Females During a Time of Change: A Closer Look at Beauty in the Lebanese October 2019 Revolution

Author’s note: I initially wanted to write about my aging self and the attitude people in Lebanon have towards my reluctance to follow the social norms of body and facial maintenance, but as I began to write my piece for the blog, the Lebanese people took to the streets in revolt against a corrupt government which has made life in Lebanon unbearable. The revolution began October 17th 2019, and as of yet seems to be non-ending. I have spent all this time watching the females of my country (all ages) take to the streets and challenge norms; thus, I was motivated to change the direction of my piece.

Beauty. A word that has layers of meanings. It is a word that has been used for centuries denoting the expectations of a female’s physical appearance. Even in some cases it has been used to imply the actions of a female as in the adage “beauty is as beauty does”. But what does any of this actually mean? I am a 56-year-old woman. I am a university professor and my area of study is dance. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it does not get any more physical than the statement ‘my area of study is dance’.

Today, more than any other time in the past, visuals surround us on a daily basis. We are bombarded with advertisements and photos that represent what beauty is and should be. Not only on the streets and magazines (as in the past) but also on smartphones which we all possess and look at hundreds of times a day. Some people argue that as females we are supposed to attend to these beauty requirements as if they are law and when we do not, we do not fit in. However, I argue that as females, it falls upon us to make the changes we want to see in the world.

Feminine Power: Taking It to the Streets
A female protester who was interviewed by one of the Lebanese TV stations said that when the people see females on the ground during the protests they feel safe and believe that coming to the protest is not something life threatening (Fawad, 2019). This was considered by many as a positive issue, but is it? I question why females are viewed as ‘nonthreatening’ and I believe it is because of one of the predominate views of beauty and femininity in the Middle Eastern: be seen and not heard. As an aging female body living in the Middle East, I do not feel secure knowing that society views me as nonthreatening. I am absolutely sure of this because I was one of the hundreds of people who had to walk to the airport to leave Lebanon on Oct 18th 2019. I was due to attend a convention in London and the revolution had begun the night before. Due to all the roadblocks and fires along the roads, I had to leave the taxi and walk the final stretch to the airport. For the first 27 minutes of 45-minute walk, I was a lone female on the road. I did not feel safe. I did not feel secure. I felt scared and vulnerable. I expected at any moment to be attacked by the males on the streets who were not a part of the revolution. The males on the street were a part of a Moped/Scooter gang who were riding up and down the street offering rides to those people who were walking to the airport and charging them exorbitant fees to do so.


Malak Herz is a Lebanese female who some now call the face of the revolution. On the first day of the eruption, Malak managed to kick one of the minister’s armed bodyguards when said bodyguard threatened to shoot at the protestors. Malak was later interviewed on MTV (a local Lebanese TV station) and said that she did so without thinking. She was very emotional when she spoke and at one point ceased to talk and motioned with her hand for the camera to stop filming her. Malak said she did not know from where her strength came. Both the video and photo of her kicking the armed man in the groin managed to go viral on social media. Cartoonists made sketches of her and these cartoons were used to further the movement and place females at the forefront (see Fig 1 below). This may seem like a wonderful move forward for females in Lebanon. It might also seem like a step towards a more equal view of females and males, but I wonder if it is. 
Fig 1: A cartoon made out of the infamous Kick. Some call it the Kick that started a revolution

Lebanese Females Breaking Taboos: Standing Ground
Females took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. This made me feel very proud because I felt that we (females) were finally getting the recognition we deserve. However, as I have been able to see more and more of the media’s visual representations of us, I am not happy. 

According to Elbasnaly and Knipp (2019) the presence of females in Tripoli helped in minimizing some of the Taboos about females in leadership and the freedom of females in Islam. The vast amount of female presence in Al-Nour Square, a square in Tripoli known for its religious significance, supposedly made a statement about Lebanese females and their freedom. Females in the square were referring to themselves as enablers of the revolution through creating a secure environment (Rose, 2019). We might think of females building walls of protection or females taking care of people in need, but the fact is that they considered themselves to be ‘security’ based on the fact that they are females and the weaker sex.

And, according to interviews that were broadcast live on all the TV and radio stations, females on the streets believed that their presence in numbers reflected strength and helped to maintain security and stability. “Females are on the front lines of protests in Lebanon — and they are inspiring feminists in other Arab countries to stand up, too” (Rose, 2019). Fig 2 is a photo that was circulating on social media and shows females standing at the front line. During those first few days the army did not know what to do with the females who were valiantly standing in front of them. A video of an army soldier who was brought to tears at having to face off with the people of his country went viral.
Fig 2: Women in the Face of the Army

In the photo (fig 2) you can see the women are dressed in everyday attire, next to no make-up, disheveled hair, they even look a bit weary because this was their 5th or 6th day on the street. But this photo was not one that was shared a lot on social media. Nor was it properly used in the media.


However, if you take a look at figures 3a and 3b, you will see the photos that were more commonly shared. Why? Maybe it was because in those photos the women are more made up, less tired, more smiley and (as one male who I interviewed told me) they are “just more beautiful”.
Fig 3a: The Happy Smiling Women of the Revolution

Fig 3b: The Front Line Posed


As the days went on, the army decided to be less intimidated by the females and the ploy was not going to work anymore. Several women were hurt the day the army decided to stop seeing them as fragile females (fig 4). 
Fig 4: The Army Fights Back

The Middle East’s View of Lebanese Females 
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a newspaper titled Okaz. This newspaper decided to write an article covering the revolution that has been happening in Lebanon and of course what does the headline read? "Lebanese Beauties: All of These Wonderful Females Are Revolutionaries." Who would consider beauty the main headline in a revolution? And I rhetorically ask, if there had been no females on the ground would the headline still have been about beauty?  Below are some of the photos posted.
 

