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BEIRUT , Jun 2 2010 (IPS) - Hijab or bikini? That is a question that Lebanon seems to be forever balancing.
First-time tourists to Lebanon are often struck by the contrast of women tanning in skimpy bathing suits alongside veiled women sipping frappuccinos at the country’s beaches, or scantily clad females walking along the streets with others wearing the hijab.
Their surprise is, for the most part, a result of misinformation regarding the country and the cultural mix of its people.
“Rima Fakih’s win shows that the stereotype of Lebanese women, especially Muslims – who, incidentally, constitute only a part of our society – as being completely veiled from head to toe is inaccurate,” says Anissa Rafeh, Lebanese-American author of ‘Miss Guided: How to Step into the Lebanese Glam Lane’, a book on contemporary Lebanese women.
When Fakih, 24, competed in the Miss USA pageant, her hometown in Lebanon, Srifa – located in the south, a territory traditionally controlled by the Islamic Hezbollah militant group – watched as she won the crown after appearing in an evening gown … and a swimsuit.
“Rima is Srifa’s daughter. She defended Lebanon’s colours at the Miss USA pageant and won! She’s our ambassador and shows that we are an open and mixed society,” proudly points out Ali Eid, Srifa’s mayor.
Ghinwa Fakih, Rima’s second cousin, argues that people should not be judged based on the way they dress, but on their conduct and values.
“I wear the hijab, but in my family, some members, like Rima, have chosen a Westernised look instead. Each decision results from a personal conviction, but what matters in the end is if we are good people or not,” she emphasises.
The 39-year-old mother of four admits, however, that some in the village did not approve of Rima’s TV appearance and attire. “But only a small number of residents share this opinion,” she adds.
In an interview last week with a Lebanese television station, Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah was asked his opinion on Fakih’s win. He evaded the question by replying: “The criteria on which we evaluate women are different from those of the West.”
However, Shiite cleric Sheikh Abdel-Amir Kabalan, referring to the selection of Fakih, adopted a harsher stance. He warned Lebanese women to preserve “their physical integrity and not be impressed by seductive ceremonies that injure their chastity and integrity.”
Although recently placed under the microscope, the hijab-bikini oxymoron has in fact always been part of the Lebanese landscape. The country is home to 17 different religious communities and has the largest Middle Eastern Christian presence, which may account for Lebanon’s relative openness.
“Residents of cities where there is interaction among different religious sects are traditionally more tolerant than those who live tucked away in their villages in near isolation,” explains American University sociology professor Sari Hanafi.
Rafeh believes that the crowning of Fakih as Miss USA also highlights the adaptability of the Lebanese people. “Lebanese living abroad have, for the most part, always managed to adapt to the societies they live in and often assimilate to Western cultures,” she underlines.
It is an opinion shared by Hanafi. “Migration within Lebanese families has allowed the empowerment and freedom of individuals, which stems from their resulting financial independence. This trend greatly varies, however, from one area to another depending on whether or not it has been exposed to such migration,” says Hanafi.
The sociologist also establishes a difference between the different countries where Lebanese migrate. “Over the course of my research on migration in Palestine, for example, I noticed that Palestinians who reside in the Gulf countries overall adopt a more conservative lifestyle than Palestinians who remained in their homeland. The same can be said of Lebanon,” he adds.
According to Hanafi, tolerance to others is always an extremely healthy sign in any society. In Lebanon, however, prejudice against people because of the way they dress still occurs, and is sometimes focused on women who dress conservatively.
Last summer, for example, Rania Ghaddar was rejected from one of the posh Beirut beaches because she was wearing the hijab.
“Tolerance towards the other resides in accepting their choice of clothing. Wearing the hijab or dressing in a bathing suit is a matter of personal freedom,” says Hanafi.
Lebanon’s culture, the sociologist admits, has been graced by a certain level of liberalism, which has triumphed over time.
“It is difficult to determine whether or not the coexistence between people from different backgrounds will eventually lead to a clash,” he says. “As long as more radical factions fail to dominate the public and are kept in check by society and not by the state, tolerance will prevail.”
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