Shadow of a Man? Understanding Masculinities in the MENA (Audio)

I was invited by Dr Shereen El-Faki and the LSE Middle East Centre to take part in a panel on the following topic: “Shadow of a Man? Understanding Masculinities in the MENA“. It took place on January the 10th, 2018.

“With shifts in the political and economic landscape across the MENA region, the pillars of patriarchy are under increasing pressure. How do men see their lives and the changing world around them, including the roles and rights of women and girls? In this event, Shereen El Feki, Joey Ayoub and Courtney Freer discuss IMAGES MENA, the first study of its kind to explore the private and public lives of almost 10,000 men and women across the Middle East and North Africa, and what these findings mean for the future of the region. Recorded on 10 January 2018.”

The following is the text, with added links, I based my talk on. It starts at about 32:45 until about 48:15.

A few days ago, a video was published on Facebook showing male members of the Lebanese army beating unarmed and kneeling Syrian men, many of whom were stripped from the waist up. In the video, lasting about two minutes, we hear the soldiers mocking the Syrian men. On their faces we see the sort of joy that is born out of a sense of power. One of the Syrian men had a smiley face drawn on his back, and the soldiers were laughing while they hit the Syrian men with belts. This video was shot in the summer of 2017 when, following a suicide attack that killed a number of Lebanese soldiers, a wave of hyper-masculine ultranationalism mixed with the usual xenophobia and saw many random Syrian men targeted by Lebanese men. Videos of Lebanese men filming themselves angrily beating Syrian men in revenge attacks went viral and the already-intensifying talks of expelling Syrian refugees found themselves, if for a few days only, reaching the mainstream. Many denounced these videos, but few were those who pointed out that the violence inflicted on Syrians did not just find roots in a quasi-racial sense of superiority, reflective of the otherwise fragile sense of nationalism that the Lebanese themselves would sometimes mock, but in the Lebanese idea of masculinity as well.

The topic of Lebanese masculinity has not been widely studied and deserves further research. In his essay ‘The (Little) Militia Man: Memory And Militarized Masculinity In Lebanon‘, Sune Haugbolle speaks of how Lebanese artists who seek out a redemptive narrative on former militiamen who fought during the 1975-1990 civil war show them as regretful, even feminized, “little men” on par with other human victims of a senseless war. This is meant to “sever the link between masculinity and sectarian cultures that, still today, celebrate violence committed during the civil war”. The celebration of violence as an inherent part of masculinity remains widespread in Lebanon, particularly as narratives from and on the civil war remain unaddressed at the national level.

This is, after all, the country where former warlords continue to maintain near-complete control over the country’s activities. They are our president, speaker of parliament, many of our MPs and leaders of political parties that either seek out Iran’s approval, or Saudi Arabia’s, both countries notorious for their horrific record on women’s rights. Given that Lebanon has never had a truth and reconciliation committee after the end of the war, the estimated 17,000 forcibly disappeared people have yet to be accounted for. And given that most of these disappeared were men of fighting age, it is often the case that activists struggling for the plight of disappeared are women.  

This contradicts the way Lebanon is often portrayed in relation to the Arab world, namely that of a progressive or liberal beacon in a conservative region. On the surface, the results of the IMAGES survey would seem to confirm this. For example, 75% of men in Lebanon think there should be more women in positions of political authority and only 26% of men in Lebanon agree with the notion that a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. This is in stark contrast with the 90% of Egyptian men who say women should tolerate violence and the 29% of Egyptian men who say that there should be more women in positions of political authority.

Source: Images MENA

With such progressive views apparently so widespread, how can we explain that out of the 128 MPs in the Lebanese parliament, only four are women? And it’s even worse than that: of these four women, three are relatives of male politicians and the fourth is the only female MP of her political party, whose highest-ranking member is Lebanon’s current president. This is why when I read that most men in Lebanon agree that there should be more women in positions of political authority, I had to read the full report. My skepticism turned out to have some merit. Indeed: “When asked about their support for women in various public positions, men were most likely to express support for women as heads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and least likely to express support for women as religious leaders, heads of political parties, heads of states, and military officers.” In other words, women could hold some form of power, but not in places that could challenge the status quo.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report entitled ‘Unequal and Unprotected: Women’s Rights under Lebanese Personal Status Laws‘ does a good job in explaining how the lack of a unified civil code regulating personal status matters affects women especially. Rather than one civil code, Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s different recognized religious communities. When Human Rights Watch reviewed 447 legal judgments issued by the various religious courts, it found (unsurprisingly) a clear “a clear pattern of women from all sects being treated worse than men when it comes to accessing divorce and primary care for their children (“custody”).” I would also recommend a report entitled ‘Zalfa’s Questions On the Personal Status Laws‘ by the feminist NGO KAFA which goes into the details of how each sect’s religious authorities apply their own laws.

