“In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to,” said Anthony Keedi, a program manager at ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality in Lebanon.
ABAAD produced a video last year that features top Muslim and Christian clerics from Lebanon denouncing gender violence and citing religious texts to support these views. Mr. Keedi said the clerics “don’t want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality.”
“Sadly, in our [Lebanese] culture, there’s very little awareness of what gender entails, and a lot of the ways that gender has been explained has been misconstrued by a lot of men in our country and our culture,” he said. “They don’t even understand how positive feminism is for women, for men, and for society as a whole.”
Mr. Keedi noted that working with men on gender and equality “will inherently make their lives better, as it will the lives of women in our country, and we’re really focusing on that.”
He said his organization has a psychological center called the Men’s Center “where we see men—anonymous, confidential, and free of cost—and we work on issues of masculinity.” His organization is also raising awareness of gender with young people. “Rather than having these discussions of what gender is and moving from there with men aged forty, we’ll begin those discussions at age eight through eleven or twelve years old.”
“We will never be a truly developed society that is fundamentally peaceful without the integration of women into politics, into economy, into decision-making in everyday life—without the integration of men into domestic life and being child caretakers, and being loving partners,” he said, adding that this approach includes, “letting each individual live according to what they see fit, [and] especially not infringing upon other people.”
He said this holistic approach might be more difficult, but moving forward is “just not going to happen unless we incorporate these [gender] issues.”
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Religious leaders do not always come to mind as key advocates for women’s rights, though they have a very important role to play. In Lebanon and across the MENA region, what brings religious leaders in to work for gender equality?
I think religious leaders do care for the people, and I think one thing that really brings us to work together is that we both want to do things that are beneficial for the people. That has been a very difficult sea to navigate, for lack of a better way of putting it. In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to. It’s evident that more dialogue is needed to let them understand exactly where we’re coming from on a gender perspective and the issues we have with how organized religion is sometimes interpreted to be something that is opposed to gender equality or can be gender discriminate.
So I believe that a lot of religious leaders are motivated to change that stigma, which is a very positive thing. They don’t want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality.
A lot more of it is, what do we mean by gender, what do they mean by gender—really coming back down to the basics of communication, and how we can work together, how we can really further the agenda of gender equality from not only a human rights perspective but from the perspective of working through religion and faith.
In thinking about religion and gender equality in Lebanon, what are the impacts of religious fundamentalism? Is this an overstated issue? And how can the effects be addressed?
I think it’s very important, again, to talk about the difference between fundamentalism and religion and spirituality. Fundamentalism is a very radical take on a religious belief or a religious institution. So fundamentalism anywhere is going to have a huge impact and a huge negative impact on gender equality in any country. Specifically in Lebanon, it definitely has a very negative impact. The reason for that is that a lot of the fundamentalists are very outspoken. We are a region of the world that is plagued by conflict, and when a society is plagued by conflict, a lot of times people seek answers, seek some sort of peace that religion offers. And often, this religious desire or that desire for hope and belief is confused with fundamentalism. So, those words are bunched together and many people believe that religion is actually contrary to gender equality, which is not necessarily the case.
There are too many interpretations in any faith of what that holy text says and what it means and how it is adapted to the modern world and the metaphors and what’s taken literally. It’s a conversation that we can always talk about. That’s why we’re focusing on religious leaders, we’re focusing on spiritual leaders, we’re focusing on people who are attempting to do good in this society and are willing to have that dialogue with us and that communication with us to see how we can get on the same page about a lot of important gender issues—not just violence against women, but even the tough things that we need to eventually address in the future to see how we can work together.
Again, we’re not necessarily working with the fundamentalists, because fundamentalism in and of itself—by definition almost—negates negotiation or dialogue. And so we don’t focus on the fundamentalists, and it’s through the rising voice of the progressive spiritual leaders that we believe are in Lebanon and are very active and can be huge role models for the future, that we plan on combating fundamentalism and really giving people more options of what religion is and how it is not contrary to human rights or women’s human rights, specifically.
In your work, you seek to engage men to prevent gender violence and also to work for broader gender equality. What are some innovative approaches to involving men in these efforts?
