Tuesday, October 14, 2014

IS and BS

Give it up! From this Arab neck of the woods or not, how clueless do you feel?

I’ll be honest with you. We’re running around like plucked chickens over here. We’d like to know more, a hell of a lot more, in fact, the better to pace ourselves. And we certainly should know better, we’ve been at it for so long. But fear, I am afraid, is a contagion, and if there is an easy descriptor for the current disposition, it’s panic mode. Kind of like the feeling so many of us Lebanese have when midway to the bathroom at 2 am, lights out.

Man of the year Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has kindly offered us the latest proof that innovation can come as naturally to Jihadis as it does to the feistiest business entrepreneur: from the ashes of Iraq in 2007 to the killing fields of Syria post 2011; from financial dependence on donors to a wheeling and dealing outfit racking up cash from oil, ransoms, smuggling, extortion rackets; from a few thousand fighters to anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000; from an Iraqi magnet for mostly Arab recruits to a global outreach agency. From the fringes, as International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling aptly puts it, to the heart of the action.

Hard for the International Community of Brotherhood now, like once upon a time, to surreptitiously snigger while stamping Middle East only on these harvests. Not so long ago, the West spectated as if behind tight-shut gates. In this age of globalization, technology for all and multiculturalism partly born out of decades of postcolonial westbound migrations, it’s become a little too cozy for comfort, although if you count the dead, it does seem like our side is by far way ahead.

But no matter, I am not one to quibble over numbers. This is a certifiable situation in our collective nervous lap, and the time is now for, I don’t know, something or other.

First on the to-do list, the profiling exercises to help the Western masses understand the nature of the wretched beast. Even the New Scientist has given its two cents on what could possibly motivate Western Jihadis. In this earnest effort it joins every other news outlet and think tank.

You might want to consider peer pressure, the magazine suggests, as “in young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission.” And don’t be surprised if the fellows are nursing some kind of a grudge against whomever or whatever. For The Economist’s Sarah Birke, you also should never underestimate the knock-on effect of ennui and a muddled identity. To The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey, if you want to put your finger on at least a good chunk of it, you would need to fully internalize the influence of idiocy in a thug with an inflated ego. And, yes, an inflated ego in an idiotic thug works just as well. Which flirts with Gautam Malkani’s admonition in The Financial Times--the closest to the mark, in my opinion--that, “We really need to talk about lunacy.”

All necessary speculation, no doubt, but by the fourth or fifth take you begin to get the sneaking feeling that the profilers are not having an easy time with this one. And so, the reasons queue up as if in tryouts for the lead in an unfolding tragedy. Sure, much of the chatter is dramatic. But I don’t mind that so much. It’s the least observers owe this cast of Jihadi tourists marauding across a backdrop of collapsing states and dissolving borders, of black flags fluttering over conquered cities and oil wells, severed heads held up for photo ops, caliphs brandishing $25,000 Rolex watches while preaching the plague from mosques.  Of all the narratives competing to fill in the blanks in the Middle East’s many voids, this one, precisely because it is so fantastical and yet so close to home, dominates the news, not to mention the policy rooms.  

Fair enough. We get that. The very intrepid journalist Hazem Ameen, who’s been on the trail of Jihadism for many years, captures, in two recent pieces in Al Hayat Newspaper, the Hollywood that Jihadi terrains have become for unhinged foreign fantasists. These Book of Eli deserts are where the imagined, however bizarre or hideous, can turn undeniably real. What more riveting reads by Western reporters than these? And if by such obsessiveness they inadvertently dress up weirdness as mainstream, it won’t be the first time that perspective and nuance have been sacrificed thus in the Middle East.

Not to be outdone, some of our own commentators have also taken to painting with the broadest brushstrokes, none more sweeping than that of Al Arabiya’s Hesham Melhem, who laments, “Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?”
Just like that, hundreds of millions of Arabs, whose cities and daily routines and interests and culture and dreams and hopes and ambitions and values don’t quite tally with this macabre theater, are deemed beside the point that is ISIS and its sisters and cousins. Not that I would ever want to put down a man brooding about the sorry state of Arabhood, but if you want to write off an entire people, a good majority of them barely past 18, surely the least you could do is tell them which way is the fastest to oblivion.

