Sawt Al Niswa (Voice of the Women) is a network and community of feminist writers, activists, and artists based in Beirut. We chose niswa, because we think it a more poetic word for “women” than nisaaʾ. Niswa also invokes the word nasawiyya, meaning “feminism,” more clearly than nisaaʾ. The name Sawt Al Niswa offers continuity between nasawiyya and niswa, where niswa is mostly used to refer to women in old books. Sawt Al Niswa suggests that these niswa have a voice through us.1
We are a core group of six members and growing. None of our activities are limited to members, however. We have been active since 2009 and work toward changing our realities by building critical spaces that allow us to reflect on the social, political, and intellectual experiences of women living in the Arab region—or West Asia and North Africa. Sawt is an independent collective in the sense that it is not affiliated with any political party movement, or other established feminist group.
Sawt’s mission is to develop a collaborative creative feminist space that encompasses people of different ages and educational levels. Sawt aims to produce and enable alternative knowledge to the dominant discourse by using feminist tools to theorize our lives. We believe that everyone is entitled to such knowledge and information. As a feminist space Sawt reflects the cultural, spiritual, linguistic, socioeconomic, and political diversity of Lebanese, Arab, and non-Arab societies in West Asia and North Africa. But we do not reflect their power structures and dynamics. In other words, although we welcome writings from women of different cultural, political, and economic backgrounds, we are also aware that some are more comfortable writing and have more access to reading. Our goal is to be a space that is open to marginalized perspectives. As a collective, we are constantly aware of and discuss power structures and the insidious and direct workings of privilege. We aim to break norms that have been held uncritically in our lives. [End Page 371]
Our activities have included Feminism 101, an informal course that reflected on feminist concepts and practices in Lebanon. A set of evening classes in a community space in Beirut, Feminism 101 was an affordable course that met once a week. The class talked about economics, politics, sexuality, the land, and the environment through a feminist lens. We hope to repeat and expand this successful activity in the near future.
We also run an ongoing online platform (www.sawtalniswa.org) for sharing feminist writing and art.We welcome contributions from Lebanon, Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the diaspora. In the past we published new work every week; now we publish as we have material rather than follow a set schedule. The website includes regular updates related to the experiences of feminists in Lebanon and the region. We publish essays that critique dominant legal, medical, social, and political discourse, and we present feminist antiracist frameworks to understand the world around us. We engage in constant self-reflection on the feminist movement of which we are a part. As a result tensions mayemerge around privileged voices and what constitutes feminist issues and feminist history. Nevertheless, the quality and diversity of what we publish and our continuous presence online and in feminist and activist spaces since 2009 have gained us a large readership.
Our forthcoming Banat Tariq is an anthology in Arabic (with an English version) that examines alternative feminist histories of the Middle East and North Africa. Written by women in Arab countries and the diaspora, the contents use personal narratives to rethink women’s relationships to homelands, histories, politics, and spirituality in ways that contribute to social justice and liberation.
In terms of challenges, even in the feminist movement some voices are privileged over others. This usually has to do with a speaker’s class and region and whether she or he is inside or outside academe. But we address this matter by being open to different kinds of writings and by not setting academic standards for what we publish. There is not enough support for knowledge production about different women’s experiences in times of wars, escalating political tensions, and economic inequalities. Furthermore...