Archive | August, 2009

Lebanese beach resort discrimination policies uncovered

25 Aug
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: If you’re a migrant domestic worker or dark-skinned tourist, it’s more than likely you’ll run into difficulty trying to enter one of Lebanon’s pool or beach resorts. This is the sad conclusion reached by international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), and confirmed by countless individuals who’ve experienced such racism first hand. 

“Last summer we blind-called resorts to see if there were any restrictions on [the entry or use of facilities by] migrant domestic workers,” Nadim Houry, Senior Researcher at HRW’s Beirut office, told The Daily Star. “We initially called pretending to be a Lebanese family enquiring” about entrance fees and regulations. The results: out of 27 resorts called, 17 said they practiced some form of discrimination against migrants, Houry said. 

Many resorts that do let in migrant workers only do so on if the women are accompanying their employers. Even then, the women are either not allowed to sit in the public area or swim in the pool or sea. Resorts contacted by The Daily Star justified such discrimination by saying they did not wish to upset other guests or that migrants paid less or no entrance fee. As no discrimination law exists in Lebanon, the resorts aren’t doing anything illegal. But their rules conjure up images of Apartheid South Africa or of racial segregation in the United States. “This is clear racism in its most basic element,” Houry said. 

Sylvie, not her real name, is a black Cuban-American who worked for a large international organization in Lebanon. She said she was stunned by the racism she encountered and recalled a story of two black colleagues who were barred entry at a resort because of their color. “If you’re dark-skinned, don’t come to Beirut presuming to find the diversity-friendly cosmopolitanism that the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ moniker seems to imply,” she said. 

Lebanon is home to roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, although this figure does not include those who enter the country illegally or Syrian and Egyptian day laborers. Many of these women, who are from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal, work as live-in “maids” for employers who respect their rights, but a sizeable number experience violations of their human rights. 

Their problems are compounded by the fact they receive no protection under Lebanese labor laws, leaving them with little access to the justice system. As such, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off, or for employers that physically or psychologically abuse them.  A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked over 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off. 

A similar survey by the NGO Caritas Lebanon in 2005 found 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their domestic worker employees, placing limitations on their freedom of movement. Many workers are also denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries. 
Thus while racist restrictions on migrants at Lebanon’s beach resorts is not the most pressing difficulty faced by these women, as Houry admits, it is symbolic of their predicament. “It’s a very telling problem … a manifestation of the deep-seated racism against migrant workers” in Lebanon, he said. 

 Some commentators have pointed out that the discrimination upheld by some Lebanese according to their perceived views of a person’s socio-economic background. “I think it is different when the women domestic workers … go into these facilities as friends of Lebanese people, [as] opposed to on their own or as workers with a family,” said Zoe Ozveren on a Facebook group set up to support migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I personally have been called an Ethiopian girl because of my skin color and treated rudely by a few people, but as soon as they see me with my Lebanese or American friends, the attitude is completely different.” 

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “I bet if the maid was Swedish or Italian there would be no problem letting her in the swimming pool and in restaurants and at the hairdresser’s, etc,” she said. 

To better inform migrant domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities, the Lebanese government recently introduced an information booklet and a standardized contract available in the women’s native languages, as well as English, French and Arabic, that is also signed by the employer. While the contract grants workers the right to a weekly day off, it has its shortcomings: it does not mention the women’s right to enjoy their day off outside of their employer’s home and does not enforce penalties for agencies or employers who breach the contract. And while Lebanon is party to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it has yet to sign the 2003 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. 

Eradicating racism in Lebanon will not be achieved overnight, but as Houry noted, it must come to an end if the country wants to attract tourists of all backgrounds. “These discriminatory practices are a stain on Lebanon’s efforts to promote itself and its beaches as a welcoming and tolerant place,” he said, urging the Lebanese government to take measures against racism and to formulate an anti-discrimination law.
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Lebanese women have an alternative to plastic surgery

20 Aug
Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star Staff
August 20, 2009
BEIRUT: How many Lebanese women have you seen today with plastic surgery or who look like they’ve spent several hours preening? With Lebanon having acquired something of a reputation abroad for its predilection for surgery, the answer is likely to be several. Tired of being subjected to pressures of physical appearance, one Lebanese woman has launched a campaign in order to celebrate authentic, diverse beauty – the kind she argues is rapidly being lost to “look alike” surgeries that are often styled on the features of a select few celebrities and models. 

ANADiva (Arabic for “I’m a diva”) is the brainchild of 26-year-old Gwen Bou Jaoude. As part of the campaign, she has launched a social networking site where members can discuss representations of beauty, and a competition to create the campaign’s character. The website is one of the first Lebanese initiatives to demonstrate that other means of self-expression exist for women, Bou Jaoude said. “This online community proves that there are still members of the public who are against this metamorphosing of our society.” 