And if this is, indeed, total civilizational collapse we are experiencing, what’s the use of bringing the widest lens in the shop to take in the whole wreck of a place if it demonstrably lives in ever increasing fragments? Who knows, maybe the discordant pieces offer vistas infinitely more intriguing than dust balls scampering through a haunted Dodge City? To insist that the only reality that counts is the so-called Islamic State without acknowledging (and then convincingly dismissing) the shifting realities and trends that suffuse the huge expanse around and within it is not a serious diagnosis but a howling of a sort.

You would think that, in history this fast-paced, those who scratch their chin for a living would be wise enough not to press stop for a snapshot. Where’s the fun, for heaven’s sake, in freezing Clint Eastwood in the middle of a pistol-whipping?

It tells you something, though, doesn’t it, that most gurus sobbing their way today through the page barely two years ago were applauding the Arabs for finally “rising up and joining history.”

Speaking of the underrated beauty of perspective and the accidental benefits of slow thinking, Harling, unmistakably the most astute Middle East analyst, rightly argues that ISIS is but one of the progenies of a colossal century-long failure of practically every ism in the house, including Islamism, matched only by the bankruptcy of practically every single regime this side of the Mediterranean, including those which are still standing.

In other words, the omnipresent postcolonial Arab State has just about dropped dead, the times are fluid and the vacuums are many. To Sunnis, bereft of all the old ideologies and their promise, the sense of loss, in a jarringly sectarian climate, is profound: “More and more Sunnis…experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution.” The community is “a majority with a minority complex--a powerful though confused feeling of marginalisation dispossession and humiliation.”

Iraq is gone; Syria, whole, cannot be won; even the tiny Yazidi minority, when besieged, wins American attention, while Sunnis in Syria continue to sustain huge losses on the hands of—it has to be said--Alawite Bashar Assad and his Shiite Iranian allies.

It’s reached a point where the staunch secularist Sadeq Jalal Al Azm, Syria’s preeminent intellectual, resolutely declares, “What is trampled underfoot in Syria right now is the majority and its rights, about which no one seems to speak outside of Syria.” A longstanding vociferous critic of Western interference, Azm goes on to demand that the West own up and step forward: “The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority” (my emphasis).

Provocative thoughts from Azm, which brings me to the second chore on the to-do list: How to reconcile this genuinely felt Sunni injury with the selfies with cutoff heads and burying human beings alive as a rite of passage? More specifically, where do we exactly place this testimony by a repentant Turkish Jihadi in the current discourse on the region’s geopolitics? “When you fight over there, it’s like being in a trance…Everyone shouts, ‘God is the greatest,’ which gives you divine strength to kill the enemy without being fazed by blood or splattered guts.”

It isn’t only foreigners who are stumped by the very short distance between injury and gruesome murder for the slightest sin or offense. Even those who are sympathetic to ISIS’s calling can’t quite figure out what to make of those heads rolling. So, what kind of redress might work best for this specific expression of Sunni marginalization and dispossession? Because--and I could be wrong, of course—it does all seem a bit over the top. And if it isn’t, then what label dare we slap on it to bring it into the family of run-of-the mill human obscenity?

For more perspective, let me ask the question in blunter and simpler terms: Why are we all so unnerved by ISIS and its particular brand of ire? Every corner of this earth claims victims—and victors, for that matter--whose method of choice is violence. The world over humanity brags cruelties and injustices, many committed with unfathomable nonchalance, most with a self-justified purpose. What’s so special, really, about Baghdadi et al? How are they different from those manning Assad’s torture houses or dropping his chlorine bombs? Or Samir Geagea and his countless killing sprees? Or the Hutus who slaughtered their way through 800,000 Tutsis over the course of three months? Or Israeli soldiers who, with purposeful malice, force pregnant Palestinian women to wait endlessly at the West Bank’s profuse checkpoints? Or the four men who, in 2012, gang raped to death a young woman on a New Delhi bus…?

I am picking them at random here, because context is forever king and evil is so damn facile. Obviously, we can rewind a little to everybody’s favorites: Saddam, Bokssa, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin… And don’t tell me you that your eyes will roll if some contrarians in our midst might at this stage mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What is it, then, about Baghdadi and his men that makes them just too mad for our sensibilities? What makes this type of evil versus all others too freaky? And when Bill Maher utters verdicts like “The Muslim world… has too much in common with ISIS,” what is it about this deviancy that renders it, for this poster boy of liberalism, so emblematic of his batty world of Muslims? To no avail, I’ve been wracking my brains for days trying to remember the last time I heard a liberal Arab harrumphing about the “Christian world.” What makes Islam so tricky that it trips up even the usually more discerning among us?

