BEIRUT — “The people want the downfall of the regime,” two young women chanted as they stood next to razor wire facing riot police in Beirut’s Riad el-Solh square under the gaze of the Prime Minister’s Palace.
Since the start of Lebanon's protests Oct. 17, women have been on the front lines acting as a buffer between protesters and security forces as well as leading many chants against the Lebanese government.
For Zeina Haidamous, the protests have given her hope and a sense of empowerment. She has been on the streets of Beirut nearly every day, even after she had to get stitches after she got hit in the face by a rock on the second day of demonstrations.
"Even after the rock hit me on the face, I wanted to be there," Haidamous told Al-Monitor. "But as I was bleeding, I had to go to the hospital to get stitches. The next day I wanted to go down [to the protests], but they wouldn’t let me, my friends and family. So, Saturday I was at home, but Sunday I went back down, and I stood with the men and women on the front line, with the women actually, on the front lines between the protesters and the army. I felt no fear at all. This is something that had to be done and I was ready to do it without thinking and without hesitation. Every time that they yelled that they need the women in front, all the women there were eager to make a stand and protect both the protesters and the military against any clash because we want a peaceful protest.”
A major moment of empowerment for many women was when a Sudanese woman kicked the bodyguard of Education Minister Akram Chehayeb in the groin after he exited his vehicle and began shooting in the air to scare off protesters.
“When that woman kicked the bodyguard, she physically explained to him that no matter who you are, we are not afraid," Haidamous said. "It shows you how fearless we are. How fed up we are. You cannot oppress us. We are rising. That’s what she physically showed us and everyone.”
Women have also noticed that the way men view women has changed significantly since the start of the protests. Rather than being viewed as “weak” or being objectified, many women have said that men are actively calling on women to be with them on the frontlines and are being considered equals to their male counterparts.
“I was protesting in Tripoli,” Nadine al-Ali told Al-Monitor, “I used to walk those same streets afraid of being catcalled or being judged for what I was wearing. In all honesty, I actually hated those streets. I always felt unsafe and insecure. I wore a T-shirt that was a bit see-through yesterday to Tripoli and I didn’t even realize it till I got back home. I couldn’t recall anyone looking at me any differently. That felt good. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many women there, it felt so empowering. Per usual, I expected to be mocked by guys. I wasn’t. It was all different all of a sudden. I definitely think this is a huge push forward for us women. But there’s still so much work to be done.”
Elie, a protester who asked that his last name not be used, argued that Lebanese women are anything but repressed. “They’ve always been on the front in Lebanon,” he told Al-Monitor, “and that is what the West gets wrong. Our women are some of the leading women in the world. Not just the Middle East. They have a voice. The stereotypes about Eastern women don’t apply to Lebanese women. No. They’re on the front from political views to being in the field. They’re the first ones on the ground.”
While women have been extremely present in all of the demonstrations around the country, Haidamous said that neither men nor women have been the “more dominant,” but have been equals.
“I was happy to be part of this revolution ... but I don’t think that women have been the dominant force. I think that together, men and women, are the dominant force. I think that women showed a lot of courage and rage and they were fearless and the men’s response to that was very encouraging and motivating. We felt that, yes, men are dependent on us, even in this revolution.”
While many men view women as their equals in the protests, there are still some who do not. However, Leila Nasrallah hopes that women's involvement in politics will help change their minds so that future generations will not have to face the same issues her generation has had to.
“I don’t think that all men in Lebanon are conscious or mature enough to know the ability of a woman,” Nasrallah said, “This revolution is not going to help people get out of the shell that they are living in. But I hope that if women are involved in politics, it will help the next generations if it is not going to help now.”
“I’ve got cousins in Canada and in the states,” Ali agreed, “And when I was younger, I used to think about how lucky they were. I wanted to be there. I wanted electricity 24/7. I wanted clean water. I wanted to be there. Looking back, I’m glad I was born and raised here. All of this reminded me of how much I love the country, the people here.”
While women agree that issues of gender discrimination need to be addressed in Lebanon, they also acknowledge that the primary problem that needs to be focused on is changing the government so that other problems could be better addressed in the future.
“Of course, we need to address all issues but by priority, I guess,” Haidamous said, “There are more pressing issues at the moment. The reforms that need to be done that economically should come first but of course women's rights should not be neglected at all, specially our right to provide our children with a Lebanese passport if we marry a foreigner.”
Ali agreed that women should be able to pass their nationality to their children, but added that issues such as femicides, honor killings and marital rape where men may not face prosecution or get reduced sentences need to be addressed as well.
“Women should be able to pass on their nationality to their kids,” she said, “As well, there are so many laws that, for the sake of women, should be abolished and for some odd reason haven’t yet, such as the one that gives a man the right to kill his wife if he catches her cheating. Marital rape isn’t criminalized! There are also no basic civil rights for women in the events of divorce, childcare, property rights, etc. Other than that, we need more women in power. We need more female representation.”
For Haidamous, the protests have been a way for women to show men who think otherwise that women are just as strong as men and that women should not be judged because of their gender but rather by the actions that they take.
“We definitely made progress in this revolution," she said. "We are here on the streets just like the men. We want equality between men and women. We want to be heard and appreciated for what we can give. Judge us based on our productivity not our gender.”