In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut) the joke is that it is equally likely to see a woman in a mini skirt as it is to see a woman in a hijab.
In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut), European tourists feel at ease that the Lebanese still speak a post-colonial French, and let Beirut be called the Paris of the Middle East.
In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut), tourists and Lebanese alike flock to the beaches and the nightclubs, openly drinking alcohol, smoking hookahs, and belly dancing to both popular western and Arabic music, creating a strange moment that many see as cultural influence, and many others see as cultural infiltration.
Still—despite the post-colonial familiarity and acceptability of Lebanese culture—Lebanese women remain in many ways decorative objects, openly ignored, slighted or discriminated against in legislation. In Lebanon, a woman cannot pass on her Lebanese nationality to her children. In Lebanon, a woman is not protected from domestic abuse—because the law does not recognize domestic abuse as a crime. In Lebanon, a woman is not protected from martial rape, because the law explicitly states that a married man is entitled to have his wife sexually whenever he pleases.
In Lebanon, if a man rapes an unmarried woman his crime is absolved so long as he proposes marriage to the victim. If she rejects his proposal, his prison sentence is shortened to six months.
If she is not a virgin—or her hymen happened to be previously broken through a myriad of non-sexual means—this is not even an option, because it her rape cannot be proven and counted as rape.
If she is a perfect victim—which in Lebanon means virginal, religious, and focused on either being or becoming the perfect wife and mother—and if that rape case is even reported, the media obsesses over the ethnic and religious identity of the victim and perpetrator, detracting from the universal, horrific nature of the crime itself. In one instance at the end of last year, a young woman named Myriam Achkar was tragically sexually assaulted and then murdered in a Lebanese suburb of Beirut, and though this was the story—an innocent woman was the unfortunate, undeserving victim of a violent, horrible crime, the story that was conveyed through Lebanese media was different. As Lebanese journalist and feminist collective organizer Nadine Moawad wrote at the time,
“That’s what the story is: A young woman, 28, takes a 20-minute walk from her home in the suburbs and gets sexually attacked and murdered by a man. But that’s not the story we’re hearing everywhere. What we’re hearing is: A young, Christian, virgin woman, 28, takes a 20-minute walk from her home to a church to pray, and gets sexually attacked and murdered by a Syrian worker.”
As rape is conflated with ethnic and religious identities, a rape myth that only the lower class, non-Lebanese Syrian can rape a virginal, Christian Lebanese woman as she is coming home from praying at the church is perpetuated. If he were a wealthy Christian Lebanese man, and she was at a nightclub in Beirut—or worse, his wife–the crime would still be rape, but the story would not be told.
Lebanese women (and men) are beginning to stand up. Last week, the feminist anti-violence collective Nasawiya organized a march through the streets of Beirut, demanding that marital rape and domestic violence be addressed, and that women receive greater protection in the law.
I care about this deeply—because not only am I female and an anti-rape and sexual violence activist, but I am Lebanese-American. I have never been to Lebanon—but I know what it is like to stand up to Islamophobic and Arabophobic people in both France and the United States, and tell them that I am Lebanese. I know that after an awkward moment, they typically tell me that being Lebanese is “good Arab” and “not really the Arab world” and then there is an awkward sentence about how much they love hummus or how Lebanese women are notoriously beautiful.
I want to tell them that there is no such thing as “Good Arab” and “Bad Arab,” and just because Lebanon is characterized by colonial influence and has lower rates of visitor warnings, doesn’t mean that we/they do not have heinous political problems. I want to tell them that we/they can solve these problems with the just way, not the be all and end all, hideously flawed western way.
I know what it is like when a cab driver asks me where I am from, that he is curious because I am brown like him, and might share a common culture or common language. I know that no matter how much I would like to simply say, “San Francisco” and have my cultural loose ends tie themselves behind me, that with being questionably brown on American soil invites a series of questions on just how brown you happen to be.
I know that when I say, “Part of my mother’s family is Lebanese”—because that’s what seems to make the most sense—the next question is, “You’re mother’s family, are they Christian?”
I know what it is like almost three full generations later to wonder why the hell this even matters—but I know for many Lebanese women (and men) it can matter very much. I know that three generations later, through the fault of my unquestionably ethnic spice rack, the family recipes that I grew up with as “normal” (but are far too characterized by generous helpings of lamb, bulghar wheat, parsley, and cinnamon to be considered “American”), big eyes, and skin just brown enough to beg the question, “what are you?” that I have a personal, selfish stake in these women’s lives, well-being and daily bull shit—because it is just an accident that I am not one of them.
As Lebanon moves forward, and Lebanese feminists like the members of Nasawiya begin to stand up, rejecting the decorative role that society has imposed upon them and demanding that anti-violence legislation is written and implemented into the legal and cultural code, I am following half a world away with baited breath and excitement, wishing that I could also close my computer and take to the streets of Beirut. I hope that I finally visit Lebanon soon—and that when I do, I don’t have to take to the streets because Lebanese women are protected by the law and treated as equals, not because of the colonial savior of western influence or infiltration, but because women everywhere, around the world—regardless of race, religious affiliation, or ethnicity—deserve their issues to be addressed and respected in the law.
In Lebanon, the women and men—regardless of ethnicity, class, and religious affiliation—are fighting for this right.