Houda Houbeish is a young Lebanese researcher, writer, and journalist. She holds an MA in Media Studies from the American University of Beirut. Her research interests are at the intersection of media studies, political science, urbanism, and social movements. In her previous research, she focused on understanding activists’ employment of media and communication to advocate on the right to space in Lebanon, which allowed her to dig into concepts like alternative media platforms and counter-discourses.
Women Resisting Authority: An Interview with Ghina Saleh, a Rebel from Saida
I could hear her voice in the microphone for hours on end as I roamed around “Eliya Square” among people I had never met in Saida, my small coastal city of Southern Lebanon, also known as the “Gate of the South.” People cheered for her and asked her to repeat her renowned chant, “Ya Thuwwar” (You Revolutionaries). She met their request by igniting the square with the protestors’ enthusiasm and positive energy.
Ghina Saleh, 26, has been one of the most popular chanters during the protests that took over “Eliya Square” since the revolution of October 17. She came to represent the “face of revolution” in Saida, which many attributed to her positive energy, self-confidence, and belief in the protestors’ resilience. Refusing to be bound to a social norm, role, or image, Ghina joined the revolution in the square on a daily basis as a protester. Sometimes, I saw Ghina dance and jump, a memory that takes me back to the day the Hariri government resigned. Other times, I heard her cry, like on the night she spoke about Alaa Abu El Fakher’s martyrdom.
I decided to interview Ghina and to share our conversation through a public platform because women’s revolutionary experiences were not given justice, whether in the public sphere, or through flattening mottos and slogans such as “Al Thawra Untha” (The revolution is female), or even in the shaming discourses embodied by the tweets of Sheikh Sami Khadra, who “apologized” about the way Lebanese women protested. The realities of women’s experiences were lost in these representations, especially when it came to those who led the revolution outside the capital Beirut, in a city like Saida. I also felt that women needed to narrate their own stories using their own language.
I had a conversation with Ghina on the 30th of November, 45 days into the “Revolution.” She was determined to continue what she had been doing, and yet, she worried about the fate of our collective reality.
Tell me about yourself. How old are you, and what do you do for a living?
My name is Ghina Saleh. I am 26 years old. I graduated from Notre Dame University Louaize (NDU) with a degree in architecture. After graduating, I could not find any job in my field, so I decided to use my design and technology skills differently. I began my freelancing journey in social media marketing and wedding planning, and I co-founded my own business during the summer: a small food truck that sells fresh juices and smoothies. The project is currently facing financial challenges.
Tell me about the night of the 17th of October. Did you participate in the first protest that took the streets on that night, and if yes, what prompted you to do so?
On that day, a few hours before anti-government protests broke out across Lebanon, I felt I was suffocating. My conversations with my unemployed friends all revolved around their plans to immigrate and the deterioration of my business. With all the misery we, youth, were experiencing, I felt that we needed to do something instead of just leaving Lebanon. I was really shocked when I saw people taking to the streets on the 17th of October all over Lebanon and particularly in Saida. It felt like my wish had been fulfilled. I joined the crowd as soon as I arrived to Saida after my work shift to demand our basic rights, but most importantly for me, to abolish the sectarian system.
How were you able to reach the podium and to have access to the microphone?
During the first days of the revolution, I joined the crowd as a regular protestor at Eliya Square. After a few days, I wrote a chant that I felt like sharing with the crowd. I went to the frontlines and reached the microphone. It all happened by accident; people liked my performance and my slogans, which were against the banking system, so they repeated them after me enthusiastically. What I said may have introduced a new discourse to the square, and people were receptive to hearing more about it. My other slogans focused on the demands and issues I believed are essential and urgent, such as insurance for the elderly, and the right of Lebanese women to pass their citizenship on to their children. I was keen on writing and repeating slogans that reached everyone because the square was heterogeneous when it came to political affiliations and ideologies.
How have the people around you, in the square and in your personal surroundings, interacted with the role you played in the square?
