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    What it’s like being an Asian woman in Lebanon

    “I wanna make sex for you!” shouted a young man in English as he passed by in his car. I brushed off the comment and kept walking.

    I used to be shocked by the way men treated me in public when I first arrived in Lebanon five and a half years ago. I thought I was used to it, having spent the better half of my adolescence in Egypt, a country infamous for its high rate of sexual harassment against women. However, there is a clear difference in the way I get hassled in Cairo as compared to Beirut, where I get harassed not only for being female, but for being Asian.

    Though I am originally from South Korea, many Lebanese automatically assume that I am one of the 40,000 domestic workers of Philippine origin in Lebanon, who are often treated with disrespect and even violence by their employers, but are at the same time looked upon as exotic.

    For example, a policeman asked me, “How much? $50?” in Arabic one evening on a Hamra street, while drivers sometimes follow me calling out, “Kamusta ka?!” – “How are you?” in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines – followed by a string of graphic sexual comments. On more than one occasion, someone grabbed my behind, and once, I was pushed around at night by a young man in my Hamra neighborhood. I’ve lost count of how many times I have been called a sharmuta, or whore in Arabic, ostensibly simply for being an Asian woman walking around freely on the street.

    And of course men shamelessly ogle me so often I’ve stopped arguing; I’ve learned to quickly cross the street if a man walking my way glares at me, because I know that as he passes by he might try whispering something dirty into my ear.

    Men aren’t the only ones giving me grief here. I’ve often gotten a look from Lebanese women that says, “What is this Filipina doing without her ‘madame’?” Even before last summer’s no-maids-in-the-pool scandal, I would always feel uncomfortable on private beaches, where I would often see whole families relaxing on beach chairs in their swimsuits, while the maid would be fully clothed, sitting on the grass with the young children.

    These incidents have made me reflect on the reasons behind the racism against women of color here. For one, Lebanon’s history is full of division and inability to accept the “other” – whether it has to do with religious differences or political ones – which has led to large-scale violence throughout the country’s history. If the Lebanese have such a hard time accepting each other, how could they embrace people of different nationalities and ethnicities, who are of a “lower” social class? (The situation is of course the opposite for white Westerners, especially men, who are often treated with great respect.) Furthermore, most women of color in Lebanon are usually here to do what is considered the “dirty” work Lebanese people don’t want to do, for minimal compensation. And finally, the patriarchal character of Lebanese society condones treating women in general as sexual objects, rather than as equal human beings.

    In my case, my class privilege – meaning I have the means to live independently instead of working as a maid – has protected me from the worst kinds of degradation and racism. Many domestic workers feel depressed and isolated, and some have even committed suicide as a result. But still, I am often shaken up whenever someone calls out dirty words to me on the street or when I see a Filipina woman walking behind her employer with her head held down.

    Sadly, these daily aggressions have made me suspicious of Lebanese, especially of Lebanese men, to the extent that I once studiously ignored a man who was calling out “Hello! Hello!” to me while I was throwing away the trash, only to find out later he was a delivery man at my local grocery store and was just trying to say hi.

    Nevertheless, despite my experiences with racism and sexism in this country, I believe it has enabled me to understand from a unique perspective the complex contradictions that make Lebanon so fascinating. On a personal level, I have learned what it feels like to be discriminated against on the basis of things I cannot change – my gender and race – and the damage it can do. It has also brought me closer to people who feel the same way, including many Lebanese, and who want to do something about it.

    Hayeon Lee
    NOW Lebanon
    12.01.2010

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