First Civil Marriage Registered in Lebanon

mixed loveSo this week all Middle Eastern-freaks like me noticed that the first couple ever were able to register their marriage as a civil marriage in Lebanon – something that mixed couples have been advocating for ages. Cyprus have been the choice for many mixed Lebanese couples if they had the money – otherwise one of them had to resign to marry under their partner’s religion (usually the man’s).

I meet people that says “it’s not possible” about interfaith marriages. Why? Some religions don’t accept it; sometimes the two religions clash when it comes to the childrens’ religion (in Judaism the children inherits the mother’s reigion and in Islam the father’s – so what happens if a Jewish woman marries a Muslim man?); sometimes it’s simply the society and family that says “it’s not possible”.

Well I have come across so many mixed marriages that I can conclude one thing in this messy discussion: you can’t make people stay away from each other. As often as societies puts up rules for love, there’s always someone that will break them.

A Swedish-Lebanese family that I know were so determined to stay together that they married in the midst of the civil war, despite the danger of being a mixed Christan-Muslim couple. During the first years of their small children’s lives they were living in hiding from militias, until finally being able to escape to Sweden. They now have three children that has been raised celebrating Christmas and Ramadan, learning about both religions, and they take pride in their mixed background. Sometimes maybe a mixed marriage is the best way of preventing a civil war? Unfortunately Lebanon is still a place where such an effort is extremely difficult to carry out.

So when the news about the registered marriage broke, I hurried to get online. What kind of groundbreaking couple was it that decided to make a point out of not register in one religion? Maybe a Muslim-Christian couple? If not, could it be Druze-Christian? No, it was a Sunni-Shia couple – two branches within one religion. Not accepted by everyone, but not the major breakthrough that I had hoped for. If it was, I’m not sure that they would have been able to have the marriage registered.

But let’s hope it’s a first step for Lebanon to heal from it’s intolerant past and the horrifying events that took place under the excuse of sectarian divisions. If Lebanon really wants to move on, there’s only one way, the way forward.

Photo credit: www.biculturalmom.com

Xena the True Lebanese Feminist

Xena Amro

This article is published in an edited, Swedish version in the feminist magazine AstraNova’s October issue 2013.

When Xena Amro started the True Lebanese Feminist Facebook page in July 2012, it created turmoil. Xena’s own Facebook page had been reported and blocked several times, so she wasn’t surprised.  On her desk in high school, random insults were written in the beginning of her school year: “Xena is stupid”,Lesbian”, “Feminism sucks ass”, reads the messages that she shows to me when we meet at Starbucks in Beirut, pictured on her smartphone.

Why was it so provoking to her fellow students that Xena was an outspoken feminist? Was it because of the success of her page? Or was it because of her uncompromising position? “I am a feminist, because those ignorant rapists out there, have limited my Freedom! They have ruined my childhood! And made me lose my mental innocence!” says one post from September 2012.

Despite the harassments in school and on the Facebook page, Xena kept up her page and now it has over 6.000 followers. She has support from both men and women, and she says she loves it especially when men become feminists:

“That’s what’s keeping me strong” she says.

Xena became a feminist early in 2012 when she was one of the winners in a competition for young writers, on the topic “In Lebanon”. “True Lebanese Feminist” was the story’s name and it was chosen to be in the top 12 list nominated for the prize. After the story and the competition, it was impossible to look back.

Xena explains on how stories about domestic violence reached her and that the general suppression against women was what made her become aware at such a young age.

“The purpose of the page is to raise awareness about women’s issues not just in Lebanon, but also globally” she says. “There are too many stereotypes placed on women that I want to fight against.”

I started to follow the page myself in the beginning and have seen it explode in to what must have been a previous vacuum, where a similar feminist page didn’t exist before. On Facebook there are many pages for women’s rights, but few that create as much discussions. What makes the page different is also that when someone attacks Xena or her statements she often don’t reply, but let the discussion have its course, relying on her supporters on the page, and makes a point out of not insulting anyone back.

Every day the self-taught 17-year-old Xena updates the page with pictures combined with quotes; invites the followers to discussions; and shares other women’s stories. Female Arab writers like Joumana Haddad and Nawal El Saadawi inspired her. The numbers of followers quickly increased and the page turned into a place full of heated discussions. Not shying away from any subject, Xena brings up religion, sexuality and mass media from a feminist point of view:

Today is the international day for safe abortion!” reads a post with a link to “Women’s Rights to Abortion in Lebanon

True?” over a photo that states “Girls see over 400 advertisements per day telling them how they should look”.

Calling myself an outspoken dictator wouldn’t get me as much hate as I’m getting for calling myself an outspoken feminist” says another one.

Despite being as provocative in a society as Lebanon, one of Xena’s goals is to increase the number of Lebanese people on her page – out of 6,000 followers only 528 are from Lebanon (in comparison with 1,532 from US). It might not be a coincidence since her posts on religion and its links to patriarchy provokes many, and she has been accused of being a westernized atheist that hates religious people – a quite harsh insult in a society where religion plays a crucial role. Still Xena wants her page to stay relevant in her own country.