When I held the microphone for the first time and started chanting, I did not think about anyone. Instead, I was fully focused on the message, which I profoundly believe in. I wanted to perform in the best way I could and I tried to be creative to disseminate information and raise people’s awareness in an audience-friendly way. As a woman, I come from a particular environment.1 However, my family encouraged me because they believed in the purpose and the principles that prompted me to participate in the revolution in this way.
I think one of the reasons why these protests felt so good was because I saw women, myself and others, speak in public while other people from all genders, age groups, and backgrounds repeated after them. Seeing people listen to women as they expressed their thoughts about the economy, politics, and rights is new, especially in Saida. This taboo was broken for the first time here. Also, it was the first time that we saw Saida at the heart of the revolution, especially in its Southern position. For me, seeing people repeat after me and ask for my now-famous chant “Ya Thuwwar” was one of the most beautiful feelings I have ever experienced. I felt that through this revolution, women were no longer considered second class. Of course, a lot of work remains to be done, but taboos are being broken, as they should.
Have you felt discouraged by some people who did not believe in your fight?
Yes, I felt that. In addition to people not believing in me, some questioned my credibility and considered me a “politicized” participant who had a political agenda. I have my own political views and beliefs, and I do not follow any political party. I also think that all I have said in the squares was relevant to people’s realities and daily struggles.
What is something new that this experience has taught you about the history of revolutionary women in your local community?
I was brought up in an environment that told me stories about the women resisting the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, such as Soha Bechara. Southern women, I was told, poured oil at a boiling temperature on Israeli soldiers during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and continued to do so until the liberation day in 2000. Unfortunately, after that date, women’s presence in public life deteriorated, especially in the South. However, I think that women reclaimed that presence during the revolution of October 17 through resistance against authority.
The difference between both periods is that before 2000, the progressive role of women was not based on open-mindedness. Back then, men did not perceive women as partners in the resistance. This time, I was able to experience this openness during discussions about feminism and patriarchy at Eliya square. Seeing men ask about feminism and advocating for it at one point is tangible proof of a changing society. This does not mean that women did not resist prior to October 17. Their acts of resistance, although present, were simply made invisible.
Do you have previous experiences with protesting or participating in public or political life?
I participated in the protests against the garbage crises in 2015. Back then, I was a university student and I learned to be aware of what was happening under the table in terms of corruption. I believe that the October 17 revolution is a continuation of the movements that occurred in 2011 and 2015 in Lebanon.
What is leadership for you?
For me, a leader is a person who can influence others, who listens to people’s opinions, and who is able to gain their trust. A leader is not a decision-maker; it is the person who can gather people from different backgrounds and political views under one roof.
What revolutionary images echo your politics the most, and how do you feel about the representation of women on social media or in media generally?
The photo of the woman who kicked the armed man to defend the protestors on the first day of the revolution, which was also transformed into an illustration and a mural, was iconic. Also, when roads were blocked, women took the frontlines. These occurrences not only gave me hope, but made me feel that yes, we are doing this. All of these women represent me and I was extremely touched by their courage. I was particularly disheartened by the posts and comments that blamed Dana Hammoud for standing up against a police officer in his attempt to arrest her. Blaming women for standing on the frontlines and being beaten as a result is something I find inexcusable.
What has changed for you, as a person, because of the revolution?
I have always taken a stance with what I believe is right, and to stand for justice. Now, more than ever, I will continue to do so. Nothing frightens me, especially not the threat of being arrested. I would never say anything that goes against my beliefs. The revolution empowered me. I met people from Saida who impressed me with the level of their awareness and knowledge about issues related to the public and political realms. I also discovered the skills and talents of people who expressed themselves freely in the square, through arts, drawing, music, etc. The revolution was the birthplace of creative people.
Do you think this revolution has changed anything for women?
The revolution made me more hopeful about the custody laws in Shiite courts changing soon, as well as all other laws that treat women unfairly. I hope that one day, I will witness the women of my community leading their own revolutions in the private realm, in their marriages, in their life decisions. I would like to see them say what they want, change, travel, and do whatever makes them happy. A feminist revolution always departs from the personal.
- 1. Ghina is originally from Haret Saida, a Shiite, conservative, and pro-system town near Saida.