverage.

In the summer of 2015, women participated in the Popular Movement in Lebanon on different levels and in different areas. These ranged from leadership and decision-making roles, to organizing, working in the field, media coverage and media appearances, involvement in the production of knowledge, analysis, public political discourse and reports, as well, of course, as entering street battles against the security forces, and being subjected to beatings, abuse and detention (e.g. Nidal Ayoub, Yara Al Harake, and others). [4] In her testimony on her arrest for participating in a protest in Beirut, the photographer Maya Malkani stated that she was beaten and threatened with sexual violence whilst in custody.[5] A critical and intersectional feminist discourse appeared in the reports and literature of groups such as ‘The People Want’ Coalition and in the work of the Feminist Bloc, which participated in demonstrations beneath the slogan ‘The Patriarchal Regime Kills’.

Women’s participation in the Popular Movement was nothing new or any cause for shock; they came equipped with experience derived from a long history in demand-based political activism and organizing. However, various factors helped highlight their contributions in this particular case. These included developments in media and social networking and their increased use by women; and the increased presence of women in the public sphere anyway.[6] The inchoate nature of the movement itself also promoted inclusivity; it incorporated groups and demands so diverse as to be contradictory (especially at first) and was built around organic and youth-centred groups whose internal structures for the most part differed from those of the traditional parties and party institutions which tended to exclude women.[7]

Interlinked Battles and Intersecting Struggles

The effective involvement of women in the movement should not be allowed to obscure the discriminatory patriarchal actions that targeted women, including non-Lebanese women and transgendered women, who had also taken to the streets to raise their voices against exploitation and marginalisation. Moreover, young men from marginalised working-class neighbourhoods like al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, Hayy al-Sillom and al-Tariq al-Jadida, were labelled ‘fifth-columnists’ or ‘plants’, and faced demonization by certain media organisations and affiliated movement groups, not to mention the violence they were subjected to by the security forces, the detentions and the military trials.[8] From gendered violence deployed by the security forces against women demonstrators and activists to dynamics of silencing, marginalisation and exclusion exercised in coordination meetings of movement groups until they had been completely purged of women participants, then treating women’s concerns and issues as matters of secondary importance to the ‘greater struggle’, through the gendered insults, slogans and banners that were carried in demonstrations and deployed women’s bodies and homosexual imagery to insult the regime, to immigrant, dark-skinned, and transgender women being bullied and expelled, incidents of sexual harassment during the demonstrations of September 20, 2015, and mocking videos made by ‘male activists’ on social media mocking  women’s testimonies of harassment (not to mention regarding the documentation of harassment events as ‘slurs on the movement’s honour’, which speaks of a purely masculinist mindset built on violent patriarchal concepts such as honour, protection and machismo).[9]

This reality shows the urgent need for a radical critique and a deconstruction of hegemonic patriarchal cultural, ethical, linguistic and moral structures. Drawing on Marxist, radical and intersectional schools of feminism, this critique must be an integral component to the political struggle of the Popular Movement. This is what many women and feminists within the movement have been calling for throughout, and indeed have been practicing in both their response to patriarchal aggressions in online, discursive and linguistic spaces, as well as in the public space in Riyad al-Solh Square and Martyrs’ Square. In this way, feminists have rejected the concept of token female participation or the quota system followed by the traditional parties and institutions of state as essentially meaningless indicators of modernity and inclusivity.

Instead of this quota approach that some of the movement groups have attempted to follow, feminists insisted through their discourses and actions that there should be a bold and realistic public evaluation of the true nature and quality of the space afforded to women within the movement and of its hidden gender dynamics, even if this comes at the expense of the idealized image sought for the movement, and even if this exposes them to attacks, mockery and bullying, as well as failed attempts to silence them by the supposed ‘leaders of change’.

In this sense, women in the Popular Movement were not political day-trippers. The movement was a critical experience that deserves serious reflection and examination and courageous self-critique. Yet it is also important to point out that this movement created a political and public space in and through which women engaged in public, private and personal struggles against corruption, state violence, societal and patriarchal violence, and tactics of effacement, marginalisation and exclusion from decision-making and a physical presence in the public sphere.[10] This reflects an intersectionality of struggles in women’s daily lives. This intersectionality and its tangible manifestations within the movement (see above for examples) shows that feminist and women’s issues cannot be subordinate or secondary in any popular movement demanding revolutionary change, but are organically bound to these demands. It has become blindingly clear that for political activism to be revolutionary the presence of women is required; particularly, the presence of critical feminist thought is required at the heart of political action and revolutionary philosophy for change.

