Lebanese women protesters challenging sexist stereotypes

Zeinab El-Gundy , Thursday 14 Nov 2019

Lebanese women have long been the target of pervasive stereotypes in the Arab world that have often reduced them to sex symbols, and Lebanese women are aware of it

Lebanese women in protests
Anti-government protesters chant slogans against the Lebanese government as they block a road leading to the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on Wednesday (Photo: AP )

For the fourth week in a row, the people of Lebanon have continued their protest movement against the current political and economic establishment in the country. 

Since mid-October, thousands of protesters have been continuously organising rallies, mass protests and strikes in major squares in Lebanese cities, calling for a change in the political system with fresh faces unstained by charges of corruption or foreign affiliation. 

However, many of the protesters and their supporters in Lebanon have expressed disappointment with the response to the demonstrations from much of the Arab world, since many have chosen to address the situation with sexist sarcasm playing on long-time stereotypes about Lebanese women.

Lebanon has long been considered to be one of the most liberal countries in a region dominated by conservative sensibilities.

The stereotype of the Lebanese woman

Crude jokes about the Lebanese female protesters have been going viral on social media in other Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan, with taglines like, “Men, do not get married because Lebanese women refugees are coming soon.” 

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris found himself in a war of words with famous Lebanese singers and journalists, as well as Yemeni activists, when he shared a joke about a married man watching beautiful Lebanese protesters on TV and switching to the Yemeni civil war when his wife entered the room.

Sawiris’ tweet was one of many examples of how some perceive the anti-government protests in Lebanon, exposing a long-time problem that Lebanese women have faced in the Arab world: the stereotype of the beautiful yet simple-minded Lebanese woman.

“The sarcastic response to our revolution is due to a misogynistic view of Lebanon. We have freedom, but not total freedom," Doja Dawoud, a Lebanese journalist participating in the protests, told Ahram Online from Beirut. 

“Our rights are lost, our economy is collapsing, and the militias have rejected the protesters' demands,” she said, adding that the Lebanese security and political parties have been attacking protesters sporadically. 

Dawoud expressed disappointment with how many have been making light of the Lebanese uprising.

“We were counting on solidarity from other people in the Arab world, not their sexual fixation with Lebanese women” she said, adding that the images of Lebanese woman should be on front pages because of their boldness, not their clothes.

For years, Lebanese women have been the target of pervasive stereotypes in the Arab world that have often reduced them to sex symbols, and Lebanese women are aware of it.

This stereotype is constantly reinforced throughout the Arab world with a focus on Lebanese supermodels, beauty queens and singers. 

"We, Lebanese women, are prisoners of this stereotype because of Lebanon's historical liberalness.I do not see a problem with social or individual freedoms, and I do not see these as freedoms that belittle women; I completely reject the attempt to depict Lebanese women solely as flirtatious or coquettish," veteran media personality and documentary filmmaker Diana Moukallad told Ahram Online from Beirut. 

However, many Lebanese women have been challenging these stereotypes with their actions during the country's ongoing protests.

“We have been seeing this nonsense since the beginning of the protests due to the stereotype about the Lebanese women in the Arab world, because we [Lebanese women] care about our looks, but I believe we are past this stage,” renowned TV host Dima Sadek told Ahram Online from Beirut. 

Sadek believes that the bravery Lebanese women have displayed during the protests are successfully challenging the stereotypes.

“You have the girl who famously kicked security officers in the early days of the protests,” Sadek said, referring to Malak Elwya, who became a national symbol of the protests after she was filmed kicking one of the armed bodyguards of Lebanese Education Minister Akram Chehayeb, after the guards fired shots in the air as protesters passed by the minister and his motorcade.

A video of the incident later went viral, and Malak became an icon and a hero for the protestors, with many making graffiti and art depicting the incident.

Despite being media shy, Elwya later celebrated her wedding at the famous Riad Al-Solh Square to huge fanfare. 

Elwya is not the only female protester who the Lebanese demonstrators have taken as a symbol of their anger and frustration. 

Pensioner Nagwa Shabaro became a social media sensation, not only in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East, with a video showing her dressing down an army officer to let the protesters pass a barricade outside parliament. 

