Shadow Feminism in Lebanon, Part Two

deema kaedbey

In Part I of “Shadow Feminism in Lebanon,” I discussed some of the histories of women's labor organizing that reverberate in feminist thought and actions in Lebanon to this day. In Part II, I turn my attention to women's resistance to occupation and state violence. As in part I, my understanding of time is not as linear and one-directional, but as cyclical or serpentine, where the present holds its pasts and its possible futures together, and where different time periods and geographies are interrelated.[1]

I see some aspects of this non-linearity in contemporary feminist writings, such as in those that seek to understand the past and how it’s influencing the present moment, and in writings that unearth and highlight forgotten histories. In one instance for example, when Israel attacked the activist flotilla that was carrying aid to Gaza in 2010, Palestinian Lebanese feminist Sara Abu Ghazal wrote how the pain she felt the moment she heard the news of the flotilla was in fact very familiar and old. It was a history that “was passed on to me from [my] grandfather.” That is, the flotilla triggered memories of Palestinian expulsion from their land. About her grandfather's pain, Abou Ghazal wrote:

He carried it for a few months, and just like all pregnancies, he delivered it with an even greater pain. He had acknowledged that he lost something, not a land, but a history (Sawt Al Niswa).

Thus, through connecting past and present grief, Abu Ghazal shows that one tragic story of the deaths on the flotilla contains within it another story that is one “point of origin” and frame of reference to all these narratives: that of the loss of Palestine and the constant Israeli attempts to repress and distort Palestinian history.[2] “We are born each time we die,” Abu Ghazal states, as she connects multiple past and present realities, linking too the breaking of the siege on Gaza, BDS and her grandfather’s story. 

With such non-linearity, the binary of past and present times are no longer clear-cut, where struggles, issues and themes are interconnected. This paper then presents a shadow feminism that does not turn away from people in prisons, but recognizes that the violence inside prison represents the intensification of social hierarchies and violence outside it. Queer politics, for example, recognizes that working class queer people, sex workers and other marginalized bodies are the ones who are most likely to experience violence from state institutions.

As Ghoulama, a queer Lebanese activist writes, it is not middle class self-identified queer activists who are at the forefront of state harassment and assault, but working class people (many of them immigrants and refugees) who have no safe spaces to meet (Helem website).[3] “Queerness” is also a concept I have been influenced by, not only in terms of LGBT-centered identities and politics, but in paying attention to how class, ethnicity and citizenship, as well as gender and sexuality are important factors that decide who is protected from violence and who is not. My framework is therefore inspired by from the tradition of women of color and queer of color critiques. Women of color in the U.S have always been and continue to be on the forefront of theorizing about the intersections of oppressions and the importance of paying attention to state violence, including the violence of imprisonment.[4]

Here, I start with a discussion of militant women’s resistance in prisons, as they were held for resisting Israeli occupation. In the 1980's, in the context of internal war and Israel's invasion of Lebanon, women participated in both militant resistance. Though militancy meant, for many women, questioning or dismissing domesticity, as Julie Peteet observed of Palestinian women in Lebanon (153), still, the sewing needle-- a symbol of domesticity (and daintiness), took on new meanings for militant women in prisons. Yet I also expand the scope of shadow feminism by paying attention to the situation of women and queered bodies in more recent times.


Needles, Pens and Guns: Resistance of Women in Prisons

Prisons are one of the most militarized of zones, yet they are also the most grossly confined by routine. I include prison resistance here for two reasons. Many Palestinian and Lebanese women who took part in militant (and non-militant) struggle against Israeli occupation after its 1978 invasion of Lebanon were imprisoned in Israeli-controlled, Lebanese-run, prisons in then-occupied South Lebanon. Secondly, women in prisons are often forgotten in feminist discourse. Thus incorporating them into feminist consciousness is part of the methodology of remembering marginalized resistance that I foreground in this study. Prisons, after all, are sites of resistance to violence and gender hierarchies.

In this section, through a reading of Suha Bechara’s prison memoir, Resistance: My Life for Lebanon, and her co-edited collection of prison stories, أحلم بزنزانة من كرز, (I Dream of a Prison Cell [Made] of Cherries), I integrate experiences of women in prison into a queer antiracist feminist thought, which I call shadow feminism. Much of my focus will thus be on political prisoners in Khiam detention center, which was controlled by Israeli forces and their proxy militia in Lebanon—the South Lebanon Army (SLA). The feminist tactics of women in prison that I highlight include a refusal of shame, naming the torturers, giving “symbols of femininity” new and old meanings, as well as creating close relations with fellow prisoners.

