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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann

Originally featured on Lebanon Matters

October 20, 2010

Beirut – The basis of conservative Arab society, the institution of marriage, is in crisis. Relaxed attitudes to sex and economic difficulties are placing the traditional roles of men and women in society under question, especially in Lebanon.

Three extremely thin young women walk through a trendy bar in central Beirut balanced on excruciatingly high heels. One of them has unnaturally large-looking breasts and an unusually small nose. Her legs are encased in a colourful pair of designer jeans while her friends wear elaborate make-up and cocktail dresses.

The people of Lebanon are famed throughout the Arab world for their devotion to the cult of beauty. But the lengths to which some young Lebanese are prepared to go to get the right look can exceed those expectations. ‘There is vicious competition to find a financially secure husband who can maintain his wife’s family’s image,’ says sociologist Akram Succaria from the Lebanese University.

 

This competition has become even more intense in the past few years due in part to increasingly relaxed attitudes to sex in some sections of Lebanese society. It is also because more young Lebanese men than women opt to go abroad after they have completed their studies. This emigration has led to an excess number of women in the Lebanese population. It is now almost as difficult to find a single man in Beirut as it is in the capital of singles, New York.

Estimates suggest there are 10 women seeking a partner for every six single men. Many Lebanese women are unwilling to marry a foreigner as that would mean they could not pass their citizenship on to their children. Lebanese feminists have been complaining for some time without success about this form of discrimination.

There is no form of civil marriage in Lebanon and all unions must be formed in a religious context. That means if a Muslim wants to marry a Christian or a Druze a Muslim, they must go abroad to perform the ceremony. Just like many Israelis who face the same problem, some Lebanese decide to travel abroad, to nearby Cyprus for example, to get married.

‘Lebanese men have a big choice of women,’ explains Maher Fergali, 29. The student engineer is a Christian from the mountain village of Bdadun and would like to get married. He’s not in a hurry to do so even though he has his own apartment, which is regarded in Lebanese culture as being a prerequisite for marriage. The average age that Lebanese get married at is 31-years-old for women and 35 for men. A decade ago those figures were seven years less.

‘When a Lebanese person wants something, they will do anything to get it — that applies both to men and women,’ says sociologist Succaria. He’s not surprised that some women are prepared to get their lips or breasts enlarged to improve their chances on the marriage market. ‘Cosmetic surgery is treated like an investment.’

Although looks do play a very big role for the beauty-fixated Lebanese in choosing a partner, cosmetic surgery is not always successful. ‘I don’t really find those copy-and-paste women who all look the same attractive,’ says Fergali. He says he’s looking for a wife who can contribute to the family’s income. ‘I think it’s better if we both work and we could get housekeeper from Sri Lanka.’

His 27-year-old friend George Daou comes from the same village as Fergali but he feels under pressure to marry. He and his girlfriend have been saving money for the past five years so they can say the Yes word. They both still live with their respective parents but despite thrift they still don’t have enough saved to pay for a traditional Lebanese wedding with a bride’s dress, gold jewelry, flower decorations and an enormous party.

‘You need at least 30,000 dollars to get married,’ says his sister Nesrin. ‘My girlfriend is patient. She’s prepared to wait — for the moment,’ says her brother. But Lebanese society is putting pressure on young women. Anyone who is still unwed at the age of 32 is regarding as being ‘old iron that soon won’t be able to have kids.’ That accounts for why some women opt not to listen to their hearts and choose an older man with a home and an income over their teenage love.

But when love and exasperation are strong and financial reserves weak, some couples in the countryside resort to a trick with a long tradition in Lebanon: the pair elope, concealing the woman in the home of the man’s cousins. Negotiators then try to persuade the ‘kidnapped’ woman’s parents to give their blessing to the marriage — even without the expensive dress and party. It often works.

Taxi driver Abu Ali is from a village in the south of the country and shakes his head at such methods. ‘Weddings are very expensive for Christians and Sunnis. But we Shiites are different,’ says the grandfather. ‘It’s normal for us to marry a girl when she reaches 18 years. If one of my sons chooses a wife I will give him 2,000 dollars. That’s enough for a ring, a copy of the Koran and sweets to share at the wedding reception. Then he can rent a small apartment and be happy with his wife.’

 

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