In the last few years, and quite visibly in this last year, Lebanese people have been, unusually, under a lot of pressure to regulate and control their body parts through drastically different types of techniques and institutions. Four main body parts emerged as the main new sites for Lebanese governance, some of them more imminent and problematic than others: The vagina and the anus, regulated through the infamous homosexuality and virginity tests that the police and intelligence state apparatuses are conducting on certain Lebanese subjects; the mouth through the smoking ban, and the breast through the national breastfeeding campaign that the ministry of health and World Vision launched this year. While some of these bodily regulations have not yet become a regular form of governance, others are implemented routinely in hiding.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. Is it a coincidence that the state police, state institutions, lobbyists, middle class activists and international humanitarian organizations are choosing to regulate body parts that are deeply associated with sexual pleasure? Of course it is not a coincidence! If there is any true conspiracy theory, it is this one!
I call ‘uncivil’ the vagina and anus regulations, and ‘civil’ the mouth and breast ones, not to put a moral judgment on these kinds of regulations but to highlight that the former is seen as an non-modern way to regulate a subject’s sexuality. Let us not be mistaken though, everybody’s vaginas and anuses are under scrutiny by institutional power everywhere. There is just a biopolitical way of regulating and controlling, through medicine, public health and psychology, and an ‘uncivil’ one, through the state’ police and intelligence apparatus. Arguably, one is less creepy than the other, but both gaze upon our sexual body parts to ensure a normal masculinity/femininity.
Why the Lebanese state would choose such an ‘uncivil’ way of “checking up” on our vaginas and anuses, and not a safe, public healthy, NGO-run campaign way, is, I think, something to register and analyze.
Let’s start with the ‘civil’ regulations since we all like health so much.
Banning smoking in Lebanon (or, how to govern the citizen “by the butt”)
On the first day of the smoking ban, I asked the “service” driver about it, do the taxis also get affected?
“They fine us the same amount they do for restaurants, 135000L.L. if they catch us smoking. If you smoke in my car, it is I who will be fined as well” .What did you think of the ban, I asked: “…I don’t know miss…it’s like…, I am sorry to be rude…but it’s like they are holding us by the ass. The state is holding us by the ass. I inhale fumes from cars all the time, the fumes that come from the Saida garbage mountain, I inhale that also everyday… you know?”
Holding us by the ass? Another body part?! I don’t think this post can handle any more!
But what the service driver is saying is really insightful. He is talking about the different kinds of regulations that the state administer. He is less against “regulation” per say than against the way the state has suddenly decided to govern us, ”by the ass”, by us upside down, and governing certain body parts that have no direct impact on structural forms of violence and oppression, like the Saida’s garbage mountain that is directly affecting people’s lives.
This is what biopolitics does sometimes. It puts the responsibility of life and health onto individual citizens by inviting them to govern their own behavior, to be responsible for their own health. By relocating the responsibility of health from the state to that of the citizen, other more structural forms of oppression are left unaddressed.
I get off the service and head to T-Marbouta in Hamra. Outside in the square, a concert is being prepared by AUB students and staff to celebrate the beginning of the smoking ban. A guitarist walks in the square with his cigarette in his mouth. Two people jump on him and plead him to walk away from the square and finish his cigarette then come back. Other AUB students are roaming the streets of Hamra giving out brochures about the ban “If you see anyone smoking in a public space, it’s your responsibility to report him/her”. Holy shit, I think to myself, as many terrified smokers were panicking at that time.
Smoking in public spaces has been a long-term cause for many activists, AUB academics and public health professionals in Lebanon. The fact that their lobbying worked in a country like Lebanon is really commendable. But it is important to also look at and think about the new spaces that were re-appropriated because of the ban, the “shared public spaces” that the ban created in bars, restaurants and “public” transportation (which are not really public). What kind of a public space is that? Who inhabits these spaces and who does not anymore? Do these spaces reveal structural forms of violence or do these structures become hidden and unnoticed in them?
The ban also created interesting and new spaces for smokers, like smoking on sidewalks in groups while drinking, and getting to know other people. The other night, smokers were given a “5 minute cigarette break” during a concert and head outside to smoke, with their drinks. I guess there was too many of us so the police stopped by and asked what was going on, “That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?! Now you deal with it!” screamed some people (well it was actually one person…and it might have been just me, and I might have just whispered it to myself). But there was this feeling of solidarity about it all. One guy came up to my friend, who is not a smoker, and started comforting him “don’t panic, it will only take a month, then everything we’ll be back to normal…this can’t go on like this!”.
People were genuinely surprised about the ban. Sometimes we over-exaggerate the failure and weakness of the state and its power to regulate us. But hey, strangers are getting together and talking during 5 minutes cigarette breaks, so, state you better watch out!
The national breastfeeding campaign: turning the breast into a natural right”
It seemed to have gone unnoticed, but the breastfeeding campaign ad that the ministry of health, “partnering” with World Vision (or is it the other way around?), broadcasted on national television is really telling of how much the breast is a crucial site for regulating women’s bodies in Lebanon.
The ad caught my attention because it is charged with gendered and moralist images of what a Lebanese woman should be. I screamed the first time I saw it really. I also keep my eye out for breast campaigns (be it for cancer, esthetic surgeries, or breastfeeding) because they can tell us a lot about how women are thought of and imagined by the state ( or Lebanese state/World Vision in this case).