Suha Bechara is arguably one of the most famous prisoners of Khiam, and here I read her narrative and that of her fellow prisoners through a lens that troubles violent gender hierarchies, as well as hierarchies between people inside prison and outside it.  Bechara, who was a member of the Lebanese Communist party, took part in an operation where she attempted to assassinate the head of SLA, Antoine Lahed, in his house, after going undercover as his wife’s trainer. She was imprisoned for ten years, and was released in 1998. Five years later, she published her memoir. After Israel bombed Khiam into rubbles during the July 2006 attacks, she and Cosette Ibrahim, also a former Khiam prisoner, edited a collection of prison writings from Khiam, to preserve the memory of what happened there.

The Khiam detention center, in the Southern town of Khiam, was established by theFrench as a military post in 1933. Because it overlooked the North of Palestine, which was under British colonialism at that time, it was seen as having strategic significance to the French. Its strategic status declined after independence, when the Lebanese army took over, and the South became economically and politically insignificant to the central Lebanese government. However, with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978, Khiam became an interrogation center until the mid-1980s, when it was turned into a prison and detention center run by Israel and the SLA (Khiyam website).[5] In the midst of this loaded history, remembering the past becomes an integral part of women's resistance in prisons.


What theories can be adequate to bear witness and explain the stories of physical, verbal and emotional torture, the years of solitary confinement, the monotony and isolation, the censorship and lack of access to the basic necessities?[6] One anonymous contributor to I Dream of a Prison Cell of Cherries writes about the torture and its physical aftermaths, describing how the blue marks from the whippings and from the electric shocks remain for many months.

Torture changes the women's relationship to their bodies:

We do not care about the color of our bodies or its rapid weight loss or its odor. Only the pain it suffers and that distant cry in us takes hold of us. Everything in us hurts and everything around us hurts… The return of menstrual cycle after months is the first sign that our bodies have recovered their balance (my trans. 136).

The violence of occupation and of patriarchy is magnified in prisons, to a degree that it breaks the body’s balance and menstrual cycles. Remembering what they have suffered is a political act for women, as they resist the shame in talking about their vulnerabilities and the invasion of their bodies (Abboud 5).

Hosn Abboud, writing about the prison memoir of Zainab Al Ghazali, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood activist, argues that the public naming of the prison guards and of the torturers is a political act (5). Al Ghazali, who was imprisoned from 1965 until 1971, provided a candid description of the bodily torture she endured as a political prisoner during Gamal Abd Al Nasser’s rule. Her testimony is therefore a refusal to be shamed and silenced, something that many political prisoners’ literature shares. Bechara and her fellow prisoners, too, like many women of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon (Bechara; Bechara and Ibrahim; Peteet 155), narrate their stories in order to push the physical and/or sexual violence against them out of the realm of the unspeakable and into their resistance narratives.

Prisons in Lebanon bring to the forefront existing violence and power structures, and the lack of accountability for this violence. It can also reveal the way women resistthese dehumanizing circumstances. Resistance can be direct and visible, but it may be kept hidden intentionally. In other words, while some prisoners have the ability, or choose to accept the consequences of direct confrontation, others choose to resist in less visible means. Caesarina Kona Makhoere, for instance, incarcerated under the South African apartheid system, stated that the government, and the prison authorities, do not listen “until you take action... you must hit them hard” (41). Makhoere and her fellow prisoners' main strategy “was to nag them with all our complaints, and, if nothing was done, then we took action.” The actions they took included hunger strikes and refusing to wear the clothes they were given (34). With these tactics, women confront prison authorities with direct defiance.

At times, however, indirect challenges to the institution are considered more effective.  In Khiam, it was mainly the new prisoners who carved leftist slogans on the walls, and who were punished for their act. Many of the veteran inmates, on the other hand, engraved their defiant slogans where it could not be seen and in tiny letters (Bechara 91), because it may not have been worth the trouble. In other words, women's bravery does not always have to be loud, and some prisoners chose their battles. Furthermore, effective means of resisting can also include trying to maintain a degree of normalcy and finding meaningful routine in the women’s lives (Nusair; Agah et al).

In Khiam too, finding innovative ways to document and communicate prisoners’ experiences, is a means of resistance kept intentionally hidden. Women wrote journal entries on toilet paper (Bechara 91).  For prisoners in solitary confinement, devising instruments for communication became the focus of resistance.[7]  Prisoners found ways to make needles and pens out of wires, and to turn pieces of cardboard from cheese boxes into writing pads. One prisoner narrated how they made sewing needles out of an electric wire, following a long trial and error process. After the success of this invention, the needles became part of their rituals. The women presented the needles to newly arrived prisoners, for example, to honor those women who went through torturous interrogations without betraying their colleagues (Ibrahim and Bechara 60-1). Therefore, sewing needles, a symbol of female domesticity, were used by militant women, who often challenge gendered social expectations, as a symbol of much-needed normalcy. Yet at the same time, it is also used as a symbol of surviving the violence of torture.

The title of the story I refer to above is “in the beginning was the needle” (my translation). This title is a play on the biblical phrase “in the beginning was the word,” creating an alternative origin story centered on the needle, a “feminine” tool. After all, words cannot mark any beginnings if a person is in solitary confinement and is not able communicate with anyone. When the beginning is the needle, it becomes a symbol of imprisoned women’s ability to be part of the world, to communicate with it, and to resist solitariness. The redirection into an alternative origin story bears a resemblance to the way Abu Ghazal uses metaphors of pregnancy and birthing to describe her grandfather’s pain, putting the loss of Palestine as one origin story that challenges the erasure of certain narratives by those in power; it also implies that the militant and the mundane are not polar opposites but can be interconnected. 

And if publicly remembering the torture, the torturers, and the isolation of prison is a political and feminist act, so too is the naming of fellow prisoners a politicized tactic of resistance. In the collection of prison stories, I Dream of a Cell Made of Cherries, while the authors are anonymous, they do document the names of their peers in the footnotes, along with the names of their hometowns and the number of years they have spent in jail. The collection therefore aims at remembering the names of women prisoners such as Kifah Afifi, from Palestine, Samar Alleeq from Arnoun, Wafiqa Aleeq from Yohmor, Haniyya Ramadan from Beit Yahoun, Amena Diab of Hawla, Hanan Khoury from Deir Mimas.

 Another common theme in women’s prison writings is the importance of strong coalitions among women, often transgressing ideological divisions. These friendships are described by prisoners as therapeutic, acting as emotional anchors, and giving women a sense of purpose (Agah et al. 206). While strong relations between women ensure their survival, in these spaces of enforced gender segregation among prisoners, violent heteropatriarchy is evident as a segregating and disciplining mechanism (Alexander 192). In Khiam, the only men that the women interact with are their guards, who are often their torturers, while the men and women prisoners are kept segregated. In I Dream of a Cell, the women narrate stories of their attempts to break this segregation, by catching a glimpse of each other, or hearing each others' voices. And even as the prison reinforces a gender hierarchy between the women prisoners and the guards, torture creates a sense of gender equality and solidarity between the inmates themselves.

Zainab Al Ghazali, criticizing Abed Al Nasser’s socialist party, described “the socialist nature of torture اشتراكية التعذيب" —or better translated from Arabic as the unity of torture, among all inmates, irrespective of gender, age, and education” (qtd. in Abboud 11-2). This unity of torture is evident in my own research on women in Lebanese prisons, be they political prisoners or common law prisoners. It is not only in prisons run by Israel (though the Khiam guards were in fact Lebanese) where abuse of women and men happened. Furthermore, torture was not only a war-time practice, but continued across Lebanese prisons, creating confined war zones long after the fighting stopped.[8]To think of prisons as war zones allows us to see the different ways that women are victimized during wars; but it also ensures that we address not only the end of physical manifestations of violence, but all the structures and systems that allow violence, including the violence of confinement, to occur. In addition, Peteet notes that Palestinian militant women in Lebanon who experienced abuse in prisons, for example, were respected in their communities (156). Yet generally, women in prisons, especially women from socially and politically marginalized communities, are not afforded equal respect.

After of the end of the war and occupation, and to this day, life in Lebanese prisons remains horrific, and abuse is still prevalent. Prisons in the post-war period are overcrowded and the women are cut off from the world and held incommunicado, despite the illegality of these practices.[9] Whereas the law states that detainees should be released if they do not see a magistrate within the first 24 hours, the women are held for weeks before being interrogated (11). In the 1990s, political prisoners, whether they were accused of “collaboration with Israel” or engaging in activities “critical of the Syrian occupation,” were also subjected to torture, sexual abuse, and sexually abusive language. There are reports of teenage girls as young as fifteen were held for years among adult prisoners, beaten and tortured. In addition, “women accused of common law offenses often risk being abandoned by their relatives” and thus do not have the financial ability to hire lawyers (Amnesty International, Report 2001, 10-20).

