RECOGNIZING THE POWER OF YOUNGFEMS
Chantal is a Lebanese filmmaker currently based in Montreal, and a previous advisor to FRIDA. She speaks about the documenting of a history that does not erase the experiences of women as an expression of justice, drawing from her own upbringing and sense-making of identity.
“I grew up in Lebanon with parents of different ethnicities.”
Chantal’s parents are from two different ethnicities. “I know that’s a construct, but my mother is Lebanese-Arab, and my father is Lebanese-Armenian. Both my paternal grandfather and grandmother’s stories are routed in immigration and genocide: my grandfather’s parents were escaping the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians, leaving some of their family behind, and my paternal grandmother’s mother was Greek, and also an orphan due to the Ottoman genocide against the Greeks. A lot of minorities suffered under the Ottoman rule. Unfortunately, in our region, that is not very recognised. People tend to gravitate more towards Western colonialism and its impact on the region, rather than the legacy that 400 years of Ottoman rule had left.”
“Ever since we were kids, we were immersed in the knowledge that we are diaspora entities, and that there is an injustice, which is the non-recognition that certain events happened. My father wanted us to assimilate the Lebanese thing, but my mom decided that we had to go to an Armenian school to understand what was going on around us. We used to get a lot of reactions at school, because my dad has this long hair that my mom braids for him, and my mom had short hair – they still do. They would come to pick us up from detention, and the nuns at school would be like, ‘What kind of gender lessons are you giving your children?!’ They were amazing.”
“But growing up, we were never enough Lebanese, or Arab, and we were never enough Armenian. My last name is also my father’s last name, which erases my mother’s last name, so everyone assumes that you are this one entity, and identity politics in my country is very complicated. People have killed based on identity politics: on your religion, on your sect… At some point, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m in Lebanon, so I’m just going to pretend that my Armenian side does not exist. I’m just going to forget that I’m a minority and blend in.’ A few years later, I realised that I cannot do that, because at some point it just rages against you. The understanding that I am made up of all these different entities came back in full force.”
“I remember the day that all of this became intersectional. I was probably about 10 or 12 years old – I don’t remember really – and my father took us to an art exhibition. There was this huge mural of people walking in the desert with their belongings on their heads and their backs. And because we grew up with images of the Armenians in the Syrian desert when they were put out by the Ottomans, I thought it was the Armenians. I grabbed my dad, and I said, ‘Look! They have a painting of the Armenian deportations.’ And he said, ‘No, look, they are wearing the keffiyeh, these are Palestinians,’ and he explained to me what happened.” It was then that Chantal realised that many deportations had occurred, and understood how the region was divided.
“It leads you to understand that there are different communities, and that these communities you are growing up in have faced a lot of trauma. Furthermore, the resilience of rebuilding these communities seems to be coming from women, because at the end of the day, where it comes to the Armenian community, the people who were not killed were women and children. The men were mostly taken or drafted or shot during the marches. The women and children were the ones who ended up in camps, and they are the ones who basically rebuilt the community. I had this realisation of the resilience of all these women, including the women in my family: everything they had to go through to give us the privilege of today being here… That’s definitely something I’m researching a lot: women as the founders of the post-genocide community.”
While Chantal was in France completing her Masters, she joined a branch of Lebanese LGBT activists. “That’s where I met a lot of badass feminists.” Feeling relegated to second place in that space, a few members decided to create a more exclusive space specifically for LBT persons in order to voice what they wanted to voice, and so Meem was founded. “Meem was started by five people while I was on vacation in Lebanon. When I got back to France, I decided to pack my bags, finalise my Masters, and get back to Lebanon to help put things together. When I returned, they had already rented the community space, and we started organising… We worked to create a safe space for the LBT community, and we succeeded to a big degree. We had an online magazine and launched a book. I think its impact still resonates in a lot of places.”
After Meem, Chantal became a part of the Feminist Collective, whose headquarters would be where the first meeting for what would be FRIDA took place. “I wasn’t in the meetings, I was just hovering around in the office when a bunch of badass international feminists arrived. That’s where I met Mariam, Angelika and others. I became active with FRIDA a year and a half later, when Nadine asked me if I would be interested in an advisory role… There was definitely an excitement about the fund being created. I think the fact that FRIDA was a general fund was something amazing. That was its strength. Certain funders say they only have money for specific kinds of initiatives, and so you have to write your proposal accordingly or you won’t sustain yourself. Later on, conversations started to navigate around not only being a fund, but doing capacity building, or being a space for people to come together and learn from each other. Around that period, in the different spaces I was a part of, there was a lot of conversation around self-sustainability, because we didn’t want to rely on funders anymore. We realised that a lot of funders simply saw us as one of their projects. If you asked them to situate us on a map, they wouldn’t even know. I think for a fund to come around at this same period and say, this is a fund for young girls – no more dinosaurs – was a way to create more initiatives – initiatives that do not necessarily need to change the world in an instant, but were impacting all these tiny clusters that were actually just adding to the bigger movement.”