The campaign will conclude with an alternative fashion show that celebrates real women’s bodies in all their shapes and sizes. Lebanese cartoonist Stavro Jabra and Nienke Klunder, a Dutch-American photographer who works with the themes of body image and self-expression, have already signed up to collaborate on the campaign, as has web developing company Star Point Star, who offered to design the website. 

 “Everyone has a different opinion of beauty,” Bou Jaoude said, adding she hoped the ANADiva campaign will improve Lebanese women’s perceptions of themselves, celebrate individuality, and encourage critical thinking about mainstream standards of beauty. “The public should be given an alternative” to the one currently toted by the mainstream media and advertisers, she added. “They brainwash you [about how you should look] without you even realizing.” 

 Bou Jaoude’s efforts come at a time of growing debate within the fashion and cosmetics sectors about beauty. Dove, a leading beauty products company, has launched its own “Real Beauty” campaign and fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle are now actively trying to use more black and Asian models in an effort to show the beauty industry does not only view white women as attractive. 

One of the reasons Bou Jaoude decided to launch the campaign was she felt the Lebanese, through surgery, were losing their cultural identity and becoming carbon copies of their European and North American counterparts. Lebanese women should embrace their looks, Jaoude said. “Variety is healthy within a society.” 

Cosmetic surgery and the cosmetic industry are lucrative trades – according to the International Herald Tribune, in 2007 alone, the two were estimated to be worth around $14 billion in sales globally. More and more women, though also men, are opting for surgery, swelling the industry’s coffer’s by an additional $1 billion each year. 

In a questionnaire conducted by ANADiva of 65 Lebanese women between the age of 21 and 38, 46 said they would go under the knife in order to “look sexy.” With billboards, television adverts and pop stars offering a narrow, airbrushed image of beauty, “women are striving to look like an ideal that doesn’t exist, an ideal that has been digitally created,” Bou Jaoude said. She cited statistics showing that the average individual comes across 600-625 images of women that have been digitally enhanced. Bombarded with images of perfection from a young age, Bou Jaoude said it wasn’t surprising so many Lebanese women contemplated plastic surgery. 

As the ANAdiva campaign states, “The average person currently faces the pressure of upholding certain “body commandments”: women are expected to be thin, tall, toned and glamorous. In particular, Lebanese women are feeling compelled to meet such “commandments” at any cost, creating ‘look alike’ females.” 

Out of the seven women questioned by The Daily Star, only one said they would describe themselves as “beautiful,” and three said they had already had or were seriously considering plastic surgery. Five of the women said they knew people who were on diets or had eating disorders. 

Yasmine, who underwent cosmetic surgery earlier this year, said social pressure to look good was a contributing factor in her decision. “You see all these pictures of gorgeous women and even if you know you’ll never look like that, you often end up trying to live up to those images,” she said, adding she spent around $150 each month on beauty products, facials and hairdressing. “You have to match the standard if you want to attract a man.” 
“People are getting a certain image of how women should look,” Bou Jaoude said. “It’s about time someone does something about” countering it. The competition’s deadline is August 25, 2009. To enter, vist: http://www.anadiva.com

Arabs must Compel States into Action

18 Aug

By Dalila Mahdawi

Beirut – A new report released on 22 July 2009 sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has blamed environmental, political, economic and social problems, together with the Middle East’s vulnerability to external occupation or military intervention, for hindering development in the Arab world.

While its conclusion is admittedly nothing novel, the “Arab Human Development Report 2009: Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries” has reinvigorated an important debate on who shoulders responsibility for the Arab world’s development and security, or rather, lack of it. The report, written by more than 100 independent and respected Arab intellectuals, suggests Arab governments have failed in their duty to provide their citizens with the security needed to foster strong economies and states.

Lebanon is a key example of an Arab country where the state is virtually ineffectual. Burgeoning civil society and politicised religious groups, as well as the private sector, have emerged from this vacuum to offer services that would normally be provided by the government.

Lebanon’s Hizbullah is one such example, which explains its enormous popularity. It was, after all, Hizbullah—not the ill-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces—that drove Israel to end its occupation of the South in 2000, and it is Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state, that today provides healthcare, political representation, housing and other social services to its marginalised Shia constituency.

If Arab nations want to curtail the popular support currently afforded the region’s numerous political-Islam and sub-state organisations, they must show that their governments can be relied upon to provide basic services, that state institutions can represent and that the army can protect.

Employment is one especially critical area where Arab governments must act to ensure the security of their people. According to the report, a staggering 60 per cent of the Arab world is under 25 years of age. In the year 2005/6 some 30 per cent of young Arabs were unemployed, compared to a world rate of 14 per cent. Unemployment and economic hardship drives the Arab world’s best brains abroad, and pushes others into informal, insecure jobs or into the clutches of radicalisation. Young Arabs must often settle for jobs for which they are overqualified and badly paid.

