“Keep your suffering locked in your heart; unveiled suffering is scandal and dishonor”.
“Behind every great man is a woman”.
“A woman’s weapon is her tears”.
“Sois belle et tais-toi!”
Most women in Lebanon and Western Asia are taught to be powerless, docile, weak, to serve and obey, to be followers not leaders, to be silent…
“Silence is medication for sorrow”.
“If talk is silver then silence is gold”.
A taciturn woman deserves high praise, for belonging to the ‘good and quiet type’. It is of her that people say:
“She has a mouth which eats but does not speak”.
However, to be sure, she is usually put to the test:
“Break a woman’s spinning thread and you’ll see what language will come from her mouth”.
Indeed, if her mouth remains silent, she deserves the prize for submission.
The main message dictated in such proverbs and many others is that female voice/vision/opinion has no weight. A woman is a ‘feme covert’, a ‘woman eclipsed’, covered by her husband, or her father, her brother, her uncle, her male cousin… A wife has to be dedicated to serving her master in silence and bearing his children, and a good wife produces a male heir, which gives her the right to speak, but the voice of her husband remains the dominant voice – clearly a patriarchal ideology that has been so deeply embedded for so long that it seems completely natural for numerous Lebanese, unassailable, indisputable.
There are several theories explaining the oppression of women, even in biological terms such as the sociologist Stephen Goldberg in his book ‘The Inevitability of Patriarchy’. Goldberg suggests that men are naturally more competitive than women because of their high level of testosterone. This makes them aggressive and power-hungry, so that they inevitably take over the high status positions in families and society, leaving women to the more subordinate roles. In the view of psychologist Steve Taylor (‘Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind’), most human beings suffer from an underlying psychological disorder which he calls ‘humania’. The oppression of women (along with despising women and inflicting brutality and degradation on them) is a symptom of this disorder. “What sane species would treat half of its members – and the very half which gives birth to the whole species – with such contempt and injustice?” What sane species would silence its half?
In many Asian and African cultures, silence is revered. Eastern Asian cultures associate silence with wisdom and power. Most religions have long recognized the virtue of silence in meditation and communal life – silence is used to connect to the Supreme Being, or for spiritual purification and growth. Silence has been emphasized as the prerequisite to learning. It has a relational advantage, whether the relationship is between a professional and a client or in counseling (the ability to listen is an important trait of a good counselor). It is a common practice to have a moment of silence when something tragic happens – a way of paying respect by showing sympathy to the victims and their families. Silence helps also one’s mind to rest – an exhausted mind cannot make the best decisions –; and in certain circumstances, when someone gets arrested, silence is the best thing to avoid further incrimination.
However, when individuals and communities impose silence/use silence as a weapon to control, it becomes synonymous with alienation, oppression, marginalization and discrimination. Many are the families in Lebanon and Western Asia that socialize women to bear their traumas with sealed lips. Outside, all the other institutions in society underline the same message. Oppressed women internalize the culture of silence and other negative images of themselves created and imposed by others, and feel incapable of autonomy and self-governance – most victims of the culture of silence frequently manifest reluctance to complain, even if they are agonizing, and they insist on hiding their pain under the pretext of social conventions, customs, religious laws and traditions.
Lebanon is plagued by a culture of silence on many levels: contemporary history, national war memory, forced disappearances, sexuality, racism, secularism, Lebanese Jewry, poverty, social injustices, etc. and, despite civil society’s initiatives and large-scale condemnations on social media, a culture of silence towards crimes and discrimination against women still prevail – the controversial draft-law on domestic violence that was approved by the Parliament on Tuesday is one of the many examples of this prevailingness (see references below).
Most Lebanese fear each other for different and varying reasons. Fear silences them (imprisoned psyche) and breeds distrust regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, religion or political affiliation. They remain silent because they believe silence protects their well-being, their families, their livelihood, their chance of survival. But is this the legacy that we wish to leave our children?
More than ever, women and men believing and struggling in/for Peace and Human Rights are challenged to question power imbalance in private and public spheres, to resist the culture of silence/fear/oppression, even if many families’ and communities’ prestige and status are at stake when women go out and speak about the abuse they suffer at home and at their workplace, about their opinion, ideas, dreams, ambition and passion; even if society finds it tough to acknowledge that the personal is also political and social – especially “women’s personal”. More than ever, Lebanese citizens are challenged to bring about this paradigm shift, to question themselves, the government, political and religious leaders, to speak about their truths openly and not let MPs or anyone else decide on their own which voices are important and which aren’t.
This post (and call) is not a declaration of war. It is an acknowledgement of consciousness, a consciousness that will spread, sooner or later…
References concerning the recently approved draft-law on domestic violence in Lebanon: