Spotlight on sex in BeirutIn the autumn of 2011, World Sexual Health Day was marked for the first time ever in the Middle East by the ‘Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex’ exhibition held in Beirut, Lebanon. Behind the exhibition, which challenged the idea of sex as a taboo, was 25-year-old Rola Yasmine.
Facts about World Sexual Health Day
- World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) was founded in 1978 as a worldwide umbrella organisation for NGOs working with the promotion of sex education Read more about WAS.
- World Sexual Health Day was held for its second year in 2011. The day was marked across the globe. Read more about the initiative.
- The Coalition for Sexual & Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies is the organisation behind the ‘One Day'.
- Read more about the Lebanese LGBTIQ organisation Helem and their work for homosexual, bisexual and transsexual civil rights.
“Being involved in the marking of World Sexual Health Day was something important for me. I was one of the only ones from Lebanon and the Middle East taking part, and because of this I contributed to bringing the issue of sexual information onto the agenda in my region.”
These are the words of 25-year-old Rolla Yasmine – reproduction and sexual health researcher at the American University of Beirut. The subject was the art exhibition that she had organised in conjunction with the marking of World Sexual Health Day (WSHD) on 4 September 2011.
Rola Yasmine is the only member from the Middle East in the youth organisation WAS (The World Association for Sexual Health), which promotes awareness of sexual information.
Tired of sex in PowerPoint
Her contribution to WSHD was launched under the highly explicit title ‘Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex’. This title left little doubt that sex and sexual relationships would play a central role in the exhibition. Nevertheless, each of the works (which spanned a wide spectrum of formats from texts, photographs and sounds to paintings and video installations) took its own personal approach to the topic.
Masturbation, intimacy, queer-identity, sexuality as pleasure, as power as the place where we gamble our identity – taking lead from the artwork, all aspects of sexuality, including those which are normally taboo, were discussed freely and openly on 4 September.
“I wanted to do something with art. In my day job, I deal with this field as an academic, and I was tired of talking about sexuality in the very didactic way where it’s all about figures and statistics presented in PowerPoint presentations and lectures”, explains Rola Yasmine. She goes on to expand, “I also felt that it actually opened up a debate about, for example, lesbian women, which is a relatively unknown concept for many people in Lebanon.”
“(…) In my day job, I deal with this field as an academic, and I was tired of talking about sexuality in the very didactic way where it’s all about figures and statistics presented in PowerPoint presentations and lectures”
On the very day of the exhibition, Rola Yasmine experienced that a Syrian artist had crossed the border with a work that never could have been freely shown in the neighbouring country of Syria. His charcoal and water-paint painting depicted in clear detail the sexual act between two men. For him, being allowed to show his art and attract responses without being met with threats or discrimination was an essential element.
But even though Lebanon – and in Beirut in particular – is known for having a far more liberal attitude towards sex than other regions in the Middle East, getting such an exhibition off the ground was not without risk. Rola Yasmine reassured herself, and the more concerned among the group of exhibiting artists, with the fact that the exhibition would only be open for 24 hours – and the police in Beirut normally take longer than this to mobilise themselves into action.
Double standards and hymen reconstruction
In addition to her work as a sexuality researcher, Rola Yasmine is also involved in a large number of organisations and interest groups. All of these groups work with spreading information about sexuality, safe sex, women’s rights and homosexuality by means of both activism and lobbyism, and she is quick to bring into question the perception of Lebanon being the bastion of open-mindedness within the Middle East.
“Should we, for example, stop encouraging sex before marriage? We could do it; it just wouldn’t alter the fact that people in reality will still be having premarital sex, which will result in a lot of unwanted pregnancies, in turn resulting in illegal abortions.(…)“
She concedes that the situation in Lebanon is better than in many other places, but points out that double standards flourish in the country, too. Evidence of this can be seen in the many Internet forums where many Lebanese warn against the Lebanese culture becoming too influenced by the West, thereby putting pressure on the Muslim values. This viewpoint is one of which Rola Yasmine is highly critical.
“Should we, for example, stop encouraging sex before marriage? We could do it; it just wouldn’t alter the fact that people in reality will still be having premarital sex, which will result in a lot of unwanted pregnancies, in turn resulting in illegal abortions. As things stand, there’s no documentation in this area, and this isn’t likely to come soon as long as abortions remain illegal and as long at a patriarchal gender dynamic exists where the expectation is for a woman to be ‘pure’”, believes Rola Yasmine.
