To my Beirut

Á mon Beyrouth…

In the Middle East: Abuse of the female body is out of fear and want of power

Lebanese like to claim that women here are freer than in other Arab countries. Because we are allowed to wear what we like in public. Because we are allowed to be sexy. Because we are allowed to get breast implants and face-lifts without anyone’s permission, but we are not allowed to travel outside of Lebanon without a paper signed by our husbands. Because we are allowed to wear bikinis on the beach, but we are not allowed to have control over our bodies if our husbands require to fulfill their sexual desires. Because we are raised to be in a culture to judge women before men. Because we are in a society where marital rape is not recognized, as it is our duty to please our husbands.

We also live in a sick system where women are told not to get raped rather than telling the men not to rape. Where the woman is told it is better to shut up and go back to her husband’s home after a beating or emotional and physical abuse for the sake of empty words such as “honor”, “dignity”, “family”, and the most ridiculous of all, that it is their duty before God to maintain their marriage.

A woman does not receive a beating unless she deserved it; she does not get raped unless she wanted it. If she happens to be attacked during the night on the street, she would be firstly blamed for putting herself in such a position. If she complains to the authorities, she would be the one interrogated for details and judged till she starts to wonder if they were getting any pleasure from the questioning. However just before she finishes her thought enough was deduced and she finds herself being judged from those who she sought help, because enough holes would be found in her story, like the length of her skirt and sleeves, or the kohl in her eyes, or the reasons behind being out alone that she is told in conclusion her case was over before they even bothered to ask about her attacker. The feeling of guilt, questioning or judgment is usually more difficult to get over than the attack itself. The grueling and humiliating trauma in being reduced to wonder if it is actually her fault, if she was the one who has lost her mind… Maybe it is easier to accept judging women rather than be berated by men.

One of the most usual questions a rape victim is usually asked is “mbassateh?” There are two meanings to this. The literal meaning is “Did you enjoy it?” What it actually translates to is “Did you have an orgasm?” The question is usually asked with hesitation, as though there is no other euphemistic term that can be used in a more diplomatic manner. Or it is also asked impudently, with a raised eyebrow and a cruel smile, as if they know better. To them, an involuntary orgasm means that she wanted it all along, as the body cannot react against will. If there was any doubt left on her behalf, nothing better than this can reassure them. That is why most victims I have spoken to keep silent. Physical rape, they can learn to deal with; Emotional rape through interrogation is intolerable.

In the cases where rape is recognized by the law, anal and oral rape is not acknowledged. The term “sexual assault” is debatable as to whether it can even be used as a term, because it legally can only occur when a penis has been fully penetrated into the vagina. To ease a headache for rapists, there are even laws that specify to what extent the hymen must be torn in order for rape to be considered, thus preventing many a doctor from being able to testify for the sake of the victim. If there was no hymen there to begin with.. I won’t even go there…

The other ridiculous law we all know too well concerning a convicted rapist; if he marries the victim he would be cleared of all charges. This law was made during a time when it was believed they would be protecting her and her family’s honor as she would not be shunned by others if her ordeal were covered up by marriage. However, the other part of the law that few know, states that if the rapist proposes marriage, and the victim refuses to accept, then the fact that he simply proposed would significantly reduce his time in prison. Not sure what significance should be referred to here as the maximum sentence for rape in Lebanon is 5 years.

Emphasis is placed always on the woman’s sacrifice to protect her virginity, which in our culture defines a woman’s honor. A recent example is Myriam Ashkar. Fighting back her rapist led to her brutal murder. In a country where rape is severely underreported, ignored or considered to be more or less a social taboo, she was turned into the Lebanese Maria Goretti. Had the rape been successful, had she not been attacked on her way to church, had she not been so brutally murdered, the case, like others, would not have taken up so much publicity. One priest referring to the incident in his class emphasized to the students that Myriam Ashkar was an example to follow because “she wanted to go to Jesus with her purity, and she fought the rapist to death, and she died to protect her virginity.” The incident reminded me of another program I watched on TV, some years ago, where a young muslim woman from a conservative family was kidnapped on her way to university. After being tied up and raped for 48 hours, she begged her attackers to kill her, so that she may save her father’s face in society. Had she survived, she also would not have turned into the public martyr that she was portrayed to be.

