Rima Tanani, a teacher from South Lebanon, was brought up against the political and other crises facing her country last month when she decided to file a lawsuit against a parliamentarian associated with the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah over his monopoly of a drug needed by her seven-year old daughter Isis.
Needing the drug to regulate her thyroid, Isis is dependent on a daily dose of eltroxin, a tablet designed to fix imbalances in thyroid hormones. Her mother had travelled from pharmacy to pharmacy on her bicycle, despite stares from a highly conservative neighbourhood, trying to get her the needed supplies of eltroxin, but to no avail.
Then Tanani saw on television that the security forces had raided a secret drugs storage facility only 15 minutes away from her house where supplies of this and other drugs were kept, she was appalled but not surprised.
There have recently been major shortages of many drugs imported into Lebanon, including some crucial for patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases. Some of the shortages are due to the explosions in the Beirut Port last August that affected imports of medicines and medical equipment. Others relate to Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has led to the free fall of the local currency against the US dollar.
But Tanani said that a good deal of the problem is due to monopoly exercised by Lebanese merchants associated with the country’s political class “that could not care less about the suffering” of ordinary Lebanese who cannot find the medicines they need for their loved ones.
She was surprised to find out about the association of the parliamentarian with Hizbullah on TV, though she was shocked to find that the storage facility was so close to her house where her daughter was suffering the side effects of eltroxin withdrawal.
An activist since the beginning of the Lebanese Revolution in October 2019, Tanani decided to act. “I chose to go through legal channels and to sue this man who has caused my daughter, and I am sure so many other children and other patients, a lot of suffering. I decided to take him to court,” she said.
She was not worried about vindictive reactions from the associates of the parliamentarian. “When you go around desperately trying to find the medicine that your seven-year-old daughter needs, when you have to carry your daughter to hospital to attend to her suffering, and when you don’t even know whether the doctors at the hospital have the required medication to pacify her pain or not, then it is hard to think of being scared at others’ reactions,” she said.
Tanani seems to have shrugged off her fears, defying norms she does not subscribe to. She does not wear a veil in a society where it is unusual for a woman to go around unveiled. She decided to help her husband with his work in a garage, when it is unusual for a woman, especially a teacher, to take this path in her society. She chose to show off her leftist political affiliation in a society where this could be an open invitation for disapproval.
However, when all is said and done, Tanani knows that her suffering is only part of the wider and often much harder suffering of women all around her, especially in the south of Lebanon.
“There is a lot of stereotyping over the situation in the south of the country, where many people think that those who live there are all under the influence of Hizbullah. But Hizbullah only caters for those affiliated to it. The rest don’t count for much, especially those who were part of the October Revolution,” she said.
This includes Tanani. Two years ago, along with other “women and men from the south who thought that to overcome the problems of political monopoly and economic crisis in Lebanon some fundamental change had to happen,” Tanani was at the forefront of those who demanded that “all means all” when it came to targeting corruption at the highest levels.
This was the loudest and most direct protest against political leaders across the board in Lebanon.
Two years down the road, despite the political, economic, and security hardships she has seen unfolding, Tanani is still convinced that a total political overhaul is the only way out of a crisis that has been eating up the ability of the vast majority of Lebanese to make ends meet.
This, she said, remains “very much the case” despite the recent agreement to designate Najib Mikati as the country’s new prime minister. This was simply an extension of the political reality that has driven the country into its current crisis, she said.
“I know that the political class, in the south and elsewhere, likes to blame the crisis on the revolution, but the fact is that it is of their own making. It is their corruptio that has led to the present situation,” she said.
Farah Abi Murshid is an activist who works in South Lebanon with women who need help and support.
She has established a NGO called Noun Al-Damon (She for Solidarity) to help women find a way out of some of the tough and increasing challenges they are facing.
Over the last two years, Abi Murshid said, increasing numbers of women have had to contribute or take care of providing for their families even though many women are subject to wage discrimination. Many women have lost their jobs even though they are in desperate need of income to cover basic needs including food, medicine and school tuition.
“An increasing number of women have had to forgo buying sanitary towels because they can no longer afford them and to use alternatives that compromise their hygiene and comfort. Many women cannot contemplate buying pain killers to help control menstrual cramps,” Abi Murshid said.
A pack of sanitary pads might cost 44,000 Lebanese pounds and a box of pain-killers 625,000, when the minimum wage, which is what most workers get, is 625,000 a month. According to Abi Murshid, women have also had to economise on getting proper birth control and thus face the risk of unplanned pregnancies.
“There are increasing risks of violence in households, possible forced marriages, early marriages and a lack of healthcare of all sorts,” she said.
In addition to its support schemes for women hit hard by the crises in Lebanon, the NGO also provides online counselling and support sessions for women who suffer or are at risk of physical or psychological pain. These include women refugees and women who had started new lives in big cities but had been forced to return to villages because of the economic situation.
“After the Beirut blasts and with the worsening economic situation, many women who had gone to Beirut to study or work were forced to come back to South Lebanon. And the question for some is whether or not they have safe spaces there,” Abi Murshid said.
It was just a few weeks before the beginning of the revolution in October 2019 that Fatemah Fouad arrived in Beirut to study film-making and writing. She had come from the north of Lebanon, where she was born and brought up, to the capital with big dreams. She thought that the uprising would pave the way to positive change in post-civil-war Lebanon.
With the revolution in full force, Fouad then got immersed in politics, “thinking that the priority was for the country and not oneself,” she explained.
But a few months down the road, Fouad had to face up to the most unforeseeable development of all: the Covid-19 pandemic. Then came the blasts in the Beirut Port in August 2020, and things took a truly apocalyptic turn that forced the revolution to a halt and Fouad out of the capital with neither a degree in film-making nor fulfilled political dreams.
