Bærer vitne om urettferdighet
It’s Friday night at a bar hidden away in a side street in Gemayze, Beirut. Two young women sitting at the end of the bar discreetly holding hands. One of them wears a blue hijab, hiding curious dark eyes rimmed with black mascara. Everyone in the bar is female. In Beirut’s underground gay community, Friday nights is known as ladies’ night.
For a country once known more for sporadic wars, religious conflicts, car bombs and political assassinations, Lebanon is assuming a new identity. The town has a burgeoning gay scene, and many gay bars and clubs are making a tidy profit, not just from Lebanese but from homosexuals who come to the city from other, less permissive countries in the Middle East.
However, homosexuality in Lebanon is still illegal under Article 534, which penalizes «sexual intercourse contrary to nature» – specifically sexual intercourse that includes anal penetration – with a maximum of one year in prison.
The gay scene in Beirut, says one woman, is big, but people aren’t open about it. You have to know who to speak to, what to be aware of, and where to go.
The woman, 25, who prefers that I don’t use her name to protect her identity, lives at home, but her parents don’t know that she is a lesbian. She says that she will always remain in the closet, because if she mentions this to anyone she will put the reputations and relationships with her family at risk, and she could be turned in to the police.
She lowers her voice and makes a quieting gesture. “Can we please keep this conversation down?” she asks. Every underground community in Lebanon is scrutinized by an even more secretive police.
Lebanese society, she explains, still remains intolerant of homosexuality. In Lebanon, police and doctors use invasive bodily examinations, both anal and vaginal, as a form of punishment, intimidation, and humiliation against homosexuals.
“Once I was forced to come with the police to undergo some tests to prove that I was not lesbian,” she says and takes a sip of her drink.
The examinations are conducted by forensic doctors on orders of the public prosecutor to “prove” whether a person has engaged in homosexual sex, she explains.
The doctor forced her to strip off her clothes, before putting his hands between her legs, and forcing her to lie down.
“To be honest, I don’t know what happened.” Her eyes flicker and her hands shake. When I ask her if he raped her, she looks away, and doesn’t want to answer. Not before she has finished her glass – and another one.
“It’s embarrassing. But it still stays with you. It was a part of the test, but I know I was raped,” she exclaims.
Suddenly she comes forward, disclosing detail after damning detail of a sexual attack that, completely changed her life, and forced her into silence.
“He forced himself upon me, held my arms up and started to touch me. I told him that it was my period, and that I had a tampon in, but he just kept on. My tampon was never removed; it was in during the whole incident.”
Her face is frozen, and she does not react to any of the detail in the story she tells me. She orders another glass of wine and takes a sip. Then she continues.
“He said that I could confess that I was a lesbian or allow him to continue. My refusal to examination would ‘constitute a proof of the crime’.”
She kept quiet, and has ever since.
Human rights campaigners say these incidents are characterized by what they call «corrective rape» – rape committed by men behind the guise of trying to «cure» lesbians of their sexual orientation. Anal and vaginal examinations are also used in various countries as a form of torture, humiliation, and degradation against homosexuals.
Research released last year by Triangle – a leading South African gay rights organization – revealed that they are dealing with up to 10 new cases of «corrective rape» every week. However, even the term “corrective rape” fails to convey the gender dimension and hate element of the crime, which is the true underlying reason for these rapes. What these rapists are in fact doing is punishing their victims for not conforming to a stereotype hetero-normative gender role.
Sexual assault is called “the silencing crime”, as only a fraction of such cases result in prosecution, let alone conviction, because of prejudice among the police and the fact that victims fear to tell their families. Because of the taboo nature of these crimes, the first step toward stopping them may be to raise awareness of their existence and draw attention to them by talking about the issue in a way that no one can ignore.
Research conducted by Human Rights Watch on police abuse of marginalized groups in Lebanon has shown that both police and doctors use invasive bodily examinations, both anal and vaginal, as a form of punishment. So far, the numbers are as dark as they can get; no organization examines these cases in Lebanon or the Middle East in general at present.
However, the anal test or the “test of shame” as activists call it, was abolished in Lebanon on August 7, 2012, after a directive was issued stating that the tests were “medically and scientifically useless in determining whether consensual anal sex has taken place”. The test has also been declared to violate international standards against torture, including the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Lebanon has ratified.
Dr Hussein Chahrour, head of the Lebanese Association for Forensic Science, has been conducting examinations since the 1990s. Without hesitation he told the BBC: «These tests prove absolutely nothing. Their scientific value is nil, particularly because they are visual consultations – the doctor takes a look at the rectum of the arrested person and writes his report.»
However, to Charbel Maydaa, executive director of Helem – a non-profit organization working on improving the legal and social status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Lebanon – the end of the test means more than medical or scientific progress. “Nothing beats the satisfaction of winning over illegal practises through successful legal action; the pride of fighting humiliation with dignity; the relief of counterstriking discrimination with an earned human right,” he says.
In 2011, Human Rights Watch said that as a part of its obligation to respect the private lives and personal liberties of individuals, the Lebanese government “should end these tests of shame and repeal laws criminalizing consensual sex between adults, including Article 534”. Since then, Charbel and Helem have worked persistently to push forward the repeal of Article 534.
While Beirut is the most gay-friendly city in the Arab world, it is still a conservative society where gay couples are not socially accepted and face severe threats in their everyday life.
Last week, Helem’s Facebook page was hacked, and the person(s) responsible stole access to its member’s personal information, in order to control, harass or track them down. Corrective rape still occurs as a completely undocumented aspect of the gay life in Beirut, and homosexuals experience threats daily from police and others who do not accept their sexual orientation.
“Homosexuals are at the beginning of a struggle for rights in Lebanon. It is one that will set an example for the rest of the Arab world,” Charbel says.
To some the future begins, where the boarders of Lebanon ends. But for many the present just proves the faults of the past, and Lebanon is far from assuming a new identity.