Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Saida’s Old City
Amid the narrow, winding rust-colored stone streets of the old city of Saida, on southern Lebanon’s coast, change is afoot. Here in the core of this major Lebanese city, where Palestinian refugees and Lebanese locals live together as one community, prevailing tightly-controlled gender roles and attitudes are being challenged with the help of Abnaa Saida El Balad, a youth-focused NGO in the city that works on everything from combatting drug use to arranging sports activities to challenging harmful narratives around gender.
Mohammad Shafaati, the project coordinator of Abnaa Saida El Balad, spoke about the organization’s work as he sat outside the crumbling 13th century castle jutting from the waters just beyond the edge of Saida’s Old City.
Abnaa Saida El Balad works with children, youth, and their families simultaneously to educate them on concepts of gender equality. Abnaa Saida El Balad provides awareness-raising sessions, involving activities like music, theatre and sports and handcrafts to keep children and youth engaged—all the while discussing gender equality issues, and using the activities themselves to address gender stereotypes. “Our trainers show them that girls can indeed play sports too, that girls can draw things more creative than just flowers, and that boys do more than just draw people, for example,” Mohammad said.
“Though we’re local, and primarily focused on youth in Saida’s Old City,” Mohammad said, “We’re working with other NGOs around the country to get them to focus on youth too. And we’re trying to get youth involved in making decisions with local government, whether working with the municipality, or with a local deputy.”
Walking through a medieval khan, Mohammad spoke of the impact that collaboration with UN Women has had on Abnaa Saida El Balad to support their work in the neighbourhood. “Before taking the trainings on gender, we weren’t aware of any of these gender issues. But now, we see that if you look at the roots of many of the social problems that youth are dealing with in the Old City of Saida, they go back to gender. Even in public spaces—a young woman can’t go to the park without her mother or father, whereas a young man goes wherever he wants unaccompanied.”
And the youth who works as trainers and participants in Abnaa Saida El Balad’s activities are feeling the impact too. Farah Issa, 17, is a Palestinian girl working with Abnaa Saida El Balad. Originally from Saida’s Ain Al Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, Farah works as a volunteer with Abnaa Saida El Balad. After only two months of involvement, Farah says the work has influenced her tremendously. “When we first started, we took a course on gender. I learned so much from this. It made me realize how many people in our community assume there is such a big difference between a girl and a boy; that a boy can do this but a girl can’t do that. And as someone who wants to become a teacher, it’s critical that I challenge these limiting notions.”
Leading workshops in drawing, theater and music, Farah worked with more experienced trainers to bring boys and girls together in integrated activities. “When we first started, girls and boys sat separately from one another. Most of the girls weren’t allowed to go outside their homes. Now that’s over—they all mix and sit together. Before, boys didn’t speak with girls. Now they do everything in the workshops together.”
Mohammad Abed, 10, does acting in the Abnaa Saida El Balad workshops. Sitting up straight and confident in the Saida municipal building while a dance performance goes on next door, he said, “I never held girls’ hands before [these workshops]. I thought wearing pink was only for girls. And I respect my mother more now. When she’s working in the house, I’ve started to help. My dad has started helping out my mother more [at home] because I encouraged him. Now my brothers are helping her too.”
With a determined little grin on his face, he said, “The people think that us kids just make noise. But I want to teach my friends; I want everybody to know this: that boys and girls are equal.”
Speaking about her daughter Sandra’s participation in the Abnaa Saida El Balad program, Fadia Mohammad Hussein, 36, from Old Saida, said, “Sandra loves music. She loves to play in theater, to dance. [The program] is developing their talents. She used to be so shy, but now she’s coming to me saying, ‘Mama, I played [football] better than the boys today.’”
When asked whether she ever feared about her daughter’s playing sports, Fadia said, “I never worried. Communication was excellent. Any time I needed information, [volleyball] Coach Mohammad was there to answer.”
Wa’el Abdullah, 36, from Saida’s Ain Al Helweh camp, is a volleyball coach with the program. He took a gender training in 2018 as a volunteer. Staying on in the program, he became a coach. He said, “There was a lot of talk that only boys can play defense, only boys can play attack. We did an exercise where we put a line of girls playing defense on the boys’ side. Then with a line of offense. Then we put a whole team of girls against boys. The other children watched. They started to see that girls cab play offense, defense, they can pass the ball. The most important change is that boys accepted the idea that girls can play volleyball. Girls also gained confidence, that they don’t just have to play the middle line—the can play offense, right up on the net.”
Leaning forward in his seat as if to emphasize his point, he said, “It doesn’t stop here. We work with the kids for a few days each day, then they go home, or to school. Today they’ll pass on these ideas that girls are just as capable to their families. Tomorrow to their schools. They’ve learned where the real differences [between boys and girls] are—which are made by biology, and which are created by society.”