Rasha Moumneh, 'Women's rights, gay rights: towards an inclusive paradigm'

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Women's Rights, Gay Rights: Towards an Inclusive Paradigm

Rasha Moumneh


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that human rights are inalienable, indivisible, and interdependent. Inalienable in the sense that you cannot lose your rights any more than you can stop being a human being; indivisible because no right is more or less important than another; and interdependent because your right to political participation, for example, is tied into your right to freedom of expression, which is tied to your right to practice any religion, which is tied to your right to privacy, etc, ad infinitum.

Despite this, and despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an integral part of the Lebanese constitution, there are petty few NGOs fighting for human rights in Lebanon that do not assume that there is some sort of hierarchy of rights and that some rights inherently come before others, if not in principle, then at least according to the dictates of strategy. According to this logic, certain rights are put on hold because now, we’re told, is not the time to be fighting for them and there are more important issues to deal with.

The irony of the situation is this: human rights organizations marginalize women's rights, women's rights organizations marginalize lesbian rights, and gay rights organizations marginalize lesbians, while our entire socio-political system is bent on brushing them all under the carpet, and we're too busy bickering amongst ourselves about whose rights are more important to notice.

I would like to challenge these ideas and try to unpack some of the assumptions on which they are based, focusing on the interconnections between what we have, as a society, decided are distinct groupings of rights in hopes of raising questions about how to formulate a common framework for social and political action that is really true to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It comes very naturally for us to think in terms of identity categories, whether that identity be gay/straight, woman/man, black/ white, Lebanese/Syrian, Christian/Muslim. Indeed, this is inevitable, as we obviously need some sort of classification system in which to order the world around us. However, the ways in which we choose to categorize tend to be more or less arbitrary, varying over time and space and subject to the social and power structures in place in any given society at any point in time.

An identity category is one that is constructed in relation to an Other, which it defines itself against: I am a woman, therefore I am not a man; I am gay, therefore I am not straight. While this might seem like common sense, it belies an ethos of exclusion. What about those that fall in-between these categories? Where do, for example, bisexuals fall in this simplistic binary of sexual orientation? Where do transgendered people fall in the male-female binary gender system? One can try to force them into one or the other side of the binary, but ultimately what usually happens is that are excluded, marginalized, and made invisible. Or, if they shout loud enough, then they may at the very least raise some uncomfortable questions about the validity of our entrenched binary system of classification. Let's consider the situation of bisexuals for a second, and let's be clear about it right from the start: gay people generally don't like bisexuals. And with reason, because the very concept of bisexuality puts any notion of a gay movement in crisis. How can you build a movement based on a very clear identity-category, one that defines itself by the gender of the person it is attracted to, and really be inclusive of and responsive to what is essentially a non-identity, one that defines itself by a potentiality? Bisexuality, as an ever-present potentiality, is seen as a threat by many gay people, and not just on the level of political organizing, but also on a more personal level. If, as a gay person, you are building your world and your politics around the idea that your sexual orientation is fixed, unchangeable, and present at birth, then obviously you're going to be a bit unnerved by someone who comes along as says that no, sexual orientation isn't fixed, or unchangeable, but actually it's quite fluid.

Alongside this inevitable exclusion, another problem with identity categories is that they assume that certain identities are universal, when the truth of the matter is that they are not. Gays and lesbians do not exist in every part of the world. Sexual diversity, on the other hand, does, and there are many cultures where alternative sexual expression does not follow the 'gay' paradigm as it is known, including ours. The idea of an all-encompassing sexual identity that is an integral part of your being, and that necessarily entails a process of coming out, is Western and class-based. Which is not to say that it's bad, it's just Western, and therefore not universally applicable. I'll get back to this point later on.

A third problem with identity categories concerns political organizing. Meaning that when we refer to a women's rights organization, for example, or a gay rights organization, there is usually an implicit assumption that there is a homogeneous group called women and a homogeneous group called gays that they each have specific, homogenous concerns that are cordoned off from other concerns (concerns for social rights for example, or economic justice). As the histories of social movements have clearly demonstrated, divisions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity interrupt these assumptions of sameness. The concerns of a poor woman from the Bekaa are different from the concerns of an upper-middle class woman from Tripoli, are different from the concerns of a lesbian from Beirut. It is a huge challenge for women's organizations to be able to properly address the needs of all women, and to step beyond achieving formal equality before the law into a more substantive form of equality; real equality on the ground that responds to differential realities. For example, right now, almost every single women's NGO in the country is up in arms about the female quota in the parliament and women's political representation, often at the expense of other issues. Of course I'm not denying the importance of these two issues, and I will sign up for the quota any day, but I often wonder, what difference will any of this make to our impoverished Bekaa woman? This mass drive for political representation on the part of women's organizations in Lebanon can be explained by two things: Firstly, donor money. Women’s movements in the Arab world have become increasingly NGO-ized and therefore heavily reliant on foreign funding. Donor organizations usually set the agendas for local NGOs, and agendas usually follow global trends, and global trends are not always the best to follow. Second, women's organizations in Lebanon are, by and large, bourgeois in their constituency, and simply stated, they represent bourgeois interests and not the interests of the majority.

