Paola Salwan Daher is the global advocacy adviser at the Geneva Office of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organisation that uses the law to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right. Her work focuses on advocacy with the Human Rights Council and on issues of sexual and reproductive health and the rights of women and girls affected by conflict. Prior to joining the Center for Reproductive Rights, Paola worked on human rights in the MENA region as a UN Advocacy Representative at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and as a Policy Officer at the Collective for Training on Development- Action in Beirut. A feminist activist, Paola was a member of the Feminist Collective Nasawiya in Lebanon, where she worked on many initiatives pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, and refugees and migrant women’s rights in Lebanon. She is also a writer and has contributed to many outlets such as Sawt Al Niswa, Young Feminist Wire, Solidarités, Al Akhbar and others. Paola has also published two novels.
My friend’s cheek is cold from the Berlin weather; her embrace is tight. Hugging her is instant peace after weeks of feeling my body burning from longing – longing to be in Lebanon, to march with my friends and comrades, to hold hands with complete strangers, after weeks of my heart beating to the drum of revolution.
I lose myself in her familiar arms.
Both of us drowning in our respective mass of curly hair, our smiles wobbly, exhaling for the first time in days and nights filled with hope, anxiety, joy, pure, unadulterated joy, hope, fear, and longing, longing, longing for our sisters’ voices and bodies in Lebanon, their beloved familiar faces popping up on our timelines.
Being from the diaspora feels like a constant ache at the best of times; being from the diaspora since October 17th, 2019, since the streets erupted in collective revolt against the political class and ruling elites, against their corruption, their policies, and blatant disregard for the people they are supposedly meant to serve, feels like an out of body experience. None of us have been able to pay fully attention to our lives, be it work or otherwise; none of us have been fully present in our everyday. During the first four weeks, it felt like none of us were able to focus on anything that was not Lebanon.
The rhythm of our days belongs to our phones, pings from Signal to WhatsApp, from Beirut to Geneva to Berlin to New York to Toronto and back, voice messages upon text messages, angry emojis berating the deeply patriarchal sexualization and objectification of women and girls leading this revolution and the fetishization of women in the SWANA region by Western media. It is that same media that seems surprised that women from this part of the world can show political savviness and strategic organizing, can use joy, humour, dance, song, and chant as tools of resistance against a capitalist, sectarian, patriarchal regime that has perpetuated itself for this long due to the labor of women and that of every other marginalized group.
When women built themselves into a wall dividing protestors from armed forces, they were exercising their right to bodily autonomy, their agency: for once, it was not society that decided what they could or could not do with their bodies. They did. Even if that meant violence. Even if that meant being charged at. Their bodies, signifying no. No more. We are no longer afraid. Feminists who had been fighting for years devised slogans inclusive of all, women, members of LGBTIQ communities, refugees, migrants, because demanding change must include demanding change for all. From neighbourhoods banging on pots and pans every evening at eight o’clock on the dot, to mothers refusing point blank any attempt at turning this uprising into a civil war, these actions send a clear message: in domestic and public spaces, the revolution has permeated every wall and every barrier. To choose to reduce these acts to a person’s looks, or to essentialize women and put them on a pedestal to fit gender stereotypes is to negate women’s agency.
Our anger is justified. Our anger has always been justified.
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, were pounding the streets of Beirut in 2011, asking for a decent and just anti-violence against women law, my friend’s cherished voice amplified by the megaphone she always used to lead the protests. Our anger was justified when religious leaders opposed the bill drafted by forty-one activists, lawyers and organisations that proposed the criminalization of marital rape and requested a legal architecture of prosecutors, tasked with handling intimate partner violence cases, amongst other things. Our anger was justified when they were subsequently able to whitewash their criminal opposition, when we got stuck with a law that did not reflect our labor, when we were told that this was what we had asked for, when we were not granted half of the rights we were owed.
“Your husband should bury you alive, bunch of whores.”
“Here, take our donor’s money and build a campaign involving religious leaders.”
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, campaigned for the end of sexual harassment at universities, in services, in schools, at home, for our basic right to exist in public spaces without the constant fear of assault, when we took back the night in an attempt to reclaim some parts of the city, difficult as it was to reclaim any part of this city that has been privatized beyond comprehension. There are very few public spaces in Beirut where you are allowed without the obligation of buying something, where you do not have to purchase your right to exist and occupy the space. The sand, the sea, the shore, the ground – they have all been colonized by greed, enjoyable only to a few while others are either shunned or forced to create their own spaces.
“Look at what you’re all wearing, and these tattoos, and you can’t take a compliment.”
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, were participating in sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, asking for Lebanese women to be granted the right to pass on our citizenships to our families. To be granted the right not to be considered second-class citizens for about half a second, for our bodies and lives and existence not to be instrumentalized by racist, xenophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric. To be granted the right to see our families as legal, to have our children access education, to have our identities and theirs recognized.
