When local media published images of Olympian Alpine Skier Jackie Chamoun participating in a topless photo-shoot three years ago, caretaker Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami called for an investigation. Scandal soon erupted, as Lebanon’s civil society criticized the government’s misplaced priorities in a country where domestic violence is still not punishable by law. In response, the I Am Not Naked campaign was born. Using the #StripForJackie / #StripForChange hashtags, dozens of (mostly) young adults stripped to show their support for Jackie. The campaign spread to major expat cities from London to New York and currently boasts over 20,000 followers on Facebook. But that’s not the end of the story.
The initiators of the I Am Not Naked campaign are at a crossroads between deciding to let the momentum fade and simply be a moment or to invest more energy to convert it into a more lasting movement. It’s a choice many campaigns have faced, including the recent #NotAMartyr campaign, which condemned the habit of using the word martyr rather than victim and briefly captured the spotlight following the bombing death of teenager Mohammad Chaar. A couple of weeks later, its momentum had faded away.
It’s not the first time. Lebanon’s online activists, despite their best intentions, often fail to concretize their voice into actual change. They can hardly be blamed. With rampant corruption, regional instability, and a serious lack of infrastructure, Lebanon is far from being ideal for the kind of planning and communication needed nowadays for people to get together and sustain their demands for change.
That being said, the I Am Not Naked campaign’s organizers should now shift their focus from the #StripForJackie/#StripForChange movement to the seemingly un-ending issue of domestic violence in Lebanon, or link the two. And it isn’t hard to realize the need for such a focus. Names such as Roula Yaacoub, Manal Assi and, more recently, Christelle Abu Shaqra, have become synonymous with Lebanon’s shockingly poor record on women’s rights.
While it doesn’t look like Jackie Chamoun will actually be prosecuted – Lebanese society came out overwhelmingly in her favor – real justice for Roula, Manal, and Christelle remains unlikely. The status of domestic violence falls under the category of “personal affairs,” which along with marriage, divorce, and inheritance, are handled by Lebanon’s religious authorities. This puts the Lebanese woman at the mercy of whatever religion she or her husband was brought up in, or, to be more precise, of whoever claims authority within that religion. A draft law that is supposed to protect Lebanese women against domestic violence is still pending in parliament, where it has remained since 2007.
In a way, the internet has proven itself to be a shelter for the disenfranchised, the ignored, and the crushed – terms that easily summarize the vast majority of Lebanon’s citizens. Unfortunately, this tool of empowerment has yet to affect Lebanon’s politics to the extent that it did in neighboring countries – Tunisia and Egypt are often cited as countries where social media greatly helped building revolutions. What is has done, however, is allow marginalized individuals such as LGBTQ, abused women, and migrant workers to feel less alone, an accomplishment in its own right.
What are the next steps for the I Am Not Naked campaign? While succeeding in effectively giving some progressive time to a political theatre overwhelmingly occupied by conservative voices, it ended up being seen by some as a “closed” movement where those participating are essentially the already converted. Targeting the already converted, therefore, should be the first mistake to avoid. Online advocacy in Lebanon can only be truly effective if it is done in Arabic (as well as English and possibly French). The tendency of today’s youth to advocate in English limits their audience to university-educated mostly-young individuals who are already liberal and often open about it.
Online advocacy has repeatedly shown itself to be a valuable tool for social change. From highlighting little-known social issues to supporting freedom of speech on the ground, it has been able to provide a voice where none was to be found. That being said, it has also been accused of promoting “slacktivism,” rather than actual activism. For this reason, online advocacy is to be accompanied, whenever possible, by on-the-ground activism – petitions and protests, for example.
On this particular subject, the issue of domestic violence, the next step of the I Am Not Naked campaign might be to mobilize all those who have supported Jackie Chamoun into participating in the upcoming “Take Back Lebanon” protest organized by KAFA demanding a law protecting women from domestic violence. Such a move would be a natural continuation of a movement that is striving to maintain its momentum and truly show skeptics that it was a serious one from the very beginning.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement from SMEX.