Not Just Decor: The Struggle for Real Women’s Rights in Lebanon

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Originally published on Transit, the blog of the Goethe Institute in the Middle East.
On Saturday, January 14th 2012, Lebanese women and men marched against rape, demanding law reforms that criminalise marital rape. Alex Shams debunks the myth of Lebanese women’s freedom and exposes the legal barriers in its way.

We, the women who reside in Lebanon, excuse ourselves from playing the decorative role that has been imposed on us. We take to the streets today to say that we are aware and knowledgeable about the methodical war that state and society have waged on our bodies and our safety through their political parties and leaders. From now on, we will not accept empty promises that are heaped upon us every time we call for our rights. We will not give in to patience. We will not bite our wounds and postpone the battles of today to tomorrow. Our voices will be louder than the bickering between your parties and your sporadic yet connected wars.

Thus begins a recent call by Beirut-based feminist collective Nasawiya for a 14 January protest in favor of a bill that would criminalize marital rape. The bill itself has been highly contested (as usual) in Lebanon, with various actors from religious communities weighing in against it and vocal support for it from the collection of feminist and anti-domestic violence NGO’s that have spread across the country in recent years.

Amidst this heated campaign, parliamentarian Imad Hout went so far as to declare, “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse,” a statement that subsequently inspired the Tumblr account called: “There’s nothing called Imad Hout”.

Feminist activism is nothing new in Lebanon, though in recent years the number and variety of explicitly feminist organizing has grown substantially. Today there exists a great diversity of groups, ranging from collectives like Nasawiya or NGO’s like Kafa, to campaigns around specific issues like “Lebanese Women’s Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship” and “Adventures of Salwa” Anti-Harassment campaign, as well as a multiplicity of women’s-led social movements infused with religious ideals from across the spectrum.

What is particularly striking about the call, however, is how it seeks to demolish one of the most wide spread myths about Lebanese women- that they are the most liberated women in the Arab World. Undoubtedly, Lebanese women enjoy high standards of education and access to employment and the battle for political rights has been ongoing for many years with women’s right to vote established in 1952 (19 years before Switzerland), amidst a long list of women’s achievements.

Despite this, Lebanon’s record for women’s political participation is abysmal, with 0 women in the current cabinet and around 3% of parliamentarians being female, behind countries like Kuwait (~7%), Syria (~12%), Pakistan (~22%), or Sudan (~25%). In fact, the campaign for a law against marital rape is in fact a reaction to the Parliament’s shocking refusal to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence last year.

Part of the problem is Lebanon’s unique form of sectarian democracy. Originally developed in collaboration with the French colonial regime as a formula by which the country’s 17 (today, 18) religious sects could coexist within a shared democratic structure while retaining communitarian liberties, it was in fact based on a localized version of the Ottoman Empire’s millet system. However, Lebanese sectarian democracy was from the outset flawed because it was an attempt on the part of elites within each community to codify their control over their respective communities.

In particular, it served as a tool through which elites within the Maronite community could retain their grip over the country’s political and economic power in collaboration first with the French colonizers and after independence with Sunni elites. The result has been years of coexistence and prosperity interrupted by frequent internecine conflicts, while the same families of elites in each sect continue to profit immensely from the country’s great wealth. It is, simply put, a nightmarish combination of unbridled capitalism, colonial machinations, and greed.

Throughout all of this, women have carried a heavy burden. Violent conflicts in general take a heavier toll on women, while the intermittent collapses of the state as well as its neo-liberal principles have constantly stripped protections – like welfare, childcare, and healthcare- that should be guaranteed. In the absence of a state safety net, women ended up having to bear the brunt of these burdens.

Additionally, while most crimes are handled by secular state law, family law falls under the purview of sectarian courts; meaning that a Lebanese citizen can be tried under one of 18 courts, based on her or his religious affiliation. This leads to a bewildering array of legal realities for Lebanese citizens: for example, Maronites cannot legally divorce under any circumstances, while Orthodox Christians and Muslims can. Members of two different sects cannot attain a civil union in Lebanon, and those who do so abroad face baffling legal obstacles. Fighting for “Lebanese” women’s rights – or even children’s rights – is difficult in this situation, as each Lebanese woman faces different obstacles with wildly different religious justifications. Any fight for legal change thus becomes a struggle for religious legitimacy within each respective faith community!

Why, then, does the myth that Lebanese women are the “freest” in the Middle East persist? From the many conversations I have had on the subject, much of the evidence seems to come from the idea that all Lebanese women walk around wearing short skirts, going to the beach in bikinis, and clubbing until the morning. Within this conception of women’s rights, then, it is the fact that Lebanese women’s bodies are exposed that is the greatest factor for whether they are free or not.

This misogynistic conceptualization of women’s freedom can be traced back to colonial representations of veiled women as oppressed that persist till this day (a topic addressed at length by scholar Leila Ahmed in her work Women and Gender in Islam). Within the colonial framework, Arab women’s status is a determinant of Arab societies’ progress, and the European colonizer’s ability to see the Arab woman’s body is a key measure of this progress. These superficial standards of women’s rights and freedoms continues, and it is no wonder that peddlers of “pseudosexual liberation” like Joumana Haddad (as Angie Nassar brilliantly refers to her) receive acclaim while women’s rights activists are often left out in the dark.

Fighting for “Lebanese” women’s rights – or even children’s rights – is difficult in this situation, as each Lebanese woman faces different obstacles with wildly different religious justifications.

In light of all this, it is no wonder then that Nasawiya’s activists reject the “decorative role” that has been given to them as Lebanese women. Their struggle is one for a feminism rooted in a true appreciation of Lebanese women’s lived realities, and not just fantasies of Beirut beaches. This is not, of course, to say that social freedoms are unimportant or unrelated to the cause of women’s liberation- of course they are. However, the struggle for gender justice is one that must address with vigor systemic and legal barriers to women’s freedom and assaults on women’s bodies.

I encourage all those in Beirut to join Nasawiya, take part in the protest Saturday, January 14 and to become a part of this struggle for liberation.