Ghiwa Sayegh is a queer feminist writer, publisher, and archivist. She is the editor in chief of Kohl, a journal she has conceived, and the co-founder of Intersectional Knowledge Publishers. Ghiwa is a member of the collective RESURJ - Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice. She is passionate about the intersections of sex and sexuality, migration, global economies, and feminist histories. Her influences are Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed.
“Their Hearts Believe in the Revolution:” A Conversation with Sarah, A Rebel from Tripoli
Our many revolutions took to the streets of Lebanon on October 17, 2019. In their resounding dissent, they decentralized Beirut capital. I followed their path and visited Tripoli a few times, aware of my positionality as a middle class Beiruti, and weary of the potential dynamics of power revolution tourism might bring about. During my second visit, one of the feminists I was in touch with asked if I wanted to meet their own Rosa Luxemburg.
Sarah looked at me intently. A mere two weeks prior, I had seen her in a video shared on social media, chanting fiercely during a student protest. We were sat in the informal café of the “island,” the tent area by Al Nour Square. There, she lectured me on how feminism is not about women issues alone, or, in her case, the issues of teenagers with their bodies, families, and environments. “Feminism is also about class struggle,” she said. She then added, “I read your journal, I like it.”
On December 7, 2019, Sarah came to Beirut to take part in the feminist march against sexual harassment. I met her in Riad el Solh, and we walked to Bliss Street together. I kept an eye on her during the march, until I realized she did not need me as a caregiver, but as a feminist comrade in the revolution. After the march, I decided I no longer wanted to structure her contribution as an interview, in an attempt to do away with the barriers between interviewer and interviewee. Nestled in a café in Badaro, she debated me. And that is the essence of what Sarah has taught me: to go beyond my own prejudices, no matter how benevolent, and have the willingness to sit as accomplices, start a conversation, and risk having my views changed. That evening, I could no longer ignore what I had always suspected: she is not “a” Rosa Luxemburg. Her name is Sarah; she is from Tripoli, and she is the future.
The Politics in our Political Lives
Sarah: My name is Sarah. I am 17. I live in Tripoli, where I was raised. I am a feminist. I am a leftist. I am vegan. I consider myself to be daring and fearless, but I am also sensitive in some ways. I can’t stay silent in the face of injustice. I bring positive energy where needed, but I am no optimist. Oftentimes I am careful because I don’t like prejudices, including my own. In my political work, I of course lack the experience of older generations. But my own lived experience is what allows me to talk about politics. In Tripoli we know poverty, we know suffering, we know unemployment, we know misfortune. We talk about it because we live in it, we are part of it, we grew from and into it – it is what we see and know. So, when we talk, we can only talk about these sociopolitical aspects. We must talk about politics because we are living these political lives.
Ghiwa: My name is Ghiwa. I am 30. I live in Beirut, but I was raised in Metn. I am a queer leftist feminist. I am an archivist and a writer. I also consider myself to be daring, but I don’t perceive my boldness as necessarily visible. I don’t consider that optimism and hope always have to be present for us to do political work. Sometimes, it is despair that guides us forward. I am currently exploring the ways in which our emotions are linked to our feminism. We live in societies that undermine affect, and as an avoidant person, I am working on linking my affect to different locations and politics. And it is not about me as an individual, but me within a collective that lives under oppressive systems.
Sarah: The first time I read about feminism, I was 14. I stumbled upon a page on Facebook, and I felt that I needed to be part of that. Feminism is my practice. Whenever someone harasses, ridicules, or undermines women, I intervene and explain to them why it is wrong. Misogynists are not always aware that they are being misogynistic. I also find it important to support other women, to help them if they need help, to show them that we women will stand with and for each other, to open conversations. However, it is not something I was able to do with my family. They think that I am just being rebellious because I’m a teenager, and that feminism is unacceptable because it goes against religion. They don’t understand that I believe in women’s liberation. I consider that I failed debating them. It is through debating, reading, and conversing that ideologies can be changed.
Ghiwa: I can’t think of a single event that brought me into feminism. But as a queer woman, I could only go against the current in my early adult years. I either had to conform, not only as a woman but also as a queer person, or I had to challenge. And once you defy one norm, the other ones can dissolve as well. My feminism is not about fighting one injustice, but about seeing justice as indissociable, so it comes to signify a political world view.
