Lebanese pop singer May Hariri threw a drink at the camera and threatened to storm off set during a recent interview with Al-Jadeed TV’s Tammam Baleeq after the host asked whether she used to be a dancer earlier in her career. Let’s not skirt around what he was really saying. When Tammam asked Hariri if she used to dance in Choueifat, he was not asking the pop star if she was a classically trained ballet dancer with a perfect turnout.
What he was essentially asking was whether Hariri was once a prostitute. Though not as popular as “kiss immak sharmouta” or “shelekke,” it’s not unheard of for a kid to yell, “immak rassa” in an attempt to insult someone’s mother. Really now – calling someone a “rassa” is a silly insult, but the deeply entrenched connotation (read: derogatory version of a prostitute) remains. In that sense, it was an undeniably disrespectful question for Tammam to ask.
In another sense, Hariri is a public figure, and in taking on that role has willingly subjected herself to scrutiny and questioning. First thing’s first, shaming people for being sexual or having a sexual history is bullshit and needs to stop. But the fact that May acts surprised, offended – emotionally traumatized even – by the question would make it seem as though she has no idea what she actually does for a living: exchange sexual titillation for money in the form of music. How is that any different from being a “dancer”?
Insinuating that a woman is a prostitute as a way to assault her character is an ugly, abusive behavior used to create a clear division between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” women. It is meant to mark the latter as irreparably unworthy and immoral. But let’s not get hung up on Tammam’s use of the word “dancer” as an indicator of slut-shaming or a denigration of prostitutes. In throwing that fit, May exposed one of the great hangups of many women in Lebanese society: the inability to rectify its demands for a woman to be at once a sexual goddess and a saint. She should have just brushed the question off, but no – not in Lebanon. May’s reputation, dignity and respect were at stake.
Lebanese women want to be good wives, good mothers, and good daughters by retaining a pious nature while also painting images of female promiscuity and sexual subversiveness with their tight form-fitting tops and groin-bearing shorts. They want to appear naughty, but in a way that is somehow socially acceptable. And sadly, society at large would call these women “well rounded.”
Sexualized behavior doesn’t help the cause for equality when women feel the need to hide or derive insult from it. Want to be super sexy? Awesome! I support you completely. Now you need to be willing to have an honest discussion about the role of the male gaze, the commoditization of sexuality, and the importance of female empowerment in a society dominated by patriarchal values and men who feel totally justified in getting to decide that when a man forcibly has sex with his wife, it still isn’t legally considered rape.
While Gebran Bassil’s “wayn Caroline?” stunt at the UN last month was vomit-inducing and appalling behavior, especially coming from a political leader, it wasn’t all that shocking either. Lebanon often feels like one big boardroom where a bunch of men are sat around a table cackling about women’s tits and the finer points of Haifa’s ass while counting out the pounds in their pockets for everyone to ogle. The ever-prevalent patriarchy has firmly dictated the idea that a woman’s worth and interest lies in her sexuality, but that displaying the wrong kind or too much of that sexuality is grounds for complete dismissal. It’s an impossible expectation to meet, and one that Lebanese women should completely ignore: being sexually provocative in a culture that values that kind of attention but being pressured not to have people think of you in a sexual way.
Could you imagine a world in which we glorified women for being kind, friendly and charitable instead of measuring a woman by how many boners she’s inspired? May Hariri made a deal with the devil when she entered the pop world, an industry bent on the commodification of women’s bodies for profit. But why are we judging a woman’s sexual history in the first place? Sex and sexuality is not inherently bad. But it’s time we women reappropiate that stance and decide for ourselves when and where to draw the line.
I’m in no position to dictate to May Hariri how she should feel about someone asking her if she used to be a prostitute. But if you’re going to be sexual, then affirm that sexuality in positive ways. Don’t be bitter. Be empowered, and act accountable for the image you represent. I don’t like seeing women portrayed as materialistic, shallow, money and beauty-obsessed, sex automatons. But if that’s your choice, then you should own it and make no excuses for it. Women should have the right to do as they please with their bodies and lives, and not have to throw a smokescreen tantrum when someone asks why.