First published on BIKYAMASR
One of the greatest catalyzers for the cause of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom in general in Lebanon has been art. It is often the case that Lebanese artists, perhaps not so much out of advocacy, but with their own work, challenge the perceptions of society about certain taboo topics such as the Civil War, the status of women’s rights, homosexuality and sectarianism.
This is probably not so willy-nilly, as artists themselves are subject to tight censorship of their songs, films, plays and books and although rare, artists can be imprisoned over a song, in a country where weapons flow free across its borders and where criminals run free and attend their own press conferences, while people are legally prevented from expressing their opinions, put on trial for their sexual orientation and freely terrorized at times.
While this is true for many artists, it is not for all and in the growing industry of spectacle and entertainment there are always performers in the scene of Arab pop who are happy to appeal to the populism and prejudice of a society in which their popularity and rise to stardom is the result of this selfsame populism and prejudice. More than helping shape a culture already decadent, the society of celebrities and stars is but shaped by this culture.
One case in point is that of Mohamed Eskander, a pop singer from the Bekaa region, whose voice is characterized by critics in the industry as a “strong, unique voice, marked by manhood and sensitivity”. Iskander’s career launched in 1988 when he appeared in the amateur program “Layali Lubnaan” and established himself a year later. Since then he has released more than 250 songs, to popular acclaim.
What is not as impressive as his musical career is his sexism and handling of certain delicate topics in Lebanese society; while his case is not unique, it is still remarkable the boldness of his approach: In recent years he released the song “Jomhouryet Albi” which is a dialogue between a father and his college-graduate daughter. In the otherwise apparently traditional and sweet lyrics, he uses his reasoning to talk his daughter into not pursuing a career.
With statements such as “our daughters don’t work”, “why bring [that] trouble into your life?” and “what will we do in that case with your beauty?” he makes his case, which is reinforced by saying that in the future an office manager will fall in love with her, while the song’s video clip you can see the boss harassing the girl physically and the father pulling a gun on him. The video includes other features like a maid hitting the woman’s child while she’s working. Following from this elaborate argument, the song mentions cynically that “Women’s rights are extremely important”.
How important are they? Violence against women in Lebanon is widely underreported and a study from 2002 revealed that 35% of women report experiencing domestic violence and 22% had family members who did. In December 2011 a draft law on violence against women had the Lebanese split and faced opposition from religious and conservative leaders. Most cases of domestic violence are dealt with by religious courts and rape within marriage is not considered a crime; a multinational company advertised via social media in Lebanon, its products – washing machines – as a perfect gift for mother’s day.
In 2012, Eskander, he released yet an even bolder song “Dod El 3enf” (Against Violence) which is a slogan used by LGBT to promote awareness against discrimination; to the same extent that Iskander mocks the plight of women rights in Lebanon, he does the same with LGBT rights. The song portrays a fight between a parenting couple because of their son’s sexual orientation and blaming the separation of his parents on the son’s homosexuality.
He goes on further to ridicule the young man with feminine mannerisms and suggests that men lost their masculinity since they stopped enlisting in the army. The song further encourages violence against boys displaying any feminine traits and the video clip features a wide array of gay stereotypes, including sexual intercourse in washrooms and boys wearing women’s heels and playing with dolls.
It is unsurprising then that in Mr. Eskander’s country – where he is of course not censored for any of the above – homosexuality is a considered a crime under article 534 of the penal code, and recently it was reported on BikyaMasr.com that security authorities raided a cinema frequented by gay men after another media celebrity – MTV channel host Joe Maalouf – demanded authorities to act upon it in live television.
This sparked outrage and protests because of the “tests of shame” performed on the detainees to determine their homosexuality, yet two more men were arrested later in the month under suspicion of homosexuality, at the same time that Beirut was being terrorized by an armed gang with the purpose of kidnapping Syrian and pro-Syrian activists and the authorities stood idly watching.
None of this would be of interest outside Lebanon, weren’t it for the fact that Mr. Eskander, who has a standing record of homophobic and sexist slurs, was invited to perform in Canada, at Place Vertu Center on September 1, 2012 and at restaurant Mazaj in Ottawa on September 2, 2012. Lebanese LGBT-advocacy organization HELEM – that has a chapter in Montreal, Canada – has strongly condemned the invitation in the strongest terms.
A Lebanese doctor, Hasan Abdessamad, who is himself living in Canada, wrote in his blog: “It is time we stand up against cultural terrorism and hate speech in Lebanese art. This Lebanese singer has been advocating for using violence against kids if you suspect them to be homosexual. He calls on women to stay home and serve their husband because there is no place for them outside home. Women should not pursue educational degrees according to Eskander’s songs and should specialize in serving and pleasing their husbands at home. His lyrics are outrageous and offensive to say the least. A group of Lebanese feminists has protested his songs back in 2010. Recently a group of Arabs protested his performance in Denmark. No action has seemed to stop him and his hate speech to be persistent and escalating.”
HELEM Montreal released an open letter in both English and French yesterday, condemning the invitation of the singer to Canada because it contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and violates the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and numerous provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code. In their opinion, “Mr. Iskander’s offensive art contradicts Canadian values and amounts to hate speech.”
HELEM has also announced that they will ask federal and provincial authorities to hold the artist, promoters and the establishments hosting his concerts, liable for hateful behavior on the part of Mr. Eskander that exposes LGBT persons to hate, contempt or ridicule: “HELEM Montreal also reserves the right to seek any possible remedy, and exercise all legal recourse available under the law to defend LGBT rights and keep Canada free from hate speech and discrimination.”
Last week, HELEM Montreal and Lebanese LGBT were present at Montreal Pride and a banner was spotted that read “In Canada, I have the right to marry. In Lebanon, I have no rights!” Activists were present in the march to highlight that the tests of shame are still performed in Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether those, like Mr. Eskander, who curb people’s freedom and dignity in Lebanon, will have a free pass to do the same in Canada, where freedoms and dignity are supposed to be protected by the authorities; unlike Lebanon.