On January the 14, there were old men and young boys, old women and young girls marching together to the parliament to protest the exclusion of marital rape in the draft concerning domestic violence. Other than the fact that none of the female MPs cared to join, I have to note that what these thousands of people had marched for, they marched without fear of the authorities. We were not afraid of traditions or taboos. The muslims among us were not afraid of Dar Al-Fatwa, and other religious bodies that were against the protest. The christians among us were not afraid of upsetting political allies, as MP Gilberte Zouein was, upon who I will emphasize due to the simple fact that she is a woman, and her stance in refusing to allow “marital rape” on the draft is inexcusable and shameful.

The religious and political figures in Lebanon are frightened by the prospect of losing their influence to civil rights. They are terrified of the idea that people will think for themselves. Because they are frightened of those who do not acknowledge their divine, traditional places in society and fight their lack of logic and foolishness in their want of power. That is why the church banned Gibran Khalil Gibran’s books before he published “Jesus: Son of Man”. Because he mocked their sick grip on society. Because he did not answer to them. Because he was right.

That is why the fundamentalists in Egypt were afraid of Alia el Mehdi’s nudity. In her nakedness they could not fight her where it truly mattered. Because she unashamedly looked at them right in the eye and struck a nerve. Because in a country where sexual harrassment is accepted as a norm for men and a taboo for women, where genital mutilation is still an ongoing matter that is traumatising young girls; the fundamentalists who found excuses for police that stripped the clothes off a woman because her bra was blue, who covered up cruel “virginity tests” on the female protestors were now being defied by a young girl who stripped them from the right to decide what to do with her body. And that is what truly terrifies them.  That they have no control over her mind.


7 comments on “In the Middle East: Abuse of the female body is out of fear and want of power

  1. Tony
    February 6, 2012

    Hi Natasha
    Just read your Article ,, Very Impressive,, and I must say You are teaching us a thing here, as we in the “WEST” Europe, thought that Lebanese Women were amongst the most liberated,,,In the Middle East,, at least to say in most Muslim Countries. As all We know really is what we see and are told,, I suppose Like most Media Couverage,, we are told what THEY wish to tell us,,, The Fact that Lebanese Women have to get Permission to Leave the country, or Bath In a bikini, is quite Amazing,, Viewing the fact that you are allowed all the Other “Liberties” Thanks for your Insight ,and I will deffinately share this Atricle with Friends.
    Keep Well and Go on doing the great work.

    • Natasha Ch
      February 6, 2012

      Well we are liberated in some areas, compared to other countries. And we are not liberated in others. Also, as a country we are defined by religions but not as a single religion. However what is important is that there is a new awareness and strength that was absent before, I think social media helped there. And it is important that we are fighting back. They were very uncomfortable by the media buzz we caused and their reactions were quite amusing.

      Some clarifications:

      1.Only wives who travel with children require a paper from their husbands, in case they are “kidnapping” them. Not vice-versa, which actually causes lots of problems.

      2. We are allowed to wear bikinis 🙂

  2. Hasan Salame
    February 9, 2012

    Thank you Natacha for this article.. I hope the Lebanese would wake up soon.. I like your blog and I’ll come here regularly!!

  3. Daphna
    February 16, 2012

    I just read today about a new soccer school for women in Lebanon..

    • Natasha Ch
      February 19, 2012

      Lool, we aren’t that bad, yes we do have a soccer team, but here we call it football. 😛
      I should start posting some positive things about life here, hanging out too many of our dirty laundry lol

  4. Omid Zamani
    March 21, 2012

    Hello, I am in Beirut now. This is my second visit to Lebanon. I think your country has a great potential for more secular reform. unfortunately I don’t see strong civil society organizations here which could organize the youth and advocate for it. Everything is dependent on religious institutions, political parties and lobbies which are mostly under the influence of other countries.
    Intellectuals should join their hands to strengthen social capital for change. This could be a good recommendation for other ME countries as well, before oppression of the youth movements by powerful senior (religious) institutions and networks.

  5. Georges
    March 28, 2013

    Gilberte zouein is not a woman. She is a hypopothamus

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