During my activist years in the US, many would ask – especially women – to hear about my experiences. After all, here was a perfect victim: an uprooted Palestinian who was then terrorized during Lebanon’s Civil War!
However, I was articulate: You speak such perfect English! Did you learn that here?
I was attractive: You look so . . . so . . . European?
I was well-dressed: Did you dress this way back home?
Then they seemed so disappointed to find out that I hadn’t been living in a refugee camp, hadn’t been forced into marriage at the age of fourteen, that I wasn’t raped, jailed, tortured or abused in any way. You see, the American activists of those years were looking for a sensational story and I didn’t provide one. They moved on to find a “cool” victim.
Then, the Palestinian Intifadah, the Gulf War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and suddenly a plethora of victims and sensational stories became available. There on our television screens were the Palestinian women dressed in their ethnic dresses, hair covered, sobbing into the cameras. There were the Taliban clad women, walking around as if they were moving tents! There’s the Iraqi women covered, too, from head to toe, wailing to our embedded journalist. There were many thrilling narratives to choose from. (We even invented and choreographed our own: Jessica Lynch being saved by our own American soldiers! You could say that whole episode was scripted in Hollywood!)
Sometime between the war in Lebanon and the war on Iraq, women like me disappeared and were replaced by these walking tents that the Western World has come to associate with the Middle East and the Arab World. No one remembers anymore that Saddam’s Iraq had a very high percentage of educated working women who were articulate, attractive and well-dressed. And oh, gosh! Many were Muslims, too! No one remembers that there on Beirut’s beaches, undressed in their bikinis languished Lebanese women all summer long tanning their bodies! And, yes, many of them, also, were Muslim women! No one remembers that there are Muslim Palestinian women doctors, professors and engineers and that they, like their sisters in Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria amongst some Arab countries were modern and educated and that they were not walking tents!
But that does not fit the image of the choreographed wars of the Middle East. How could we be going on crusades to democratize and free that part of the world if there were women (men, too!) dressed like us, educated like ourselves and enjoying their jobs and freedoms?
Who got shafted in all of this war-mongering? The innocent population as a whole; the children and, of course, the women and that small number of us who were beginning ever so slowly to change the landscape and little by little to effect the changes that we were all aspiring for. We were doing that despite our governments, notwithstanding our religions, regardless of our men.
I was one of these women. I was, in 1966, amongst the first Arab women to be managing my own office cleaning company. At the age of twenty-three, no less! Asserting my presence as manager took years! Few “males” deigned to acknowledge me!
True, we were victims of a lot of things, but, so, prior to the seventies, were women all over the world. (Here, in these United States too! Yes!) However, we did not need anyone to democratize us. We were doing it ourselves; slowly, on our own schedule, swimming upstream, but, nevertheless, advancing! And all those senseless wars stunted our personal growth, that of our less liberated sisters, that of the whole region and unraveled our laborious efforts! We became unfree! We became undemocratized! The irony is that some of us then ran to the US in order to enjoy freedom! What a farce life can sometimes be!