“We obviously can’t do that, imagine how the demographic balance would be upended in the country, sorry but no.”
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, followed the leadership of migrant domestic workers asking for the end of the kefala system, asking for their labor union to be recognized and registered, for their lives to stop being expendable, for their rights as workers to be respected.
“We won’t register this union, we won’t abolish kefala, they’re treated so well in Lebanon, they’re part of families, they’re just being ungrateful. What do you mean she committed suicide? She was obviously not right in the head.”
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, demanded the criminalization of marital rape, and were only given marital duties, demanded secular personal laws so the children that we bore, that we grew in our bodies, and birthed, and loved, would not be taken away from us, so that we could leave unhappy or abusive marriages freely, so that we could marry whomever we wanted, if we wanted, so that we could exist outside of the religious boxes we were forced into since before we were even conceived.
“I will never allow civil marriage in Lebanon.”
Nadyn Jouny died without having been able to kiss her son goodbye that morning. She who fought all of her life after her divorce, to be able to obtain custody of her son in a system that grants all powers to religious courts and men. She who fought not only for her case, but for a change of the system, for a complete overhaul of personal status laws, so that no other woman goes through what she went through. She died, and her son was probably allowed to her funeral, when he wasn’t allowed to see her as he, and she, wanted.
Our anger was justified when my friend and I, and countless others, joined workers of Electricité du Liban to support their demands to fair working conditions and decent wage, when we fought against the barbaric virginity and anal exams perpetrated by internal security forces against marginalized members of the LGBTIQ communities, when we demonstrated in solidarity with the revolutions in Syria and Bahrain, when we stood in solidarity with Palestine, Palestine teaching us life always and our “government” crushing Palestinian refugees at the threshold of our doors, when we could not accept that Syrian refugees were and still are used as scapegoats for the mediocrity and failures of this government. Our anger was there, and justified, because we understood then, just like we understand now, that our liberation is tied to the liberation of others, that none of us can be free while others are still in shackles.
Our anger was justified. Our anger has always been justified.
Our anger is justified when my friend and I, and countless others, read pathetic comments objectifying us, reducing our courage, political sense, and experiences to our looks.
Our anger is justified when my friend and I, and countless others, see ourselves portrayed as an aberration, as a curious phenomenon – “watch these Lebanese women, how odd, how wonderful, and exotic” – when actually, our strategies have been devised and honed over years, decades of struggle in an environment that did not want women out there, years of insults and none of the glamour.
When the revolution came, we were ready, because we had made ourselves ready. We had the slogans ready because we’ve been screaming them hoarse for years and years and years. We had the patience, the organizational skills, the vision to organize groups within and outside Lebanon not because of some essentialist female traits, but because we have been fighting for a very, very long time.
My friend and I look at each other in the Berlin cold, united in this history of struggle, moved beyond words by what is happening in the hearts of millions of people living inside and outside of Lebanon, this revolution that started in hearts and that love that is spilling over across the country and beyond its borders.
We know distance is making us romanticize a phenomenon that is way more nuanced and complex than what our hearts, already beaten and battered by distance, are feeling.
How could we not know, when she and I are both parts of the Meghterbin Mejtemiin collective, sitting in meetings, trying to organize support, trying to figure out if our support is even needed, trying to come to terms with being where we are, “outside” – this localization that comes with a set of uncomfortable questions. Are we playing white saviours, talking about support? Who is even asking us for support? Are we not just keeping busy to prevent us from feeling guilty to be here and not there? To prevent us from feeling irrelevant? It is not up to us to decide what needs to happen, our cues need to be taken from Lebanon. But what if the cues we are receiving contradict each other?
How could we not know, when even “outside,” our conversations are heated, when it is very difficult to agree on strategies and priorities. When Marxists sit alongside liberals and conservatives who want a “technocrat” government and you sit and wonder what that means. When you want to inscribe what is happening in Lebanon within the broader context of global uprisings sweeping the world, revolting against this imposed neo-liberal, patriarchal order, and you’re met with hesitancy and refusal. When some are advocating for stopping the mobilization in the streets, when others are minimizing the impact of these mobilizations, patronizing demonstrators, and asking the diaspora to essentially save the banks. We are all brought together by a sense of hope stemming from the possibilities this uprising has brought us; yet, we all come with our sets of politics that are sometimes irreconcilable.
These questions stay with us because they have nowhere to go: revolutions have their own dynamics that very seldom pause to ask about feelings. They are there, at the back of our minds, while a kaleidoscope of ideas, suggestions for processes, world views, strategies, tactics, direct actions, acts of kindness, violence, torture, dancing, laughter, hope, fear, and anger that unfolds in what we still call home.
We take a picture of us.
The caption reads, “we are still looking at our phones, but at least we are together.”
My friend goes to Lebanon. She texts me: “This revolution, it is everything you want it to be. Just like in 2011 and 2015. Beirut, our glorious, beloved Beirut, is filled with feminist chants.”
Only this time, everybody is chanting them.