31 Oct 2014

The Jezebel Complex and Lebanese Women Today

There’s a persistent stereotype when it comes to Lebanese women today that I often come across both in real-life conversations and on social media. Lebanese women pay excessive attention to their appearance, they do too much plastic surgery, they use too much makeup and so on. The implication is that Lebanese women are superficial and this supposed excessive attention to physical appearance reflects a lack of intellectual capabilities.

Now it would be bad enough if this attitude came from conservative or religiously-minded people, but in fact it’s much more wide-spread than that. You’ll come across this attitude among liberal, secular types who seem to be unaware of the puritanical aspect of such perceptions. It stems sometimes from a prudish strand of feminism that is overly focused on objectification, in the process denying women agency and the ability to control their public image.

Take for example Haifa Wehbe, who is widely ridiculed for her physical appearance and her overt sexuality. She is dismissed as a comical figure by otherwise enlightened secularists, who ironically don’t seem to see beyond her physical appearance. The reality is that she has made a very successful career for herself, and was quite smart about how she promoted her public image. Sure it’s not to everybody’s taste, and I have to admit I have personally never voluntarily listened to any of her songs or watched anything she’s in. But so what? She has a big audience and the high-minded attitude critical of her is primarily driven by priggishness.

Wehbe is in a way the extreme, there are perhaps hundreds of Lebanese women who have become public figures and the way they present themselves in public varies significantly. Take for example Lebanese TV presenters, many of whom are very intelligent and very skilled at what they do, but they are often dismissed by the chatterati because of their dress sense and what is perceived as excessive attention to their physical appearance. It’s as if women can’t simultaneously be intelligent and use makeup.

Which brings us to Jezebel. It’s quite telling that among the historical figures associated with Lebanon, Jezebel, who was a Phoenician princess from Tyre, has never been celebrated in Lebanese modern mythology. But I think she should. Not because I’m keen on reinforcing Phoenician myths but because she is a great metaphor for Lebanese women today. In Biblical tales, Jezebel receives as much hate for her use of cosmetics, the ‘painted women’ jib, as she does for promoting pagan gods.

Jezebel met with a terrible fate in the Biblical account, and of course this is miles apart from the situation of Lebanese women today. Yet, there is a similar type of puritanical attitude at play which dismisses Lebanese women for their attention to physical appearance. But the reality is that Lebanese women made huge leaps since the end of the civil war, fighting to create independent careers as writers, broadcasters, athletes, journalists, businesswomen and much more. This is all in the absence of any official support or formal campaigns. It’s in a way a silent revolution that many still don’t appreciate as one of the most positive aspects about Lebanon in the past two decades, and something that gives the country much hope.

But instead some fixate on the physical appearance and poke fun at Lebanese women. I have no issue with mockery, but when it’s becomes the main attitude towards Lebanese women then there is clearly a problem. If you can’t see that a woman can both pay attention to her physical appearance AND have intellectual depth, then you’re the one with the problem. You’re projecting your own biases onto Lebanese women. What a woman does with her body is her choice, but there’s no contradiction between wanting to look attractive and being an independent and intelligent women.

I say we should put Jezebel on our flag.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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