High tensions in Lebanon between feminists and Islamists after the attack on women in bikinis

While Lebanese law does not prohibit the wearing of swimsuits in public, two women dressed in bikinis were attacked by Islamists on the public beach of Saïda on Sunday May 14. Accused of wearing an “indecent” outfit, they were ordered to leave the premises, one of them was even physically attacked.

This case, revealed by The Orient by day, reacted to religious leaders, elected officials and civil society. Clashes broke out last Sunday between feminist activists, gathered in support of the victims, and Islamists who had called for demonstrations “in favor of modesty, virtue, and against nudity”.

What happened ?

That Sunday, two friends, a 26-year-old man and a woman from Beirut, took advantage of a sunny day to go to the public beach of Saïda, 40 km south of the capital. After an hour, they are arrested by two sheikhs (Muslim religious leaders, editor’s note.), reports Parisian Mario Doueiry, journalist for L’Orient le jour and who met the protagonists of the incident.

“They told them that the customs of Saïda did not allow the presence of naked women in a public place and they asked the woman to get dressed”, explains Mario Doueiry. The two friends are quickly surrounded by about thirty “supporters” to “intimidate” them. Not wanting to cause a stir, they left the beach.

At the same time, a few meters away, the group of Islamists grabbed a couple for the same reasons. “They come from Saïda, the husband didn’t give in and replied that they were within their rights,” reports the journalist. The tone rises, until the Islamists physically attack them: “They threw water bottles at them, threw sand in their eyes, kicked them… The couple ended up leaving. The woman filed a complaint against the sheikhs a few days later.

Clashes during a demonstration

The president of the municipal council of Saïda, the equivalent of the mayor, condemned these incidents while recalling that “no law or custom prohibits women from bathing in swimsuits on a public beach in the city”. The two sheikhs in question, one Lebanese, the other Palestinian, specifies Mario Doueiry, are known to be “very radical Salafists” and would have acted on their own. In a press release, the League of Muslim Ulemas of Saida came to their defense and denied the violence.

On social networks, this attack triggered a wave of solidarity. Some women posted photos of themselves in swimsuits with the hashtag #Saïda to show their support. Feminist groups and activists then called to gather on Sunday May 21 to defend “freedom of expression and morals” and claim the right to access the beach without clothing restrictions. A group of Islamists responded by announcing a counter-protest the same day.

Despite the prohibitions by the municipality, the two gatherings took place. The demands of feminists then took on another dimension since on the night of Saturday to Sunday, the municipality of Saïda decided to install a sign at the entrance to the public beach: the wearing of “decent” outfits becomes compulsory. In other words, the swimsuit for women becomes prohibited.

The dozens of pro-freedom demonstrators were quickly attacked by the other camp, requiring the intervention of the police. Tensions erupted and three people were lightly injured, according to The Orient by day.

The fear of “radicalization”

The decision taken on the fly by the municipality to ban the wearing of swimsuits in Saïda, the legality of which still raises questions, “is unheard of in the history of Lebanon since the end of the Ottoman Empire”, has affirmed to The Orient by day sociologist Waddah Charara. It was taken according to him “under the pressure of certain conservative Islamist personalities, but also for fear of reprisals”. A new phenomenon that worries Lebanon.

The woman attacked in Saïda, who has been going to this beach for a long time, herself pointed out to the Lebanese media that it was the first time that she had been the victim of such a situation. “I think they allow themselves to act in this way because they see the decay of the state and its institutions,” she lamented.

The Saïda affair has taken on such proportions because it arouses “fears of radicalization and sectarian withdrawal”, Mario Doueiry is alarmed. “Lebanon is a country of living together, there have always been women who bathed in bikinis and that was never a question,” he says. “What happened is very shocking and worrying. »

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