Fighting on the Front of Women's Rights
Mona Khalaf, former Director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World in Lebanon, admonishes that Arab women have not yet come out of the private sphere of family and clan and into the public sphere. A portrait by Diala Gemayel
In her office, at a desk collapsing under the weight of papers, Mona Khalaf is hard put to answer all the calls she receives in the first hours of the morning. This alert woman, who carries lightly her sixty years, is the absolute reference point for issues regarding the rights of Arab women.
Still, it was a small thing that led her towards the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World: "In 1985, I was working on my economics thesis entitled 'The economic contribution of women and its effects on a Lebanese family on two Bekaa villages", Khalaf recounts.
Economic power and social status
"One of the women that I met, by telling me about one of her days, brutally opened my eyes to a reality whose severity I had totally ignored: getting up at four in the morning, she helps her husband make the bread, then she goes into the kitchen to feed her family. She works in the fields until midday, she then comes back to prepare lunch. Then she prepares the stores for winter or summer, barley, grain, jams, olives etc., the children arrive back home who she then looks after, bathes and puts to bed before her husband comes back from work and then another meal. She goes to bed around ten at night, after having tidied everything up. In the end, this woman has scarcely one hour for herself a day."
Very quickly, Mona Khalaf discovered the root of this incredible state of affairs. As it's not the woman that brings money to the family home, her decisional power is extremely reduced, she explains. "In general, women who do not earn a salary think that they do not work."
Straight away, Mona Khalaf went into battle. "I then began to interest myself in the economic contribution of women in society and their well-being. Is it right that they have so little time for themselves?"
Going against the grain
The first Lebanese woman to obtain an MA in Economics at the American University in Beirut, Mona Khalaf, with a smile on her face, replies simply that since she was young, she loved challenges.
"My father always pushed me to go against the grain", she remembers. "It's true that I was part of a generation for which having an education was a requisite but when, at 21, I wanted to earn a living, my family took exception. Thanks to paternal support, I was able to do what I wanted, to teach economics."
This modest and active woman, evidently ill at ease when speaking about herself, expresses her opinions in the Institute's magazine, al-Raïda (The Pioneer), a three-monthly magazine created in 1997 that deals with important issues that concern or interest Arab women, like crime of honour, cinema, family, marriage, imprisonment, society and even sexuality.
"Still today", Khalaf asserts, "women have to make a great effort to realise that whatever activity they do is, in fact, work in due form."
Education is not enough
As for Mona Khalaf's efforts to help Arab women in an essential revaluation, they are both varied and effective: educational programmes addressed at illiterate or semi-literate women, rural programmes, and lastly, in strict collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World offers Lebanese women training centres that focus on their different abilities and allows them to go into paid work.
Up till now, more than 3000 women have benefited from this programme. "Of course, education is necessary, but it is not enough", Mona Khalaf reiterates. "It means, above all, the assertion of the productive role of women".
In the report Khalaf prepared for the World Bank in 2004, she observed that "Arab women have the lowest rate of participation in the public sphere in the whole world".
And she adds, "In fact, Arab women have not come out of the private sphere of family and clan and into the public sphere, that is society and business."
Instead of the redistribution concerning the role of women, Mona Khalaf prefers to speak about "expansion".
All the same, her personal view on this delicate question is still pessimistic. "Where there is a burr under the saddle, that is to say the family, it's still at a basic level. It is the woman, once again, that has to change things by educating her children differently. The efforts needed are immense."
© Babelmed 2006
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