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Lebanon’s other women ‘out’ in force

Published on 30/11/2009

Beirut — They remain anonymous, but their voices are out in force and bold print: a group of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women have braved law and social taboo in Lebanon with a little pink-and-white book.

"Bareed Mista3jil," Arabic for "Mail in a Hurry," is a collection of 41 true stories of women grappling with coming out, religion, family and emigration.

One story is by a woman struggling to reconcile her religion and sexual orientation. Another speaks about the hardships of coming out in Lebanese society and a third deals with rape.

The book, the first such initiative in the largely conservative Arab world, is published by Meem, a support group for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning women in Lebanon.

Often silenced and marginalised by society and overshadowed by their straight, siliconed counterparts promoted in the media, the stories of Lebanon’s other women have resonated with local and international audiences, and the book has been reprinted after the first batch of hundreds sold out.

"The original idea of publishing a book like this came on a spring night in 2006, while driving down Hamra Street in Beirut," said Shant, the coordinator of Meem.

Three years later, the 223-page book available in English and Arabic hit bookstores across the capital, selling at 18 dollars for the paperback version.

The stories, referred to as "letters written, sealed, and sent out to the world," are personal, compelling and often painful, tackling religion, citizenship, gender identity and emigration.

But Meem, which started as a support group of four and now counts over 300 members, is still very careful about who it lets in and about going public.

The group is an offshoot of the high-profile Helem, the only legal non-governmental organisation for the protection of gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in the Arab world.

But unlike Helem, which won the prestigious 2009 Felipa de Souza award for its work on gay rights, Meem prefers to remain low-key in Lebanese society, which remains far from gay-friendly.

"Being an underground group, we are careful of how much out there we are and how much we are mainstream," Shant told AFP.

Shant, like many members of the group, only goes by her nickname to protect her privacy in Lebanon, where women cannot pass citizenship on to their children and non-heterosexual activity is still technically a crime.

Article 534 of the penal code criminalises "unnatural sexual intercourse," punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment.

But law or no law, the literature is rolling: Helem and Meem both publish magazines, booklets and articles on their websites and offer their members sanctuary, with meeting houses in the capital.

And despite the political turbulence and sporadic violence of past years, Beirut bears the marks of budding gay pride.

Helem now hosts the International Day Against Homophobia and hundreds of Lebanese came together for the first time in February to protest the brutal beating of two allegedly gay men.

"We do have a certain freedom," said Natalie, a woman in a gay-friendly pub in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district. "But it still takes a lot of courage to be a lesbian in Lebanon."

"Our families know but choose to say nothing," her friend Noor told AFP.

"And as long as religion interferes in politics, we won’t be seeing our rights or real freedom in Lebanon anytime soon."

Emigration is particularly high in the lesbian community, according to Meem, as women seek life in more tolerant societies especially as they approach their thirties.

Steven Seidman, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Albany, said non-heterosexual Lebanese face a difficult choice: marry, leave their country, or live a double life.

"Marriage is the central event for women, regardless of class," said Seidman, who is researching non-heterosexual communities in Beirut. "Gender respectability is linked to a ‘good marriage’."

"Most of the women telling their stories are very young, below 30," he told AFP. "The question is: what will happen when they hit 30?"

Shant agrees, but says Lebanon has nonetheless witnessed the rise of a "remarkable lesbian community" over the past three years.

"It has brought a powerful new meaning to queer solidarity, understanding, and grassroots activism," she said. "It became clear to us that our stories needed to be heard."

"In a way, the journey of these stories is similar to the stories themselves. They have come out of the closet."