More fundamentally, if you will pardon the pun, what should we make of ordinary Sunnis—educated and not, well off and not, intelligent and not, perfectly respectable and not, religious and not—finding in a blatantly rapacious ISIS and other such like movements an acceptable channel for grievance?

But then, how many times have we found ourselves asking the same question about other moments, other reigns, other terrors, that lit up places not even remotely related to Islam?

So for the last task on this week’s to-do list, on a whim, I propose that you skip all conversations profiling Western Jihadis, because, very quickly, they turn very silly. A friend said the other evening that profilers have to go micro. Well, how micro, I asked? Micro, micro, she answered. But then where’s the macro, I shot back.

See what I mean!

Once you’ve skipped this exercise, go ahead and humor Ramzi Mardini of The Atlantic Council and declare him right, when he argues that the “Islamic State Threat Is Overstated;” that every strength ISIS boasts feeds on the wrong politics surrounding it. And while you’re at it, be bold and give Ameen and Harling the thumbs up, when they point out that the military solution, even if well executed, is at best partial because the problem is, alas, only partially military. Upsetting as these two glaringly obvious facts are, you should embrace them because they will help ease the pain of policy failures about to unravel right before your very eyes.

Since at this stage you would be on a roll, resist whichever way you can the temptation to lump together 1.6 billion Muslims or wave away 375 million Arabs by way of an answer just because you don’t have one. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Palestine, The Myth Slayer

Palestine, we all know, is a heartbreaker. The homes wrecked, the lives spent, the hate fixed between neighbors, families and friends--and still she devours a century on.  

Through decades of bloodshed in her name, there have been a few---fools mainly—who have wondered what the fuss is all about. Juxtapose her, they keep insisting, against World War I and II and the hell they unleashed across continents, the millions they killed, the wholesale population transfers they provoked. What for, then, all this surely manufactured mayhem?

Others--fools, really—till this very day believe that if only the Palestinians had been nice, Palestine would have been saved a paradise for all her children, newcomers and millennium old alike. Here’s Woody Allen’s eye-popping recent thoughts on the subject:

But I feel that the Arabs were not very nice in the beginning, and that was a big problem. The Jews had just come out of a terrible war where they were exterminated by the millions and persecuted all over Europe, and they were given this tiny, tiny piece of land in the desert. If the Arabs had just said, “Look, we know what you guys have been through, take this little piece of land and we’ll all be friends and help you,” and the Jews came in peace, but they didn’t. They were not nice about it, and it led to problems…

And still Palestine confounds. Because she doesn’t just break hearts, she cuts down heroes, infects dreams, turning them into nightmares and—most consequential of all—she slays myths and mocks those who think they can, as masters would their slaves, possess her.

For the longest time, as Israel looked contentedly on, it seemed that only Arabs and Palestinians would fall at her altar. After all, we’re the fantasists who, through innocence or idiocy, could not keep her. But, of course, arrogance is its own kind of buffoonery. And would that it were just the government of Netanyahu’s, then Israel’s supporters might be forgiven for entertaining the faint possibility that her once magnificently woven script is still salvageable. But it isn’t, and the implications for Israelis are nothing short of earth shattering.

I refer here not to the clear breakdown in the European consensus on Israel, although that matters. Nor do I have in my sight American public opinion’s gradually less subtle questioning of Israel, although that matters even more. Nor am I focused on the progressively louder soul searching within the American Jewish community, although, eventually, that could well prove vital. I am not even hinting at the thorny debate occupying wider circles in the West—some earnest, others not--on how well Israel has done in finally laying the Jewish Question to rest.

I actually have in mind the disintegration of the extraordinary dichotomies that Israel, at conception, had so painstakingly constructed in order to impregnate herself against the damage wrought by her own actions. I speak of the notion that Israel, Western bastion that she is supposed to be, belongs in the Middle East but not to it; that in system and culture she stands apart from—blatantly superior to--the Arab Other; and with all the exceptionalism these extend her, that she could proceed to lay absolute claim to Palestine and crush the Palestinians.