Sarah: Feminism is not and should not be about cis straight women only, but about queer and trans people as well. There are trans women no one talks or knows about. And they need to lead their own struggle, be in their communities, and speak with their own voice. As feminists, we need to be in solidarity with them and with others who have been left behind. We can be supportive, show them that they are part of the struggle, and confront homophobes and transphobes.
Ghiwa: The first time I met you, you told me that feminism is about class struggle as well. This spoke to me immensely, as I link all struggles to patriarchy and capitalism.
Sarah: Patriarchy, just like racism, cannot be separated from class. Men, and white(r) men, always come first and enjoy more privileges, whether in the legal system, or when it comes to wages. We know that capitalism is about class. There is the proletariat and there is the bourgeoisie. Tripoli is the best example of that. There are few rich politicians, and a lot of poor, disenfranchised people. As a leftist, I have to show the true faces of the capitalist system, its pervasiveness and its crimes. It is a lot of work, but it’s not impossible. We can neither benefit from it – only the bourgeoisie does, nor be all equal under it. And it’s about feminism, of course. The capitalist system is unfair to us as women, as people, as workers.
Ghiwa: I don’t remember having the space to have such conversations at school. How does it work for you?
Sarah: Rather than conversations, they’re moments, positions. A lot of the girls in my class are afraid to talk about menstruation for example. I always encourage them by saying there is nothing wrong or shameful about it, that self-confidence and self-love are important. If many of us speak up, then less and less women would be afraid. So that brings us back to the idea of support.
The Revolution Starts with Ourselves
Ghiwa: Going back to what you said about moments and positions rather than conversations, it is applicable to what we are living during the revolution, and the listening and solidarity it requires. As someone who works on the discursive level, I find that a lot of the movements and moments we witness have an urgency to them, and they are fueled by this work that counters normativity and political ideologies. It is about alternative knowledge, and how we can talk about our feminist histories, when we are making history. This revolution changed the sociopolitical landscape significantly, and pushing boundaries is, ultimately, about discourse.
Sarah: Working on discourse needs so much consideration. The language we use for discourse is equally important. As you said, there is always a sense of urgency in our demands. So discourse needs to make use of history, of what patriarchy historically did to us and keeps doing to us again and again. So what if we tried to reach the key – the system in power – and write it ourselves, with the power that we want, so we can then impose a feminist agenda that is useful to women and workers? Of course, we need to raid the system in order to do so, so it no longer allows infiltrations of patriarchy. For this, we need to show that we are many, that we are supported, that we have awoken.
Ghiwa: So work needs to start within our communities.
Sarah: Exactly. We need to engage with our communities, as they are our support and base. And they must get to a point where they consider this support to be their responsibility, because our aim is liberation. Our aim is to take over the system. If we only work within organizations, we might be able to do momentary and targeted actions, but we won’t get anywhere. But to rewrite history and discourse, we need to start thinking about occupying positions of power. No law gives women their full rights, and women’s representation in parliament for example is but an illusion, a cover for what they are not doing.
Ghiwa: I often ask myself, if we get to positions of power in this way, what kind of change are we talking about? What does it mean for us to infiltrate a system and structure that take root in patriarchy, racism, classism, xenophobia, and intolerance? Can we really dismantle such a system or are we showing a different face to the same system, without bringing about change?
Sarah: The system has been standing for decades. We can’t bring it down overnight – it has branched out to all areas of life. This needs time, and we need to go back to our societies and communities. This is where work is, where change needs to happen. If they become aware of what this system has done, what patriarchy and capitalism have done, they will understand how it has been kept alive through individuals and institutions. And this is what we are seeing in the revolution – fingers are being pointed and exposing those who sit at the top.
Ghiwa: How did you experience the revolution?
Sarah: On Thursday, October 17, I saw the revolution start on TV. People were revolting and I cried with their pain – pain I had never heard of or knew about. The next morning, I took a bus and went to Beirut, where the revolution started. It felt like everything overspilt – the atmosphere, the rage, the chants. It was my first time in Riad el Solh square, and I didn’t know where to go from there. One protestor I had just met drove me to Cola, where she waited with me until someone came to pick me up. Not only did the revolution show me that there are people who will stand by me if I stand with them, but it gave me a sense of duty. I learned about accountability, about communism, about the capitalist system, about women’s stories. I learned that we need to revolt against our own selves before attempting a revolution against the system. When we stood in front of the military barrier as women that Friday, it was a powerful moment. We showed that we were fearless, as women, linking arms and standing side by side. People were also very supportive of me chanting. The revolution allowed me to talk about what I wanted, like queerness. I am no longer afraid.
