Last week, French minister for women Laurence Rossignol sparked a furor when she likened Muslim women who willingly wear the veil to “American negroes who were in favour of slavery.” Later apologising for using the word “negro,” she nonetheless stood by her argument.
Rossignol is not the first to equate how much or how little a woman wears to how free both she and the society she belongs to is. Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, declared the veil was the “fatal obstacle” that prevented Egypt from joining England at the height of civilisation. Champion of women’s liberation that he was, Cromer later founded the Men's League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
How little has changed since those heady colonial days. For years now, memes depicting Iranian women in miniskirts have floated around the internet, with captions like “Tehran before the Islamic Revolution”.
Yes, women in 1970s Iran wore miniskirts. But that doesn’t mean pre-revolutionary Iranians were free. The western-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi was a ruthless despot who did not tolerate political dissent. His secret services, the SAVAK, gutted the intellectual class with most academics either escaping into exile or winding up in detention centres. When the revolution finally came, bringing with it the inevitable power vacuum, there was no one left to fill it but the mullahs. The rest is history.
The Western world likes to think it has this freedom caper all figured out. That freedom is the way we live; it is free speech, democracy, and skirts that fall at least five inches above the knee.
The moral of the story is there is no one way to measure freedom. Nonetheless, the Western world likes to think it has this freedom caper all figured out. That freedom is the way we live; it is free speech, democracy, and skirts that fall at least five inches above the knee. We have freedom and they don’t. This is why ‘they’ hate us and why terrorists attack us.
But having spent the last month in Lebanon, not a country most Westerners - including myself - would associate with freedom, I’ve been thinking a lot about how difficult freedom really is to define.
Certainly, when it comes to political freedom the West has Lebanon licked. But there are limits to how much dissent Western governments will tolerate. Just ask Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
But when it comes to daily life, Beirut - a heaving, seething mess of a city in which people, including children, are out and about at all hours - makes Australia seem positively stuffy and regimented. My friend Dalia calls life in Lebanon “organised chaos”.
Living for the moment, Beirutis rarely go out for dinner before 9pm and don’t wait for the weekend to party, perhaps because they don’t fully trust the weekend will arrive.
I don’t mean to understate the comparative political repression here; it’s not something that is hidden. Soldiers stand guard on street corners throughout the city, rifles in hand, severe expression on face. Meanwhile, on a scale of press freedom where 0 is most free and 100 is least free, Freedom House gives Lebanon a score of 55 compared to Australia’s 22.
But within these limitations there is a lust for life that seems absent at home. In some ways Australians appear more willing to bow to authority than the Lebanese. Australia’s ubiquitous red light cameras, speeding cameras, seatbelt laws, parking laws, helmet laws, lockout laws, move on laws and so on may be – ostensibly - designed with our safety in mind but it does make for a somewhat robotic existence.
There is something a little thrilling, a little subversive in the way locals here park their cars wherever and however the mood takes them; crossing the streets on foot is an exercise in navigation. Red lights are but a mere suggestion and as a pedestrian you must always be on your toes. The nightlife is exuberant and I imagine anyone who tried to prevent Beirutis from entering a nightclub after 1am would be met with an armed rebellion.
Some Lebanese-Australian women I have spoken to say they feel far more free here than in Australia, that Lebanese society has liberalised even as the diaspora has clung to tradition. Certainly Lebanese women are just as likely to be found frequenting nightclubs and political rallies as men.
But it is a kind of superficial freedom that can be extinguished at any moment. Male relatives can legally bar women from leaving the country, and, while there is a thriving gay scene, homosexuality is still punishable under a murky law that prohibits “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature”.
Freedom seems to me almost a negotiation, as though there is an unspoken acquiescence between the people and their government
Yet, there is a lust for life here that is irresistible. People may resent the rent but owning a house with a crushing mortgage is not considered a rite of passage. Nor is renovating the bathroom and sending your kids to private school. Living for the moment, locals rarely go out for dinner before 9pm and don’t wait for the weekend to party, perhaps because they don’t fully trust the weekend will arrive.
Who would have thought that Arabs, the people we regard with that peculiar combination of fear and pity could be so uninhibited?
Rather than something you either have or you don’t, freedom seems to me almost a negotiation, as though there is an unspoken acquiescence between the people and their government. Because political systems are notoriously difficult to overturn - just ask the Arab Spring activists - it must be negotiated within the current framework.
In control of the big picture, the Lebanese government appears to permit more everyday civil liberties than we enjoy at home, for example, rarely enforcing traffic and smoking laws. Meanwhile, Australians seem so sure of their political freedom, we treat encroaches on civil liberties as inconsequential. How else to explain the sheer ridiculousness of the NSW government prohibiting us from buying a bottle of wine at certain times? Or our acceptance of overreaching and anti-democratic protest laws?
Freedom is complex. All of which makes the West’s tendency to reduce it to the clothing women wear seem rather quaint as well as ethnocentric.
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