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The Politics of Gendered Violence in Lebanon

[Protest in Beirut against violence against women. Image by Joelle Hatem] [Protest in Beirut against violence against women. Image by Joelle Hatem]

Ali al Zein murdered his wife Sara Al-Amin on 18 May 2015. Her murder was shocking in its brutality. It is only one link in a long chain of visible and invisible violence against women in contemporary Lebanon. Structural conditions give birth to this violence. These conditions enshrine the legal impunity and social acceptability of female vulnerability to violence.

Amin’s murder is an instance of intimate partner violence, the latest in a spate of wife killing across Lebanon. In addition to highlighting, yet again, the urgent need for sweeping legal change, this crime should shake people in Lebanon to the core. Here was a woman who was subject to her husband’s physical and emotional abuse for twenty years before she threatened to take him to court under Lebanon’s new family violence law. On returning to the family home after a promise of safety, her husband killed her with seventeen bullets from an AK 47. The couple’s children witnessed the murder.

The presence of the AK 47, and the ease of access to it, points to an intersection between Lebanon’s history of war and the violence that marks public and intimate spheres. This violence is political. It is about the struggle over as well as the maintenance and regulation of power and resources within ideological frameworks—in this case sex and sectarian based patriarchal nationalism.  

However, the discourse on political violence in Lebanon has focused on sectarian violence to the exclusion of its multiple other forms and manifestations. Like sectarian violence, violence against women emerges from a complex knot of legal, historical, social, and economic factors. Patriarchal sexism is just as foundational to Lebanese law as political sectarianism. In Lebanese law, sex defines the rights and duties of citizens to a much larger extent than sect does. There is no area of law that does not distinguish between men and women to the benefit of men.  Criminal codes distinguish between the rape of a stranger and of a wife. These codes afford leniency to crimes against women under the rubric of “honor.” Civil laws and institutions register female citizens as legal appendages of their fathers or husbands. Nationality laws and procedures ensure that women cannot pass citizenship to spouses and children. Personal status laws–all fifteen of them—distinguish between the rights and duties of male and female identified persons.

Given how constitutive sexual difference and masculinist supremacy are to Lebanese law, the passage of a family violence law almost a year ago was a watershed event. Yet, precisely because the logic that produces this weighted sexual difference is everywhere, legal reform is not enough. Imagine, for example, laws that make sectarian killings a “hate crime” in a sectarian political and legal system. Such a law might make killing a Maronite because he is a Maronite a crime, but it would do nothing to address how material and legal conditions produced this person as a “Maronite” to begin with.  A law criminalizing individual sectarian violence would do little to stem sectarianism in a country built on a sectarian logic. Indeed sectarian violence is never a lonely act. Like gendered violence, it is a systemic and ever present-possibility.

Indeed, the fact that sectarianism and sex work together to produce Lebanese citizenship facilitates gendered violence. To remove the “gender bargain” from Lebanese citizenship as an entire edifice of rights, laws, and duties necessitates an overhaul of criminal, civil, personal status, procedural, and nationality laws. The aim would be to move from a legal and political system that grants gendered violence legal impunity to a system where the gender of a citizen or resident does not determining their legal rights. A solitary family violence law, appended onto a legal system that produces sex as a primary marker of difference, is simply not enough. Until Lebanese state structures stop reflecting, codifying, producing and amplifying the vulnerability of women in intimate, economic, and public spheres, laws such as the domestic violence law can only be band aids that cover only the most obvious of scars. Moreover, the current law itself does not go far enough. Due to the interventions of religious and patriarchal leaders, the law does not criminalize marital rape. It also does not protect domestic workers, women who live and work with Lebanese families and are integral to  those domiciles.

Vulnerability and Intersectionality 

Feminists and anti-racist intellectuals, activists, and policy shapers have documented and elaborated on how formal and informal conditions intersect to produce violence and precarity. In Lebanon sex, sect, class, gender and race together make female identified people vulnerable to violence.  An intersectional approach allows us to understand how different women are subject to different forms and intensifications of violence, and how it is that that some women engage in violence against (other) women .

Lebanese cis women are not the only ones subjected to gendered violence. A recent study has shown how trans women are vulnerable to violence within state institutions as well as daily life.  Law, pervasive homophobia, and a masculinist ideology that violently polices a rigid gender regime sanctions this form of violence.

Female identified refugees are also vulnerable to gendered violence. Over two million Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese, and Kurdish refugees currently live in Lebanon in formal and informal settlements and refugee camps. Syrian refugee families are majority female led and most of them live in poverty and precarious forms of legality and illegality. Women and girls are more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence due to these structural conditions of poverty and illegality. The Lebanese government has banned Syrian refugees from working in a number of professions, and has imposed a new draconian visa system. For those Syrians who cannot prove they are “tourists,” the Ministries of the Interior and of Labor have instituted a quasi kafala system that ties refuges to Lebanese employers. This regime takes its cue from the unjust structure that governs domestic laborers. Our thinking on violence against women should be expansive enough to account for how all women (cis and trans, citizen, resident, laborer and refugee) are vulnerable to violence.

