In the misleading influx of media images contrasting “eastern submissive women” – i.e. child marriages, forced marriages, forced hijab, female genital mutilation etc. – and of “western free and progressive women” – i.e. female politicians, single mothers, free sexual orientation, abortion rights etc. – this blog post does not wish to add another layer of confusion.
The author does not claim to speak for the majority, only for an existing and struggling part of the community. Lebanese and Arab women are as diverse as possible in their experiences, paths and choices. And the struggles of women worldwide are all very important and cannot be separated nor divided.
Every win for the cause is a win for all.
- “Semi-emancipation”? What is it about? *, my French friend asked me.
- It is when you’re semi-free. And then you discover that you’re not free at all.
I’ve left my parents’ home only at the age of 29 with the “legitimate” argument to have found a better job opportunity abroad. This long stay in the family cocoon had very little to do with my personal preferences and comfort. While several argue that the reason behind the stay-at-home sons and daughters in Lebanon and the Middle East region is economic need and high unemployment; another underlying reason – proven particularly true – for financially independent women is the marital status.
For the semi-open-minded parents – the parents who take pride in having provided their daughters the best education and “some” freedom to work and have a social life – this marital status, or the concept of being officially and socially in the company of one man, would make small choices like going out by night, traveling, leaving the parental house, dressing in a certain way, or partying, a bit more accepted.
Needless to say that in more traditional households, even with the presence of a husband, strict discipline is expected, and the man would play the role of the controller.
Tied to the values of “E’eib” (shameful act judged by society) and “Haram” (sinful act judged by religions) the lives of many Lebanese and Arab women, who might graduate from the best universities, and lead the greatest careers, are silently controlled. This makes even the smallest personal choices, like coming home late, a struggle.
- It’s quiet sad, because if those simple choices are bound by a code of conduct, what about other issues like dating, or sex or concubinage?
- In this half-open half-closed society the rules are never clear, and a woman can never anticipate when and where the door of freedom closes. A friend of mine was locked in her parents’ home, while visiting Lebanon, just because she’d mentioned wanting to marry someone from another religion, and despite the fact that this man was ready to convert.
- Then why not get a civil marriage?
Civil marriage: another big no-no of the Lebanese society. Civil activists often argue that religious men benefit financially from religious marriages which makes civil marriage a financial threat to them. The argument can be factually checked by viewing matrimonial expenses in Lebanon or the Arab region. On another hand, religious leaders base their opposition on the fact that marrying from another religion is a sin; not marrying religiously is a sin; having children of a civil marriage is a sin.
Reality of civil rights rejection in Lebanon and the larger region can certainly be viewed from an additional and pertinent angle. On a legal and social level, civil rights would mean the equality of rights and duties of all citizens, from all religions, beliefs, ethnicities, and gender. Daily life questions like custody, adoption, divorce, inheritance, nationality and others would be treated on the basis of rights and duties, and not on the basis of being a man or a woman, Muslim or Christian, Chia or Sunni or Catholic etc.
Civil rights would actually put to execution, through laws and actions, what the semi-liberal society vainly pretends to possess: women emancipation and gender equality.
- But I also hear that some conservative movements actually promote women participation and consider them a pillar of the society. I have even seen that in several countries where they operate, women are actually represented in the parliament.
- Yes, indeed, semi-emancipation is not only an illusion of the semi-liberal society. It’s a tool used for political propaganda too.
While Lebanese televisions rally to display skin exhibiting women in an attempt to prove that Lebanese women are free and independent as if no real equality struggles existed, other parts of Lebanon and the Arab region use a reverse brainwashing to recruit influential young girls and women for conservative movements and ideologies. Those contrasting examples outline the immensity of peer and social pressure exercised on women and girls in Lebanon and the MENA region, limiting their free will. They also show how much resemblance might exist between a society claiming freedom and another one suppressing it.
The situation in other parts of the world or in the more conservative communities in Lebanon and the region is definitely more critical. Even in the “free world”, it would be foolish to think that women have achieved it all.
On this international women day, I wanted to contribute with few-of-many examples from the real lives of Lebanese and Arab women being pushed and pulled by conformity codes; women trying to build resilience to the existing mediocrity; women who do not feel obliged to pay the price of having had the chance to dress free, to study and to work by closing eyes to what the world has to offer them.
On this international women day I, as a Lebanese from the semi-liberal society, remember the struggle of Lebanese women who cannot give the nationality to their children or husbands; I think of gender based violence victims who cannot speak because of “E’eib” and “Haram”; of the women who turn down jobs and travels for the men; of the women who are shamed for not being married or for being divorced; of the women harassed for dressing “too sexy” or “too closed”; for the women who hide their sexuality; for the women who are not forced to wear hijab and for the ones who are; the list does not have an end.
On this international women day, I want us to remember that semi-emancipation is dangerously close to no-emancipation, because freedom is indivisible. And as Malala Yousafazi eloquently says it “we realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced”.
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are author’s own, and do not reflect CMI’s position or endorsement.