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A perspective from the field: Lebanon

Photo: Nathalie Bertrams/GAGE

GAGE Lebanon adolescent participatory researchers in conversation with Sally Youssef, GAGE Lebanon Qualitative Research Coordinator

Amplifying adolescent girls’ voices is a key priority for the GAGE research programme – we do this through surveys, through interactive qualitative research tools but also importantly through adolescent participatory research groups. In our participatory research groups, adolescent participants are supported to carry out research themselves – with their families, with their peers and about their communities. This blog highlights the perspectives of some of these adolescent girls about their experiences as researchers to date.

Sally: You have all recently joined a GAGE participatory research team in Lebanon – either in Ein el-Helwi camp, south of Beirut, or in Balbaek, in the north of the country, and you have been focusing on interviews with women from older generations to compare and contrast their experiences as adolescents with those of your own. Can you start by telling me about what stood out most to you from those interviews?

Riman from Baalbek, Lebanon: “Through the interviews I have done with my mother and grandmother, I got the opportunity to know them more. There are many things that I did not know about them and that made me feel so lucky to be living at this time, and to have the amount of freedom I enjoy which my mother and grandmother did not have. They were imprisoned! For example, my father wants to educate me, but previously fathers used to beat their daughters if they wanted to go to school, my grandmother, my mother and my aunt were all prohibited from education. If a girl asked to go to school, they would beat her because they would think that what she actually wants is to write a letter to some boy. Now, all this changed, my grandfather who opposed girls’ education pushes me to complete my education. He changed because he now has many grandchildren who are learning, and he realized that his sons who were educated have very good jobs while his daughters whom he prevented from studying do not have good lives as their brothers. That is why he now encourages his grandchildren to learn so that they would not end up like his daughters. He now regrets what he did with my mother a lot”.

Fatimah from Baalbek, Lebanon: “It has really been an amazing experience as I discovered many things about my mother that I never knew before. My mother used to love a boy from her neighborhood and she did not love my father, she wanted to run away and escape the oppression of her family, but her brothers who learned violent ways from my grandfather, used to beat their sisters, so she could not escape. She was introduced to my father and she made her mind that she will marry anyone just to escape the violence at her home. Praise be to Allah, my parents were engaged for three months before marriage and my mother grew to love my father during this period, she realized that he is a good person and their marriage was based on love eventually.”

Suha from Baalbek, Lebanon: “What I realized through the interviews was that I have complete freedom; I can go to any place I want. Girls used to be extremely oppressed before. My grandfather forced my mother to wear long clothes and very modest attire, and she was not allowed to go out, and to meet friends. She was forbidden from having any male friends, but as she grew older and as the community slowly progressed, she started making friends. However, before, everything was forbidden and she was always beaten for everything, she was not allowed to talk to anyone. However, for me, Praise be to Allah, I live normally and my father finds everything to be normal, and I have complete freedom. I have male friends, they visit us at home, even at night and it is all okay with my father. Nevertheless, my mother did not have such freedom and for my aunt it was even worse. My aunt was more oppressed than my mother was. She married someone whom she did not like at all, he was from a different sect and she suffered a lot. She first met him on their wedding day, it was forbidden for her to meet him or see him before their wedding. She begged her family to let her see him before their wedding, she feared he might be an old man, but they told her that she could not see him and she was forced to marry him. He was married and had children when he married her. They forced her to marry him because she turned 16, and it was not acceptable for a girl to turn 16 and stay unmarried at her parents’ house.”

Zainab from Baalbek, Lebanon: “What was striking to me from my interviews with my mother was realizing what pressures there were for girls to marry as children in previous generations. My mother married at the age of 18…. But her friend was forced into marriage at the age of 13 before she had reached puberty. She did not know anything about marriage and her mother refused to teach her anything, she did not even know anything about periods…. Her family forced her to leave school, and once she stayed at home they told her that since she is not studying and is of no benefit to them, she should get married and leave their house. They forced her out of school and then they forced her into marriage. People were so ignorant, they did not want girls to stay at their parents’ house, they did not want them to learn, or to work. Girls were only allowed to help their mothers in the housework and once they reached 16 years, they were forced to marry. …My mum explained that mothers used to convince their young daughters that it is better for them to get married rather than stay at home and be beaten by the fathers and the brothers. Today there are still some cases of early marriage but it is much better than it used to be before. … Nowadays, fathers think that girls must be educated; they ask them to complete their education and to work, to be independent and later on think about marriage. This is how my father raises my sisters and me. He tells us that we can get married if we wanted to but not at this age, we have to wait until we are at least 20 years old, he forbids us from marrying at an earlier age, and I of course like this idea. This is especially after I heard about all the stories about my grandmother and her sisters and friends as well as my mother..”

Sarah from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “I did an interview with my aunt and grandmother. The flow of events in their lives was almost the same. Their lives were very similar… I did not expect their lives to be the same; I thought there would have been some changes with time. There is a huge age gap between them, yet they lived the same experiences. My grandmother’s family treated her in a bad way, and when she had daughters of her own she treated them in the same way. However, my grandmother regrets it a lot; she did not have a choice because my grandfather and my uncles wanted things to be this way. She did not like the way she treated her daughters at all, and as she got older she regretted what she did a lot.”

Naya from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “I was shocked to know that my mother used to work when she was my age, she and my father do not allow me to work.”

