LEBANON: a “Secret” Emancipation
Sahar Al-Attar - 21/03/2008
It’s Saturday night in a trendy nightclub of the capital. Alcohol flows freely and men and women are dancing wildly to the rhythm of a hip tune. Some daring young women – the usual bleached, silicone, bare-bellied blondes – are dancing on top of the bar, to the joy of the boys sitting below.
In Beirut, few young men haven’t emigrated yet, and the competition is getting tough among women. From enticing dresses to plastic surgery, everything goes to attract the attention of their potential targets.
This image of emancipated women, perfectly tuned in the region with its satellite TVs, is a tourist trap of the capital and hardly reflects the complex realities of a country with multiple if not schizophrenic identities.
In a multi-denominational State like the Lebanon, you would believe that cultural differences are essentially linked to religion. But that would be too simple. In this country the issue of women emancipation transcends denominational rifts.
Globally, despite appearances, traditional values and Middle-Eastern attitudes are still strongly anchored to society. Some women bow to the weight of the social pressure, while others rebel to it by identifying themselves with Western models. However, most of them choose to compromise and emancipate themselves “secretly”.
For example, Nicole, 23, and Joëlle, 27, are worlds apart, though both of them are Christian. One lives in Beirut, the other in Jeita. Joëlle, who sees herself “as her mother at her age”, places religion and maternity on top of her priorities. Nicole finds herself “more open-minded” than her mother and privileges “love and work”.
In general, work has become a rising value for Lebanese women. However, the best way of attaining some sort of independence by leaving the family home, remains marriage. No matter how much they earn on the job, it is customary that single women should live with their family until the “great day”.
There are a few cases of women living on their own are showing up in the capital, but this trend remains very limited at the national scale; not to mention free unions, which are forbidden by law though unofficially practiced (only in Beirut obviously).
Marriage is therefore a target which young women seek actively. However, when you say marriage, you say virginity, and as in all Arab societies, sex before marriage is morally condemned. In practice, more and more women are beginning to overcome this issue, though few of them are ready to take on the responsibility of their deeds. “Virginity is a useless taboo, used by society to restrict people”, affirms Nicole, while asking to remain anonymous as with all the other girls questioned on this issue. Lamya, a young Sunni aged 25, had her first sexual experience at 15 and considers virginity “a personal matter that has to stay that way”. Both speak openly of their sexuality with their mothers, which is quite out of the ordinary. “I can speak about sex as much as I want with my mother as long as it’s not about me!” declares Amira, a young 23 year old Shiite, who proves how much this subject remains a taboo.
Mireille, a Christian woman of 26 confesses that her virginity troubles her. In quoting Angelina Jolie as her female model, she feels torn between her urges for a “modern life” and social pressure.
Haifa, who just turned 30, is a speech therapist and a mother of four and “doesn’t understand girls who do it before marriage”, which is contrary “not only to religion but also to social conduct”. A Shiite from Tyre, she married at 20 after having spoken “only a few times” to her future husband. Amira says she wants to wait until she finds the “man of her life” but that she doesn’t “forcibly have to wait until the marriage”. Farah, a Sunni of 23, also believes that virginity is “a precious thing” but that you have to “keep it”.
Yet, all of them grant a great importance to sexual pleasure: flirts can go very far though always preserving the hymen. But, in case things should go “too far” a small plastic surgery can give you back your virginity. Unfortunately, it’s quite common practice in Lebanon.
Another frequent practice, though officially banned, is abortion. Few women think like Nicole that “women are free to do what they want with their bodies”. Most of them tolerate this deed only under certain conditions (rape, sickness…).
The most striking aspect of young Lebanese women is that they’ve adapted to the contradictions of their way of life. One last note to conclude our interview: all the women questioned believe that women should play a leading role in politics, but none of them is politically engaged!