Ghiwa: The Facebook video of you chanting went viral.
Sarah: That was at the student march in Tripoli. The next day, I woke up to many messages linking me to a video. I clicked on it and there I was. People on the streets started calling me “revolution,” and told me I should lead. Although this gave me a boost of self-confidence, I am against that. I don’t think anyone should be a leader. At the same time, this video did me a great disservice on many occasions. Some people started seeing me as the “peaceful” face of the revolution, and would lecture me about staying away from civil disobedience, or even simple acts of expressing dissent like protesting in front of politicians’ houses.
Ghiwa: So some people started perceiving you as the image of a sanitized, “respectable” revolution.
Sarah: Exactly. I get invited to protests to chant, and I don’t want to just chant, that is not all I am. I want to organize, talk to people, mobilize. That is without mentioning the nasty comments I received, such as, “your voice is like that of a man,” or the comments that want themselves benevolent but are secretly sexist, such as “you are like a hundred men.” This is why I came to the conclusion that the revolution starts with ourselves.
Ghiwa: On October 17, I was on a plane. I think I came undone with the revolution. I felt I was hitting a wall. And we don’t realize the insidious role the political situation plays in wearing us down. It overspills. I overspilt. So I took my holidays and left. The Sunday of that week, the protests were so intense and massive and I was so far away that I got emotional. I considered coming back on the spot. But I decided to give myself the space I needed so I could come back to my political duty, to do the work I have and want to do. The morning after I arrived in Beirut, a week later, the first thing I did was to join a group of people blocking roads.
Sarah: When we blocked parliament for the session not to take place, I was in Beirut. Women were at the front and I was chanting. The army tried to arrest one of the male protestors who hadn’t done anything. I didn’t know him but this revolution taught me that we, the people, are there for each other. So I started shouting at the soldier, “you can’t take him, he’s my brother.” I caused enough of a commotion so that other people noticed; they came and helped me pull the protestor back to safety, towards us and away from the army’s grasp. Finding solidarity in our joint pain and struggle was a very moving moment for me.
Agitate, Organize, Mobilize
Ghiwa: You mentioned not wanting to chant only, so what about your mobilizing and organizing work?
Sarah: I am reading a lot, and attending a lot of panels and discussions, so that when I write chants or talk to people, I am able to link things together and understand our system and current situation. For example, if I understand how the banking system works, I can argue why we need to be independent from it. We must be in many places and strengthen our connections as students, as women, as workers. Right now, I am reading The Ethical Foundations of Marxism, and when I’m done I will start with the writings of Bassel al-Araj, who shows us how to make a revolution. When a friend of mine gave me the book, he told me to read it after the revolution would be over; he was worried I would start rioting, because he knows I don’t believe a non-violent revolution works. For me, what we are seeing right now is an intifada, an uprising, not a revolution.
Ghiwa: What is the difference?
Sarah: An intifada is people revolting against their realities and rulers. A revolution is radical change, imposed through the uprooting of the whole system. We haven’t done that yet. Violence and riots are part of a revolution. 51 days have passed since October 17, and nothing concrete has happened yet. Suicide cases have increased, and while some people are staying in the comfort of their homes, others are afraid that things will remain the same as before October 17, or even worse. But it’s a question of time. When people are hungry, when the economic crisis affects their resources, they will revolt. And that is what I am working on. There are student committees trying to mobilize other students and raising awareness.
Ghiwa: What are the parents’ reactions to that?
Sarah: During the student march, we stopped at many schools, around 6 or 7. In one of them, the students were already outside, but so were the parents, waiting for the teachers to force the students back into the classrooms. Some parents really behaved like mafias. A mother shouted at me and called me shameless for mobilizing other kids. When I tried to argue with her, she screamed at me to shut up, and that my place was at school, not in a revolution. They accuse us of being a useless generation, and on top of that they come up with unrealistic stories, like us wanting to go to the revolution to smoke shisha. I clashed with professors and doctors in discussion circles in Tripoli about exactly that: people think that students can neither organize nor change anything. They underestimate us, and it is frustrating and harmful on the long run. So we changed our strategy with the students. If they cannot come to the protests because of their parents, so be it. But we mobilize them in their minds. It is normative thoughts and politics that we want to change.
Ghiwa: I organize as part of a bigger feminist group here in Beirut. It is based on shared values and common principles, which translates on the ground and in terms of support. And a collective is a much more efficient form of organizing than operating as an individual. I am also interested in finding bridges with people outside of Beirut. Me going to Tripoli was part of that. Beirut is always the façade, and we need to break that image, as it is also a class issue. All the resources, the capital, the infrastructure, the media – they are centered in Beirut.