One reason for the region’s embarrassing unemployment rate is the stagnation of the Arab economy. According to statistics given in the report, there has been hardly any economic growth in the region since 1980: “World Bank data show that real GDP per capita … grew by a mere 6.4 percent over the entire 24 year period from 1980 to 2004”, a woeful figure that doesn’t even correspond to 0.5 per cent annually.

Arab states must engage with such growing sectors as information technology, Islamic banking and responsible tourism to identify job creation opportunities if they wish to secure sustainable growth and provide economic opportunities to their citizens. The richer oil-producing Arab nations could further support the regional economy by investing in Arab stock markets, cultural projects or other long-term endeavours closer to home. With the UN estimating Arab countries will “need about 51 million new jobs by 2020”, no time can be lost in implementing such measures.

While the contributions of Arab non-governmental groups toward reform must be commended and even strengthened, reform is a responsibility that must be taken up primarily by the state. Non-governmental organisations have laid the groundwork for the region’s fight against gender discrimination, climate change, and political and judicial impunity. Arab states must now build upon that foundation.

Not only must the governments of the Arab world assume their responsibilities, Arab citizens must hold their leaders to account. In Lebanon, a minute country with a population of around 4.5 million, people are not even ensured reliable supplies of electricity or running water 24 hours a day. Hopefully, the dire facts presented in this UNDP report will spark the necessary outrage of Arab citizens to compel their governments into action. Continuing silence over the region’s shortcomings is tantamount to an endorsement of the status quo.

Ultimately, however, the security of Arabs depends on lasting Middle East peace. So long as the livelihoods of millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, Yemenis and others are threatened by occupation or conflict, political, economic and social reform will be of little immediate significance to Arabs.

* Dalila Mahdawi is a journalist at The Daily Star, Lebanon’s only English-language daily newspaper. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Palestinian refugees living unofficial gatherings suffer ‘squalid’ conditions

13 Aug

Dalila Mahdawi

Daily Star Staff

BEIRUT: Fetid squatter toilets in bathrooms that open onto other rooms, drinking water contaminated with fecal matter and rusty zinc roofs protected from the elements by flimsy plastic sheeting: according to a new report, these features can be found at a number of Palestinian houses outside of Lebanon’s official refugee camps.

Between February and June of this year, the international non-governmental organizations Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Premiere Urgence (PU) carried out a comprehensive assessment of the living conditions of Palestinians residing in 42 so called “gatherings,” or neighborhoods consisting of 25 or more Palestinian houses.

The survey, funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department, is the first to employ a house to house methodology and provides the first truly comprehensive assessment of the state of housing and infrastructure in the neglected areas.

“The findings reveal that approximately 40,000 Palestinian refugees currently live in gatherings outside of the 12 official UNRWA camps,” said Julien Mulliez, Head of Mission for Premiere Urgence, referring to the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. Previous estimates had put the figure at around 60,000. “Despite being registered refugees, residents of these gatherings are unable to access support from the agency to maintain their homes and ensure safe and adequate access to water and sanitation,” he added.

A total of 11 percent of the refugees living in the gatherings “inhabit shelters that threaten health and prevent social well being,” affecting 897 households and around 4,000 people, the report found. Many shelters had large cracks in the walls, unsafe rafters, or were without windows, internal bathrooms or kitchens.

Eight of the 39 gatherings assessed were found to suffer from “urgent” water and sanitation needs, while 12 others had “moderate” needs. “In those eight gatherings, the level of hygiene is very poor and bacteriological contamination of water was detected or was estimated very likely to occur soon given the critical condition of the water sources and networks.”

Several sewage systems were deemed outdated, damaged or insufficient to the area’s needs, putting residents at risk of drinking contaminated drinking water and contact with sewage. Drinking water was often found to be unchlorinated, forcing many residents to spend a disproportionate amount of their household income of buying bottled water.

“Many of these houses face chronic structural or weatherproofing problems as well as basic hygiene issues,” said Graziella Ito-Pellegri, a Shelter Advisor for NRC. “This means that many families face leakages in winter and intense heat in summer. Many buildings are at risk of collapsing and families are forced to live without running water or a kitchen.”

Basic standards could be easily improved through awareness and capacity building activities, “such as information sessions on water related hygiene and training for technicians in charge of the water treatment,” the report said.

Having identified key housing, water and sanitation needs in the gatherings, the NRC and PU hope the report will provide donors and other NGOs with ideas for new rehabilitation projects. “Additional funding is crucial to ensure that basic human rights are upheld in terms of shelter, water and sanitation” for the Palestinian refugees living in the gatherings,” Mulliez said.

Noting the fact that Palestinian refugees do not have the right to own land or property, the report recommended future initiatives to improve shelter or water and sanitation in the gatherings be tied to legal assistance projects. If the sufficient funds were gathered, the most crucial housing needs could be rectified within four years. “This report should be the basis for an intervention plan,” concluded the report. “If no concrete measures are taken [soon], the situation in the field will worsen and the refugees will be exposed to severe risks.”