Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Zoya Rouhana

Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Zoya Rouhana

Article excerpt

Bound by religion and tradition, the odds are stacked against Lebanese women - but there's no holding back the director of KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation).

'I can't recall a time when there wasn't discrimination against women in Lebanon,' says human rights activist Zoya Rouhana. 'As a little girl growing up in Beirut I remember that boys were treated differently. They were allowed to play outside and go to the cinema while the girls looked out the window. Boys were always given opportunities and made to feel special, while neighbours cried in disappointment when a girl was born into the family - as if it was a tragedy.'

Rouhana was lucky. Raised by progressive parents, she was encouraged to get involved in women's rights and to arm herself with a good education. After graduating from the American University in Beirut she became inspired by the activism she witnessed during the 1975-90 civil war, and decided to devote her life to protecting women against violence.

Today Rouhana is the director of KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation), a Lebanese women's rights organization that works directly with victims of violence. KAFA offers legal and social counselling and advice. It also pushes for legal reforms to protect women from their abusers. Over 300 cases a year come through KAFA's door, although Rouhana suspects there are far more women who need help but are either too scared to approach the organization or believe it is wrong to seek help outside the family.

'Lebanon is not as liberal as the West perceives it to be,' explains Rouhana. 'At a superficial level it seems a progressive and secular country, but we are a conservative nation that is bound by religion and traditions.'

Within this cultural environment, civil courts have no autonomy over religious leaders in matters of personal status, and sectarian family laws offer little protection for women.

'Lebanon's legal system is based on civil law, but personal status tails under the jurisdiction of the 18 religious sects. Sixteen of them have their own laws and courts that deal with marriage, divorce and child custody,' Rouhana explains. 'We can't interfere with any of these religious laws at the moment and some religious authorities won't criminalize violence against women because they view it as a private matter that must be dealt with by the parties involved. …

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