Sexual Politics: Redefining Difference in Postwar Lebanon

In a June 2015 episode of “Mouthi’ al-Arab” (Arab Anchorman), a television competition show for young Arab talents seeking careers in television, one of the contestants interviewed a Lebanese woman about her experience as a victim of domestic abuse.1 In her televised testimony on Al-Hayat TV, the woman described her husband’s physical abuse and the trauma it caused her son who had witnessed it. Lebanese television anchor Tony Khalife, one of the three judges evaluating the contestants’ performances on the show, seized the opportunity to condemn the work of women’s rights organizations in Lebanon:

I categorically refuse our constant portrayal as a masculinist society, as if we Arab people have nothing but beating the woman, humiliating the woman, and offending the woman. Woman is our mother, our sister, and our daughter. What I object to in this issue is the exploitation of woman’s plight - and this is addressed to civil society organizations – for the purpose of building commercial organizations that take advantage of a woman’s suffering by raising foreign funds, making tons of money off of each film they produce that shows a woman’s suffering [Audience Cheers and Applause]. Madam, your son’s humiliation and trauma is for him to hear you talk today before millions of viewers, and not from your abuse by your husband in front of him [He stands up]. When your son today hears you speak out in front of millions about how his father used to beat you in front of him, this is humiliation for him, not when his father hit you in his presence [Audience Cheers and Applause]

This televised segment on a pan-Arab TV channel lays bare the moral anxieties that public discourse on sexual violence provokes. But it also demonstrates the role of women’s rights organizations in the production of that discourse and its circulation in public. In addition to service-provision, including legal support, to victims of domestic abuse, local organizations like Kafa and Abaad have transformed privatized, individual cases of domestic abuse into a social problem that cannot be unseen. It is the culture of revelation and disclosure, exemplified in the woman’s testimony, that Khalife accuses civil society organizations of promoting. By turning her personal trauma into public spectacle, the victim is not only blamed for the suffering of her son, but also accused of tarnishing the image of Arab societies. As a prominent TV personality addressing millions of viewers across the Arab world, Khalife personifies a social investment to conceal women’s suffering – the violence perpetrated against them – in the name of familial and national honor. His disparaging statement, nevertheless, acknowledges the role of civil society organizations in making this violence visible.

In Living a Feminist Life, feminist theorist Sara Ahmed (2016) writes, “If a world can be what we learn not to notice, noticing becomes a form of political labor.” In what follows I expand on this relationship, between perception and political labor, to move towards a conceptualization of the politics of visibility. Grassroots initiatives and collectives as well as civil society organizations have played a pivotal role in turning incidents into media events, directing the public’s attention towards that which had long been unseen and unnamed.

Since 2005, Lebanon has witnessed a growth in gender and sex-based activism.  Women’s and LGBT rights non-governmental organizations, as well as feminist and queer collectives and coalitions have mobilized public opinion around domestic violence, sexual harassment, citizenship laws, domestic workers’ rights, and the freedom of sexual orientation. Over time, these initiatives have sedimented into intersecting feminist and queer formations, gradually carving out a field that could be called sexual politics. I use politics here to refer to power-structured relationships, social arrangements whereby one group of persons is dominated and controlled by another.  To think of sexual politics is to recognize, as the late feminist writer and activist Kate Millet (1970) has put it, that “sex is a status category with political implications” (p.24).2 “Sexual Politics” establishes a relationship between two putatively separate dimensions of human life, the sexual and the political. The separation of the two is itself predicated on the dichotomy of body and mind, mapped as it is onto that organizing principle of social life: the division between the private and public realms.

