Who was Imane Khalifeh, the Unsung Peacemaker of the Lebanese Civil War?
Since March is Women’s History Month, what better time of year to write a piece highlighting the contributions of pioneering women without risking being branded an undercover feminist agent? There is a huge debate on the definition of feminism and its concepts, but most importantly, Women’s History Month reminds us that history books have largely left out the stories of women who’ve worked hard for long-lasting change in our societies.
And although it is only celebrated in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and although total equality between women and men hasn’t been achieved yet, it may be more relevant to use such a spotlight to call attention to countries in which Women’s History Month is not celebrated. This is why I chose to tell the beautiful story of Imane Khalifeh, a 29-year-old lady who tried to put an end to the raging civil war in Lebanon in 1984.
Some may know her story, some may have forgotten it, while others may have never heard of it. This is especially likely in the case of the Lebanese Generation Z, or those born after the end of the war in 1990. However, her work might be of great interest to many people from this generation who are heavily involved in social movements. I did not know her either, until I discovered her story while researching for my PhD. Her case clearly shows how historians can underestimate the initiatives of women in society, instead of studying in depth some unsuspected issues it may involve.
Who was Imane Khalifeh? She was a kindergarten teacher who became a peace activist during the war. On the eve of the war’s tenth year, she came up with the idea of a march for peace to protest against the violence under the slogan “No To The War, No To The 10th Year, Yes To Life”. The peace march, which was initially scheduled to take place in Beirut on the 6th of May 1984, never happened, which is quite disappointing. But it inspired hundreds in Paris, London and New York to walk for peace and her efforts earned her the Right Livelihood Alternative Nobel Prize for Peace in December 1984.
This commonly acknowledged biography is actually the abridged version, and doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Imane Khalifeh. Of course, Imane wasn’t the first peace activist in Lebanon and the idea of a march in itself isn’t groundbreaking. But it was her initiative that sent shock waves across the country, from East to West. Although other manifestations of anti-war sentiment may have occurred, they were not of the same magnitude. What is it about this simple idea that so inspired the ‘silent majority’ to rise up and hope again in the space of only a few weeks in the spring of 1984? This is a question worth asking for the history of social movements.
There was definitely something about Imane that seemed to restore in others the faith they had lost. After she voiced her idea of a peace march, a committee of twenty people was formed in order to organize it. Some of the members were experienced activists, such as Laure Moghaizel, a lawyer and a co-founder of the Non-Violence Movement and the Human Rights Association. Others were renowned personalities . Only 29 at the time, Imane was the youngest and least experienced members of the committee, but she led the movement nonetheless. Throughout April 1984, she received hundreds of phone calls from within and beyond Lebanon, and perfect strangers would pledge her their full support . Imane Khalifeh could have been perceived by some as a providential figure: for a couple of weeks, part of the Lebanese population wanted fervidly to believe that the march could lead to some progress.
Khalifeh was no traditional communitarian leader, had absolutely no political contacts or partners and never belonged to any party. She was a total stranger to the public scene. In this male-dominated war led by patriarchal zuama and fought by militiamen with high testosterone levels, she was no one – worse, she was a woman. One could try and measure her courage by imagining a twenty-something random woman in today’s Syria calling for a peace march in divided Aleppo and see what an impossible scenario this would be. But she was still a leader, an unconventional one certainly, in the fact that she could be anyone of us. She usually wore blue jeans, simple clothes, and smoked red Marlboros . She was a fan of Oum Koulthoum and used to party with her Christian best friend Sonia during the dark nights of the war . Perhaps it was that which was so convincing about her: she could easily have been the girl next-door, but with an extra of heroic will.
Women in war are usually described as minor actors, occupying auxiliary positions in the war machine, carrying arms at most and mainly being victims of rape, occupation and bombing. Imane Khalifeh was threatened many times during her attempts at peacemaking but she never backed down, until the 6th of May, when intense fighting broke out between the militias, shutting down any possibility of marching. One journalist later wrote, in order to express the unlikeliness of the whole event, that “after 9 years of war in Lebanon, it took Imane Khalifeh to show the world that there is in Lebanon (…) a silent majority”.
It certainly did “take Imane Khalifeh” to prove the existence of a shared feeling of national belonging among both Christians and Muslims in wartime Lebanon. And this wasn’t a coincidence. Part of the writing – and rewriting – of the history of women must involve a shift in the way we perceive these specific women. They are self-conscious actors, fully in control of their destinies and choices. They should no longer be relegated to secondary roles and most importantly, their actions should be studied with an eye to their full social impact and not categorized as subsidiary micro-phenomena of a bigger story, whose center of gravity is to be found elsewhere. Some have tried to undermine Khalifeh’s actions, claiming the idea of the peace march was theirs  and it seems that prosperity had consequently diminished her legend precisely because it’s so much more common to socially accept ambiguous rumors about women.
In that regard, we have to remind and confirm that Imane Khalifeh was the main conductor of the movement. She dreamt it up, planned it and worked very hard for it. Most importantly, she believed in it, although surrounded by a sea of skepticism – which was completely understandable. This project was born from a clear vision of hers, which some might describe as naïve. History writing must in that sense avoid easy clichés; it is not, for instance, as though Khalifeh simply woke up to the idea of a peace march one day, and suddenly found the entire population mobilized in favor of it. It was in fact Imane Khalifeh who prompted this mobilization with her genuine charisma, simplicity and contagious determination. It becomes clearer that Historians have overlooked her initiative, only haltingly quoting it, because she didn’t fit into the customary categories of leaders and warriors.
And this can easily be proven with a retrospective look at her life: since the beginning of the war, she had tried to engage with many efforts to stop violence. She enrolled, with her friend Sonia, in first-aid training, hoping to build a DIY ambulance . And throughout April 1984, she relentlessly worked for the success of the peace march: with the help of her friends, she gathered around 100,000 signatures to meet the conditions of the newspaper who agreed to publish her call for action; she collaborated with artists to design the posters to be distributed across the city ; she then met journalists and parliamentary representatives and gave interviews in order to promote it and stayed late into the night to discuss the preparations with the committee. It was, in short, a well-planned strategy in the service of a solid vision and only her actions triggered a general reaction.
Therefore, we may consider Imane Khalifeh one of the main pioneers of the Lebanese peace movement as well as a feminist icon, and this is hardly an understatement. Indeed, her pacifist inclination was the result of a critical observation of the consequences of war for children . She was very sensitive to the concept of motherhood as a kindergarten – despite not having any children herself, she was like a mother to her sisters and brothers  – and thought violence had the longest-lasting impact on mothers and children. Her professional experience, combined with a strong conviction about the equal and independent role women should have in society , could explain why Khalifeh decided to play this role herself. Her case should definitely help explore the links between feminist theories and pacifism.
 Nohad and Nicole Machnouk and Mohamad Baalbacki for instance.
 Interview with Mrs Sonia Hayek, Iman’s best friend, on 6/2/2017.
 Nader Srage, “Culture of Peace and non-violence in the life of a young Lebanese girl”, Annahar, 2005. (in Arabic).
 Interview with Mrs Sonia Hayek, who remembers going with Imane to many famous nightclubs such as “Bluenote”, “Piano Bar”
 Interview with Mrs Sonia Hayek.
 Interview with Mrs Rima Khalife, Iman’s sister, 05/02/2017.
 The artists were Lebanese painters were Georges Zaani and Rafik Charaf.
 Interview with Mrs Sonia Hayek.
 Interview with Mrs Rima Khalife
 Although she confessed to Mrs Sonia Hayek after the end of the war, her will to write a book about her experience that would also explore the issue of Arab women’s role in society. Because of her illness, she never wrote the book.