Furthermore, it is important to note that surveys in Lebanon can, unfortunately, be misleading, though to not fault of surveyors themselves. The last official census of the Lebanese population was conducted in 1932, nine years before the country declared independence. To give one example of how the lack of data in Lebanon can affect politics and interpretations of Lebanese life, we can look at Palestinian refugees. Just this past December, we learned through the first official census of Palestinian refugees that there are 174,422 Palestinians in Lebanon, compared to the previously assumed number of about 500,000. The 500,000 number, which is still up on the website of the united nations as of today, is often used by Lebanese politicians to ‘warn’ against making Syrian refugees feel ‘too comfortable’. Data, in other words, and especially wrong data, can be politicized if it falls into the wrong hands.

That being said, data, even if incomplete, matters. One of the main problems facing activists in Lebanon today is that we simply do not have data on most of the issues that we try to tackle. When data is compiled, it can push for change. I remember during my undergrad studies being shocked to hear that there was at least one documented suicide [Note: this number actually include all ‘unnatural’ deaths such as suicide, falling from buildings while trying to escape from their employers] by a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon per week, and that the actual number could be much higher. I had known for some time that the situation was bad, but the one-suicide-per-week number managed to deeply affect me, and this is how I started becoming active in Lebanon’s fragile but resourceful civil society. IMAGES can help more people in Lebanon understand that the problems resulting from patriarchal legislation and cultural attitudes are very real.

Speaking of Migrant Domestic Workers, and I’ll end on this point: they are an inevitable part of Lebanon’s gender relations given that out of the estimated 250,000 working in Lebanon, the overwhelming majority are women. In the houses where they live, they are the ones performing ‘traditionally feminine’ household tasks and their role in Lebanese society has the potential to threaten the status quo as well. Case in point: In 2015, The founding congress of the Domestic Worker’s Union in Lebanon took place. The Lebanese state, which has yet to sign ILO convention No. 87, which guarantees the Freedom of Association and Protection of the right to Organize without the permission of the government, rejected the Union’s creation.

I mentioned this Migrant Domestic Workers are often excluded from national narratives on women’s rights due to their race and class. This despite the fact that according to the ILO, domestic workers are among the global workforces most vulnerable to violence and abuse, partly because of their physical isolation, hidden behind the closed doors of private residences. This, I would add, is in addition to the fact that the very nature of the Kafala, or sponsorship, system in Lebanon, puts the very legal status of migrant domestic workers into the hands of their employers, with many if not most unable to complain about low or unpaid wages, physical abuse and so on. The Lebanese state has repeatedly targeted migrant domestic worker activists and detained and deported at least 21 in the summer of 2016 for the crime of having children in Lebanon. As women, they are viewed by a state so reliant on sectarianism, patriarchy and racism as demographic threats. Their very womanhood is illegal. Others were deported for being too active. In December of 2016, Lebanon marked International Human Rights Day by deporting Sujana Rana, a Nepalese migrant domestic worker involved in the struggle for the rights of migrant domestic workers. No official reason was given for her arrest and deportation.

It is only with the work of intersectional feminist and labor activists, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, that we hear about their plight. The union, which was formally announced on the 25th of January, 2015, with the presence of 300 domestic and migrant domestic workers, continues to struggle to gain legal recognition two years later. This is in addition to structural problems related to the lack of freedom of movement imposed on migrant workers in general in Lebanon as well as smaller but significant challenges such as having a multilingual workforce

I mention all of this not with the intention of painting a bleak picture of Lebanon, but rather as a recognition of the victories gained by feminist and anti-racist activists in recent years, and as a reminder that the road ahead is still long. Just this summer, the Lebanese parliament finally repealed the infamous ‘rape law’ which exempted a rapist from punishment if he married his victim which is still in effect in Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine and Syria according to UN Women. Although there remains loopholes in the law that would allow it, it remains important to acknowledge that the only reason it was addressed in the first place is due to the hard work of activists and lawyers on the ground.

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