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Zeina Aboul-Hosn

Where were the women?

Date of publication: 14 April, 2015

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Video: The role of Lebanon's women during the country's civil war stood in stark contrast to the movement's influence during the struggle for independence.

During research for a report on Lebanese women and their role in the peace movement during the civil war, I happened to meet up with a group of former militia fighters.

 

As each described his experience of first carrying a gun at 12 or 13, of fighting on the frontlines, of believing in killing in order to achieve justice, the question that immediately came to mind was: where were the women? Aren’t women in war-time supposed to be voices for peace?

 

     My mother used to make us sandwiches and bring them to the frontlines.

“The women were fighting alongside us,” one of the fighters said. “My mother used to make us sandwiches and bring them to the frontlines”, added another.

 

“They were proud of their sons who died fighting, they were defending their land and their families,” yet another said. “Nobody spoke of ‘peace’ or ‘war crimes’ or ‘crimes against humanity. We’d never heard these words! If you spoke of making peace with the other you were considered a traitor”.

 

That somehow explained why researching the women’s peace movement during the Lebanese civil war had been such a challenge. It’s not that no movement existed, but that it was minimal, sporadic and has been barely documented.

 

The Liberian example

 

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 was a landmark resolution. Adopted on the 31 October, 2000, its specific title is ‘Women, Peace and Security’. The resolution reaffirms the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace building, and post-conflict reconstruction and peace-keeping.

 

Liberian women basically managed to end the civil war ravaging their country, by resorting to all means possible: they went on a sex strike until their husbands gave up their guns. They forced a meeting with President Charles Taylor to make him promise to attend peace talks with the rebels, and then they locked the president and the rebels in a meeting room, preventing them from leaving until they came up with a resolution. As a result, after 14-years of civil war, these courageous women managed to bring about peace, as well as the country’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

 

What about Lebanese women? What were they doing during the war? Why haven’t we ever heard about them? Was there ever a concerted effort to call for peace?

 

The beginning

 

“A Silent Protest: Lebanese Women Sit-in” is the title of a short entry in the quarterly journal Al Raida (The Pioneer) published on the 1 November, 1983.  It tells of a silent protest by 400 women in front of the UNICEF building (presumably in Beirut, the article doesn’t mention). They demanded an immediate stop to fighting, reconciliation and the return of refugees to their homes.  That was the first documented instance of a peace movement by Lebanese women.

 

The women’s movement in Lebanon had been organised since the establishment of the Lebanese Women’s Council in 1952. But when the civil war began, the peaceful struggle for civil rights for women was replaced by the need to provide welfare services to refugees and war victims, and of simply trying to survive and provide for war-torn families.

 

Anissa Najjar, a pioneer in women’s rights and peace activism, is now 101 years old, and was directly involved in the women’s movement since the 1920s. “There was only one time when all Lebanese women united for a common cause”, she says, “it was when we were trying to get rid of the French Mandate. They had arrested the members of the government, and it was the women who demanded their release. That was in 1943, I was very young then.” She recalls no such instance from the civil war.

 

Poetry stirs

 

There was in fact one attempt by a Lebanese woman to call for peace. In 1984, nine years into the civil war, a kindergarten teacher called Iman Khalifeh briefly received international mention when a poem she wrote stirred “Beirut plan for protest” in the words of the New York Times. She has passed away now, but there are a few mentions of her effort in print.

 

Khalifeh, then 29, had decided one afternoon that she had had enough of being a victim. She called for a march on the Green Line, the line marking the division between East and West Beirut, on 6 May. She asked friends to tell friends. Khalifeh suddenly became the initiator of the Peace Movement in Lebanon. While the response was tremendous, the march never took place. Nevertheless, the event was widely publicised by the press. But on the day, intense fighting between the militias on both sides meant the march had to be cancelled.

Despite that, Khalifeh had stirred something up – the unexpected support, more than 70,000 signatures of her petition, suggested how many opposed the militias, and gave her and the rest of the organisers’ confidence. Prominent feminist leaders joined forces with youth leaders, some anti-war religious personalities, and most importantly, the Lebanese Disabled People’s Organisations, who would become a major voice in the call for peace.

 

Momentum lost

 

The civil war left thousands with different forms of disability, and in the 1980s, they started to organise themselves to be active and engage in a new discourse; not just focusing on disability issues, but expanding their role to touch upon peace, non-violence and human rights in general. In October 1987, the disability movement organised an anti-war march, across the country from north to south, alongside civil society organisation, to send a message to stop the war.

 

While Lebanon didn’t perhaps have the powerful effect of the women’s peace movement in Liberia, there were seeds to be sown and potential, and the movement would have grown had it been nurtured and recognised.

 

But the anti-war and anti-violence movements eventually lost momentum and strength as the war ended. Women’s groups, and civil society in general, failed to become active players in goovernance to the detriment of a country that continues to be buffeted by political violence, both home-grown and regional.

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