If you have missed it, here is the ad
The ad, published on World Vision’s site, configures breastfeeding as a child’s right. “Support children’s right- choose breastfeeding”. The classical “you’re a horrible mother if you don’t breastfeed” message. As a good faith-based organization, World Vision understands breastfeeding as “pure goodness”. A woman who does not breastfeed is not only a horrible mother, but she is also “bad” and non-religious.
Let’s move on to analyzing the ad now. Different looking women, all middle class and pretty looking, are shot talking (more like lecturing) about breastfeeding. Playing with her children, playing a business woman, going to the beauty salon, playing a doctor, or being a good wife to her husband, all these scenarios were chosen through which the state/World Vision addressed breastfeeding through a one-sentence message each.
The message does not need a lot of deciphering: “if you love your child, no matter how busy you are, you should breastfeed him/her because the milk is good, natural and healthy. Breastfeeding also makes you skinnier and does not make your breasts fall down, so you don’t have to break any of the esthetic norms dictated by society and you can always remain beautiful and even skinnier than you are already are! You can’t ever say that you have no milk, because the woman playing a doctor in the ad says that of course you will have milk! Breastfeeding makes your kid smarter and healthier. Your mother did it, so you should do it too. And to top it all, your husband approves and has personally thought about the whole issue and figured out that breastfeeding is a “right” for you and a “right” for your child. Your husband has always your rights and that of your child on his mind.”
It is quite fascinating that the ad’s conclusive statement is pronounced by the husband/man. But then again, it is not really that surprising, is it?
This breastfeeding campaign seems to corner women from every possible cheesy way. Moralist arguments about breastfeeding and the pressure that women find themselves in, to breastfeed, is universal I am sure. And again, these kinds of biopolitical regulations completely undermine and forget structural forms of violence that Lebanese women find themselves in, especially in terms of always looking pretty and ageless.
By transferring all the responsibility of breastfeeding onto the woman, these kinds of campaigns abstract the breastfeeding activity from its social and cultural meaning and its effect on the woman worker, or the woman whose whole value relies in her perky breasts and looks. Suddenly, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed becomes an issue that individual women need to handle on their own, without challenging social rules and norms that pressure her not to breastfeed or without allying with women to negotiate these norms and fight them. Through campaigns like these, these fights become individual ones and are rarely talked about as a social problem.
If you’re into breast campaigns like me, you should compare our national campaign to regulate the breast with the Saudi’s national campaign for breast cancer where King Abdullah himself appears in person to talk to Saudi women citizens.
and read about it here
And now for the uncivil.
Gazing at the vagina and the anus (or, where did the state’s masculine power go?)
Let us not be fooled. All of our vaginas and anuses are penetrated by the state’s gaze. The difference is that “in Europe and developed countries”, gazing at the vaginas and the anuses becomes the work of the medical apparatus, and also of psychology and psychoanalysis. The medical gaze of vaginas and anuses is mainly focused on “health”, “hygiene” and “disorders”, which ends up regulating sexual practices and behaviors in the way medicine and psychology thinks of as “normal”.
Virginity and homosexuality tests on the other hand, require quite a different gaze than one that is regulating health and prolonging life. It has nothing to do with the life of the subjects, and more to do with creating and maintaining specific forms of bodies, those with un-penetrated vaginas and anuses. These tests done by the police seems to happen as a way for the state’s muscle apparatus to check up on its own masculine power.
Lebanese demonstrators hold signs against anal “tests” on men suspected of homosexuality during a protest in Beirut on August 11, 2012.
It’s really incredible that the state chooses to gaze at the subject and govern him/her through the anus and vagina. But it actually makes a lot of sense. The only form of state power and governance left in Lebanon is its hyper-masculine apparatus of police and intelligence; and even this form of power is being castrated on a daily basis by different social and political agents in and outside Lebanon. What’s left for this apparatus is to check for the masculinity of its subjects, manifested in sexual relations, as a way to check for its own masculine power
It remains to think about who is threatening enough to get these “tests” and who does not. Who is a good subject for the police and Lebanese intelligence and how is a scary one. The recent sexual harassment and beatings targeting peaceful protesters of civil marriage outside of the state’s own legitimatizing institution, the parliament, is in need for both legal action and social analysis to understand the workings of state power. You can read about the testimonies of the protesters here.
PS. Lebanese governance?!
I started this piece by assuming that it is the Lebanese state that is producing all these different forms of anatomical politics. However, it has become quite difficult to draw any kind of argument pertaining to the “state” in Lebanon. As many other countries, Lebanon government is influenced and sometimes run by international Non-governmental organizations, international aid money, be it through a country or a private donor. State institutions, municipalities and local organizations depend on their international humanitarian “partners”.
The ministry of social welfare, called MOSA in the NGO circle (it took me a whole to figure that one out!), seems to be a “partner” to all of the international humanitarian organizations residing in Lebanon! It is therefore difficult and problematic to talk about state biopolitics and/or non-governmental biopolitics, since the presence of a non-governmental organizations assumes the presence of a governmental one. All in all, the boundaries between an NGO and a state institution have been blurred in Lebanon, as in many other countries. What we have here is an NGO-State or a State-NGO form of governance, for the lack of a better and more theoretically enticing word .
This further complicates the analysis of current anatomical regulations. After all, power does work in mysterious ways, chez nous au Liban.