I guess that could be one way to wave a flag.

The Right to Fight vs The Need to Be Seen 
The first night of the revolution saw the most violence on the streets. It was the beginning and it started almost spontaneously. I do not want to go into too much detail since the revolution itself is not the purpose behind this piece of writing. Thus, along the lines of what I am attempting to highlight, take a look at the two photos below (Fig 5a and Fig 5b). No prior preparation was taken on the first night and day of the revolution. See the female in the lower right-hand side of the photo. Spontaneously, she raised her hands in a motion of surrender, a motion of peace and walked towards the barrier of male bodies. Those male bodies were attempting to stop the protesters. This female’s motion also became a visual of the protest. It was also turned into cartoons and used to represent peaceful intentions with the hashtag #bilsimiyi (which means in peace). 

Fig 5a: Female protester the first night of the revolution (Photo Credit Jad Melki)
Fig 5b: Same female protester walking through the fiery streets in attempt to stop the violence (Photo Credit Jad Melki)
These were photos I was proud to see. I was so moved by this young woman (she asked to remain unnamed) and had the opportunity to interview her. She told me that even though she appears to be strong and confident, she was so scared she was shivering all through her walk. When I asked what motivated her to do what she did, she told me that it was simply a spontaneous thing. She looked around and saw the army and police approaching. She looked around her and saw her fellow protesters and she believed that by raising her hands she could make her peaceful intentions known. This is beauty.

Days 5-6: The Fashionistas Appeared 
As the revolution evolved into days 5 and 6, a new faction of females began to appear on the ground and thus the social media switch. I call this faction the fashionistas of the revolution. It was their appearance that caused the media headlines to switch to (as previously mentioned) using terms such as ‘beautiful rebels, glamor queens’ etc. This switch also caused strife as the feminists in the country did not like the change and the misogynists had a field day with them. More and more as the country was fighting to unite, the females were standing on opposite sides: one side wanted to be taken seriously and the other wanted to look good in a selfie. The following photos are ones that were circulated in social media and printed media and they epitomize the term fashionista. 








Day 13: The Gangs Appeared 
On the 13th day of the protests supporting the revolution, the government resigned.
On the 13th day of the protests, the anti-revolution gangs appeared. They entered the space with a vengeance not before seen in the days preceding. They attacked person and material items without any regard. The following photos are from the media, both social and printed.


Where are the fashionistas now? Seems the media deems it fine to use photos of females of the revolution when they are not posed, perfect and the most beautiful. BUT they deem it fine only in cases of violence, anger and danger. Why? I ask that question to many of my colleagues in the field. They agree that this is unacceptable but as one of them saw fit to say, “Beauty and Sex sell”. When will this change? Rhetorical again.

To draw my somewhat lengthy blog to an end, I would remind the readers that I am a female and I understand the issues a female physique has to deal with but not all females have the same issues or are at the same level of freedom. Even though I can totally understand the struggles faced by females in the West, I know that these same issues are not always the prominent ones in the Middle East. That being said, I also know that we do have a collective point of view. As Heather Widdows says in her January 2019 piece for Psychology Today; “To focus on what we each do divides us, makes us ashamed and does not work. Collective action, collective protest—yes—go girls, fantastic. But it must always be collective.”

Collective action is a must and I am in total agreement with Widdows. For me, the females in the Lebanese October 2019 revolution were of more than one face of the collective, some I could relate to and others not so much. The media called some of them “Lara Crofts of the Middle East” (Fawad, 2019). I object to that analogy because the females that stood in physical opposition did not look anything like the glamor of Angelina Jolie. On the contrary, those females with their hands and heads held high, those females with their strong legs that can kick, those females are anything but Lara Crofts and their beauty needs to be respected. I will end with a final image from the protesters. They carry a sign that reads: The devil is in your head and not in the female bodies.


Nadra Assaf is associate chair of the Communication Arts Department at the Lebanese American University. She describes herself as an informed aging body living, dancing, and creating in the Middle East since 1991. In 2016 she began working with US dancer/educator Heather Harrington and their escapades involving the situation of females in the world today, have taken them to: Lebanon, USA, Sweden, Malta and next in Ireland, June 2020.
Links:

Works Cited

Anonymous. (2019, October 18). Lebanon 'kick queen' hits government where it hurts. Retrieved from France24: https://www.france24.com/en/20191018-lebanon-kick-queen-hits-government-where-it-hurts

Elbasnaly, D., & Knipp, K. (2019, October 24). Women-led protests in Lebanon inspire Middle East feminists. Retrieved from DW: https://amp.dw.com/en/women-led-protests-in-lebanon-inspire-middle-east-feminists/a-50957926

Fawad, M. (2019, October 22). Lebanese Revolution . (M. Presenter, Interviewer)


Widdows, H. (2019, January 31). Januhairy: Liberation Within Limits. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/perfect-me/201901/januhairy-liberation-within-limits


Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post Professor Assaf. It's so interesting. After seeing some of the social media pictures of the revolutionary fashionistas I had wondered, cynically, how massive fake eyelashes, blue contact lenses and perfect makeup would last in a confrontation with soldiers. I'd love for you to interview some of the fashionistas about their motivations and intentions.

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