Art in the press

Women and War in Lebanon. (book review) Middle Eastern Studies

Women and War in Lebanon edited by Lamia Rustum Shehadeh. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Pp.xvi + 334, bibliography, contributors, index. $55.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8130-1707-6. 10/1/2000; KHURI, FUAD I.

This is comprehensive account of various women's activities and involvement in the Lebanese war (1975-95), written mostly by women. After a brief sketch of the contemporary history of Lebanon and its sectarian composition, the book proceeds to deal with a wide range of women's concerns: women writers, novelists, painters, politicians, fighters and drug users or abusers; this is in addition to women's clubs and associations, patterns of employment, and mental health. Irrespective of the level of their proficiency (the papers vary a lot in professional standards), they all tell a compelling story, depicting in some detail women's responses to war conditions. Comparative data between men and women and between Lebanon and other countries, especially in patterns of employment, higher education (chapters 3 and 4), and the use or abuse of drugs (chapter 16), are well covered.
Two prominent themes dominate the discussion. The first, which appears repeatedly in different chapters, is that war conditions -- partly because of the vacancies created by men's engagement in fighting or their emigration to foreign lands, and partly because of the weakening of family, community and state authority -- provided opportunities for women to move to jobs and professions previously unavailable to them. The second theme focuses on the role of women in the war, either as fighters or as supporters rendering essential services such as preparing and distributing food or offering paramedical and field-hospital services.
Except for top government posts, women's involvement in the public domain visibly increased at all levels, especially in the media and pharmaceutical studies where their relative ratio exceeds the men's. A series of discriminatory measures disfavouring women's labour and rights to travel were repealed.

Likewise and for the same reason, war conditions helped some women writers, novelists, poets and painters realize their potentialities as women. A good example of these writers are what Mary Cook (chapter 5) calls `the Beirut Decentrist', a category that includes, among others, Jean Makdisi, Ghada al-Samman and Huda Barakat, who stood, in the words of Cook, for `humanist nationalism', `putting to rest the lie that men go to war for women'. This stands in contradistinction to `statist nationalism', the ideology of turning nations into sovereign independent states. Perhaps nowhere is the commitment to womanhood and the feminist movement expressed more strongly than in the words of Ghada al-Samman: `There are no innocents in an unjust society'.

Women writers of short stories and novels such as Emily Nasrallah, Nazik Yard and Daisy al-Amir, and poets such as Nadia Tueni, Huda al-Naamani, Andree Chedid and Claire Gebeyli, who spoke of the `madness of men' (chapter 6) present, as Amyuni puts it, `a surrealistic imagery' of war brutalities.

Not all women writers were in agreement. Elise Salem Manganaro (chapter 7) very vividly compares and contrasts two opposed styles: one represented by Emile Nasarallah who chose `a womanist approach trying to de-marginalize female voices while providing a nostalgic, myth-invoking' view of Lebanon, and another by Hanan al-Shaikh who intentionally tried to `demystify Lebanon' by focusing on controversies that had befallen the country.
For some women, the war had a liberating effect. This is well demonstrated in the brief but powerful sketch of Houry Chekerdjian's rebelliousness, exemplified in her marriage, divorce and emigration to Paris, as well as in her paintings. In the words of Lamia Rustum Shehadeh (chapter 8), `While Lebanon and the Lebanese were plunged into the bloodiest war of the region, Houry, on the contrary, found herself, for the first time, totally at peace, liberated, free to do whatever she wanted and to be her own woman.' In painting, her main figure has always been `the cosmic woman with a third eye in the centre of her forehead -- the eye that sees and knows but unable to speak'. (p. 138)

The second theme depicts different levels of women's involvement in the war. Of particular interest in this regard is the `the godmother of the combatants' (chapter 11) -- an institution that seems to enjoy a widespread practice in war, whereby a middle-aged woman voluntarily takes up the task of providing food and shelter to combatants as a gesture of empathy and sympathy with their cause.

Judging by the data available (chapters 9, 10, 11), only the Christian based (mainly Maronite) Lebanese Forces seem to have allowed for the participation of women in actual combat (chapter 12). Although a small number of women (exact percentages are not known; the range is estimated to fall between 5 and 10 per cent of the fighting force) in other militias did receive military training, their involvement was confined mainly to administrative and logistic tasks.

In general, however, the scale of women's mobilization was very high, each group operating within the constraints of its own moral and religious sanctions. Writing about Shiite women (chapter 10) Maria Holt concludes: `Within such a masculine culture women have little option but to submit to a male "grand plan"'; but, she adds, `They too have passed through the experience of violence and have acquired new skills and unfamiliar role'. Whether these newly acquired skills and roles will be translated to new outlooks favouring women's rights and quest for equality remains to be seen.

In chapter 13, a profile of several foreign women who chose to remain in Lebanon during the war is briefly summarized. According to Mary Abu Saba, they `scored high on the scale of hardy personality: commitment, control and challenge'. They are professional women, married to Lebanese men, and had young children to be raised.

The intensity of the war was positively correlated with the appearance of depressive symptoms (p.274): poor appetite, crying easily, loss of interest and pleasure, feeling lonely. These symptoms were observed to take place more frequently among females than males, reaching a peak among middle-aged mothers between 40 and 59 (chapter 16). In dealing with these symptoms women resorted to the use of tranquilizers and barbiturates more frequently than men, and men used more of the hard substances than women. However, in the samples drawn mainly from college students at the American University of Beirut and St. Joseph University, a fewer than expected number of people, less than 1 per cent, were found to have used the hard stuff, heroin and cocaine. This is somewhat surprising in a country where cannabis is grown and drugs can be easily obtained.

Women and War in Lebanon is a welcome addition to the rather rich literature on the Lebanese war of 1975-95. It is well written and documented, and covers a wide range of topics and experiences. However, good work often helps raise new questions for research. Here, I would like to raise two questions. First, what impact did the weakening of family and community authority have on family discipline and sexuality; courtship patterns, marriage stability, divorce and the like?

Whoever works on Lebanon seems always to fall in what I like to call the native trap whereby social reality is analyzed by the most obvious equation, the sectarian line. Hence, the second question: how do women's responses and involvement in the war vary with class differentiation and/or rural-urban backgrounds?

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