Sarah: The economic decision-making and educational spaces as well. We also need to reach people in other areas, like in Baalbeck or Arsal.
Ghiwa: But I wonder how to do that. My context, my daily life, is Beirut. I might spend a day or two elsewhere, but I will eventually come back to my life here, with its own set of privileges linked to geopolitical location, class, and citizenship status.
Sarah: We can’t get to them individually. It doesn’t work. As you said, you will only be there for a day or two. What we can do though is get to know people who are in these areas, who share our values, and who can reach their own communities. If you meet someone from Tripoli with whom you click politically, you’d then work with them so they work with their communities.
Ghiwa: So you are speaking of waves, not individuals.
Sarah: Exactly, like a ripple effect. When people said let’s all go to the squares in Beirut and put pressure there, I was against that. We should not desert our own squares in Tripoli. People are so hungry there that they are afraid this revolution might fail. We need to stay for them, to show them we are still there. So I understood that my revolution had to be inside the society I live in, and that I need to support them so they support me.
Imaginaries and our Futurities
Ghiwa: What needs to happen for you to consider that the revolution worked?
Sarah: A total shutdown – all shops closed, all roads blocked, workplaces, schools, and universities empty, everyone on the streets chanting thawra in one voice. When no more people are refused treatment in hospitals, when no more people are hungry, when the electricity stops cutting, when we have water all year round. How much longer can people last in the current situation? Two weeks? A month? They will take to the streets eventually. When we are no longer afraid, the revolution would have worked.
Ghiwa: For me there are two levels by which I would measure that. It is not the fall of the regime alone, but the building of a progressive, feminist, leftist alternative. At times, we see that systems seem to crumble, only to regenerate themselves under different faces and names. The recurrent outcomes are usually a wrap-up with some reforms to silence dissent and throw people a bone. We are living revolutionary moments, but they are visible, palpable, concrete. But you said something beautiful, that revolutions start with the self, with the communities we are part of and present in. Are we living a revolution every day of our lives, away from the visibility of the public sphere? We revolt in our private spheres all the time, against our families, against our environments, against norms. That is without mentioning our relationship with our bodies. So after the visible revolution, how do we go on as feminists?
Sarah: We need to start working from now. We need to organize ourselves in groups that know each other and can reach others. We need to create unions, committees, and associations. We have already found something that brings us together, so let’s work on it, despite the lows. Some days, I would go to the squares and there would be no one. And I would wonder, can’t we resist more? When Naji, a man from Arsal, committed suicide, there was no reaction. Why were people still going to work? To school? I felt so disappointed and defeated. But my entourage helped me; they taught me that there are ups and downs in the struggle. Sometimes I wonder, do people attend a protest because it is the general trend? Or do their hearts believe in the revolution, because it is their duty, because what they are living is no longer sustainable?
Ghiwa: What about today’s protest on sexual harassment?
Sarah: It was great and powerful, but nothing like the feminist protests in Tripoli.
Ghiwa: How so?
Sarah: I was one of the organizers of two feminist protests in Tripoli. Here in Beirut, we may have been bold in the way we articulate struggles, and the themes we cover, like chanting against homophobia and transphobia. In Tripoli, when we wrote the chants, because we had to go along with the street, experiment with the discourse, and do things step by step. We didn’t want people to feel estranged. We are yet to talk about, say, the Ja’afari courts, sexual harassment, rape. But we gave the space to everyone. In Beirut, only 4 or 5 people were shouting, and it bothered me. I would have liked if everyone was allowed to shout and say what they wanted, not only those with a megaphone or close to the car with the sound system – why not?
Ghiwa: I understand the experimenting with discourse. At the same time, if now is not the time, when? We were told that it wasn’t the right time for the secular protest last month. Civil society refused to march with us. But we marched in popular streets and residential neighborhoods, where the residents received us with rice and banging pots. The residents were more progressive than civil society.
Sarah: We need to be bold. A secular state is an essential demand, not something to come later. Look at the revolutions around the world. It was high time. When you read about classism, unemployment, poverty, religious authorities, in Iraq, in Chile, in Iran, how could people not revolt against their oppressors? People around the globe are waking up.
Ghiwa: With the rise of the extreme right, now in power in many contexts, people’s despair overspilt.
Sarah: And it is propagating, as it should.