In the past few months sex panics and moral panics, centered on gendered bodies and abuses, have rocked Lebanon. In this article I want to revisit three of these panics: photos of a semi-nude Lebanese Olympic Skier’s body and reactions to it; the impunity of wife murderers and wife abusers; and the razing of a Syrian makeshift refugee camp after (ultimately false) accusations of sex abuse by a camp resident of a mentally disabled Lebanese man. I bring these three cases together in order to think about the political work that the moral/sex panic does in making and remaking Lebanese national identity and in articulating its gendered architecture. I do so in order to avoid thinking each separately under the rubrics of sexual discrimination or abuse in Lebanon.
Good Bodies, Bad Bodies
Jackie Chamoun is a skier representing Lebanon at the Winter 2014 Olympics. Her qualification for the premier international sporting event is itself a success, given the lack of training infrastructures and support for athletes (particularly females) in Lebanon. Recently, photos a friend of Chamoun’s took for a calendar, featured the athlete in various poses (though not full frontal) and topless. The photos spread through the Internet like wildfire. In response, the Caretaker Lebanese minister for Youth and Sports, Faisal Karami, ordered an investigation into the photos. He stated that they, and by extension Chamoun, were damaging to the country’s image. In a country with chronic youth unemployment and a widely corrupt professional sports system, as well as the lack of support for sports and youth more broadly, it was these photos that were just too much for the good minister. Almost immediately, people reacted, both positively and negatively, to Karami’s announcement. But what was the image of Lebanon that Karami wanted to protect, and why was the site of a female athletic body—and athletes, given that their bodies are their work, are rightly proud and confident in them— so threatening to that image?
Lebanese activists rightly pointed out that campaigns marketing everything from veterinary services to the country itself (in Ministry of Tourism advertisements) rely on female nudity and the consumption of the sexualized female body. Sex tourism is a large industry in Lebanon, and the trafficking of women for sexual labor is an open and largely unremarked upon phenomenon, as is the sexual abuse of domestic/slave labor. Furthermore, male athletic bodies are often in states of undress, as they rip or lift their shirts after scoring in a football or basketball match—and yet they do not damage the country’s image. In fact, the amount of nudity displayed by Chamoun in the photo shoot was no more than any male swimmer in an athletic competition, in or out of the pool.The different weighting of female and male bodies, of nudity, and the uneven distribution of national identity and honor across this gendered divide deserves attention. The fact that Chamoun is female, and thus “obscene” when topless, is exactly the “problem.” Nudity is not the issue here. Female nudity—outside the confines of consumerism or state driven tourism—is. Chamoun’s displaying of her body, the very thing that enables her to compete at such high levels, sealed her fall from national grace. It also revealed the ways that gendered bodies constitute the seams of the nation as it produces and markets itself.
Chamoun was supposed to be a “good girl,” a hero for Lebanese to look up to as she represented her country at the Olympics. She was supposed to represent the nation as the nation wished to present itself. Other contexts—such as drives for tourism or the phenomenon of Lebanese music videos—require “bad girls.” Crucially, both “good girls” and “bad girls” are not supposed to be sovereign over their bodies and the representation of them. It is the (masculinist) state and the economy, both of which are said to be in service of “the nation” that decides the form and content of that representation. After all, why would Lebanese women have sovereignty over the representation of their bodies when they lack sovereignty over their bodies in Lebanese law and are instead legal appendages to male citizens?
Dead Wives, Protected Husbands
Recent cases and reports of husbands killing their wives further clarify how Lebanese law renders female citizens as legal appendages of their male counterparts. As of February 17th, husbands reportedly killed twenty-five women were identified in Lebanon. The actual number of such crimes is undoubtedly higher. Not one of these husbands has been charged with a crime (yet). Much activist and journalistic attention has focused on the urgent need to pass a domestic violence law that protects women and children in Lebanon from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Political and religious leaders have refused to pass a law that includes the criminalization of marital rape. A truncated domestic violence law has similarly stalled in the political paralysis of the halls of the government. Even if such a law were to pass, however, it would do little to ameliorate the legal, social,and economic inequalities that tie wives and daughters to their husbands and families and make them more vulnerable to abuse. For example, custody laws make it almost impossible for a woman to divorce her husband and retain custody over her children, even if she can prove a pattern of abuse against her. Faced with these impossible choices, many women endure abusive marriages in order to remain with their children. Divorce law largely favors males, across all Christian and Muslim personal status laws. Criminal law, meanwhile, sets different standards for male and female adultery, in addition to continuing to except marital rape from punishment and allowing rapists to propose marriage to their victims and receive lesser punishments.
