Well of course a man should beat his wife if she cheats on him!”
It has been three years since my friend made that comment with a laugh, as I stared at her with a stunned expression, and yet I still remember it clearly. It was the first time since coming to Lebanon that I realised the depth of the surprisingly conservative values lying just under the surface of the modern, Western-facing country that appears to those who briefly visit it.
The Lebanese are proud of their country’s “cosmopolitan” reputation
Lebanon, and its sunny, bustling capital, Beirut, does not initially seem to have much in common with its fellow Arab nation states like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Walking past the brightly painted apartment buildings of Gemzaye in Beirut or sipping a coffee in a seaside city like Byblos, you feel like you are in the South of France, not “the Arab world”. The Lebanese are proud of their country’s “cosmopolitan” reputation and in politically stable times Lebanon is a tourism hub for wealthy Gulf Arabs who come to escape the conservative confines of their home countries – and the even more oppressive weather – for the summer.
Lebanese women are very well educated, they attend universities at essentially the same rate as their male counterparts, and it is normal for Lebanese women to work full time in career fields like banking, engineering, medicine, and business; although, once Lebanese women get married and start families, many choose to stay home in a more traditional role. Street harassment is significantly lower in Lebanon than in every other Arab country I have visited and I always tell people back at home – to their complete surprise – that I feel much safer on the streets of Beirut at night than I ever did back in the US.
That being said, while on the surface Lebanon often seems extremely progressive with regards to women’s rights compared to many of its neighbours, my Lebanese friend’s surprising comment did not come from a vacuum. The underlying values in Lebanese culture – reputation, honour, pride, and family – are deeply conservative and do not always reflect the outwardly “cosmopolitan” nature the country likes to project.
Traditional values also form the basis of the Lebanese legal system that in many ways discriminates against women
These traditional values also form the basis of the Lebanese legal system that in many ways discriminates against women. Only last year did Lebanon finally outlaw domestic violence despite great resistance from both Sunni and Shi’ite religious groups, who in a rare moment of sectarian unity perceived outlawing domestic violence (something openly allowed in the Quran [4:34]) as a threat to their control over the family sphere.
Domestic violence was only finally criminalised after a series of horrifying domestic violence-related murders – including one unfortunate incident in which a young teacher was beaten to death by her husband despite the police being called. The police refused to intervene in what they (and the law) deemed a “private family matter”, and the young woman was killed in front of her two daughters. The public mood, which had been indifferent to negative on issues of domestic violence did a handbrake turn, and the anti-domestic violence bill which had been languishing for years was quickly passed.
Three years on, I’m not sure what my friend thinks of a husband beating his wife today. I doubt she – or any Lebanese – is as flippant about this serious topic. I think the awareness of what was previously considered a distasteful though not devastating societal ill has increased, which is great cause for hope.
Additionally, Christians in Lebanon have been working to combat domestic violence and the perception of gender-based violence in Lebanon. I have heard amazing stories from friends and colleagues serving refugee communities. Previously they have been blighted by extremely high rates of domestic violence (due to a variety of factors including high situational stress and feelings of inadequacy and inability to provide for their families). Through discipleship, discussion groups, and counselling, new believers and those still on a faith journey have seen their marriages and home lives transformed as they learn to build families on Kingdom values, instead of traditional cultural values. Long may that continue.