Thus, by engaging in sexual politics, activists refute these divisions and dichotomies as arbitrary, challenging the notion that our intimate, personal lives are isolated from socio-political structures, and that our subjective bodily experience unfolds outside of power. Turning to legislation as a primary instrument of social change, they forced the state and its apparatuses to engage in these politics, inciting official responses and securing small and big victories in the process.3  Activists working within and outside the institutional framework of NGOs have lobbied the state for legal reforms to protect vulnerable segments of society, namely women, LGBT individuals, and migrant workers. By drawing connections between previously isolated incidents of abuse and exploitation, activists have not only identified the law as a structure perpetuating violence and injustice. They have also, crucially, recognized and named problems such as “sexism,” “racism,” and “homophobia,” bringing the question of social difference in Lebanon under a new light.

In a postwar political discourse defined by religious and sectarian difference, how may we recalibrate our vision of shared social and political space, of common living, to questions of sexual, not merely religious, diversity? To sexual, not just sectarian violence? The question is an invitation to unmute gender and sexual difference in a national public sphere that is overdetermined by sectarian politics, where violence against women and sexual and gender non-conforming people is accorded secondary status along with class and racial violence. 4 Here, sect is the master signifier of difference. It is the primary lens through which the public is invited to consider questions of identity, difference, and collective life, where “religious tolerance” constitutes the cultural logic of the sectarian system of power-sharing and its utmost moral imperative.  

Engaging in sexual politics, in this context, upends a hegemonic understanding of what it means to live differently, in common. It has led to the production of a vibrant public discourse on sexual and gender difference and diversity, where the social meanings of masculinity and femininity and the relative status of men and women are defined and contested. Inequalities have thus been denaturalized, attributed to ideological constructs like patriarchy; sexual variety was de-pathologized, allowing a critique of heterosexual normativity to take shape.

On Saturday April 21, 2013, the head of the municipality of Dekwaneh, a working class suburb of Beirut, ordered the municipal police to raid a gay-friendly nightclub. Three men and one transgender person were arrested, beaten, and forced to undress in order to verify their sexual identity (El-Ali, April 25, 2013; Legal Agenda, December 2, 2013). The bar, Ghost, was shut down a few days later and a report was posted on its door containing the full names and dates of birth of the detained persons – who turned out to include Syrian citizens who had fled the war in Syria – along with the crimes of which they were accused, including prostitution and drug use. The hashtag #DekAbuse5 was trending soon afterwards on social media where critical responses to the arrests abounded.

Justifying the raid in a television interview, the head of municipality Antoine Chakhtoura described those arrested as “pseudo-men,” accusing the club of endorsing immoral sexual activities inside and outside its premises and promoting drug trafficking and lewd and inappropriate behavior. The municipality, according to him, had the moral obligation to protect children from exposure to “freaks” in their neighborhood: “Of course we made them take off their clothes, we saw a scandalous situation and we had to know what these people were. Is it a woman or a man? It turned out to be a half-woman and half-man and I do not accept this in my Dekwaneh" (LBCI, April 23, 2013).6 The following week, around fourty LGBT-rights activists and allies gathered in front of the Ministry of Justice in Beirut to protest the raid and demanding the legal prosecution of Chakhtoura for a number of violations including violation of privacy and arbitrary detention.7 Whereas police raids on gay-friendly establishments are not new in Lebanon, what the #DekAbuse case confirmed was the gradual transformation in the mainstream media’s response to state intervention in the private lives of individuals.

In the July 2012 raid on Cinema Plaza, when security forces arrested 36 men and subjected them to anal examinations – colloquially referred to as “egg tests” – to prove and prosecute homosexual activity,8 the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation opened its evening news broadcast with the announcement: “This is the Republic of Shame.” The state’s actions, rather than the sexual tendencies of the arrested men, were shamed by the flagship TV station, which came out in support of individual rights and sexual freedom. Shame was thus displaced from the bodies of suspected homosexuals and onto the repressive security apparatus of the state. Soon thereafter, the Lebanese Psychiatric Association and the Order of Medical Doctors both issued statements condemning “egg tests” and outlawing their practice. Thus, the vocal response of activists to the raid on Ghost must be read within this broader context where homosexuality and trans embodiment are increasingly normalized, not without significant pushback.