It is understandable for Israeli leaders to have thought that they could get away with it, because they did up until 1967. It took such a unique turn of events, a story so finely tuned, to make 1948 and the “resurrection of a nation” so impervious to the catastrophe inflicted on another. Had a victorious Israel ceded the lands conquered in the six-day war, the narrative is almost sure to have held. But she didn’t, succumbing instead to her insatiable appetites--and, over 40 years, the tearing at, first and foremost, the very fabrics that knit Israel into such perfect shape for all her lovers.

You want it in photos? Then put Avigdor Lieberman against the legendary Abba Eban. You want it in the currency of hate? Try and argue the difference between “death to the Arabs” and “death to Israel.” Bloodshed? Then yours is the face of a dead child in Gaza right next to his twin in Aleppo. You prefer zealous beards and their gibberish uttered in the name of God? By all means, stop by the settled hilltops of the West Bank on your way to Zarqa in Amman.

Of all the divides that Israel had erected to convey an acute sense of her glorious, enlightened self, none stood grander than the one between her and us barbarians pressing against her ever expanding borders. More significantly, none, Israel believed, could be more effective in shielding her on the inside from the fallout of her misdeeds on the outside. But ironically, it is precisely this racist license that Israel had devised for herself (in the European colonial tradition, as it were) that tricked her into thinking that she could proceed, blessed and unshackled, to occupy, thieve and oppress without so much as a trace on her body politic, her culture, her character, her future.

Of this existential dilemma, the late Tony Judt wrote in 2003:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world: but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

You might be feeling the urge to widen the lens onto Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, for example, to provide kinder context for the Jewish state’s case. And I would, in turn, thank you. The mere fact that you feel compelled to draw attention to the bigotries of the neighborhood to dilute Israel’s makes exactly my point.
In the end, only fairytales withstand the ravages of time. And Israel is not one of them.

What now? Nothing--and everything. Beyond the immediate spectacle of balloons deflating all around the Middle East, the coming years are extremely hard to predict. Ours today is a wasteland of epic tales. There is something cathartic about the experience, and something devastating as well. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bashar Assad's Presidential Elections

The Shenanigan in the Shenanigan

Looking for an angle in the recent Syrian presidential elections? You could marvel at Hassan Nassrallah’s pleadings (always in the style of I know everything and you’re an idiot) to fully appreciate, grasp, buy, and then eat up the full significance of a shenanigan.  

If that doesn’t work and you’re still desperate for some insight that you are sure is hidden deep inside this silly story, then to you père Assad.

Pick a day between 20 and 25, February 1985. A late afternoon chat in Amman. I was sitting mute (ok, and just a tad bit giddy) between a seasoned Lebanese journalist, who worked then for a French outlet, and a wily Jordanian politician. Across the border, Hafez Assad had just been reelected President of Syria with 99.4% of the vote in a referendum for which an impeccable 100% of voters turned out. Of course, it escaped no one that this routine constitutional exercise came on the blood soaked heels of the Hama Cleansing and years of civil rumblings encouraged by internal failures and external nemeses.

The journalist, obviously oscillating between amusement and bemusement, asked, “It’s bizarre this charade, no? How does Assad expect us to take these ridiculous results seriously?” To which the good politician answered with a wry smile, “ Ah, but that is precisely Assad’s point: that he could pull off something this ridiculous--and with such ease so soon after all the bloodshed.”

To one and all, the man was saying: I am in control.

I am paraphrasing, it goes without saying. And so is Bashar now. It has been 29 years since that plebiscite. In the throes of an existential challenge that has broken the son’s grip and the country’s back, presidential elections proceeded, as commentators, oscillating between amusement and bemusement, cried foul.

For Bashar this is nothing short of applause. He has just demonstrated that, even under extreme duress, he can pull off an absolute farce; to boot, that he can pull it off in an old, favorite fiefdom, rousing tens of thousands of “expats” to throng the Syrian embassy in Lebanon to do their duty for Bashar w bass—Only Bashar.  

But the mob scene in Beirut still needed a prop to deliver the full force of the stunt. In an arrangement that is signature House of Assad, the embassy lined up three boxes, one for each candidate in curtain free space, as if Bashar was giggling to one and all: I am still in control.

But the undeniable fact is that he isn’t. If Hafez’s referendum in 1985 was designed to show off his strength in a Syria united behind him, Bashar’s elections were meant to camouflage weakness in a Syria divided all around him.  