“I don’t hate religious people” she says. “They have the right to think whatever they want, and so do I – this is freedom.”

Since the beginning also emails for help has poured in. Many women from different countries have been writing to her about violence and rape, desperate for support, probably not knowing Xena is only 17. Xena takes her time to answer all emails, urging girls and women to seek help and not to feel ashamed.

I ask her how she handles it all. On top of managing the page on her own and the publicity it has given her, she gives feedback to all the members writing to her, and is also trying to finish high school to hopefully be admitted to nursing school this year. She admits that her parents, although very supportive of her feminist page, are worrying about the toll it might take on her grades.

“It takes all my free time… But the page is not pressure, it’s relief. I see a lot of injustice in the society, and I don’t want to hold these grudges in my heart.”

Photo credit: Xena Amro

I Love My Country

IMG_0004I love my country and am proud when telling someone I’m from Sweden. I’m aware of the negative aspects some people would hand to you (the weather is depressing, it’s hard to make Swedish friends, there are stupid rules for everything, even alcohol is only available in state-owned shops with limited opening hours) and I will agree with some of these things – but if I hear someone critizice Sweden too much I get sad. Why? Because it’s my country!

In an ideal world everyone would love their country and be proud when telling someone where they are from. I once met a guy in a party who asked me to go on a date with him, that said he was from “close to the Iranian border”, when he really was from Afghanistan (I have a tendency to ask people around one million questions when I meet them, so he couldn’t hide this fact for too long). This I find a bit sad, since he obviously didn’t think he’d have a chance with a white girl if he said where he really was from. In an ideal world people wouldn’t be ashamed of being American because many people dislike George W Bush; Germany because it started the Second World War; an underdeveloped country because it’s an underdeveloped country. I believe that change must come from both the outside as from within, why I want to challenge everyone to say that they love their country and give at least three reasons why. No country can be so bad that you cannot give at least three reasons to love it, right? Here’s why I love Sweden:

I love that there are bike paths everywhere

I love that if you see a homeless cat or dog you call the police and they will come and take it to a shelter

I love that people are honest to the point where it hurts, but at least you won’t get fooled (“If I want to hang out with you this weekend? No, I don’t think we have much in common”)

Which ones are yours?

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Maryam the First Kuwaiti Woman on Antarctica

Maryam Aljooan

I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.

Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.

“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.

Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.

“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”

According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.

“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”

Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.

It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.

Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.

“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”

For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.

I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.

“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”

If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.

“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”

Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan

Do You Want to Be My Boyfriend?

heartFew things are as provocative as mixed couples. When it comes to two persons falling in love, being together, getting married, different cultures and religions might put extra weight on the two as they have to see if their life values can coexist. My own belief is that it depends a lot on the individuals whether the relationship will work out or not, if they accept each other’s differences – without trying to change the other one too much.

Many times people (not only men) have been asking me if I could date or marry someone from another culture and what my boundaries would be. The conditions are different for everyone – here’s mine.

I-wanna-date-the-awesome-Jenny check list:

I’m a religious (any religion), do you mind? No, I don’t (but you have to respect me for the secular person that I am).

If we have kids I want them to speak my language, even if you don’t speak it, is that ok? Of course, I believe everyone should know about their background and speak the language of their parents.

I would like you to learn about my culture. Sure, we’ll learn about each others.

I want to be the more dominant one in the relationship as I’m the man, it’s important to me. Nope.

That was my check list! What’s yours?

Photo credit: rubberstamping.about.com

Muslim – How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?

MuslimGirlAmericanCover

Once in a fleemarket, a woman showed me photos from her son’s wedding, proudly telling me that her new daughter-in-law was smart, beautiful and a dentist. The bride looked great, as brides usually do, her black curls spilling down over her chrystal white wedding dress.

“She’s Iranian”, the woman said, apologetically. “But she’s born here in Sweden, and she’s not a fanatic Muslim.” The woman’s friend chimed in: “Oh no, not fanatic at all!”

I always find such comments sad, because for me the bride could have had any religion, she could even have been a fanatic, as long as she respected me for who I am (and shared a fair amount of respect for others in general). I have a friend here in Sweden who supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which I don’t, and there are many things we might never agree on – but we don’t try to change each other. She has never tried to convince me about her belief, and I would never ask her to go with me in a bikini to the beach, or go clubbing. Yes, I have met religious people that have made efforts in making me convert to or gain interest in their religion; but most people I have met during my lifetime have not tried to press their religion on me, and respect work both ways.

Especially being a Muslim or Arab in Europe or US can be such a stigma, discussed in the book “How does it feel to be a problem? Being Young and Arab in America” (Moustafa Bayoumi 2008), and Europe might need a similar study the way intolerance is setting the agenda here. I also believe that by reaffirming that someone being a Muslim is “not a fanatic” reinforces the stereotypes.  What if someone is proud of being a conservative Muslim? Why is it a problem?

If I was the bride in the photos I once saw, I wouldn’t want my mother-in-law to describe me as a not-fanatic-Muslim. And if anyone asked my mother-in-law if I was, I wish she would answer: “Well I don’t know. But she’s still smart, beautiful and a dentist.”

Photo credit: http://www.muslimgirl.net