The link between women's studies programs and grassroots organizations in Lebanon, the Balkans, and the Palestinian territories: a comparative study.

AuthorTomas, Cheryl


A PRIMARY GOAL OF ANY WOMEN'S Studies program is to create outreach opportunities beyond the university classroom in order to make a difference in one's community, whether at the local level or on the world stage. Thus, it is perhaps not a coincidence that strong Women's Studies programs have developed in Lebanon, the Balkans, and the Palestinian territories alongside successful women's activist groups. Together, they are able to work successfully despite the trials of functioning in conflict regions. This comparative study will analyze various women's organizations in these areas and their relationships with three Women's Studies programs in particular: The Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World in Beirut, the Center for Women's Studies in Zagreb, and the Women's Studies Program at Birzeit University in the West Bank. With a focus on work at the grassroots level as well as on research, these unique university programs in cooperation with women's associations not only aid women trying to survive and overcome the tremendous hardships of everyday life, but they are also playing an essential role, especially in the case of Lebanon and Palestine, in official policy making within their own governments. Lebanon, Croatia, and Palestine have been chosen for this comparison not only for their common ties to the Mediterranean, but also as home to multicultural peoples representing different stages of dealing with war and rebuilding. Although there are other conflict regions with women's activist groups that could be discussed here as well, Lebanon, Croatia, and Palestine stand not in particular since they are the only ones with well-established university programs in Women's Studies. The Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World in Lebanon and the Women's Studies Program at Birzeit University are the only two of their kind in the Arab world just as the Center for Women's Studies in Croatia is a model in Southeastern Europe.

Chronologically speaking, while 1990 to 1992 marked the end of Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war, it was just the beginning of a new conflict which ignited across the Mediterranean in what are now the former republics of Yugoslavia, specifically Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. However, before, after, and throughout both of these conflicts, Palestinians have lived with occupation, massacres, and intifada. It is well known that during times of war and conflict, there is an increase in violence against women either as a direct result of war or due to a spike in domestic violence. While casualties involving women and war tend to be documented more accurately, this is not always the case for domestic violence cases which often go unreported. However, university programs and women's organizations in these aforementioned regions have made enormous efforts to establish reliable statistics on all violence against women, especially since the beginning of their respective war periods.


Throughout history and in times of political and economic strife, women's issues have not always been a priority of governments in terms of nation building or rebuilding even though in both the long and short term, women and children suffer disproportionately in times of war. Unfortunately, even the active participation of women in the overthrowing of oppressive regimes is not enough to guarantee that their status in society will improve, as was true, for example, for women in Algeria following the struggle for independence against the French from 1954 until 1962. Gillo Pontecorvo's original 1967 film La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) and its 2004 remake both poignantly show how women were instrumental in the struggle for independence, yet women's efforts were quickly forgotten in post-independence Algeria. In fact, women's status in Algerian society worsened as they became the targets of radical fundamentalism during the civil war of the 1990s. For over a decade, Algerian women were subjected to gang rape during widespread attacks on villages. Avoiding or surviving such attacks proved to be not the only concern, for women knew if they were to become pregnant as a result of rape, they would be considered outcasts or even risk death through honor-related killings. In her book, Une Algerienne debout, the feminist activist Khalida Messaoudi tells how she fought against such violent acts directed at women especially during the civil war, and recounts events in Algeria that forced her to live in hiding for over two years before eventually becoming the Minister of Culture and Communication and one of the few Algerian women in a government position. However, Messaoudi's ability to help Algeria's women through official government channels is rare. Women are underrepresented in government worldwide, and the following cases in the conflict areas of Lebanon, the Balkans, and Palestine offer no exception to the rule.

Algeria serves as just one example in a world where the unprecedented use of rape as a premeditated and highly organized tactic of war became more apparent throughout the late 20th century. Women scholars and writers from the Middle East and the Balkans such as Evelyne Accad, Dubravka Ugre_i_, and Hannan Ashrawi alerted us to the fact that even the home became an extension of the battleground, as women suffered from increases in domestic violence due to the added tensions, powerlessness, and shame caused by the very nature and consequences of war.

The situation for women in the conflict-laden Mediterranean regions of Lebanon, the Balkans, and the Palestinian territories is compounded by the fact that women in these cultures--despite their differences as Arab or Slavic peoples, Muslim or Christian--are bound traditionally by uncompromising expectations of purity and fidelity in the name of family honor. Thus, even the woman who falls prey to the "soldier-rapist", as described by Lisa Price, is often not recognized as a victim by her own family and village. In terms of genocidal rape in the Balkans in particular, Beverly Allen reported that many survivors felt "cast away by their own communities" (1996: 99). The general belief held by both men and women in many Mediterranean societies is that women are ultimately responsible for preserving the honor of the family regardless of the circumstances. The Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugre_i_ stated for example in her book Culture of Lies, that the sexual terrorism practiced in the Balkans during the war period was more than an attempt to "humiliate 'our' women" (1998: 116). Ugre_i_ urged her readers to "more readily associate the real rapes with the general cultural attitude to women in the Balkans, exacerbated in times of war" (Ibid.: 116). When working with female victims, all such cultural factors must be taken into account by women's organizations and programs when devising strategies to reintegrate women into society.

Although tribunals internationally have recognized mass rape as an act of war, and even with more efforts than ever before to combat domestic violence, governments have continually failed to make a connection in a concrete way between the emotional health and well-being of women, and the overall hope for success of a nation recovering from war in its recent history. Quite the contrary, in fact, governments often use women to promote their own nationalist and ethnic agendas. For example, Lebanese scholar Evelyne Accad points out that women are disadvantaged by the reality that there is no civil marriage in Lebanon, and that couples are obliged to marry instead under one of the official recognized religions (1990: 29). Civil marriage is of course possible outside the country, but Lebanese women in general are less stable financially man men, and have more restrictions placed upon them by their families and are therefore less...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT