What the World Does Not Know about Us
Maya El Helou
“I want to make one thing clear: we women in Lebanon are NOT victims. Our tenacity and resilience, which we have gained through our own process of self-empowerment, allow us to continue waging a battle against patriarchy, which exists across the world and in many different religious contexts.”
In 2010, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism made a series of ads to encourage people to come to Lebanon as tourists. One of these ads shows a man remembering his time in Lebanon with flashbacks of girls wearing bikinis, dancing and enjoying summer, the beach, and the partying. I did not start by telling you this small story at random— I am telling it to make a point.
For a country with an economy that depends heavily on tourism, such touristic ads are a very smart move that I would not object to…if they didn’t objectify women, using our bodies as a product of profit, and most importantly, if we women in Lebanon really did have the rights such media portray, and if we women in this country actually had all of the basic rights they are entitled to as human beings.
To the world, Lebanon is one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, especially in the area of women’s rights. This is because we are perceived as a democratic country where women have the right to vote, where we can drive, wear bikinis, and work. But, sadly, what the world does not know is that these are the only rights women have in Lebanon, a country that is not in fact a democracy. Rather, it is a sectarian dictatorship built upon the fears of some 18 monotheistic religious groups.
What define a progressive society in the midst of a patriarchal world, to me, are human rights. What the media and the Ministry of Tourism always forget to tell the world—what they hide—is the fact that Lebanon is equally conservative to most of our patriarchal counterparts around the world. Our only difference is that we know how to hide it, sugarcoat it, and cover it up by only showing the extremes of our progressive side in the media.
Yes, we have the right to vote, but we have a sectarian system that swallows us into either electing Members of Parliament (MPs) that our religious sects impose on us, or that our husbands/fathers/brothers follow. We are raised to believe that our place is the kitchen, and politics cannot be discussed while doing the dishes. Moreover, women who run for political positions are usually the daughters or wives of former or existing politicians, and they always adopt the prevailing patriarchal values in dealing with women’s issues, and political sectarian issues in general.
Yes, we have the right to drive, but every day, whenever a woman is driving, there is a man telling her to go back to the kitchen, or iron his shirt, because she cannot drive well, or a man teaching you how to park when you already know how to do it.
Yes, we can wear bikinis (as the ministry of tourism showed in the ad) as long as doing so generates profit, but the reality is we cannot walk in the street with skirts OR veils. Neither will take you to jail, but both will award you with constant sexual harassment, to the extent that you will not even be comfortable to walk in the streets anymore. When a corporation uses women’s bodies to make profits, it’s totally acceptable, but if a woman decides to express herself, dressing as she pleases, she will be encountered with a lot of sexual harassment. In a veil or a skirt, your body is turned into public property that everyone can stare at, verbally and physically harass. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing, what age you are, or what you look like—it only matters that you are a woman in a public space that belongs to men and sexual harassment is the indirect way of keeping you out of this space.
For five years now, the women’s movement in Lebanon has been trying to pass a basic human rights law against gender based violence and to protect women from domestic violence. For five years, the women’s movement has been lobbying for this law to pass, and in this very important moment of history that I know will shape the face of our society for the upcoming years, the proposed law has been distorted and emptied of its content by a committee of MPs who do not believe in the existence of marital rape. While it has not passed yet, and efforts aimed at fixing its final version are still in process, this committee of MPs has ended up allowing religious courts the final word in judging domestic violence cases, thereby taking all of the efforts that went into putting this law together and throwing them in the trash. So we feel we are back again at point zero, where nothing has changed.
Women in Lebanon in the 20th century cannot pass their nationality on to their children. If a Lebanese woman marries any person from a different nationality, her children will not be Lebanese. How can I feel that I am a Lebanese woman if I cannot pass on the Lebanese nationality to my children? No, I can only be the daughter of a Lebanese man, or the wife of a Lebanese man, because I cannot give what I do not have.