Drawing on feminist theory and feminist tools of analysis and action may in fact be of benefit to the movement and other political movements in Lebanon and the region. The ethical frameworks of these theories entail a critical deconstruction of the dynamics of power and oppression and draw on integrity, intersectionality and solidarity to lay the foundations of political work.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger


[1] We give, by way of example, the experience of the Kafa (Enough Violence and Exploitation) association in drawing up the law for the protection of women from domestic violence in 2014, the ongoing struggle within the My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family campaign which worked for the right of Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese husbands and their children, and the experience of the Domestic Workers Union which was founded by immigrant women workers on January 25 2015 and represented a milestone for the workers’ movement and for organized labour in Lebanon. It was turned down flat by Minister of Labour, Sejaan Azzi, who has so far refused to grant it a license. For more see Eva Shoufi’s article in Al Akhbar, February 1 2016: http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/251104.

[2] In ‘Workers without unions; Unions without workers’ (Issue 6 of The Permanent Revolution, January 2016) (permanentrevolution-journal.org/ar/node/136) Farah Kobeissi gives examples of early nineteenth-century independent women’s labour activism in the silk factories of Mount Lebanon and then in Regie after they had been excluded from organized labour, their story of their struggle subsequently left out of the writings of unionists and historians of the labour movement.

[3] There is no intention of romanticizing women’s activism, since many women supported the zuama and traditional, rightwing and conservative political parties in Lebanon, as well as participating (as they still do) in armed sectarian conflicts such as the Lebanese civil war. Women’s political struggle is not necessarily revolutionary simply because they are women, a fact that hints at the realistic and materialistic nature of political activity.

[4] When thinking about the concept of leadership and the personality of the leader (male or female), it is vital to take into account the power dynamics within the group and the social, educational, class and gender privileges enjoyed by those individuals who are more likely to be given leadership roles.

[5] Watch Maya Malkani’s testimony here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxdtAp-rkpc

[6] For reasons to numerous to list in full here, but which include the transformation in forms of labour, the operation of capital, rising levels of education, emigration, urban sprawl, changing gender relations, and of course the women’s/feminist struggle with its long history (though the last twenty years in particular), not to mention the emergence over the last decade of feminist groups in youth and student circles which advance radical discourses in critiquing the state and society.

[7] As well as demanding a solution to the garbage crisis, the Popular Movement incorporated a variety of issue-based demands into its demonstrations and sit-ins including rights for families of workers at the Anfeh salt factories, rights for teachers and civil defense force volunteers, the campaign to protect Beirut’s ‘Dalieh’ or coastal commons, denouncing the kafala system that determines the lives of foreign workers, denouncing anti-refugee xenophobia, and other issues relating to women,even gender-identity and sexuality. All this was evident from the slogans and banners and the types of people who took part, making the space formed by these demonstrations unstructured, unrestricted and uncontrolled, different from the environment created by Lebanon’s traditional parties and coalitions. The space was open and inchoate, especially in the beginning, capable of absorbing various groups of people and a broad spectrum of demands. It should be noted that there is a need for a deeper and more precise evaluation of the movement’s political, material and discursive space and the dynamics of how the different classes and issues interacted within it.

[8] Confirming the organic intersection of masculinity, misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia, femiphobia, transphobia, since all these forms of violence and exclusion are premised on a repressive patriarchal structure that imposes its values, judgments, laws with a variety of violent means both direct and indirect for the sake of preserving the status quo in the face of attempted resistance and change and safeguarding the interests and power of those with gender, class, ethnic and religious privilege at the expense of more vulnerable communities and individuals with less access to power and protection, as part of a power dynamic justified, protected and propagated via a variety of pretexts such as ‘nature’ and ‘the public good’, concepts which when deconstructed are shown to be invalid and illogical.

[9]For detailed examples from these incidents and others see ‘What’s feminism got to do with it? Is there a need for feminism in Lebanon’s current protests?’ (www.sawtalniswa.org/article/506) by Stephanie Gaspais and Lamia Moghnie in Sawt Al Niswa;

Sawt Al Niswa documented testimonies of women who had been subjected to harassment: http://www.sawtalniswa.org/article/511; to read more on the experiences of women in the movement see contributions to the Gendered Aspects of the Movement panel organized by the American University in Beirut on November 28, 2015 and published in its entirety on the Socialist Forum’s Al-Manshour website here: http://al-manshour.org/node/6604.

[10] I presented an analysis of the patriarchal ethics of political work as practiced by the Lebanese regime as part of my contribution to the panel referred to in the above note, and these are ethics that impede women and others and they challenge it back in their daily and political lives. Read my contribution here: http://al-manshour.org/node/6604.