Women form the backbone of Lebanese society. Across generations and within every major civil rights movement, Lebanese women have stood at the forefront of protests. Without women, there would be no revolution, no hope for change, no new beginnings. And yet, Lebanon gives nothing in return to its most loyal soldiers. Political elites and everyday citizens simultaneously ignore women’s rights, dignities, and vulnerabilities— promoting a subculture that blames victims for their trauma and glorifies the men who commit them.
This phenomenon is not unique to Lebanon, nor is it unique to the Middle East— countries around the world have seen a rise in the #MeToo protests which originated in the United States— but its presence in Beirut has received heightened scrutiny in recent years. This is mainly due to a video by ABAAD, a Lebanese women’s rights group, that went viral in 2018. The gut-wrenching video was meant to be a social experiment. A test that would determine how communities would respond to a young woman, clearly disgruntled, claiming that she had just been raped by a man. A test that the Lebanese people failed.
Once the girl reveals that she has been raped, bystanders immediately turn from trying to appease her to blaming her for the crime. An onslaught of questions barrage her, followed by a slew of snide comments: “Did you take any drugs?” “Have you had anything to drink?” “She’s just a whore.” “Don’t tell people, you’re just embarrassing yourself further.” “Did you see her eyes? What a shameless slut.” These were only a few of the many statements made by those who just moments earlier had gathered to help Manal Issa, the actress playing the role of a rape victim, and certainly only a few of the statements that an actual victim might hear in similar situations.
Despite catching the attention of thousands across the country as well as the Lebanese diaspora, the video, part of a national campaign known as #ShameOnWho?, garnered little traction in changing the dismal state of the rape subculture that is so prevalent in Lebanon.
Until August of 2017, rapists in Lebanon were able to escape conviction if they married their victims. Rooted in the scruples of a patriarchal society that views rape survivors as damaged goods that no one would think to marry, the law, Article 522, was seen by many as a protection for victims of rape— not a life sentence to an abusive and unwanted marriage. Fortunately protest movements managed to get the law repealed in 2017, but the politicians that spearheaded the change left behind many loopholes and a society that still believed in the validity of the law, to begin with.
To this day, marital rape is not outlawed in Lebanon. This means that a man that rapes his wife, has done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law. In fact, in a short film released in October 2020, viewers watch as a woman attempts to report her rapist (and husband) to the Lebanese police. They respond that “There is no such thing as rape in a marriage,” and brush off the bruises that she shows them as faked by her to gain their attention. Although the film is fiction, its plot is not.
Similar experiences are to be had by women that attempt to file for divorce. Regardless of whether their husbands abuse them or they are simply no longer happy in their marriages, women should have the freedom to choose their destiny. However, in Lebanon, personal status laws are presided over by religious courts, as opposed to civil courts, which systematically discriminate against women in matters of both divorce and child custody. The subculture of rape in Lebanon is ingrained deeply in society, and this is only one of its many manifestations.
The effects of this subculture that condones rape plays a greater role than just in policing the sexuality and marriages of women. It also defines their status as second class citizens. Women in Lebanon still cannot pass their nationality on to their children and they boast one of the highest rates of female unemployment across the globe (only 1 in 3 women acquire paid work in Lebanon). These patriarchal laws and phenomena are combined with a society that actively disrespects and disregards the autonomy of women, ultimately fostering an inhospitable atmosphere for the progress of women in the country.
Given that women have shouldered the burden and responsibility of the revolution against corrupt government officials, it would seem fair that Lebanese society would respond by being kinder to its women, the same women who are its sisters, mothers, and grandmothers. But unfortunately, this is not the case. The current revolution aims to right “the wrongs brought on by sectarianism, poor governance, and corruption…” but ignores the forms of injustice that only women are subject to and perpetuates mental and physical violence against them constantly.
No movement has been made to institute marital rape laws or address the discriminatory nature of divorce and child custody hearings. Despite all that these women have done for a country that has stolen so much from them, Lebanon has decided to ignore their outcries and continue to steal from them for as long as it can.
Growing up, we used to joke, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” A silly phrase that accompanied a silly game, and nothing more. But what if those cracks are real, embodying sexist laws and a culture steeped in patriarchy? What if their backs will break, along with their spirits and drive? Would we discomfort ourselves enough to stop stepping on them? Currently, the answer seems to be no.
But if we did stop stepping on those cracks, if we reconstruct our legal and social systems so that they not only respect the experiences of women but empower and support them, imagine how much more productive Beirut could be.
Hopefully, soon we won’t need to imagine.