We’re working with a lot of men through workshops, raising awareness about the concept of gender. Sadly, in our culture, there’s very little awareness of what gender entails, and a lot of the ways that gender has been explained has been misconstrued by a lot of men in our country and our culture. They don’t even understand how positive feminism is for women, for men, and for society as a whole. And so our message is really building on that win-win that exists between gender equality and what we’re preaching. The work with men will inherently make their lives better as it will the lives of women in our country, and we’re really focusing on that.
We have a psychological center called the Men’s Center where we see men—anonymous, confidential, and free of cost—and we work on issues of masculinity. So, they could stem from perpetrators of domestic violence to people dealing with sexual identity issues, to people who are simply having difficulties within their family that can be derived from their gender role and the traditional gender roles as they’ve understood them—and seeing themselves simply as whether they’re a good provider means that they’re a good person versus opening up to the fact that a man can be more than a provider. They can be a caretaker. They can be a friend. They can be an ally. They can be a supporter. And women are seen as much more than domesticated subservient members of the family. But they can be politicians. They can be CEOs. And we work to really endorse this concept of partnership and how beneficial that is for everyone.
We’re also working with youth. We’re currently working on a program on how to engage men and boys and teach them about gender equality and transforming masculinity through soccer (football). So that’s a really interesting project that we have. We have a kit called Playing for Gender Equality that we did with Save the Children Sweden; it’s an original manual of ten competitive games that kids can play, and while they’re playing games they learn about gender equality, and that can facilitate discussion.
So, also we can start raising the awareness of gender at a younger age. Rather than having these discussions of what gender is and moving from there with men aged forty, we’ll begin those discussions at age eight through eleven or twelve years old. And by the time they’re young adults, they’ll already have knowledge of gender and will be ready for more higher-order discussions of gender equality and discrimination. And hopefully we’ll see that development in the country. So those are a few examples maybe of how we’re engaging men.
In addition to religious leaders and men, are there additional groups working for gender equality in Lebanon and beyond who aren’t always recognized as champions for women?
I believe that as a group, when we say “working with men” it tends to be an umbrella term because in the Middle East, specifically, so many domains are not yet open to women’s participation. And one very important domain for that and for the progress of women’s human rights and gender issues is the political arena. And the level of or the percentage of women who are politically active or political leaders in Lebanon is embarrassingly small. I believe political leaders are a strategic group that are not yet seen as champions for gender equality. In the future, more efforts could be made on how exactly to approach them and to further the women’s rights agenda and gender issues with political leaders, who are currently men.
Your organization combines work for gender equality with the promotion of social and economic development. The 58th Commission on the Status of Women happening at the UN this week seeks to do just that, with a focus on the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda for women and girls. Why is it important to integrate these issues?
Speaking very generally—almost on a global level, but it might be more accurate to speak on the MENA region where I work—we still tend to compartmentalize human rights issues with social development issues with social justice issues, and that can’t be done. It’s an intricate tapestry that goes together to make the picture work. So in order for us to become a developed country, a developed region with social justice, we need to focus very heavily on issues of gender equality—ending gender discrimination.
We will never be a truly developed society that is fundamentally peaceful without the integration of women into politics, into economy, into decision-making in everyday life—without the integration of men into domestic life and being child caretakers, and being loving partners. And men and women really embracing the concept that they are partners and the partnership is going to allow them to grow as individuals but also allow our society to grow. And really get back to not allocating roles for men and women, but rather letting each individual live according to what they see fit, especially not infringing upon other people.
Specifically in the Middle East, there’s also the issue of violence that’s always reoccurring, and we have to understand that unless we’re inclusive of women into these important things, unless we’ve embraced gender issues, unless we’re tackling issues of sexual identity and the freedom to express one’s sexual identity, and fundamentally always having a focus on the peace process and how we can negotiate and how we can solve things without the use of violence since that only creates more problems.
I don’t think that any of these issues can be taken in isolation, and there’s no priority that can be placed on anything, which is what we tend to do. We tend to keep pushing off a women’s issue or a sexual identity issue or something else because there’s a more fundamental problem right now. There’s violence or there’s a conflict or there are refugee populations, and all of that is true. But it’s specifically this deep prioritization of several issues that is allowing us to stagnate and run in place rather than commit to a holistic perspective. It might be more difficult, but it’s definitely worth the effort because without that perspective, without that approach, the goals that we hope to attain and the development we’d like to see in our country and in our region is a long shot. It’s just not going to happen unless we incorporate these issues.