'We don't have a passion for feminism here in the Middle East,' said one Lebanese man in Beirut. 'You in the West, you care about women's rights, but not us.'
Indeed, as I have moved around various parts of the Middle East over the years, it would appear as if feminism has not reached this very hot and conflict ladled region of the world.
Earlier that day I was stuck in one of Beirut's traffic jams. The taxis in Beirut operate on a shared system and so the front seat was occupied by a young Lebanese man. He turned to start a conversation and began to complain about the country's corrupt politicians. I said, 'well perhaps there should be more women in politics.' He turned to look at me in shock and then repeated what I had said to the taxi driver, as if he couldn't believe what I had just said.
Later that evening I was back in the house where I was staying and a group of young Lebanese men had gathered. I told them what had happened in the taxi. They too expressed shock that I had dared to suggest that there should be more women in politics. I was even warned, I should not say such a thing again, I could get in trouble.
Get in trouble for even suggesting that more women should be in politics?
No, feminism has definitely not reached the Middle East.
In fact, I would argue, there are few parts of the world that women's rights have reached. There seems to be a global rejection and almost total apprehension to even the mere suggestion, that women should have rights. Throughout the world, women are not allowed to own property, to have rights to their children, to be able to work, to be paid equally to men, to be in politics or even have the right to walk down the street free of sexually degrading stares and comments.
Aside from this being offensive and insulting . . .
The key question is why?
What is the problem with feminism? What is the problem with women having rights?
Why are so many men offended, by even there mere suggestion, that a woman should be able to claim her rights to not be beaten, raped, sexually harassed or be able to participate in the public space?
In a small refugee camp set amongst vineyards in Lebanon's Bekka valley, I was attempting to interview Syrian women refugees on their experiences of violence. As we settled into one of the small tents to speak with a group of women, a man came in.
He introduced himself as the leader of the camp, also a Syrian refugee, and sat down in front of us. Looking us directly in the eye, he told us that no woman in the camp would talk to us about violence. It came through as a warning.
The translator later explained that he most likely didn't want outsiders to know what was happening to women in the camp.
I later repeated this same story to a woman from the Danish Refugee Council in Beirut. Nodding her head, she too explained how they had tried to conduct empowerment activities with Syrian women in the camps however, it caused problems with the men. They were eventually told not to come back.
It appeared that these Syrian men did not want women knowing that they had rights, and certainly did not want women speaking out when those rights were being challenged.
I attempted to interview another group of Syrian women in Gaziantep, Turkey. After one of the Turkish men in the room interrupted and declared that he could speak for the women, we decided to leave. As we went outside the male translator, a young Turkish man commented, 'I think that it is the first time anyone has asked those women about their rights.'
Why would that be the first time that anyone has asked these Syrian women about their rights?
At an IDP camp just outside of Erbil in Northern Iraq, I was interviewing young women with one of the Iraqi social workers in the camp. After we conducted a series of interviews with young women who recounted stories of sexual harassment, violence and intimidation from other men in the camp, we began to speak about our own experiences. Even though we were two women from extremely different parts of the world, we had extraordinarily similar experiences. We were fed up of the violence perpetrated against women and had both felt anger from men, just because we spoke out against this violence.
Why do these men think it is their right to stop women having the same rights that they claim for themselves?
Women categorically deserve the same rights as men do. Women should have the right to walk down the street free of harassment, to not be hit by their husbands and to not be blamed for being sexually objectified by men. Women and girls should have the right to education, to not be controlled by male members of their family and to have the same rights to sexual freedom, as men allow themselves.
What is the problem with this?Suggest a correction