Furthermore, the presence of a domestic law will not magically make the reporting of domestic violence more acceptable or available. It will not make the police take such calls seriously and stop them from deferring to husbands. It will not make them recognize that one, abuse is abuse and that two, abuse is not a “private” issue to be dealt with at home and between families—the very context within which abuse is happening.
Feminists know that appealing to the state and its police has always been a double-edged sword. After all, the state and its police the security forces are masculinist and patriarchal structures. The extent to which they are sexist institutions interested in protecting male privilege over female bodies is clear every time a wife is murdered or raped or abused and politicians and the police refuse to consider this a punishable offense. The patriarchal nation, and the masculinist state reproduced themselves at these moments. Women represent the nation, but men—who are produced as male citizens in part through their legal mastery over female bodies, constitute it. Activist and family demands for accountability as well as the calls for a domestic violence law are much needed interventions. Together they confront the legal, social, bureaucratic and economic ways that female citizens are produced as always in relation to their family status.
Sex Panics and the Borders of the Nation
In December of 2013, allegations were made that residents of a Syrian refugee tent settlement in eastern Lebanon had raped a mentally disabled Lebanese man. The Lebanese army raided the refugee encampment and arrested dozens of men for questioning. They did not find any evidence of the attack. A medical official testified that he had found no evidence of rape on or in the alleged victim. Undeterred, members of neighboring villages raided the refugee campsite and burned much of it down—displacing the Syrian refugees once again. The Lebanese citizens who had made the apparently false accusation and then forcibly displaced the Syrian refugees were not charged or investigated for any criminal or civil offense.
This incident demonstrated the ways that distinctions between “Lebanese” and “Syrian refugee” are articulated across understandings of violable bodies. A false accusation of Syrian male-Lebanese male rape produced a sex panic that in turn allowed the violation of Syrian bodies. The constitutive outside of the Lebanese nation has historically been the Palestinian refugee and the domestic laborer. Today with over one million Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Lebanon—often in impoverished and disenfranchised areas of the country—Syrian bodies are tasked with articulating national difference. The sexual abuse by Lebanese (and rich tourists) of Syrian women and girls is endemic. Male and female prostitution has become a primary way for Syrian refugees to earn a living. Neither of these phenomena unleashes sex panics. In this framework, Syrian bodies become that which can be violated by Lebanese. The fact that it was alleged that the accusation of rape was concocted in order to remove the Syrians from their villages only underscores the ways that sex panics license violent convulsions that re-entrench who is inside and outside the nation. Thus the accusation that a Lebanese male body was violated enabled the violation of an entire Syrian refugee community. Such logic—that national boundaries can be articulated across availability for violence—is also at play when it comes to domestic labor. In a similar fashion, the draft domestic violence law—in its present form at least—does not address violence against domestic labor. This omission reproduces foreign labor as “outside” the imagined Lebanese heteronormative family as-nation.
Moral panics and sex panics do not (only) reflect a country’s social or political realities, they articulate and help shape them—especially at moments of deep civil and political unrest, a context that defines today’s Lebanon. Chamoun, the murder of wives by husbands, and the violation of a Syrian refugee camp, each articulate how the Lebanese state and nation define and represent themselves across gendered architectures of citizenship and non-citizenship. Lebanese female bodies are legally tied to male bodies. They are tasked with the marketing of the nation—the good, asexual body and the bad, sexually available body are always female.
What holds this gendered architecture together as nation are constitutive “outsiders”—domestic and migrant labor, Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Lebanon must protect “their women” (and feminized men) from these outsiders as they are simultaneously made available for violation by members of the Lebanese nation. At each of these moments, moral panics, and sex panics bring into focus the ways that both Lebanese citizenship and national imaginaries are gendered and the ways that sexual difference operates and is operationalized politically. Thinking these moments together, rather than as separate moments of sexism, racism, classism or xenophobia, allows us to interrogate the nation as it produces itself, particularly at times when the nation itself is said to be in crisis.