Chantal continues to speak about the underlying power dynamics between older and younger feminists in the movement, and why a fund specifically for younger feminist collectives was necessary at the time. “As an older feminist, you meet young feminists and they don’t know, for example, about different feminist movements that happened in the 70s and 80s, and you think, [gasp] ‘They have to know all of this!’ You’ve built half your career and your position on your feminist work, and all these young people who don’t know anything just want to create the movement. Of course, you’re going to feel threatened. At the same time, let’s say you’re seventeen and there is a fifty-five year old feminist that you admire. You want to counter or add on to their politics or ideas, and you say, ‘Let’s talk about queer stuff,’ and they say, [gasp] ‘No, because it will not allow us to get funding or be taken seriously by the government.’ If you admire that person, there is also dynamics of power and silencing that happens both directly and indirectly.”
In the case of LBT concerns specifically that are silenced, “fifteen years ago, feminists were already considered a bunch of man-hating lesbians. Let’s say, for example, we’re going to go march against family violence. For all these very established feminists to not receive that kind of backlash, if you look too gay or trans, they would be like, ‘Can you stay in the back? Now is not the time to talk about queer concerns.’ And we would say, ‘But there are certain specificities that young queer women have to deal with regarding family violence that comes in the form of one, two and three.’ And they would say, ‘Yes, but this is not the time to put this on the agenda. We just want the law to change first and then we will deal with this.’ That is the same discourse as, ‘Let’s not talk about women’s right now, because we are at war,’ or, ‘Let’s not talk about women’s rights now, because we are dealing with famine.’ If you look too butch, or you look too effeminate as a gay boy, or if you didn’t navigate the [gender] binaries so well, it wasn’t very good for PR.”
“I understand that the LBT, LGBT and feminist movements never stop, but at some point, we need to step back and archive [our history]. We need to write it down and put it out there so that the next generation can learn from it, because we made mistakes, and this is what accountability is. We fail to do that somehow. I can not be a sixteen- or twenty-year old now, trying to find out where I come from movement-wise, and not find the resources. We need those archives. We need to bring up those discourses. This is how people heal. This is how communities heal.”
“I am the descendant of a tragedy that is not recognised, and when it is recognised, is mostly spoken of from a male point of view, where rapes and torture and the use of the effeminate body is erased because of shame, where markings – because some of the Armenian women that were taken were tattooed as property – some people tried to remove them, to mutilate themselves in order to hide them. Women who were raped were considered soiled. All these things – one hundred years later – are still not commonly spoken of. Most of what is left of these experiences is oral history. It needs to be written down, analysed, and put out there, because if we are going to talk about justice, we cannot leave the women behind. It’s very simple. For me, it starts from there, from giving recognition, from giving space.”
“One thing that I love about FRIDA is that it is working a lot on finding ways to give space… I can come and judge you for 365 days a year, and tell you that you don’t know anything about my region, or I can respect the fact that you are actually giving me the space to talk. There is a difference between sitting in a circle and someone taking the lead in talking about things that are not theirs to say, or giving that space. I feel that FRIDA is learning from itself and from what is happening around it, which is enormous. I haven’t dealt with all the FRIDA staff, but I feel that there is a genuine desire to reach out and understand more, a genuine apology when it is necessary, a genuine attempt to give space… FRIDA is listening to different criticisms about organisations, and it is using these to reflect on itself. It is a model that is alive, that is breathing, evolving and changing… To be able to navigate the spaces of different funders and grantees I don’t think is enjoyable all the time. To go and ask for money and to have to explain why and what, you end up in a position suddenly where you not only realise the mess that your country is in, but the mess that the whole world is in. I don’t know how some of them do it mentally, to be honest. It’s not easy. Even after leaving [FRIDA], and thinking about all of this, I do have a lot of respect for them. I don’t say it enough – maybe you should include it [laughs].