Misogyny still rampant in Lebanese media and society

'Honest conversations about women's sexuality disturb men': How misogyny is still rampant in Lebanese society

6 min read
25 March, 2021
The degrading comments against Dr Sandrine Atallah on television opened up a wider conversation about the harmful social norms and intrinsic sexism that exists in Lebanese society, writes Farah-Silvana Kanaan.
Women take part in demonstrations against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in Beirut [Getty]
It's rare to see the often wildly divided Lebanese agree on something that dominates the news, let alone fiercely protect the subject in question. However, when doctor and certified psychosexologist Dr Sandrine Atallah was met with mockery and ridicule by the male hosts of a TV programme, it set social media ablaze with an outpouring of support.

It also triggered fierce discussions about the maddeningly rampant misogyny that permeates every aspect of life for women in Lebanon and opened up a wider conversation about the harmful social norms and intrinsic sexism in society.

Misogyny pervades everything

Important issues such as sexual health education and everyday misogyny tend to get snowed under in a country where there are still laws in place that negatively impact women's rights.

Lebanese women are barred from passing citizenship to their children and personal status laws administered by religious courts routinely favour men in matters ranging from divorce to child custody.

Atallah says that these personal status laws severely impact women's lives far beyond the direct matters at hand.

"Especially this past year, due to lockdowns, domestic violence cases increased at an alarming rate and LGBTQI youth were trapped at home and unable to seek refuge in their safe spaces which severely impacts their mental health."

Lebanon is often depicted as the most sexually liberated country in the Middle East, but Atallah said that daily encounters in her practice provide a stark contrast to that oft-repeated yet dubious badge of honour.

"It's actually mostly men who consult me, often on behalf of their partner. I had a patient ask me whether I could find out if his partner had had anal sex before as he found it suspicious that it was so easy to penetrate her. He expected it to hurt," she said. "I told him: "I'm confused. Do you WANT her to feel pain?"

One thing that particularly seemed to trigger wildly inappropriate mockery among the TV show's hosts was Atallah's insistence on using the official Arabic terms for genitalia.

"Women's genitalia are used as a basis for our most common insults, but we 'run away' when they are discussed in an objective, scientific context, or even named in a neutral way. It's like we can only talk about women's sexuality when it's demeaning or a joke, and we are terrified of having honest conversations about it," Sara, a 22-year-old psychologist, tells The New Arab.

It's funny to see grown men shake at the mention of the Arabic word for "vagina", when we women are constantly subjected to sexual comments by strange men on the street and we are expected to be okay with it

"It's funny to see grown men shake at the mention of the Arabic word for "vagina", when we women are constantly subjected to sexual comments by strange men on the street and we are expected to be okay with it," she adds. 

"Most women I know, including myself, have been catcalled since they were children, and I have heard so many horror stories about teachers in so many different schools in Lebanon harassing female students without facing any consequences. And these are supposed to be the men we trust, who are there to protect us.

"We eventually get used to being treated that way, which is awful. But that has never elicited the type of horrified reaction that the Arabic word for "vagina" did," Sara says.

"If men were as disturbed by the misogyny that we experience every day as they are by honest conversations about women's sexuality, the streets would be a lot safer for us," she adds.

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Atallah also received a lot of support for how she refused to accept the apology of the maligned TV show's host, Pierre Rabat, especially since women are often told to be the bigger person and avoid confrontation.

"I loved when she (Atallah) rejected Pierre Rabbat's apology via Twitter," Farah Berrou, wine expert and podcaster, told The New Arab.

"Women often receive weak apologies like that one and are then caught between choosing to drop it to avoid confrontation or further escalate to assert their boundaries. Choosing to do the latter should be encouraged but instead, we're told to let things go, not be so sensitive, or other gaslighting statements. I loved that she didn't let him off the hook and served it back to him."

Atallah recounts a story of when she was a student and dared give an opinion that didn't align with her professor's: "My professor told me: Why don't you go home and bake some cakes? It was so humiliating I cried."

Now that she gets to be the one who teaches students, she has the ability to change these attitudes in the classroom, hoping for a snowball affect.

"I took a human sexuality course at LAU, with students from different areas. Every single person started out this course with a lot of misinformation, prejudice, and harmful beliefs." Nisrine, 25, told The New Arab.

"Three homophobes became very friendly with me, others stopped equating female sexuality with sluttiness, they learned there's so much more to condoms than just pregnancy or HIV, they learned consent... everyone in that class learned and grew so much," Nisrine adds.

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The Madonna-whore complex 

While many of psychologist Sigmund Freud's theories are ridiculed nowadays, his Madonna-whore complex theory rings shockingly true in Lebanese society.

The Madonna-whore complex describes the tendency of men to categorise women as either saintly 'wife material' Madonna's, or as too easy and thus worthless 'whores'.

This complex has a massive impact on intimate relationships and sexual pleasure.

The Madonna-whore complex describes the tendency of men to categorise women as either saintly 'wife material' Madonna's, or as too easy and thus worthless 'whores'

Many men will not experiment with sex with their wives as it feels to them as they're disrespecting them.

"It's often just missionary and almost a chore," Atallah says. "This is harmful in many ways; it doesn't only hurt the relationship, but this lack of communication and physical pleasure often leads to depression and other mental health issues."

Living in a patriarchal society under its misogynistic cultural norms is not only harmful to women, although they indisputably bear its biggest brunt.

Some men feel hopeless when confronted with how their loved ones, whether it's family, friends or partners, have been conditioned by their toxic environment.

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"A lot of things affect me, too because let's face it: Middle Eastern men are idiots. I hate how women I've dated were insecure about being on their period or period sex because their exes were squeamish about blood," says 26-year-old Ali.

"But that pales in compassion to watching strong, smart friends of mine internalise and justify being beaten by their boyfriends. They'd tell me and I'd lose it, but they wouldn't let me intervene," Ali says.

The sooner men realise that misogyny profoundly affects their lives, the better. Because women can't and shouldn't have to change the system by themselves.

"Men often come to me with questions and doubts. It's not just women who are expected to get married at a young age and have children within a year, a man is expected to have children and a good job and be a provider too," Atallah says.

"If he reaches the age of 40 and doesn't have any of those things people will talk about him too as if something is wrong with him. So ultimately it benefits everyone if there's more openness about sex and relationships."


Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. She formerly worked as a reporter at The Daily Star

Follow her on Twitter: @FarahKanaan