There are many reasons behind these ridiculous excuses for not giving women the right to pass their nationality to their husbands and children. The main fear is an upset of the sectarian balance, an illogical fear used as a tool of oppression and an alibi for that oppression. The political scene is always trying to keep the sectarian political power division as it is, because it’s the system that they built their corrupt empires on. As complicated as it sounds, the Lebanese constitution states that Lebanon is a secular state, but in application, it’s sectarian.
One of our Lebanese politicians stated to a journalist recently, and I quote “Every time a spinster finds a man from a different nationality who will fool her into marrying him, we’ll have to give him the Lebanese nationality, he and his kids.” In other words, there is no support for extending the Lebanese nationality through Lebanese women. Lebanese women have been married to non-Lebanese men from various nationalities, and have been living in Lebanon, raising ‘non-Lebanese’ kids, who as well, have been growing and giving birth, and they have to deal with all the paperwork of doing a visa every few years to stay in Lebanon.
The oppression coming from the religious institutions in Lebanon is stopping the women’s movement from progressing. And by religious institutions, I do not only mean the Islamic institutions—the Christian institutions are equal in their power and ability to oppress. Islamic and Christian institutions have nothing more in common than their ability to wield their power to oppress women, and they have done so by blocking the passage of the law on violence against women, by taking over censorship of art and films, by radically prohibiting abortion and finding other ways to oppress our bodies and sexualities. These are only a few things; I can assure you the list is much longer.
As a woman in Lebanon, you are not entitled to control your own body. You can go to jail for expressing your sexuality, you can get harassed in the streets by the army and the police who are supposed to be standing in the streets to protect you, and when you go to the police to ask for protection, telling them that your husband is beating you up, they will tell you, “Sorry ma’am, we don’t interfere in family matters.”
My name is Maya El Helou, I have been a feminist activist since 2006 in Lebanon, and I am allergic to injustice. I identify as feminist because feminism to me is the intersection of everything I believe in; it encompasses the fight against patriarchy and how it shapes our society in the whole Arab region. It stands for the fight against sexism, classism, racism, discrimination, and homophobia, and it represents the fight for basic human rights.
Every day in this country means waking up and waging a war. It begins with sexual harassment from the moment you leave your house, and extends to sexism in the workplace, as we are always underpaid and rarely treated as equals to a man in the same position. You walk in the streets knowing that even if you get raped, under the law 522, the court will drop charges against the man who raped you if he offers to marry you. And this has happened to many women before, who were raped and subsequently obliged to marry the men who raped them without any regard for the psychological and emotional damage they have experienced. Why? Well to preserve their honor of course, because our honor as women in Lebanon is shaped according to what is between our legs.
And then come the media, with their photo-shopping of humanly impossible shapes, imposing standards and requirements on women by telling them how they should look. Then come the media inundating and bombarding women daily with images of stereotypes they cannot live up to because these images are made up and not real…and the world wonders why we in Lebanon have one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the whole world.
I know that nobody can earn our rights for us. I know that we as Lebanese women have all the capabilities to do it ourselves. It might not happen tomorrow, or in 10 years, but I know it will happen one day because we are working hard to make it happen. I am a part of the women’s movement in Lebanon because it is what feels right—because I don’t want my nieces to grow up in the same society I grew up in, one that breastfeeds them sexism, racism, classism, and a superiority complex that creates an aversion to anyone and everything that is different. I want to make one thing clear: we women in Lebanon are NOT victims. Our tenacity and resilience, which we have gained through our own process of self-empowerment, allow us to continue waging a battle against patriarchy, which exists across the world and in many different religious contexts.
What the world does not know about us is that its perception of women’s rights in Lebanon is but a deviation of an unacceptable reality. Every day, the world turns on its TVs and sees advertisements about your country that portray it as the heaven of women’s rights, so when you speak to people from different nationalities, they ask, “Why do you have a feminist movement in Lebanon, when women have all their rights?” It is in that moment that you pause, take a deep breath, and once again, yes, once again, begin by explaining the obvious.
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.