The Arab Institute for Women

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Screening of Documentaries: “Reconstructing the Stories of Unsung Heroines”

Lest We Forget: On documenting Unsung Women who Changed Lebanon’s History

LAU’s Arab Institute for Women strives to highlight women’s pivotal role as vanguards of co-existence and non-violence during the civil war and October 17 uprising.

By: Sally Abou AlJoud

Two documentaries conceived by the Arab Institute for Women (AiW) to highlight the pivotal role women assumed as peacemakers, activists and organizers during two monumental periods in Lebanon’s history – the civil war and the 17 October revolution – were screened at the Gulbenkian Amphitheater on February 22.

In reference to the project titled “Dealing with the Past: Memories for the Future –Reconstructing the Stories of the Unsung Heroines” that also spawned an extensive report, the event was geared toward unveiling important women figures who, despite leading far-reaching initiatives and changing the course of events, have been overlooked by history. 

The screening was attended by representatives from embassies, UN agencies, faculty, civil society and feminist organizations and speakers who contributed to the making of the documentaries.

“The two documentaries tonight attest to the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of those who do selfless work with no expectation of recognition,” LAU President Michel E. Mawad said in his welcoming speech. “They also attest to the importance of creating awareness, garnering community support and making our heroines feel they are not alone.”

The report produced by the project encompasses stories and experiences shared by experts, activists and academics.

The first 20-minute documentary, which revolves around the civil war, featured Lebanese female pioneers who had boosted people’s resilience during combat periods, and led urgent and profound initiatives such as the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, the Committee for the Disabled, human chains between demarcation lines and countless blood drives.

Women, at the time, were driven to become matriarchs of their families amidst the bloodshed, shelling, sniping and trench warfare; they healed and revived the sense of community, provided medical care to the wounded and organized protests and marches with a concerted effort to demand peace.

“It is true that Lebanese women actively tried to tame the war’s fury by participating in non-violent peace movements … and they fought endlessly against the violation of human rights,” said AiW Director Myriam Sfeir, who was one of the researchers on the project. “However, that does not mean that women did not take up arms,” for some chose to embolden resistance movements and join the fight to defend their country rather than advocate for peace.

“The stories of women who were actively involved in warfare and combats are not told simply because [men] did not want to mention them as they were an exception to the rule,” Sfeir said. “Historically, the light dims when we talk about women and their achievements.”

The paramount role women played during the October 17 revolution, as shown in the second documentary, was similar to that assumed during the civil war but with a more distinguished leading status. Women were able to hold decision-making positions within organizing bodies during which they steered the narrative and called for landmark protests. They called for a women-led demonstration marching from Ain el-Remmaneh to Chiyah – strongholds of opposing religious factions – to take a stand against sectarian-fueled violence.

“The movement was intersectional and demanded all-encompassing gender and human rights, such as the rights of migrant domestic workers, the LGBTI community, and women with disabilities,” said Sfeir. 

Besides being invisible, women have long been sequestered from politics and placed on the sidelines of lawmaking positions in Lebanon. With the imminent parliamentary elections, securing impartial and equal political representation for women has become a central focus for many organizations.

“We, as women, must not accept the separation of women’s struggle from the national struggle. It should be an essential component and part of it, in order to have the ability to effect change and attain a democratic shift,” said Joumana Merhi, a women’s rights activist and a contributor to the documentaries.

Dealing with the Past: Memories for the Future was “a labor of love and a work in progress,” noted Sfeir, as the institute is planning a longer documentary on more female figures who emerged as champions from 1975 to the present day, in its ongoing mission to spotlight women who have been marginalized by the collective memory.