“The attempts to reduce the image of the Lebanese woman in the Lebanese or Arab media to 'just as woman' have failed, because many Lebanese women are being recognised for their role in the protests beyond these attempts to stereotype,” Moukallad told Ahram Online.

Lebanese woman have stood on the frontlines and formed a protective wall between the protesters and security forces, burning car tires, cutting off highways, and withstanding assaults, she said. 

Protests are not all fun and games  

An image that has plagued the Lebanese protests in the Arab world is that of demonstrations filled with fun, singing and dancing, with viral videos showing a belly dancer joining protesters or DJs rocking sit-ins in cities like Tripoli, but the reality on the ground has been far from cheerful. 

Earlier this week, a Lebanese protester was shot dead by an army soldier, sparking outrage and increasing tension in the country. 

Lebanese women in protests
A Lebanese woman protester pushes away security forces element away from other protesters near the Lebanese presidential palace in Beirut (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanese media has also not been kind to the women protesters or the protests in general, since many mainstream media outlets are controlled by the very political powers and parties who are the targets of the demonstrations.

“We have seen a Lebanese journalist saying on TV 'let’s see how many women protesters get pregnant during the protests,' and others who have said that the demonstrations are full of 'belly dancers and gays',” Moukallad said, referring to coverage of the protests on the pro-President Michel Oun OTV channel. 

“We are being attacked by both the security forces and the militias’ thugs, and are being targeted in unprecedented campaigns of incitement, whether online or off,” Dawoud told Ahram Online. 

The names and personal telephone numbers of journalists, activists and protesters have been leaked online, and they have been the target of harassment by the Lebanese political powers, according to Dawoud. 

TV host Dima Sadek says she has been subjected to harassment by Lebanese political powers over the views she has expressed on her TV show, and that there are Twitter bots and hashtags dedicated to attacking her.

“This is not the first time I've faced this. I have been attacked before by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, the two ruling parties in Lebanon. Every couple of months, I find my name trending on social media with offensive hashtags,” Sadek said.

Sadek believes that she is an easy target because she is a woman who is not bound by her sect, which is akin to “a sin” in Lebanese society.  

“As a woman, I am attacked with ready-made accusations impugning my honour,” she added, referring to allegations calling into question her sexual virtue as a woman, which is held in high regard in the conservative Arab world.

Lebanese women's list of demands

Over the past two weeks, there has been a noticeable increase in women-only rallies and protests in Lebanon, including the "pot rallies," where women roam the streets of Beirut and other major cities while banging on kitchen pots.

Lebanese women in protest
Lebanese women in a small protest last week in Beirut organized by a campaign to allow Lebanese women married to foreign men to hand over their nationality to their children (Photo:AFP)

Historically, Lebanese women have enjoyed more political and social freedoms than their counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world. For example, according to the UN's ESCWA, 47 percent of the judges in Lebanon have been women since 2017.

However, many argue that they still have a ways to go.

“Lebanese women’s rights are stolen; cases of sexual harassment need an unreasonably high standard of evidence,” Doja Dawoud said.

Among other grievances Lebanese women have is the lack of legislation protecting the victims of domestic violence or laws mandating equal pay for men and women.

Dima Sadek laid out her own list of demands for the Lebanese people in general and for women in particular.

“I have so many demands, too many, starting with basic rights like having electricity, medical insurance, education and freedom of expression, as well as the right of Lebanese woman to pass on their nationality to their children. It is a long list,” she said. 

Moukallad believes that a serious political opposition movement is needed in Lebanon. 

The three women agree that the current protests in Lebanon are unprecedented because citizens are rallying not for a sectarian or political agenda, but to call for the rights of all Lebanese people.

“The Lebanese men and women who have not left the streets for three weeks are the most beautiful thing Lebanon has witnessed," Moukallad said.

She said that as someone who has lived through the Lebanese civil war, the ensuing chaos, assassinations, crises, minor and major wars, and protests, she has never seen the country unite behind something beyond sectarian identity. 

“I can truly say that I feel 'Lebanese'," she said.

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