Image Credit: The 961

From Public to Private Spaces: Freedom to Discriminate in Lebanon Reigns Supreme

On May 14, a group of men approached a woman at Saida’s public beach and demanded she leave the premises due to her wearing a bikini, which they deemed to be “inappropriate.”

This event was met with wide-scale controversy across Lebanon, but the Municipality of Saida’s only response was to install a sign at the entrance of the beach with instructions for visitors that included “adhere to modest clothing.” 

This was the only instruction marked in a bright red font, contrary to all others marked in black, implying a certain superiority of these rules – despite the fact that others, such as “pay attention to lifeguard instructions” could arguably be deemed far more important than beach attire.

In doing so, the Municipality declared a clear message: That even public beaches are not a safe space for women. Not only will they potentially face harassment, but the state will not protect or fight for their rights. 

With public beaches now being exiled into yet another unsafe space for women to be, those who can afford it then look to private beach clubs for a safe space to swim and enjoy their summer. 

But what happens when these beach clubs turn discriminatory as well?

Discrimination on the basis of dress, or skintone

As this and the previous years have shown, these private clubs also go out of their way to discriminate against women or other marginalized groups in the country.

Back in 2021, Nowhere Beach in Chekka refused to permit entry to a woman wearing the hijab. The security guard at the door refused to allow her and her friends admittance even when the group of friends clarified that she has no intention of swimming, only sitting beachside. 

Many beach clubs in the Northern region of Lebanon still don’t allow women wearing the hijab to enter. Other beach clubs might permit them entrance but do not allow them to swim as they only allow women to swim if they wear either a one-piece or two-piece swimsuit, meaning burkinis, swim shorts, and other legitimate swimsuit options are not allowed for almost always undisclosed reasons.

These policies are not only set to discriminate against women and control how they dress – an act extremely similar to what happened in Saida just targeting different groups of women – they also aim at restricting pool access to domestic workers. 

Many domestic workers are not comfortable with traditional swimsuits and would prefer wearing swim shorts and swim shirts, largely as a result of the rampant harassment they receive in Lebanon. Many clubs have stopped their blatant discrimination of not permitting them to swim or hanging up signs saying domestic workers can’t swim, and have instead implemented policies deeming swim shorts and shirts unacceptable swimming attire, much like the burkini.

Over the summer, a social media post circulated stating that a domestic migrant worker was denied entrance to Lazy B, although she was entering as part of a family. The post, and all related content, have since been taken down.

These policies don’t end at discriminating against women. Beach clubs have also started discriminating against men of “questionable morals”, although these policies are not as advanced as those used against women. The Central Military Club (Al Hammam Al Aaskary) refuses to allow men wearing earrings to enter the facility if they do not remove them first, however, the same rule does not apply to women. Many clubs also do not allow Syrian or Palestinian refugees to enter. 

This kind of discrimination has also seeped into private gyms, where women wishing to practice swimming for fitness and health purposes, as prohibited should they don the burkini. The few gyms that allow it include the American University of Beirut, whose gym is only accessible to staff members and students, and the Mercury Club in Beirut’s waterfront district.

In contrast, Fitness Zone, one of the most famous and expensive gyms in the country, also does not allow women to swim in their pools in burkinis even if they are members.

It’s also worth noting that many of those affected by these policies are the ones that can afford to go to these clubs or businesses to begin with. Now that most businesses have resorted to dollarizing their prices while wages, especially those of public sector employees, have not seen a significant enough increase to make access to these places affordable, members of the lower to middle-lower class who no longer feel safe in public spaces have nowhere to turn to escape the heat.

The policies not only strip citizens of their humanity, but also to their basic right to entertainment during the summer season.

Defenders of these acts of discrimination arm themselves with the argument that private institutions are free to enforce whichever rules they want. Many even choose to ignore that several of these private beach clubs have built their businesses on stolen land, as the government has refused to regulate access to public beaches.

Selectivity in action

However, the government has shown before that it can interfere in private business affairs if they believe immoral or unethical acts are taking place. One example is the time it ordered former Beirut nightclub The Gärten to shut down in May 2018 after a video of Quran verses being played during a DJ’s set began circulating on social media. The decision was taken under the guise of promoting material that offends religious belief.

This demonstrates the government’s abilities to enforce decisions on private institutions that promote what they deem to be immoral. However, it also shows that they do not view acts of discrimination against minorities in Lebanon as immoral and would rather overlook them for the sake of a prosperous season of tourism. 

With politicians openly promoting racist discourse against Syrian and Palestinian refugees, such as Gebran Bassil and Hassan Nasrallah, and the continued existence of the Kafala system, it’s no wonder that these instances remain overlooked.

In fact, one might argue that the way certain government sectors react to similar incidents, such as Saida’s Municipality’s response to the woman that was kicked out due to wearing a bikini and municipalities such as Hadath, Ras Baalbeck, and Feitrun enforcing curfews and restrictions on Syrian refugees over the last couple of years, might even encourage these acts of discrimination in private businesses.

This issue doesn’t end at merely restricted access to spaces for minorities or certain sects. When certain groups are not allowed entry at certain places, they tend to search for similar places that do permit them entry. 

Meanwhile, groups that discriminate against the aforementioned groups will tend to go to the places that did not permit them entry, further driving the divide in this country that’s influenced by multiple factors: racism, sectarianism, sexism, homophobia, etc. 

From there one can easily notice the repeated cycle of discrimination leading to clientelism and fear mongering which politicians use to manipulate the population to propagate the status quo and maintain their positions of power. 

Ultimately, there is no proof on whether or not these unpunished acts of discrimination in private beaches and businesses have an impact on the economy, because we have never had enough chance to allow these discriminated groups into these spaces long enough to compare data. 

But societally, it speaks volumes on the systemic oppression of minorities in Lebanon and the government’s nonchalance, or at times incitement, of these acts.