I'd like to give two other examples of how assumptions of homogeneity, exclusion, and the consequent representation of the interests of the few intersect and play out from our own experiences in Helem, and it’s a battle I think we're going to be fighting for a while: first, the exclusion of women from gay rights movements, and second, the birth of gay fascism.

One of the major issues Helem has been facing has been a dire case of female under representation, both in terms of membership and in terms of audience. Helem is not the first gay rights organization to face this, nor will it be the last. In fact, during the rise of the gay liberation movement in the US in the 1970s, lesbians started defecting and forming their own groups because they felt that their needs weren't being met by the overwhelmingly male-dominated gay rights movement. The explanation to this is simple: gay men and lesbians walk common ground because of their shared sexual orientation, but they diverge significantly because of the double marginalization faced by lesbians first by virtue of being women, and second because of their sexual orientation. Also, at least in our context, lesbians transgress two major taboos, whereas gay men transgress only one: by admitting that they are lesbians (taboo number 1), they are also admitting to being sexually active (taboo number 2). The struggles of gay men are not the same as the struggles of gay women, and for a gay rights movement to properly address this, it needs to consider, and admit, that everything impacts men and women differently because of their differing social realities. Simply put, male majorities in gay rights organizations are rarely willing to do this because it means they may have to step out of gay territory and into women's territory, and that of course, is better left to women's organizations. So lesbians have no place in gay organizations and they have no place in women's organizations, who try to dump them back onto the gay men, that is if they don't overtly attack them. So, as a matter of course, yet another splintering happens and lesbians end up organizing by themselves.

The second example I would like to raise is the phenomenon of gay fascism that I mentioned earlier. This past March, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and the gay rights group OutRage! demonstrated in London for 'civil rights and liberties' alongside uber right-wing fascist, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and sexist nationalist groups in the UK. These are the last two groups you would expect to see together in any demonstration, but in this case, it wasn't surprising. The target of their anger? Muslims and their "backward culture". What's really funny is that most of what they see as the "backwardness" of Muslims are the very same things that some of the groups present in the demonstration support. The British Nationalist Party certainly doesn't want to see women liberated nor do they want to ensure the rights of those dirty brown people in the East End of London. Racism is a tie that binds, and probably the most insidious manifestation of racism is when it is hidden under the cloak of “human rights”. Recall Bush and his justification for the Afghanistan war on the pretext of liberating the poor oppressed Muslim women. Incidentally, OutRage! also came out in favor of keeping American and British troops in Iraq so they might "protect" gays and women from the increased violence they are facing as a direct result of the invasion. Gay rights groups like OutRage! do not represent the interests of gays in Iraq, or anywhere in the Arab world for that matter, and they follow in the footsteps of what Leila Ahmad has termed “colonial feminism”, forming a new “gay rights colonialism”, so to speak. .

What this makes clear is the danger in ignoring the intersections of different axes of oppression. It is dangerous to keep talking about women and gays as if they are homogeneous groups instead of talking about race, class, gender, and sexuality as issues that are inextricable from each other and that combine in different ways in different contexts to produce particular realities.

Previously in this article, I mentioned that homosexuality as a distinct identity is not universal, and that in the Arab world our cultural construction of sexual difference does not follow the gay model as we know it. I remember having a conversation once with a man outside one of Beirut's well known gay clubs. He kept insisting that although he sleeps with men, he is not gay, because he is always the active partner. He was, in other words, the "man", and gay people could therefore only be the "woman". During the course of our conversation, he also told me that bisexual men could never be the passive partners with other men, because that would be the ultimate contradiction: if a man likes women, then he must necessarily be active, i.e. masculine, i.e. the penetrator and not the penetrated. This is the prevalent understanding of sexuality in the Arab world, as well as in other highly patriarchal, macho cultures, such as those in Latin America. Here, we have a sexuality that is not defined by the gender of the person you sleep with, but by the role you take on during the sexual act. And if we really want to look closely, male culture in this region is quite homoerotic; men holding hands on the street, arms slung around each other, sahsouhing, crotch groping, etc. So it's not so much the who as it is the how. Even among Arab men who do self-identity as gay in the Western sense, there remains that conflict between perceived masculine and feminine roles, and you often find men who are extremely reluctant to admit to being "bottoms".