In addition, migrant women workers, who suffer various forms and levels of abuse in their workplace (mainly in Lebanese homes) also experience violence by state authorities. Women who escape their employers can end up in detention, forced to return to their abusive jobs, or “held incommunicado without charge or access to lawyers.” Many migrant women, even after being acquitted or serving their sentence, are sometimes forced to stay in prisons. Often, they have no financial means to buy their tickets home. The General Security holds them as foreigners who are “a threat to public safety” (20-2).[10] Additionally, women charged with prostitution may face torture, as do women held for “trivial charges” (21). While recent reports track minor improvements in prison conditions during the last ten years, the situation in prisons are still unacceptable (Nassar 81-91).

Beyond calling for reforms to prisons, a queer intervention here, brought forth by shadow feminism, can challenge the relationship between people on the inside of prisons and those who are outside them (Hammad, “Letter to Anthony”). Because the walls that separate those who are inside from those outside prisons are structural boundaries as much as they are physical. Speaking about people of color and the prison industrial complex (PIC) in the U.S, Palestinian American poet, Suheir Hammad, declares that there is no “difference between/the inside and the outside” when she highlights the links between the criminalization of people of color in the U.S face and those of Palestinians (“Letter to Anthony”).

In Lebanon, it a similar attention to state violence that had queer feminist activist, Ghoulama remind activists that it is working class people outside the norms of heteronormative sexual practices and gender identities who are the ones facing state violence. One case in point was the police raid on a “gay friendly” club in Dekwaneh, north of Beirut in May 2013. On that day, the Internal Security Forces raided the club, arresting and assaulting people, who were mainly Syrian immigrants. At the municipality headquarters, one of the arrested, a transgender person was “ordered to strip... to 'check whether she was a man or a woman'” (CSBR petition)

One queer feminist response was a petition and call to action to protest police violence. Importantly too, the activists did not see the attack only on LGBTs, but situated it within the context of violence by state security forces and political parties against homosexual men, sex workers, and political protestors (CSBR petition). These attempts at interlinking multiple struggles, communities, and understanding how histories of violence and resistance play out in the present are an integral part of what I read as shadow feminism in Lebanon. Importantly too, this paper has shown how shadow feminism pays attention to those who are marginalized in order to challenge sexual, gender, class and citizenship hierarchies and break patterns of marginalization. 




N.P. “Tarikh Mo’taqal al Khiam.” Wo Tol Shway ‘al Khiam. Last accessed 27 July 2015.

Abu Ghazal, Sara. “Margaret Atwood: Lessons in Selling Out.” Sawt Al Niswa. 3 June 2010. Last accessed 14 April 2014.Abu Mjadeh, Fawzi. “A Nidaa 211: Mahatat Nidaliyya fi Tarikh al Tabaqa al Amila wa al Haraka al Niqabiyya.”     Lebanese Communist Party. 8 May 2013. Last accessed 20 April 2014.

Alexander, Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred. Durham: Duke UP, 2005.

Abboud, Hosn. “Al Sijin lil Nisa' Aydan: Zainab al Ghazali wa Ayyam min Hayati.” Bahithat: Out of the Shadows: Investigating the Lives of Arab Women Vol. IX. Beirut: Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, 2006. 268-89.

Agah, Azadeh et. al. We Lived to Tell: Political Prison Memoirs of Iranian Women. Toronto: McGilligan Books, 2007.

Amnesty International. Torture and Ill-Treatment of Women in Pre-Trial Detention: A Culture of Acquiescence. London: International Secretariat, 2001.

Bechara, Suha. Resistance: My Life for Lebanon. Trans. Gabriel Levine. NY: Soft Skull Press, 2003.

---- and Cozette Ibrahim. Ahlamu bi Zinzanah min Karaz. Beirut: Dar al Saqi, 2011.

Black, Ian and Haroon Siddique. “Q and A: The Gaza Freedom Flotilla.” The Guardian 31 May 2010. Web. 9 May 2014.

Boyle-Watson, Carolyn. Peacemaking Circles and Urban Youth. St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2011.

Chen, Ching-In et al, eds. The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. NY: South End Press, 2011.

Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR). “Solidarity Statement on Dekwaneh Abuse.” csbronline. 3 May 2013. Last accessed 15 Nov. 2014.

Davis. Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Falcón, Sylvanna. “’National Security’ and the Violation of Women: Militarized Border Rape at the US-Mexico Border.” Color of Violence. Ed. Incite! Women of Color against Violence. Cambridge: South End Press, 2006.

Fernandes, Leela. Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2003.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Ghoulama. “Niqash fi Aliyyat al Tanzim al Mithly wa Qawnanat al Jinsaniya fi Lubnan.” Helem May 2012 Last accessed 15 April 2014.

Hammad, Suheir. “Letter to Anthony: Critical Resistance.” Mike Geffner Presents the Inspired Word. Youtube. 1 March 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Incite! Women of Color against Violence. The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology. Cambridge: South End Press, 2006.

Khaldieh, Johayna. “Al Protocol al Molhaq b' Itifaqiyat Monahadat al Ta'azib: Mata Toqar Aliyyatuhu al Wiqa'iyya?” Assafir  30 March 2011.

Makhoere, Caesarina Kona. No Child's Play: In Prison Under Apartheid. London: The Women's Press, 1988.

Naples, Nancy. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work and the War on Poverty. NY: Routledge, 1998.

Nassar, Anita Farah. Dalil lil 'Amal Dakhil Sojoun al Nisa' fi Lubnan. Beirut: Institute of Women's Studies in the Arab World, 2011.

Nusair, Isis. “Gendered, Racialized and Sexualized Torture at Abu Ghraib.” Feminism and War: Confronting U.S Imperialism. Ed. Robin R. Riley, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Minnie Bruce Pratt. London: Zed Books, 2008.

-----. Rev. of We Lived to Tell: Political Prison Memoirs of Iranian Women, by Agah et al. Toronto: McGilligan Books, 2007.

Partamian, C. “An Armenian Perspective on the Flotilla: Euh, Erdogan, WHAT?” Uruknet: Information from Middle East. 16 June 2010. Last accessed 14 April 2014.

Peteet, Julie. Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement. NY: Columbia UP, 1992.

Sudbury, Julia ed. Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison Industrial Complex. NY: Routledge, 2004.

Stanley, Eric E. and Nat Smith eds., Gender Captives: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011.

Sweeney, Megan. Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women's Prisons. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2010.

[1] See, for example, Jacqui Alexander’s discussion of a Time and the feminist interlinking of the political and the sacred (300-11)

[2] In my dissertation chapter I also look at how another feminist, C. Partamian, mobilized a cyclical concept of time in the wake of the attack on the flotilla to talk about the Armenian genocide and Turkish repression of Armenians and Turks I link this incident too to documented histories of organizing by Armenian women in Lebanon.

[3] n.p. Helem English. n.d

[4] The organizing of U.S Black feminists, as well as many women of color and indigenous feminists, against the prison industrial complex and for transformative justice offer crucial contributions to theorizing about the complicity of state institutions (from police, to prisons) in the violence of colonialism, heteropatriarchy, racism, imperialism and capitalism. See, for example, Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete. NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003; Incite! Women of Color against Violence, The Color of Violence: The Incite Anthology. Massachusetts: South End Press, 2006; Julia Sudbury, ed. Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison Industrial Complex. NY: Routledge, 2004. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Eric E. Stanley and Nat Smith eds., Gender Captives: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011. Importantly, such theorizing is always looking for local alternatives to combating violence and holding perpetrators accountable (Incite; Chen et al; Boyes-Watson).


[6] I use the term bearing witness as Leela Fernandes writes about it, as a (political/spiritual) feminist responsibility that breaks the dichotomy of theory and practice. Carolyn Boyes-Watson, in her book on Peacemaking Circles and

Urban Youth in the U.S, also talks about the power of witnessing in healing from personal and collective traumas (149).

[7] Megan Sweeney's Reading is My Window, complicates the idea of “fighting back” and direct resistance that often puts U.S women of color to prison in the first place (97-112)

[8]Sylvanna Falcón writes about the U.S-Mexico border as a war zone, in order to show how militarization ensures the continuation of unaccountable “militarized border rape” (Incite! Anthology 129)

[9] For a legal analysis of women in prison, see دليل العمل داخل سجون النساء في لبنان

[10] Amnesty International. Torture and Ill-Treatment of Women in Pre-Trial Detention: A Culture of Acquiescence. London: International Secretariat, 2001. 


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