Challenging Impostor Feminism in Lebanon

This article takes a critical look at the manifestation of “impostor feminism” in Lebanon today, a form of self-attributed feminism that shies away from challenging structural forms of gender oppression and discrimination. Looking at the other side of the spectrum, the article will shed the light on a growing movement of younger intersectional feminism that is shaping the field of feminist activism as we are witnessing it now.

In the midst of a most acute political, economic, and social crisis, Lebanon today is a stage for various forms of what I would like to refer to as ‘Impostor Feminism”.  This refers to individuals, outfits, and standpoints which identify as "feminist", but which not only fail, consciously or unconsciously, to challenge the structural causes of gender oppression in the country but go as far as reproducing these inequalities and strengthening the systems of oppression.  What are some of the sources and manifestations of impostor feminism in Lebanon and how are intersectional feminists actively challenging these?  These are the questions that this blog attempts to address.

Impostor feminism: "The Kafala system is not so bad"

Impostor or diluted feminism is invading social media through proponents who engage in localized forms of demands for superficial reforms which seem to serve a small number and a particular profile of essentially privileged cis-women.   The most telling examples would be the safe demands for “more women at the table”, “women in boardrooms”, “women entrepreneurs”, “women diplomats and peacebuilders”, and even “women planting trees”.   Though participation and representation of women has been a key demand of the women’s right movement historically, such manifestation as we are seeing them today consciously fail at recognizing the very nature of Lebanon’s political and economic system which rests on the solid patriarchal tenets of religious sectarianism, absence of state, and the iconic Lebanese “laissez faire” raison-d’être!

This reality is further promoted by Lebanon’s state feminist apparatus, notably our national women machinery, which acts in harmony with the priorities and modus operandi of the regime and its patriarchal ideology.  For instance, and quite recently, the head of the local national women machinery stated during the height of the crisis faced by Migrant Women Domestic Workers in Lebanon, that the infamous Kafala (sponsorship) system which keeps migrant women domestic workers in a bondage relation “is still useful but needs a better implementation”.

Proponents from the private sector and from what is known as “social media influencers” reproduce this trend by continuing to promote a version of feminism that suggests that women have to “lean in” and magically become self-confident and only then will the systems of power welcome them in open arms.  In this case, empowerment is portrayed as something one can conjure from within and with the help of tik-tok videos and inspiring photos of “influencers” shaking hands with powerful people and patting themselves on the back for succeeding in making it in a man’s world.

Challenging the status quo

On the other hand, and over more than a decade now, Lebanon has seen the emergence of a new generation and wave of intersectional feminists whose discourse is distinctly transformative and political as it addresses the root causes of structural discrimination against women and non-binary folks.  These groups have engaged in collective mobilization, feminist knowledge production, intentional rupture with imposter feminist entities and spaces, as well as robust and inclusive ground action and the creation and nurturing of safe spaces.  Other feminist groups are shattering societal taboos by visibilizing, normalizing, and politicizing knowledge, action, and services related to sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as periods and menstrual health. In a bold challenge to the statements made by the current president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women on the usefulness of the Kafala system, feminist groups are engaging directly with migrant women domestic workers in an effort to amplify their voices and mobilise all stakeholders to fight for abolishing the Kafala system. And finally, following the destruction and despair resulting from the infamous Beirut Port explosion of August 4th 2020, and when the regime simply ignored the disproportionate and devastating impact of the criminal blast on the queer community who had worked so hard for creating a safe space, a queer led coalition was created not only to address the humongous losses in lives, livelihoods, and morale, but also to provide a powerful example of what serious intersectional feminism looks like.

In doing so, these groups are re-positioning, re-conceptualizing, and re-politicizing feminist action within the context of Lebanon whilst amplifying the least heard voices as well as challenging loud, and often heavily resourced, voices.

Towards radical hope for radical change

Impostor feminism is a serious threat as it upholds narratives that are both racist and sexist and presents them as true “feminist” demands. The argument of the National Commission for Lebanese Women on the denial of equal nationality rights for women, which intentionally excludes Lebanese women whose spouses have “least desired” nationalities (e.g. Palestinian, Syrian… etc.) from enjoying this right and encourages policy makers and donors to adopt a “safe” approach to human rights and limit action to superficial reforms whereby the status quo would remain untouched whilst a privileged few can enjoy better opportunities is a perfect example of such demands.

In a recent talk at the American University of Beirut, queer activist Tarek Zeidan of Helem asked his audience why is there such reluctance amongst impostor feminists to challenge the status quo and remain reduced and confined with the limitations of the gender binary system as approved by the patriarchal system.  His answer to his question was… “because it is simple… because it does not require or produce radical change”.  Despite the narratives of impostor feminism and its perpetrators, there is a growing and diverse form of intersectional feminism in action, which   is the source of radical change and radical hope in today’s Lebanon.

Lina Abou-Habib is a feminist activist and the Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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