You’re about to say he’s done well—considering. And you would be right—kind of. Syria is gone, the man is but a fraction of his original size, but there is a growing sense that his will be a voice in any future settlement. Increasingly, you come across even the most anti-Assad die-hards who have quit because of the horrors of the chaos, because of the unbearable sight of a nation dying, the forbidding promise of Islamist extremism. And perhaps because they finally caught up with the long established consensus between enough of Assad’s friends and foes that the regime shall remain intact.

Alas, for all these “blessings,” Bashar owes a huge debt to a long list of others. Sitting alone in his office, he could blow kisses every which way the wind will take them. But no favor has been more consequential for him and Syria than that extended by Hezbollah and Iran, not only because it is the very one that saved his neck, but because it is the very one with the most intriguing implications for the geopolitics of the region.

How these implications will play out is, of course, an important question for which a number of intertwining, booby trapped files lie in wait, only one of which is titled The Arab Uprisings and the Dust They’ve Kicked Up From Sanaa’ to Benghazi. Others you should keep in mind? Let’s see, first the big regional folders: America Does Iran; Is This A Shiite Crescent I Behold Or An Ignis Fatuus?; (click on the link if this is the first time you come across this beauty); Regional Models Are For The Birds, with the very helpful subheading of Let’s Not Talk Turkey & Only The Southern Suburbs Want to Speak Farsi.   

As for the local dossiers, they all, regrettably if inevitably, end in a question mark: Please, Might Turkey Dump Erdogan? Who Will Keel Over First, Second And Third In The Saudi Kingdom? Will Iran’s Theocracy Die In Order To Live? Is Netanyahu The Gift That Keeps On Giving Or What?

Bashar, being Bashar, would have a mother of a file all his own, but I am not altogether sure it is of any comfort for this former leader of the former “pulse of Arabhood”: The Trials and Travails of A Master Turned Pawn.

While working your way through any of these recipes, here’s a piece of advice recently given to me by one of the sharpest cooks in this mess of a kitchen: think a whole lot of improvisation with only sprinkles of strategy. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Arab Women: "Delicate Souls, Not Chatelaines"

I can’t be sure, but I think it was Cinema Bassman in downtown Amman, or maybe The Rainbow by the First Circle that racked up all those dinars. Because if there was a blockbuster Arab style, it was I Want a Solution.

Faten Hamama and Rushdy Abaza (I never forgave this gorgeous man for playing such a repellent character) are at war in Cairo’s courts. She, a translator--urbane, educated, bourgeois--wanted a divorce. He, a diplomat---urbane, educated, bourgeois--would not grant it to her. And so, the law, the courts and their men lock hands and dance to the tune of Abaza’s wrath. For Hamama’s Durriyah, in the end, there was no solution.

It was 1975. I was too young to register the resonance in Durriyah’s plight. And, anyway, who in the lull of those leafy Amman days would have thought that the victims languishing in those corridors of prejudice spoke for the predicament of an entire gender? That’s why, for many an Arab woman, the movie’s message was just as disturbing as it was simple: pick a nasty husband and, in the flutter of an eyelash, all those buffers--education, money, career, a good family name…—that separate privilege from want could dissolve like so much froth. It’s not that women from all walks of life suddenly, in their aggrievement, become one, but that they, in that courthouse, become a sisterhood of a sort in the trenches.

It’s not surprising then that Arab feminists, in the shadow of a towering Arab state, would aim for the laws whose very effect (if not intent) is to strip them from those buffers. Back in those days it seemed like all the system and its courts needed to do is catch up with life. In spite of considerable societal resistance, by the early 1970s, Durriyah was a growing presence everywhere in the urban jungle. The reasonable bet was that if the statutes changed, so would society’s reluctance to make more way for her. 

Decades on, the bet is all but lost. Instead of successfully pushing for more space and breaking new ground, Arab women have spent the past half-century doing their bit for man, God and country on the battlefields of culture and identity, painstakingly negotiating their role in an increasingly hostile public arena.

To boot, you can scour the personal status laws of the entire region in near futile search of a real dent. All Arab countries have signed the UN’s CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), attaching to it riders designed to exempt precisely those laws that pack such discrimination. Every other Arab constitution contains clauses that enshrine equality between women and men, except where personal status laws apply.