Such an expansive approach would address how legal regimes and institutional relationships produce and facilitate poverty, precarity, and exploitation. For example, migrant laborers—usually African or South or East Asian— who work as domestic servants in Lebanese homes are vulnerable to violence in ways that the woman employing her is not, even if that female employer is also vulnerable to violence within and outside the home. Almost every day there is a report of domestic servants who are abused, who have fled, who have committed or attempted suicide, or who have sought protection. These reports are snapshots of the violence that these women are subjected to in their residences (their places of work). In many ways the very presence of racialized and economically precarious domestic laborers in Lebanon is predicated on a condition of violence. Intermediaries bring women from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Phillipines, Korea (and more) and lie to them about the working conditions they will face. Once employed as domestic labor, these women are not in control of their movement, and they are not in possession of their travel documents or official ids. They are paid less (often times much less) than the official minimum wage (450 US dollars a month). They are often degraded, and are subject to inhumane working and living conditions. In addition to these quotidian conditions of violence, there are “bad employers” who physically and sexually abuse them, withhold their wages or food, starve them, lock them in their apartments, and house them on balconies or in pantries or on the kitchen floor. 

The Lebanese family violence law of 2014 does not protect domestic laborers. It does not even recognize these women as subjects of law or as residents of a domicile. To date, Lebanese citizens have not sustained a focused or popular campaign that addresses the working conditions, human rights, or bodily integrity of domestic laborers. However, in an unprecedented, brave, and historic effort, migrant domestic laborers have begun organizing politically. In 2014 a small group tried to register a labor union with the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, which promptly declared the initiative illegal and “unnecessary.”

The state has thus far not effectively intervened in the working and living conditions of domestic labor and does not ensure that laborers remain in possession of their travel documents. These conditions are similar to those that govern another group of trafficked women in Lebanon: women who work in cabarets or super nightclubs. These women, most often citizens of Eastern European countries, have no access to mobility or their travel documents. They come to Lebanon under false contracts and are often coerced into sex work. Domestic laborers and cabaret workers have another thing in common: they are subject to the Lebanese General Security Directorate. This state institution issues work visas, and regulates the almost 250,000 domestic laborers and hundreds of Eastern European cabaret workers living and working in Lebanon. In fact, the Lebanese General Security Directorate (GSD) issues a special category of “artist visas” to cabaret workers. It is thus directly implicated in these women’s conditions, conditions that engender violence structurally.

Beyond Violence, Towards Emancipation

Female identified persons form the majority of Lebanese citizens, and of the residents of Lebanon. This majority is legally, socially, and economically unequal to their male identified counterparts. 

On Saturday 30 May 2015, hundreds of people gathered in front of the National Museum to protest the pervasiveness of violence against women in Lebanon. The protest was a strong message to the public: violence against women is not a “personal issue” and it will no longer be tolerated. The protestors insisted that violence against women is a pressing political and social issue.

What ties the vicious murder of Sara al-Amin to a trans woman harassed in a police station or a domestic laborer who is living in a small windowless room full of toxic materials? What does marital rape, the legal, physical and economic precarity of Syrian refugee women, and the vulnerability of trafficked cabaret workers have in common?

These are all instances of violence against women that Lebanese law sanctions and that the state and its institutions protects. A masculinist patriarchal culture, one that enshrines female inferiority, licenses these laws and procedures. Ending this sex based ideological infrastructure is a task as difficult, and as urgent, as ending sectarianism in Lebanon. 

Ending sectarianism is not just a matter of law. It requires legal, educational, religious, and cultural change. Similarly, ending sexual difference and the protection of gendered violence in Lebanese law will not end sexism, masculinism, or violence against women. We must demand short term solutions to crisis such as Sara al-Amin’s murder while never losing sight of our long term goal: gender equality among all male and female bodies in all areas of life and law.  As we struggle with legal, institutional, and state structures, we must never forget that it is these very forces that maintain masculinist ideology and in many cases, institutionalize gendered violence. The General Security Directorate, mentioned above, is the most obvious example of a Lebanese state institution that is actively invested in violence against women.

We are, and must continue to act towards a comprehensive overhaul of law and policy and towards ending the sex based masculinist ideology that gives form and sanctions law and policy. As Lebanese and non-Lebanese feminist activists in Lebanon have and continue to teach us, we must struggle on both of these fronts in order to breach the horizon of sexed emancipation.  

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