With no economic means to stay in Beirut, Fouad headed back home with a different agenda that caused her to study sociology in view of the new priorities and current possibilities she saw ahead.
But she insists she neither has broken dreams nor defeated purposes. Still in her early 20s, she is not short on resolve or hope. “The revolution will pick up again simply because its demands have not been fulfilled. We are still living with the same political faces, the same political class, that has got us where we are now,” she said.
She is convinced that the new government cannot go very far in changing the devastating realities on the ground and that only a government born to a new political class can start “the long but inevitable process of change in Lebanon.”
The maximum that Fouad is expecting of the present government is basic crisis management to help minimise the suffering of the Lebanese people, she said.
Fouad said that she will eventually return to her film studies. But until then, she wants to be part of a wider movement to reach out to women whose suffering is hard to exaggerate in the current situation.
“The answer to our problems will come. It will come with the next revolution, which will be bigger and tougher. It will probably be a lot more aggressive, but it will bring the answers to the big problems. We just have to accept that there are no quick answers,” Fouad said.
According to Taghrid Merehbi, founder of Koudwa, a NGO designed to reach out to women in the north of Lebanon, women’s organisations have a huge amount of work to do to help women cope with unprecedented difficulties.
The situation has never been easy, she said, and economic challenges are not new to the people of the north of the country, but the situation now is worse than anything most people have seen, she added.
It is not just that women have to step in as co-breadwinners or sole breadwinners for many families, but also that they have to do so while observing the norms of a society that carefully monitors women’s patterns of living, including “the way they dress and what hour they step out of their houses and when they come back home and whether or not they put up with housework alongside any other jobs they might have,” she said.
The challenge is not only about helping women find income-generating projects, but also about helping them cope with the pressure they face as they deal with such new projects. Merehbi had to reach out to a woman who was coming under psychological pressure for “acting and behaving like a man” after she decided that the only way to make ends meet was to drive her late husband’s pick-up truck to transport fruit and vegetables from farmers to sellers.
“She said that people kept telling her that she was behaving like a man, and she said she had to do so because this was her new role – the role of a man,” Merehbi said.
Reaching out to women and trying to spread awareness about the need for society to adjust its positions in view of the challenges it is currently facing is a main part of her work.
“We are talking about a daunting level of unemployment that has hit 70 per cent, according to some recent statistics. Women take any job opportunities they can find, and there is not much room for picking and choosing,” she added.
According to international organisations working in Lebanon, the levels of inflation and unemployment in the country are practically unprecedented.
“Even those who are better off have been suffering, because when we talk about shortages in fuel we are talking about families that might not have heating on cold winter nights and who cannot afford to buy the fuel to get their children to school by car,” an observer commented.
Chantal Sarkis, an activist who has been involved in politics for many years, argues that the problem today is not only about the size of the crisis, but also about the chances of keeping the situation under control.
Expectations are slim, even with the new government, she said, and it is hard to overstate the level of frustration. Even those who have financial means cannot always put their hands on the medicines that their families need or be sure that when they go to a hospital they will be able to get the necessary healthcare.
This could easily be missing due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment, or a lack of oxygen, or, worse of all, a lack of doctors and nurses, Sarkis said. “Things have never been so bad, not even during the civil war years,” she added.
For 15 years after 1975, Lebanon went through a devastating civil war that caused a brain drain in a country known for its skilled professionals. However, according to some NGOs, what Lebanon has seen this year is unprecedented and cannot be compared either to the civil war or to the dollar boom that opened up well-paid job opportunities for many Lebanese in the Gulf countries.
A nurse at the American University in Beirut Hospital, Angeala Massouh, lamented the disturbing number of doctors and nurses who have been among the first to leave the country in pursuit of decent incomes abroad.
During the past year, doctors and nurses working at hospitals in Lebanon have been finding their way out of the country. Since she started her job in 2004, she has never seen a tougher challenge in providing care for patients, she said
With doctors and nurses at a third of their usual capacity and having to attend to more patients when some basic drugs and equipment are missing, “we are talking about a devastating burn-out among those who remain,” Massouh said.
There is also the psychological burden of trying to provide answers to patients who have been missing their chemotherapy sessions. “The NGOs are helping, but this is not a limited situation that can be handled by civil society alone. This is a situation that requires prompt state intervention,” she said.
“The hospitals are in a critical condition – and now we are getting into a new wave of Covid-19,” she added.
LOOKING FACTS IN THE FACE
Reflecting the size of the problem and naming the names of those responsible is a role that Lebanon’s alternative journalism has been trying to carry out for years.
Elso Moufarraj, a journalist and activist, said that alternative journalism contained the stories of the suffering of Lebanese, women and men alike, away from the political bias of much of the country’s media.
“Our role is about raising awareness, but it is also about advocacy, because to move on we have to look facts in the face,” Moufarraj said.
Alternative journalism was about reflecting the crisis in mainstream journalism at a time when journalists have to deal with salary cuts and fewer resources due to an economic crisis that nobody knows when will end.
Like other activists who work on the ground and who are familiar with the topography of Lebanese politics, Moufarraj does not have high expectations of the newly designated government.
She argued that the maximum that it will be able to do is to improve the operation of the country’s ration cards. It will not be able to solve serious questions, like the shortage of medicine for example.
Moufarraj is not holding her breath for the outcome of the 2022 elections either. She thinks, like many other activists on the ground, that without a new electoral law Lebanon will probably continue to go round in circles pending the next explosion that could bring real change.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly