In Beirut, An Illusion of Progress on Women's Rights

Anyone who has been to Beirut will tell you that it is a city of contradictions. Saturday afternoons usually consist of bikini-clad girls walking arm-in-arm to one of the capital’s countless beach parties, before heading out for an evening of drinks in the well-known area of Gemmayze. Having travelled to and worked as a journalist in much of the Middle East, I never expected Lebanon to take me by surprise. My expectations of Beirut under the new Hezbollah-dominated government certainly did not involve girls in stilettoes or Sex and the City-style cocktail parties.

But, shortly after starting my job as a reporter for the country’s main English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, I realized that Lebanon turned out to be the place that confused me the most. The longer I spent in Beirut, the more I realized that the city merely upholds the façade of liberality and that I had naively perceived girls dressed in revealing clothing as a sign of their independence and freedom. But, the sad reality is that the city’s casual social rules are no more than "smoke and mirrors," distracting visitors from the horrendous acts of gender inequality that continue to take place across the country.

A prominent example of this inequality can be seen in Lebanon’s citizenship laws. The nationality law dictates that women who are married to foreigners cannot pass on their Lebanese citizenship to their children (they must be widowed to do so). However, a Lebanese man who marries a foreigner may pass on his nationality to his children and wife. The result is that children with Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers continue to be viewed as immigrants by the state. They are denied all access to public schools and hospitals and are unable to work without costly residents permits that have to continually be renewed.

In Beirut, I met a Lebanese lady married to an American who was appalled by this law and sadly did not even realize it existed until her son was 18 months old. “I cannot believe that my son will have no citizenship in a country that is part of him. Whilst we can show him the traditions of Lebanon, he will always be viewed as an outsider by the government.”

As a child of mixed race parents — my father is Jordanian and my mother is British — this issue strikes a cord with me. It is important for mixed race children to feel connected to both sides of their identity, and denying them citizenship to one part of their heritage is one sure-fire way to prevent this. But why should it matter? The fact that I am mixed race should have no bearing on my work, but in the Arab world, it did. I did not slot neatly into one racial or national category and as a result, people always questioned my standpoint and were hesitant to accept that I may be sympathetic to a vast range of causes. While Arab journalists treated me with kindness and respect, they could not help but define me by the differences we held, and not the similarities that we shared.

During my time as a reporter in Jordan, my editor was hesitant to include me in discussions that focused on the plight of Arab women. My viewpoint was always considered that of an outsider, someone who could not understand the Arab woman’s perspective. I did not blame them for treating me this way, as I grew up in the U.K., my Arabic is barely conversational, and I did not inherit my father’s olive skin and brown eyes.

In Damascus, my editors felt no qualms about sending me out on reports that may have involved my being the only woman amongst a group of 20 men. I did not mind this, but what troubled me was that it was my lack of “traditional Arab values” that made me suitable for certain roles.

Growing up away from the Arab world, I have unquestionably lost a part of myself and, at times, my attempts to re-gain it have seemed shallow and insincere. I have felt completely estranged on the many evenings I sat with my Jordanian grandmother as she told me stories from my family’s past or forced me to go to yet another cousin’s wedding. Whilst the Middle East is a region that I love, I continue to be awestruck by some of the stories I hear, angered by the cultural expectations placed on women, and disheartened by the way that things don’t seem to be changing fast enough.

Hopefully, the bravery of women now speaking out against governmental injustices across the Arab world will transfer to women suffering from personal injustices in their own homes. It is easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the Arab Spring, but we must remember the challenges that women continue to face and we must be wary of the illusion of progress.

Photo Credit: Jessica Sarhan

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Jessica Sarhan

Jessica Sarhan is a Deputy News Editor for Al Jazeera English, and is based in Doha, Qatar. Before joining Al Jazeera, she worked as a Deputy Foreign Editor for Sky News in London and reported for various publications across the Middle East. Having lived in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the U.A.E., Thailand, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. – she has certainly got the travel bug and has developed a real passion for women's rights and international women's development along the way.

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