Legal codes, from Morocco to Jordan, boast rape laws that offer an out-of-jail ticket for a rapist should he marry his “stigmatized” victim. As for honor killings, haddith wala tassal (don’t even ask)! Next to these loud injustices are the profuse divorce and child custody cases where actually fair Sharia laws (yes, they do exist) are regularly thwarted by courts that have abandoned all pretense of juridical independence and rigor. They don’t grab headlines but, around here, they don’t need to. Every other week, I am privy to the wretched tale of a woman I can easily call a friend struggling against a system whose contempt for womanhood seems to get progressively more visceral.

For samples of this truth, 2014 has been quite kind to us. In the span of two months, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon—each of which is home to a different type of governance—have revealed the drastic degree to which corruption, factional politics and parochialisms have eaten into the authority and integrity of the Arab civil state, mostly vitally the judicial institution.

From Jordan’s Higher Appeals Sharia Court: ruling number 348/4102-91837, dated March 2, 2014, which overturned a lower court’s verdict for the wife in a marital dispute. Reason? The testimony of the female witness is inadmissible because “she is not veiled.” In protest, The Jordanian Woman’s Association wrote:

The ruling…rejects the testimony of unveiled women because it deems them “lewd,” according to the fatwa on which the decision rests. But in spite of the ruling’s claim that it relies on the precepts of Islamic jurisprudence [Jordan subscribes to the Maliki school], the only evidentiary support it could cite was the preface of a book by Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi.

(For the uninitiated, the ever so whimsical Qaradawi is the religious scholar most dear to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s hearts.)

Thus, in one swoop, the good judge violates the constitutional rights of unveiled Jordanian women and opens the rule of law to the very colorful world of our dime a dozen Qaradawis and their fatwas.

From Iraq’s cabinet: the draft Personal Status Jaafari Law, dated February 25, 2014. Should it pass the soon to be elected parliament, here’s what Iraqi women can look forward to: a new legal female age for marriage of nine (article 16), down from 18 as set in the 1959 family law that still governs Iraq; the husband’s permission should they want to leave home (article 101); sex whenever the husband wishes to have it (article 101); no financial support if they are under age, as in sexually unready, or seniors, as in old hags (article 126); unconditional polygamy (article 104).

From Lebanon’ parliament: the Law Against Domestic Violence, dated April 1, 2014, after a six-year campaign and intensive lobbying by rights groups like KAFA, as in enough. No need to pick apart the key loopholes and amendments (among them the elimination of the marital rape clause) whose very purpose is to defang the law. A better way to appreciate the seriousness of our legislatures about the violence that threatens Lebanese women of all strata is to watch the parliamentary debate itself, starting with the words of Hezbollah member Ali Ammar: “Your excellency, Mr. Speaker, no human being in this chamber disagrees that a woman is a delicate soul, not a chatelaine.” The mulish sarcasm of a famously mulish man, to the echoes of his colleagues’ laughter! All in all, 71 parliamentarians, Christians and Muslims alike, who had publically committed to vote for KAFA’s proposed corrections to the statute, reneged on their vow out of deference to Lebanon’s traditions and the sensibilities of the church and mosque.

But what is so special or surprising about patriarchal interests coalescing to ensure prerogative and control in locales where they still act as ultimate arbiters of the forbidden and the permitted? After all, the world over, tensions remain between the demands for women’s rights and patriarchy’s willingness to cede them.

On the face of it, the sum of this gendered inequity may appear to be about the dissonance between feminist effort and achievement, between paper rights and real life protections. But in the case of Arab women, context tells much more. There is nothing fringe or sectional about our situation. And there is nothing uncommon about the threadbare defenses on which we can depend when seeking redress or fending against all manner of abuse. In an environment that is pervasively rigged against us, we may feel more acutely our quandary, but ours is, indeed, the quandary of all vulnerable segments of Arab society. In full sight of widespread economic malaise, bourgeoning unemployment and poverty, failing educational policies, a sprawling security apparatus and a crumbling rule of law, you can imagine the number of those who count among the vulnerable. Surely, three years into the 2011 revolts, you can just as easily imagine the newfound assertiveness of those, among them women, in pushing for their citizenship rights.   

Understandably, because many Arab regimes are in uprising mode, most analysts have quickly developed the habit of neatly splitting the fallen from the humpty dumpties still stubbornly sitting on the wall. Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon invite us to rethink such misguided divides.