On Being a Woman in the Arab World: Why Our Lebano-Chauvinism Is Not Helping Us

By Martin Accad

“Mabrouk Lebanon! Congrats!” We ranked number 16 out of 22 Arab states on Thomson Reuters Foundation’s third annual poll indexing women’s rights in the Arab World. We can pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as Egypt, ranking 22nd, thanks to the rise to power of religious radicals there after the revolution. We’re a bit better than Saudi Arabia too (ranking 20th), which apparently has been making progress, with 30 women out of 150 people serving on its largely powerless Shura Council, and despite the fact that women are still forbidden from driving in the Kingdom (topic of our November 7 post). Hey! We’re even ahead of Sudan by one point (it ranks 17th), despite the fact that Sudan’s legal minimum age for girls to marry is 10 years old, that women can legally be arrested and flogged because of the way they dress, and that 12.1 million Sudanese women have undergone Female Genital Mutilation! Much to be proud of really for Lebanon… Yet we still pride ourselves for being the “peak and source of civilization.” We continuously chant the mantra that recalls Pope John Paul II’s description of Lebanon as a “message of coexistence” for the rest of the world. At the same time we hate the mess that Lebanon has become and the increasing violence against everything: against each other, against women, against nature, against our traditional heritage. We emigrate and say good bye to Lebanon for good, and from a distance we sing the praises of our country and people. This Lebano-chauvinism is doing us no good.

But apparently prejudice against women is not as bad in all 22 Arab countries. The Comoros, Oman, Kuwait, and Jordan, ranked first to fourth respectively. In the Comoros, women are usually far better off in the event of divorce or separation, generally keeping land and homes. They cannot be legally married before the age of 18, and half of men populating prisons are being held for crimes of sexual aggression. In comparison, a rapist in Lebanon can avoid prosecution by marrying his victim, in application of Article 522 of Lebanon’s penal code. And there is still no clear law that gives civil courts the power to punish men for committing marital rape, despite the heavy lobbying that has been ongoing in Lebanon. There is still nothing about sexual harassment in the workplace in Lebanese law, and we’ve only had 3 female ministers since the first woman held a ministerial position in 2004. Still, let’s not kid ourselves, the Reuters index seems to be based primarily on official legislation rather than on the actual condition of a woman’s daily life. The measuring criteria are things like the legally defined ratio of women in a country’s political system, their right to vote and the weight of their testimony in court. Other legal criteria are women’s right to pass along their citizenship to their husband and children, the legal minimum age for girls to marry, the existence of legislation pertaining to the punishment of women for dress or behavior, permission for them to drive a car, to function in a mixed workplace, or existing legislation punishing men for sexual harassment and assault. Other important variants seem to be the literacy rate of girls compared to that among boys, the ratio of women in the workplace compared to men, and health-related issues such as the rate of women mortality while giving birth, the availability of contraception, or the practice of Female Genital Mutilation.

Although the legal system is crucially important to advance the status of women in societies, cultural understandings and norms of behavior seem to be at least as influential when it comes to the day-to-day realities of a woman’s life. For instance, the fact that half the men imprisoned in the Comoros are there for committing sexual harassment testifies to the strength of the legal system and of law enforcement, but it reflects poorly on the Comoros’ society by revealing such a high incidence of harassment. In contrast, there may be no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace or against marital rape in Lebanon, but the incidence of harassment both in the workplace and in the streets of Beirut are far lower than in many other Arab capitals that score better on the index, as one quickly discovers for instance by chatting to a foreign woman who has experienced life in several Arab capitals.

In practice, those of us who have grown up in the Arab World know very well the deep prejudice against women still prevalent in many of our societies. Not all of us are willing to admit it of course, seeing as we are deeply affected by our worldview of honor and shame. We must always “look good” to the outside world, and this very article will be perceived as a bit of a treason to my Lebanese compatriots. Furthermore, as Arab Christians, let us guard ourselves from pointing the finger too quickly at Islam as the root of all this backwardness. Many cultural beliefs and practices that are biased against women stem from pre-Islamic traditions. Female Genital Mutilation is still a frighteningly common practice among Christians in Egypt and Sudan. And you’re almost as likely to encounter so-called “honor killings” committed against women among mainstream Jordanian Christian families and rural Christian settings in Lebanon as you are in Muslim social contexts.

So much, then, for our Lebano-chauvinism that claims supremacy for our country and civilization! We Lebanese think too highly of ourselves. We speak and sing the praises of our country’s beauty as well as of the superiority of our culture and historical achievements. Meanwhile, we have little respect for this God-given nature or for the cultural heritage we have received from our ancestors. We continue to destroy our environment, and nearly all of our beautiful traditional architecture has been torn down to give space to tall and often tasteless blocs of cement. Money talks in Lebanon, and we would certainly rate very low on an environmental or cultural preservation index. We also fail miserably on the consistency of law enforcement, which makes the very existence of laws in Lebanon only of secondary importance. All this to say: neither does our chauvinism against women, nor does our national chauvinism help us improve as Lebanese. Instead, we need to launch a national campaign of humility and repentance for all forms of chauvinism in our culture, and for the pride that keeps us from progressing forward.

In closing, it may be good to remember that prejudice against women is not new, nor is it unique to Arab culture. Women in the West have had to fight their own battles, as we know. And wasn’t that what Jesus was up against in John 8:3-11, when Jews brought to him a woman who they wanted to stone because they claimed she was caught committing adultery? To paraphrase, Jesus asked them to go fetch the man as well, since they claimed she was “caught in the act” (v. 4): “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” he taunted them in verse 7. More than likely, most of those who had brought the woman to him were men. The text says that “those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (v. 9). In other words, when Jesus called “the man” out of the male-dominated society that wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, none of the men was willing to come out and recognize that the “sinful woman” had had a male partner in crime. Arab societies may pride themselves for being “religious,” as opposed to the “abominable” Godless secularism of the West. But it would appear that a society’s attitude towards women is an accurate measure, not just of its civilizational advancement, but also supremely of its Godliness. At least that’s what I seem to recognize in the teaching and attitude of Jesus. As his followers, we have much work to do on ourselves to align with him, and certainly much to do in improving the situation in society around us.

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