Despite the increased backlash against the feminist and LGBTQ+ movement in Lebanon, on
Saturday, September 30, 2023, a group of 30 associations, organizations, and media and
human rights institutions, among them, FEMALE, aimed at organizing a march under the title “Freedoms March”, during which a significant violation of freedoms occurred. This march was originally planned to commence from Riad Al-Solh Square in Beirut’s city center, heading towards the Ministry of the Interior, instead, and due to security threats, protesters held a sit-in at Riad Al-Solh under the theme “For a complete guarantee of our freedoms and in response to successive violations.” A few days before the march, false information and violent threats were spread, igniting a counter-march with the slogan “Protect your family”. The opposition consisted of anti-LGBTQ+ mobs belonging to various religious extremist groups fighting for the enforcement of traditional values.
The primary objective of the “Freedoms March” was to oppose the suppression of freedoms, reject legal actions against those with differing opinions, and emphasize adherence to the Lebanese Constitution, which upholds freedom of expression and speech. Furthermore, it urged security officials to safeguard press and media crews while holding aggressors accountable. The planned protest did not encompass advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. However, in recent times, certain factions within Lebanon have equated the use of terms such as “freedoms” and “rights” with what they label as LGBTQ+ “propaganda”.
Due to escalated threats and since the ISF retreated from protecting the activists while
marching, organizers opted for a sit-in within Riad El Solh Square to ensure participants’ safety after being assured by the ISF that they would protect the protesters.
Through a statement announced by Hayat Mirshad, FEMALE’s executive director, the
organizers vowed to persist in safeguarding public and private freedoms, emphasizing the right of all individuals and groups to express themselves regardless of differences in ideology, culture, or social standing.
According to Widad Jarbou, representing the Samir Kassir Foundation for Freedoms, the attack wasn’t surprising, attributing it to escalating hate speech targeting advocates for freedoms and marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community.
According to Milka Fijalkowska, a journalist from TV24 who accompanied the protesters and
other witnesses within FEMALE’s team, after Hayat concluded the statement of the march, she, along with other activists, found themselves in Riad Solh Square, surrounded by a multitude of radical individuals with hostile intentions towards her specifically.
The violence persists:
Following the incident, activists and social media news outlets across the country circulated
videos and photos from the protest where Hayat was clearly visible, after being spotted and
directly targeted by the opposing crowds on ground. Unfortunately, these videos were misused to launch a campaign against both Hayat and the organization, FEMALE. Consequently, the attacks on various social media platforms persisted and were widespread, with rape and death threats assaults and harassment targeting Hayat specifically. This drove her to deactivate her social media accounts to avoid negative visibility that would further impact her and the organization, in addition to being obliged to apply certain security measures affecting her mobility for the sake of protecting herself and her family.
False claims have been circulated, asserting that FEMALE’s mission is to corrupt and negatively influence women and girls and promote homosexuality, jeopardizing our facilities and safe spaces. Additionally, the attackers have disseminated videos and images of their assaults on the protesters, making it easier to identify our team members.
On the 3rd of October, a team member was going about her daily activities near her residence when a man on a motorcycle stopped by her, recognized her face and began publicly accusing her of participating in the march, yelling “you, lesbian” at her. She managed to escape from the man and the gathering crowd. She is now relocating to a more secure location outside Beirut to protect her identity and ensure her safety. Also, a neighbor of FEMALE’s office in Beirut reported to us a suspicious action by a man on a motorcycle who seemed to be surveilling the office, while closed, for a period of time during the day.
On the 4th of October, another team member was spotted near Badaro street, a street known for its inclusivity, where over 30% of Beirut nightlife is saturated. A motorcycle driver hit her car from the back on purpose, while she was driving, and yelled you lesbian through the window of her car.
We demand justice!
We’d like to stress that under Article 13 of the 1926 Constitution of Lebanon (as amended),
freedom of assembly is guaranteed “within the scope of the law,” and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon ratified in 1972, provides that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association without discrimination.
This incident highlights a critical lapse in the duty of care towards citizens, particularly those exercising their democratic right to peaceful assembly. Such allegations underscore the imperative for comprehensive accountability measures within the Lebanese government and security apparatus, as well as the necessity for procedural reforms to ensure the safety and well-being of all citizens, particularly women and other marginalized groups.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, stated that “there must be an urgent investigation into the attack on protesters who were simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including into the failure of security forces to protect them. The wholly inadequate response of the security forces is all the more shocking given the violent assault waged against peaceful protesters.”
FEMALE’s safety procedures and decisions:
To this end, and in light of escalating threats, FEMALE’s board has taken the difficult but
necessary decision to shut down its centers and suspend its activities temporarily. The safety and well-being of our team members, as well as the individuals we serve, are of paramount importance to us. This measure has been implemented to safeguard both our dedicated team and the rights of those we support. FEMALE has consistently worked towards promoting gender equality, providing vital resources, and creating safe spaces for women and girls in Lebanon. However, the recent targeted attacks and campaigns against our organization and team members have created an environment of heightened risk and vulnerability. By temporarily suspending our activities, we aim to assess the situation thoroughly and implement necessary security measures to ensure the continued safety of our team and the individuals whose rights we champion. We remain steadfast in our commitment to the cause of women’s rights and will resume our activities once we can do so in a secure and conducive environment.
A Brief Background on the Backlash:
Since June 2022, the feminist movement in Lebanon has encountered vehement and
aggressive opposition, ostensibly rooted in targeted and systematic campaigns by religious and political groups and leaders. This reactionary movement was set in motion by the Minister of Interior, Al-Mawlawi, who issued a decree proscribing the assembly of LGBTQ+ individuals public spaces. Consequently, Al-Mawlawi’s edict has exerted a discernible influence on the proliferation of anti-rights factions across the nation, particularly within religious establishments.
Since this juncture, feminist organizations have found themselves singled out and maligned as proponents of homosexuality through orchestrated social media campaigns and traditional media channels. A mere two months prior to the present, Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the Hezbollah militia, openly targeted the LGBTQ+ community in a speech, advocating for the harm and elimination of individuals associated with the LGBTQ+ individuals or any groups working to promote their rights.
Conversely, as FEMALE’s team inaugurated the Feminist Festival in June 2023, they were met with threats from various extremist religious anti-rights groups who alleged that the festival endorsed LGBTQ+ rights. Furthermore, during the festival, the ISF conducted a raid on NGO booths, citing purported complaints regarding the display of rainbow flags within said booths.
During the month of August, the far-right Christian organization known as Jnoud El-Rab
(Soldiers of God) carried out an assault on an LGBTQ+ friendly pub hosting a drag show. This reprehensible act involved vandalizing furniture, physically assaulting individuals, and issuing menacing threats to the owner, warning of more violence should they persist in supporting LGBTQ+ causes.
On the 16th of September, the opposition reached its zenith when a cadre of anti-rights mobs, driven and ignited by the Association of Muslim Scholars in Tripoli, forcibly entered and exposed a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) center operated by an NGO in a hospital in Tripoli. This egregious act was again rationalized under the pretext that the center was promoting homosexuality. And the backlash continues and exacerbates day after day…