There are several questions to reflect upon here. To what extent can a gay rights framework address this particular configuration of sexuality without leading to the exclusion of those who do not self-identify as gay? Is the solution to simply re-align them into "proper gayness" as many self-identified gay people seem to think? A lot of these non-gay men who sleep with men eventually end up getting married and cheating on their wives with other men. Is this then an issue of getting them to accept themselves as really gay and not get married, or is this more a reflection of the fact that it is socially acceptable, to a certain extent, for men to cheat on their wives, and the gender of the person is a secondary issue, albeit one which perhaps exacerbates the problem? The essence of these issues boils down to one thing: gender and the ways in which restrictive gender roles discipline bodies, both male and female.

One thing I'd like to point out here is that in this configuration of sexuality, one that is based on activity or passivity, penetrator or pentrated, there is no space for the articulation of any kind of active female sexuality. This is no coincidence. Female sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is completely invisible. It just doesn't exist. In those instances when female sexuality is put on display on our billboards and music videos, it is always according to the dictates of the male gaze, totally stripped of any agency.

Therefore, without a strong feminist movement that recognizes that the same patriarchal structures that control the female body also control the transgressive sexual body, there can be no space for the real realization of the rights of sexual minorities. And conversely, feminist movements must necessarily take on the fight against the repression of sexual minorities because it is an entire system that they need to destabilize, other wise all they will be doing is reshuffling the pillars that keep that system intact. Anti-sodomy laws, honor crime laws, laws that exonerate rapists if they marry their victims, all these form one large interconnected structure in which the state controls bodies, restricts their freedom, and dictates what we, the owners of these bodies, can and cannot do with them. In every country in the world where gay liberation has taken significant steps forward, it has always leaned on feminist movements. Unfortunately, here in Lebanon, Helem is operating in feminist vacuum. One could also ask here how effective an LGBT-rights framework could be in addressing the concerns of women in our particular context. When active female sexuality is frowned upon no matter what its manifestation, whether homosexual or heterosexual, what sense does it make to fence off lesbians from their heterosexual sisters who suffer from the same patriarchal restrictions and oppressions?


So now that I've laid the groundwork for understanding our local construction of sexuality and how it intersects with gendered concerns, we can move on to something a bit less theoretical. As an organization, Helem often comes under attack. However, even from those who sympathize with the cause, we are told: how can you fight for gay rights when even heterosexual couples don't have their rights? And it's true, they don't. Pre-marital straight sex is frowned upon, and outside the bubble of Beirut any kind of romantic contact between a man and a woman is frowned upon unless it is for the explicit purpose of marriage. Such is the crisis of the individual in the Arab world. These assaults on the personal freedoms of individuals, our right to choose our own partners and pursue our own paths, romantically or otherwise, is made impossible by the complete absence of the concept of the individual as he or she exists outside of the family structure. This is not just a conceptual issue, it is enshrined in the law through the governmental registration system. This is something I learned recently. We are not registered as individuals, but as families, each falling under the "khaneh" of our fathers. This system is bolstered and upheld by the patriarchal sectarianism that permeates every thread of our social fabric, essentially basing itself on maintaining an almost tribal sense of kinship ties. Because with the presence of the individual as the primary frame of reference, inequalities between men and women and between women themselves would disappear in our personal status laws, would weaken the hold of sectarian power, and would lead to an authentic basis from which to fight for personal freedoms. Therefore, individuals are just bad for the system.

So the answer to the question of which fight comes first, women's or gays', is moot. The fight is the same. It is the fight for the recognition of the individual, the fight against patriarchal systems of bodily control, the fight for secularism, and the fight for the respect of personal freedoms.

So given all this, how do you build from here? How do you deal with this when in Lebanon there is no space for lesbians in women's movements, no space for gays in human rights movements, no space for lesbians in gay movements, no space for women's rights in leftist struggles, and no space for leftist struggles in women's movements?

I started out this talk with a critique of identity-based tunnel vision politics. I would now like to end with a suggestion for the adoption of a politics of struggle that is based on the recognition that all axes of oppression are interconnected and cannot be dealt with as separate issues. Ultimately, I would like to see a movement for social justice that builds coalitions around causes and issues, around mass mobilization and organization, rather than around identity groups so that these interconnections do not get lost. I'm not yet entirely sure what such a movement would look like, but I think it is up to everyone involved in any struggle for social justice to start thinking in ways that are more creative and inclusive than the paradigms we have been handed.