I have spent the better part of my morning at Café Younes, just off Hamra Street. It’s a lively establishment, where many internationals and counter culturists congregate. They play some pretty bad American music—I heard Bon Jovi, Sting, even Cutting Crew—but brew some stellar coffee. There’s a poster on the wall entitled “One Day, One Struggle,” which immediately draws me in. Apparently today is day of action launching “An International Campaign for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.” The Women’s Rights Club, together with the Health Sciences Expertise Club of the American University in Beirut is hosting a panel discussion. I haven’t been to one of those in quite awhile, for good reason—I can’t stomach the hostile takeover of the discussion by sectarians during the Q & A! Before I open my Lonely Planet to find something else to do, I notice a “Tweet” from @allaboutrace advertising this same campaign. Well, then, I know I have to go!
I arrive at the campus early, which is easy to do in the Middle East. Nothing starts on time. When I walk in to the West Hall on campus, there are about 20 people there, nearly all women, speaking a mix of Arabic and English. It feels good to hear English, I have to admit. Even though I am not a part of their conversations, I can still participate, however passively. I realize just how auditory I am. I really love to hear people speaking, to get a brief glimpse into their worlds. I’m not talking about evesdropping, or gossip; I find the word on the street very informative, and here I can’t engage it at all. It’s easy to feel mute. Muted. So, again, it’s comforting to hear familiar words, though I’m definitely curious as to what language this forum will take place in. I hope, for purely personal reasons, that it will be in English, but I don’t necessarily expect it to.
The crowd is reminiscent of my Berkeley days: shabby-headed dudes in baggy jeans, young women in ill-fitting tank tops, and piercings galore. I understand fully the irony of describing how people dress at the Women’s Rights Club. I lapse into the physical descriptions not to focus on young feminist fashion in Beirut, but to locate myself in a familiar setting. I only mean to say that these people look like college students! Plus, I am early, bored & have to write about something, right?
At any rate, I’ve always appreciated the strident vitality of college activists. The ardent belief in a particular cause, and the ability to transmit that belief with passion is very attractive to me. The University provides a sort of sanctuary for many young people to explore their own voices, to attempt to relate their experiences with a wider audience than they may have ever had, whether casually (like in a dorm) or formally. The University is not without its contradictions, to be sure, but it has nurtured many a fine young revolutionaries.
I am so thankful that I am here, at this university tonight, to hear what these young folks have to say.
As it turns out, the panel discussion was in English. A fact that was called into question by one young woman. “We are in Lebanon, why are we speaking in English?” I must say that she was right on, especially considering the fact that two of the panelists were not comfortable in this medium. Numerous times they struggled to search for words, and were even visibly upset at times. English was a strange choice, and it must have been considered, especially because most of the people there were at least bilingual. So it goes.
I found the panel to be moderately informative. The panelists attempted to cover sexual rights, sexual expression and gender identity in four different areas: global politics, personal pleasure, the Lebanese health care system and the Lebanese sectarian system. The latter two being the most clearly thought out and relevant to the audience.
Dr. Faisal Elhaq, a gynecologist, spoke quite eloquently of the effectiveness of what he called a “scale up” approach—another way of saying grassroots organizing. He said that they are making progress in Beirut by infusing “sexual rights into whatever service we provide.” He went on to explain that a certain religious leader (he did not say whom) made one phone call in 1997, which effectively quashed what was then a very good sex education curriculum. For the past 10 years he has been organizing his community of gynecologists , and has “been able to institute a new curriculum.” It’s his hope that this curriculum, combined with other direct health services like condom distribution, will help to reduce the number of sexual infections in Beirut and beyond. And he challenged everyone to put in work to directly address sexual rights and sexual health, in everything they do. He closed by asking, “Why fight against the wind? Scale up, and over time you can achieve results.”
“Our only aim is to protect our bodies”
Ms. Hibba, a writer and anthropologist, then spoke about how the Lebanese sectarian system serves as a tool of oppression against sexual minorities. To better grasp what follows, here’s a brief overview of this complex political system: There are 128 seats in parliament. Half are allocated to Christian politicians, half to Muslims. They get further subdivided based on what type of Christianity or Islam is practiced in a certain region, but the important thing to note is that the Lebanese system is a religious system that is essentially socially conservative.
Here, this conservatism is evidenced through Law 534 (a holdover from the French colonial period) which “criminalizes any relation that ‘goes against the laws of nature.” 534 is similar to the sodomy laws in the US, though they reach much further, and are enforced much more regularly. Furthermore, the “laws of nature” are mutable, and are continually being altered by the different religious parties.
“The Lebanese system gives religious groups political control, so the religious groups control our sexual rights.” she explained. And what’s more, Lebanon is in a seemingly constant state of war. And in times of war individual freedoms get rolled back, if not eliminated altogether. So, in a place like Lebanon, women and sexual minorities are under constant attack—they must deal with internal war, external invasions and internal sexual violence all the time. It never stops. The people who are affected first, last, and for the absolute worst, are women and sexual minorities.
By the end of the discussion three things were clear:
1) The oppression of women and sexual minorities is a global problem, with global ramifications,
2) The number one priority is to develop power for women and sexual minorities.,
3) Though global, Lebanon has a unique set of circumstances to contend with.
So, let’s get to work!