Parallels between Khalife and Chakhtoura’s statements are worth unpacking here, as they both embody a patriarchal and homophobic resistance to social transformations underway. More specifically, they illustrate the anxiety that public speech about sexual violence and sexual freedom provokes among conservative segments of society.  Shame and honor are both mobilized in the TV anchor and public official’s reactionary discourse, in order to police bodies and speech deemed out of place, out of public order. The sanctity of the family and the neighborhood, and by extension of the national community, are conjured: to rally public opinion against the increased visibility of violence against women in the case of Khalife and to justify the exercise of violence against sexually-non conforming people in the case of Chakhtoura. In both instances, it is the unabashed appearance of that which should not be seen or heard in public that constitutes a breach in the social order.

Which brings us back to Sara Ahmed and the question of perception as political labor. “To give a problem a name can change not only how we register an event but whether we register an event,” Ahmed writes. “To give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering what otherwise would remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing.”  Feminist, LGBT, and queer activism is first and foremost about naming problems whereby “sexism,” “racism,” and “homophobia” become recognizable as such, not as exceptional and isolated events but as unacceptable and unjustifiable forms of systemic oppression that need to be addressed and modified. Making sexual violence visible modifies these persistent relations of power by first modifying our understanding of these relations. I chose to focus on these two incidents or moments because they demonstrate the political labor required to make violence against women and queers perceptible – and therefore contestable – in the public sphere. But they also demonstrate that access to the public – the ability to appear and to make the hidden force of patriarchy apparent – is a defining and necessary battle in the quest for social justice.

  • 1Khalife’s intervention can be accessed here:…
  • 2Kate Millet (1970). Sexual Politics. Doubleday & Company: New York.
  • 3In 2009, the National Coalition for Legislating the Protection of Women from Family Violence submitted a draft bill to Parliament titled “The Law to protect Women from Family Violence.” In April 2013, Parliament voted to approve an amended version of the law, now called “The Law on the Protection of Women and other Family Members from Domestic Violence." In August 2017, following a campaign spearheaded by Abaad, Parliament voted to repeal Article 522 of the penal code which includes a provision that allows rapists to avoid criminal prosecution if they marry their victim. In a landmark ruling in 2009, a judge ruled that homosexual sex is not against nature. Similarly, in March 2014, drawing on that legal precedent, Judge Naji El Dahdah of the Jdeide Court in Beirut rejected the case that was brought up by the state against a transgender woman who was accused of having “same-sex relations.” This decision was also based on a 2011 ruling by Judge Mounir Suleiman, which stated that same-sex relations were not against nature, and hence could not be prosecuted under Article 534 (Human Rights Watch, March 6, 2014). In 2016, a ruling at the Court of Appeals in Beirut confirmed the right of a transgender man to change his official papers, granting him access to necessary healthcare (Safdar, February 6, 2016).
  • 4Although the Lebanese state ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, the government expressed reservations on Articles 9 and 16. The rejected articles were related to personal status laws and the nationality rights of women citizens. Thus, despite ratifying CEDAW, the Lebanese state continues to deny women the same rights as men in instances of marriage, divorce, and all family matters and upholds the ban on Lebanese women from passing their nationality to their husbands and children. The personal status law was thus maintained under the mandate of religious rather than civil courts. As Salameh (2014) notes, “people are basically unable to practice social life, relations, and personal choices outside of the license of sectarianism” (p.6).
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  • 6Watch the interview here:
  • 7Helem, a Beirut-based non-governmental organization lobbying for LGBT and human rights since 2005, in cooperation with the Legal Agenda, a non-governmental organization working on legal research, activism, and reform, filed a notice to the Cassation Public Prosecutor’s Office on April 30, 2013 against Chakhtoura accusing him of 11 criminal offences.
  • 8Suspected homosexuals are prosecuted under Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code which criminalizes sex against nature.