The expectations placed upon Lebanese women are, in fact, quite the opposite. The widely held ideal for a woman is one of a hyper-sexualised, curvaceous woman with long flowing hair, an alluring gaze, and high heels. At the same time, it is expected that the same woman refrains from acting out her sexuality and remains a virgin until she marries.
A direct result of this double standard is hymen reconstruction, which according to many Lebanese gynaecologists is the second most popular form of plastic surgery carried out in Beirut today. Only rhinoplasty is more popular, but because hymen reconstruction, like abortions, remains taboo and undocumented, it is possible that the actual figures are much higher than those shown in the statistics.
“(…)The widely held ideal for a woman is one of a hyper-sexualised, curvaceous woman with long flowing hair, an alluring gaze, and high heels. At the same time, it is expected that the same woman refrains from acting out her sexuality and remains a virgin until she marries.(…)”
“We are living in a hyper-sexualised society here – not just when it comes to the women, but also when it comes to the men. The men here are extremely ‘metrosexual’: they really stage-manage themselves. Still, they will not marry a girl who has had sex before marriage. They want to marry the one who is still a virgin. Again, its double standards. That’s why we have so many hymen reconstruction operations here in Lebanon. Women have premarital sex, get their hymen reconstructed, and are ready all over again”, explains Rola Yasmine.
Who decides over a woman’s body?
For Rola Yasmine, the question of sexuality and double standards in Lebanon is fundamentally an issue of who, from a cultural perspective, holds ownership of a woman’s body.
“It’s all about the fact that women have no self-determination when it comes to their own bodies. It’s here that the problems begin, and it’s here that they end. As long as you can’t mobilise yourself, as long as you’re unable to set limits for what you will accept for your body, as long as you’re in a position where you let others dictate what is going to happen with your body, in order to achieve self-determination over their bodies, women must in a big way become conscious about the sexual game that they are a part of. This is the only way that they will achieve self-determination over their own bodies. It’s here we have to begin.”
“We are living in a hyper-sexualised society here – not just when it comes to the women, but also when it comes to the men. The men here are extremely ‘metrosexual’: they really stage-manage themselves. Still, they will not marry a girl who has had sex before marriage. They want to marry the one who is still a virgin. “
The list of examples where Lebanese women have no autonomy regarding their own bodies experienced by Rola Yasmine is long.
Around one month after the ‘Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex’ exhibition, Rola Yasmine took part in the ‘One Struggle – One Day’ campaign (see fact box), which in 2011 focussed on rape within marriage. In Lebanon, rape within a marriage is not punishable. Furthermore, a loophole in the sexual assault legislation allows a rapist to reduce his sentence if he proposes marriage to his victim. If following this he marries the victim, the punishment is dropped completely.
“If the legislation in a country is so questionable, then this brushes off on the population and the way they act”, explains Rola Yasmine, who sees little political will to change this current state of affairs.
“At the moment, for example, there are no women MPs in the parliament.” As a result, she believes that there is no one fighting the cause of women’s rights.
The taboo of homosexuality
Homosexuality remains one of the greatest taboos within Lebanese society. Not only is it illegal to be homosexual, but also such a great deal of prejudice among the population exists that it makes it very difficult for homosexuals to have a life as equal citizens.
This became acutely clear to Rola Yasmine when she together with Helem, the Lebanese LGBT organisation, carried out a study of how homosexual citizens were treated inside the country’s health service. Of the healthcare workers questioned, 50% said that they refused to treat patients whom they knew to be homosexual.
“Many of them believed that homosexuality was either a psychic affliction or an illness”, explains Rola Yasmine, “it’s just not possible for someone to get proper medical treatment if they aren’t able to be open about how they live their life, practice sex or discuss the risks they may be taking. There is a whole chunk of awareness work lacking here.”
This is why an exhibition such as ‘Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex’ and the marking of World sexual Health Day are important in the struggle to keep continued focus on body and sexuality in Lebanon. And if change is to be achieved, this provides the nourishment for an active sub-culture which is constantly questioning the prevailing norms in society.
“Many of them believed that homosexuality was either a psychic affliction or an illness”
“The process of change is a slow one, but it can only happen through activism,
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lobbyism and ongoing research and information”, tells Rola Yasmine.
In addition to her many other activities, Rola Yasmine is also involved in a project for The Ford Foundation and the Lebanese Ministry of Education, which is working for the obligatory introduction of sexual education in schools.
“It’s important that there’s sexual education in schools. We need to change the existing mentality about sexuality, and it needs to happen fast. It’s important that children learn that you have to respect your partner and be attentive. This is also a part of sexual education. It’s not just about sexually transmitted diseases and condoms; its about creating a new sexuality culture,” concludes Rola Yasmine.