Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fashion and human rights unite at Beirut event

The Daily Star, January 20, 2012, page 12, by Alex Taylor

 BEIRUT: Though it might seem an odd event for highlighting the challenges facing migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, the Insan Association took on the issue with a fashion show, hoping to open people’s eyes to the fact that beauty comes in all colors.

Behind the Green Door in Gemmayzeh presented the show, “Celebrating Colors,” Wednesday night to a packed audience. It featured creations by up and coming Lebanese designers, modeled by women from backgrounds representing Lebanese and immigrant communities in Beirut.

According to event organizer Joana Hauff from the Insan Association, the idea for a fashion show came as a new tactic to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers and immigrants in Lebanon, in a way that roundtables and news conferences cannot.

“This event was supposed to target the broad public and the aim was to attract a different kind of crowd that would usually not show up to our events and not already be sensitized to the issue,” explained Hauff.

The Insan Association is a human rights and humanitarian organization that works with marginalized communities in Lebanon – including refugees and migrant workers. The nonprofit provides direct educational, legal and psychosocial services to individuals and families.

Carried out in cooperation with Spanish NGO, AIDA, with funding from the Spanish Cooperation (AECID), Wednesday’s event was part of an ongoing project meant to extend Insan’s awareness work by emphasizing “empowerment and social inclusion” of migrant workers in Beirut.

“The fashion show did two things: It showed that there are many different creative people who are willing to support our cause and stand up for better rights for MDWs [migrant domestic workers] and it gave the women the chance to be perceived in a different light, to feel confident and beautiful,” Hauff told The Daily Star.

The models – from Lebanon, Canada, Cameroon, Nepal and Congo – wanted to show equality by taking to the catwalk together.

“Migrant workers are not treated as human beings here. I wanted to raise awareness that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” said Canadian model Julie Davidson.

Her compatriot, Micheline Kabenge from Congo participated to show that immigrants to Lebanon are not just defined by their jobs.

“Just because we work in houses and kitchens does not mean we’re different. We can work in offices. We can work in any job that anyone else can work in ... it’s not your color that differentiates you but your brain.”

Kabenge moved to Beirut with her Lebanese husband and son six years ago. Her husband passed away and his family has separated her from her child. Kabenge hopes that her efforts will help the Lebanese become more accepting, so other women do not experience the heartache that she has gone through.

Though the women participating in the show had different backgrounds they were there to represent other immigrants and domestic workers who do not have the same level of independence that they do – symbolized by masquerade masks worn during their opening walk through the venue.

“Our message, represented by the masks, was there are thousands of women living in this society that are being unseen, deprived of their identity and freedom and their basic rights,” said Hauff.

There are approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers living in Lebanon, working mostly as maids. Legal measures protecting their rights are insufficient and as many as half of these women have lost their legal status, which is tied to a contract with a single employer.

The Insan Association has organized a roundtable Monday with Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas, activists and representatives of various NGOs and embassies to discuss legal protections.

The nonprofit also hopes to use the photos taken at the door of Wednesday’s event of every attendee in a campaign to show the wide support for this cause, Hauff added.

“All these women are beautiful, proud and should have the opportunity to be who they want to be.”

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