Voicing Silences

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh

The 21-year-old Lebanese-American porn star Mia Khalifa sparked controversy few days ago in Lebanon, after topping the charts of the most popular online adult site PornHub. While many were offended by her work and her tattoo ‘Koullouna lil-watan, lil ‘oula lil ‘alam’ (opening line of the Lebanese national anthem) and even demonized her, others saw her as an icon of freedom of choice and expression against religious extremism, Da3ech/ISIS and Cie (“the last frontier” against these organizations), social-political repression, censorship and sexual taboos.  It took me a while to follow the hundreds of comments on Facebook and read dozens of articles – including Huffington Post’s “Mia Khalifa Is Now PornHub’s Biggest Porn Star – But Her Lebanese Compatriots Are Less Than Impressed – in order to write my own. The reactions and counter-reactions were quite similar to those related to Jackie Chamoun’s case last year – Lebanese ski champion posing nude for a sport calendar.

In her book ‘Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World’, the science writer, broadcaster and vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Shereen El Feki, uses sex as a means to understand better the Egyptian society and other countries in the region. According to El Feki, today’s sexual intolerance of the Arab world wasn’t the ‘general rule’ in the Middle Ages – quite the opposite of a puritanical Europe -, not even in 19th century Egypt. However, sexuality is, theoretically at least, confined in the contemporary era to “state-registered, family-approved, religiously sanctioned matrimony’. Beyond those boundaries, intimacy is shameful and forbidden.

Social taboos and silences relating to sexual behavior outside specific margins have indeed proliferated in recent years and may be linked to the rise of extremisms, to diverse crises and continuous wars, although many argue that they go back to the colonialist mentality and social-political system where normativity (sexual, gender, racial…) was the product of a specific intervention to maintain or enable a particular set of power dynamics. Indeed, colonial rule (French and British) relied on many methods to socially subdue those they wished to colonize. Sexuality and gender roles played a primary role, and they were intertwined with those of race and class. Control of sexuality could be perceived as the foundation of colonial mentality, privileges and the social boundaries formed everywhere, such as the North-American case (refer here to Ann Laura Stoler. Tense and Tender Ties: the Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies. Journal of American History. 2001. 88: 829-826) . According to Stoler, colonialism acted to impose “protective models of womanhood and motherhood and prescriptions for domestic relations that constrained both the women and men in servitude” (p. 843). These models were actively participated in by men and women themselves in the belief that superiority of colonialists lay in the possession of society as opposed to savagery.

In the land of the creation/dissemination of the first alphabet, taboos/silences coexist with spaces of negotiability or accommodations of discreet ‘practices’ and ‘incidents’ of otherwise publicly condemned attitudes and behaviors – as long as the mechanisms of control are not threatened. Sexuality is closely linked to discretion. In his article ‘Power and Sexuality in the Middle East’ (Middle East Report), Bruce Dunne argues that there were always contradictions between normative morality and social realities in Middle Eastern societies from the medieval to the modern period. Ruling authorities often saw prostitution for instance “as a socially useful alternative to potential male sexual violence (e.g. against respectable women) and a welcome source of tax revenues”, “a part of the secret equilibrium of local societies, necessary to their social reproduction”. The cases of Chamoun and Khalifa have much more to do with their ‘public revelation’ – the public revelation of a woman’s body and of sexuality – than with the practice itself. What should have been discreet, secret, part of the private realm, was disclosed. They have much more to do with their ‘uncontrolled’ character as human beings, citizens, and specifically, as women – women are usually perceived as emotional and lacking self-control, particularly of sexually drives. Female sexuality in that perspective, if unsatisfied or uncontrolled, could disrupt the distribution of gender roles in relation to power and result in social chaos.

That being said, are public nudity/sexuality and pornography the mediums of a mindset revolution leading to gender equality and advanced societies in Lebanon and surrounding countries? Is a sexual revolution the basis of a sustainable change that the so-called Arab spring did not achieve in most countries? According to some ‘fans’ of Khalifa’s work, public expression of sexuality is a feminist expression and beyond, a human rights’ expression, and a channel of sexual liberation, which is a key component of women’s liberation and generally, of the Lebanese society’s liberation from subjugation and censorship. Criticism of public display of nudity/sexuality and pornography according to this approach is the product of the oppressive Lebanese social-political system and religious extremist movements/ideologies.

Noting here that few Lebanese distinguish between pornography and erotica as different classes of social media, the former emphasizing dominance and the latter mutuality. (refer to Gloria Steinem’s and Page Mellish’s works, and to ‘Al Jassad’ (The Body) magazine by the Lebanese feminist journalist and author Joumana Haddad).

According to some anti-pornography individuals (comments found on Khalifa’s account), these mediums are forms of violence against women. Khalifa is ‘young thus unconscious, immature’. She is perceived as ‘a victim of the sex industry’, a vulnerable prey, easily coerced. Also, pornography contributes to sexism – women are reduced to sex objects for the sole pleasure of men – and distorted perceptions of men’s and women’s bodies and of sexual relations. Others anti-pornography views displayed religious – specifically Muslim and Christian – arguments related to chastity, virginity, licit/illicit behavior, and vehemently condemned Khalifa and those who defended her.

Certainly, women’s bodies and sexuality have become arenas of political clashes and intense ethical/moral conflicts in Lebanon and most South Western Asian countries. Conservative and religious right wings in different communities try to maintain or reinforce mechanisms of control, and even create new ones, thus positioning social actors as powerful or powerless, normal or deviant. At the same time, there are women and men who struggle against violations of human rights -such as sexual and reproductive rights-, and who join sometimes their forces to counter these mechanisms both online and offline, but the impact of their visions, discourses and praxis is still minimal. Furthermore, when they only focus on the appropriation and valorization of bodies and sexuality in the public sphere, they miss other ways of voicing silences, other fundamental pillars for a renewed social-political edifice that would guarantee both individual and collective rights, a free marketplace of ideas and the formation of a pluralistic society where differences of opinions and practices would more than coexist, truly ‘exist together’.

Weaving a new tapestry definitely requires a multiple levels’ pattern!

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