Jouri from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “We learned that when our parents treat us better and change themselves and give us a better life, this means that they are strong and capable of changing themselves and changing for their children to allow them to become better persons in the society and to provide something to the community.”

Shaymaa from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “I did not know that my grandmother is the person who I knew through the interview, I thought she was cruel and mean. I discovered that she is not happy about what happened but she could not prevent it. She told me ‘I wish I could change something, but I could not’. I used to think she wants things to be this way, I thought she was mean. She used to be afraid of my grandfather and of the people’s gossip and from her family. She told me ‘I got married and my daughters got married and I still feared my family, my mother was cruel. I was always afraid to say anything to my mother or to my father’.”

Sally: Thanks – these are fascinating insights. Now I’d like to ask you about the process of doing the interviews – what skills you developed through the process and also any challenges you might have faced while doing these inter-generational trio interviews and taking photos to capture the spirit of their stories?

Naya from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “Through this activity I learned to take photos; it was the first time I had ever used a camera. I also learned how to have an in-depth conversation through trying to ask more questions and talking more with the person. Before, I did not know how to open conversations and how to get more information from someone about something that is of interest to me. The conversations that we have in the interviews teach us a lot; we learn to share our opinions and thoughts.”

Rahaf from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “We learned persistence, to follow what you want to achieve until you fulfil it… for example you need to persist and keep trying when you cannot come up with an idea for the photos until you do.”

Sarah from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “Yes! When we finished the training, I went home, called my aunt and grandmother, and told them that I want to interview them. The first day they said they are busy. The second day, my grandmother told me that she is sleepy and she cannot do the interview. I went many times to her place before actually doing the interview.”

Riman from Baalbek, Lebanon: “Through photography, I talked about the traditional attire and how it is now only bought by the tourists. I wanted to talk about girls’ attire because I was shocked when my grandmother and my mother showed me their old pictures. I wanted to take a picture with a meaning; I wanted others to understand what I am trying to talk about when they see at my picture… The first thought that came to mind that if I were in their place, I would have never accepted to wear these cloths. There is a huge difference between girls’ attire back then and now. There has been a great advancement in girls’ way of dressing. They were forced to wear long skirts with long shirts with long sleeves and their wrists needed to be covered, even their fingers should be concealed all the time. The attire that was forced on women is today a fashion for tourists to buy, but we do not buy it anymore.”

Alma from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “I wanted to highlight through my photos that regardless of everything, there is always hope, and I wanted to talk about early marriage and puberty. When a girl reaches puberty, she is always afraid to tell her family and she is immediately forbidden from everything. My grandmother told me that when she had her period she was afraid to tell her mother, she got married and never told her mother that she got her period. My aunt told me the same story, that when she reached puberty she was too afraid to tell my grandmother. Both were embarrassed to tell their mothers but also feared their mothers because they were very cruel. I also had the same experience, I was afraid to tell my family when I had my period, I was afraid to tell my mother because she had a very short temper. My aunt now has hope that her children will be different, and my grandmother told me she had hopes for my aunt, but they married her off. My aunt wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. My grandmother told me that she wanted her to complete her education, but her father and brothers married her off and her husband forbade her from studying. …My grandmother could not do anything or change the wrongdoings with my aunt which she also suffered from when she at my aunt’s age. … At first, I wanted to take a picture of a sad little girl putting her hands on her mouth indicating that she cannot speak and she is afraid. I also thought about taking pictures of a young girl holding her baby. For the hope theme, I first took the photo then imposed the topic to the picture.”

Jouri from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “There are photos that I took that helped give me a sense of release and of relief, and reflected what I am feeling. I also have some memories of myself as a child; I wanted to reenact those memories in photos. I was trying to put my memories in the photos. I was trying to express myself through my photos. I came up with the photo ideas immediately after the interviews.”

Ola from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “I wanted to use the photos to express what I am feeling inside of me…

Mostly, the photos reflect what we are feeling rather than what our parents experienced”

Rahaf from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “Photography was a tool we used to express our own experiences rather than only our family’s experiences”

Jouri from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “We can now use photography to express something that we cannot talk about to anyone, so we express it through photos. This helps me a lot, I always take photos.”

Sarah from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “It brings something out from inside of you. It was also something to do, because we are always sitting doing nothing and bored. It was fun.”

Jouri from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “The way I use photography changed a lot. I have taken photos for a long time. But before, my life was hard and I was oppressed, it was a sad life. Now my life has changed, I grew and now I know how to make my own decisions. The activity helped me to get out what I am feeling inside and talk about things that are hurting me.”

Rahaf from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “We learned that we can express anything through a single photo.”

Shaymaa from Ein el-Helwi camp, Lebanon: “We talked about voice, freedom, and work because all of us are having the same challenging experiences. Before life was the same for our mothers and grandmothers, but they were not able to talk.”

Riman from Baalbek, Lebanon: “I wanted to talk about education, because it is very important for girls to get education and they should have been educated in the past, but I could not find any idea. People should talk about the importance of girls’ education… Girls’ highest attained level was Grade 5, and they used to give them a certificate for completing elementary school… They were not allowed to get education beyond Grade 5, even many families used to force their daughters out of school at Grade 2.”

Sally: Thank you all so much for sharing your reflections on the participatory research process so far – it’s really inspiring to hear your perspectives and we look forward to an exciting journey ahead together.