Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why the shameless can’t take topless

Apparently, a girl who exposes her breasts can agitate some Lebanese much more than a man who clubs his wife to death.

Lebanese alpine skier Jackie Chamoun Tuesday was forced to issue an apology on her Facebook page because she appeared topless in the video of a photo shoot three years ago for a sports calendar.

Chamoun’s photos for the calendar were far less explicit than what appeared in the video. So, Chamoun, with her teammate Chirine Njeim, is essentially being held responsible for how she appeared in her off-camera moments.

Chamoun wrote, “I want to apologize to all of you, I know that Lebanon is a conservative country and this is not the image that reflects our culture. I fully understand if you want to criticise this.”

Chamoun did nothing for which to apologize. She should have said that only her photos on the calendar revealed what she intended to reveal and that it’s really no one’s business how she dresses, or undresses, outside that particular context. Whether Lebanon is conservative or not should be irrelevant here, and whatever its culture, Chamoun has not been accused of breaking any laws.

In response, caretaker Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami asked the head of Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to initiate the “necessary inquiries” into the incident. Usually that’s just a stock reaction to cover oneself, while intending to do nothing. Hopefully that is the case this time. The country has enough major problems not to waste another moment on a pair of athletes who happened to bare their breasts.

What made the reaction even more absurd was that similar outrage was absent when Mohammad al-Nhaily recently beat his wife Manal Assi to death with a pressure cooker in front of their daughters. While the crime was taking place, a neighbor called the police to intervene. They refused, arguing that this was a family matter.

What a pity the interior minister did not launch an investigation into why the police failed to enforce the law. Recall Karam al-Bazzi, who regularly beat his wife Roula Yaacoub and their five daughters. Last July, Yaacoub was found in a coma in their home in Halba and later died. It remains unclear whether Bazzi was responsible, and an investigation later determined that he was not. Yet some neighbors and human rights organizations disagreed with this conclusion. Had the authorities shown more readiness from the outset to arrest Bazzi for assaulting his wife and daughters, perhaps we would have been spared such a debate over cause of death.

When a draft law to end domestic violence came up for a parliamentary vote last year, Islamic leaders opposed it. A bone of contention was whether marital rape should be criminalized. Sunni sheikhs and Hezbollah opposed it, arguing it would interfere with relations between husband and wife.

The defense of privacy is laudable, and the so-called “castle doctrine,” which holds that an individual has certain protections and immunities within his own home, is a valued principle in many countries. But in no way should it be employed to permit blatant violations of the law. The blurring between what is public and private, and how the law should apply in each domain, is a recurring shortcoming in Lebanon.

Chamoun’s case adds to the confusion. What she did only became public when Al-Jadeed broadcast a video of her photo shoot. Otherwise, the video was largely intended as a private record, and the topless scenes were filmed far from the crowds of Farayya. Nor has Chamoun been charged with public indecency. Condemnation has come only because she “created a bad image of Lebanon.”

Chamoun’s experience, like that of Assi, exposed a troubling view of women in Lebanese society: Evidently, when they are submissive, particularly sexually submissive, this is somehow deemed acceptable by the authorities and their conservative supporters; but when they display any inkling of sexual liberation or independence, officials rise up in indignation and order investigations.

That’s not to say Chamoun has no supporters. Quite a few Lebanese took to social media sites and newspapers to deride the sheer idiocy of the episode. I suspect that titillation, rather than moral righteousness, was behind many of the criticisms directed against her. Like so much in Lebanon, what you see is not what you get.

Several years ago, a Lebanese celebrity was embarrassed when a video of her and her boyfriend filmed in one of their more intimate moments began circulating in Lebanon. Somehow, the video had been leaked, and many people eagerly watched it. The late journalist Samir Kassir was disturbed by this reaction, feeling that the woman was entitled to her privacy. A few months later, in a sign of support, he put her on the cover of the magazine he was editing.

Here was decency otherwise so lacking in our society. Chamoun would do well to ignore what happened and focus on the Olympics. If she wins, she can be assured that the song will change. The hypocrites will turn silent once Lebanon applauds.

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