This article was first published at Al Araby under the title “Empowerment is underway, despite Nasrallah’s homophobia and misogyny“. Arabic version.
Earlier this month, Hizballah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered yet another of his now somewhat run-of-the-mill sermons.
Among the many controversies that came out of his speech, most of the attention was directed at his comments on “early marriage”.
Nasrallah claimed that those who opposed the practice of “early marriage” are “unknowingly serving the devil”.
While it is not certain what exactly he meant by “early marriage’, or to whom he was referring, the timing of his comment was – to say the least – odd, given the numerous campaigns by civil society to ban child marriage in the country. The cause has been gaining momentum, and a bill establishing the legal age of marriage at 18 is making its way to parliament.
The speech came a day before Ayatollah Khameini of Iran – Hizballah’s primary sponsor – warned against “following the western version of gender equality”, adding that, “Today, western thinkers and those who pursue issues such as gender equality regret the corruption which it has brought about”.
As for the “corruption” he describes, one can only assume he is referring to the biggest threat to patriarchal structures everywhere in the world, including his own; women’s empowerment.
But Nasrallah also took time to attack Lebanon’s LGBTQ population. He accused homosexuals of “destroying societies” – which societies? He does not say – and warns against the same in Lebanon. He portrays LGBTQ individuals as a foreign import, one which is about moral deviance and weird lifestyles, erasing in the process Lebanese LGBTQs’ agency, and attacking the efforts of the latter in recent years to bring about positive change.
That Nasrallah would make such homophobic comments should come as no surprise. His brand of “liberation” is one which was brought about through the suppression of left-wing politics, following the model of the Iranian revolution and being the main receiver of Iran’s “export of the revolution” politics.
This, writes Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian leftist, and author of “Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God”, means that “Hezbollah’s theoretical conception and policy orientation have not displayed any systematic alternative to neoliberalism – much less capitalism – in Lebanon.”
The inherent contradiction between Hizballah’s professed support for social justice, and its socio-economic conservatism is one which was never resolved, and indeed one which was rarely tackled in the first place.
This conservatism extends to Hizballah’s attitude towards gender and sexuality with, some would argue, an even stronger focus than its economic programmes. What this means, is that the party “places considerable emphasis on building adherence to fixed gender roles”.
This is why Nasrallah spoke of “the family” and those trying to destroy it – ie. homosexuals. In fact, one can argue that his sermon was all about promoting the same fixed gender roles that place him at the top of the hierarchy.
Nasrallah’s homophobic comments are not unusual in Lebanon, and in no way are they limited to Muslim politicians. Over the years, religious and political elites have taken turns to attack or smear Lebanon’s LGBTQ population and LGBTQ people everywhere.
For example, when France legalised same-sex marriage in 2013, Lebanon’s then Minister of the Interior Marwan Charbel, said that Lebanon is against “liwat”, an extremely offensive term equivalent to “faggot” in English.
But what is fascinating about Nasrallah’s comments is that he emphasises this not being a Muslim “problem”, or even a religious one. He specifically says that this is a “problem” for all Lebanese and Arabs to face, Muslims and Christians; the religious and the non-religious.
This is very important to note because it reveals the priorities of the political and religious elite in Lebanon (and, arguably, most of the Arab world):
What does it say when a male religious cleric places sexual liberation as a greater threat to society than atheism – a natural enemy, one would assume, of religious authorities?
Does it not prove that any form of progress with regards to gender and equality is, ultimately, the greatest threat of them all? After all, where would these elites be in a society where women are empowered and LGBTQ individuals are equipped with greater political agency?
Nasrallah’s emphasis on homosexuality being a foreign “import” suggests an answer to these questions.
While we cannot know if he genuinely believes that homosexuality is a sexual orientation, or some westernized lifestyle choice, it seems clear that the increasingly loud voices coming out of Lebanon’s LGBTQ population in recent years became so noteworthy as to warrant a response.
In other words, the very least those who reject patriarchal and homophobic oppression are expected to do, is to refrain from making political demands demanding gender equality – the very “corruption” that Khameini was warning against.
From the perspective of the likes of Nasrallah, this has the double benefit of telling your social base that you are a tolerant individual, while at the same time actively blocking any real change.
This is why Hizballah actively tried to fight women’s rights in virtually every way in Lebanon, as Daher recalled in his book: “Hezbollah has not supported legislation at the national level aimed at ensuring equality for women in the family”.
To give but one example, “In March 2014, the whole parliamentary bloc of Hezbollah deputies refused to respond to a petition from the National Coalition for a Law to Protect Women from Domestic Violence, which would have criminalised marital rape.”
The good news is that there has been progress in the eyes of both law and society with regards to women’s and LGBTQ rights. The efforts of LGBTQ activists as well as health professionals have resulted in a number of legal victories in recent years. As Florence Massena recently explained:
On Jan. 26 , Lebanese judge Rabih Maalouf issued a court order stating that “homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense“. Maalouf is the fourth judge since 2009 to go against Article 534 [French colonial era law] of the Lebanese penal code, which states sexual acts that “contradict the laws of nature” are punishable by up to a year in prison.
In 2012, the Lebanese Order of Physicians banned the notorious anal “egg test” after Beirut police violated 36 men arrested during a raid on a gay porn cinema with this practice. In July of 2013, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society (LPS) “became the first of its kind in the Arab region to declare that gay people are not mentally ill and do not require treatment”.
In May 2015, at the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), a number of Lebanese celebrities took part in a video campaign by “Proud Lebanon” calling for solidarity with Lebanese LGBTQ people and for basic human rights to be applied in Lebanon.
And just a few weeks ago, the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) hosted an LGBT Health Awareness Conference. They also released a number of videos on YouTube and Facebook under the title “marginalisation is bad for health” to bring awareness to some of the issues faced by LGBTQ people in Lebanon.
We could go on and on, and reference the impact of Hamed Sinno, frontman of the popular Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, who is openly gay, on popular attitudes.
Empowerment is underway despite Nasrallah’s warnings, but having such a formidable foe as the leader of the country’s most powerful supranational and paramilitary force, is by no means a mere detail.
By all accounts, the establishment in Lebanon is intent on slowing down or actively fighting any progress. This means that LGBTQ activists and their allies might try to focus on trying to change laws and attitudes in the hope that equality becomes a more attainable goal, with every new victory.
While this method may make for slow progress, it has so far proven the most effective.