Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ukrainian Women Battle Gender Stereotypes in Lebanon

Ukrainian Women
Ukrainians living in Lebanon demonstrate outside the Russian Embassy in Beirut on February 24, 2022 in protest against Russia’s assault on their country. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Dana Hourany

For Katerina*, 30, a half-Ukrainian, half-Lebanese citizen currently residing in Lebanon, life has become more difficult.

She wakes up afraid of hearing bad news about her family and friends in Ukraine, and she falls asleep praying that nothing worse happens while her eyes are closed.

“I’ve been crying for the past week. My friends and relatives there are far stronger and more resilient than I am; I can’t stop myself from contacting them all day,” Katerina, who requested anonymity, told Fanack.

While Katerina and many other Ukrainians are constantly anxious and worried about their families back home, their state of fear and anguish has not shielded them from racist, misogynistic comments on social media.

In one of its February issues, local Lebanese daily As-Sharq for example, published a digitally altered photo of Russian model Natalie Lee, in its memes and jokes section. “Humanitarian work, adopt a Ukrainian [woman] to protect her from the Russian invasion,” the text on the photo read. The image was shared in the days leading up to Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, sparking a reaction from Ukraine’s ambassador to Lebanon and a call for an official apology, as well as outrage in the local digital sphere, particularly as As-Sharq is owned by head of the press syndicate, Aouni al-Kaaki.

Similarly, a Lebanese singer with a considerable following, Amir Yazbek, posted a photo depicting Ukrainian women on Facebook with the caption: “Our hearts and homes are open for Ukrainian women refugees.” Yazbek quickly deleted the post shortly after in the wake of the digital outrage it generated.

These posts are by no means isolated. They are representative of a deeply preexisting misogynistic trend that has made its way into social media in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sexist rhetoric directed at women in general and foreign women, in particular, is not uncommon in Lebanon. However, when it comes to Eastern European women in general, and Ukrainians in particular, the conversation becomes much more fraught.

For years, the local media promoted a stereotype based on Lebanon’s sex industry, which employed hundreds of Eastern European women in the 1990s. However, it is this mediatized dehumanization that ultimately made them more appealing to men and therefore more targeted.

“Some Lebanese men consider Ukrainian women to be desirable because they have the ideal European beauty while still remaining humble because they don’t have access to the same rights as Western European women,” Sarah Kaddoura, women’s rights activist and coordinator at the A Project, told Fanack.

According to Kaddoura, some Lebanese men also have a false perception that Eastern European women are more submissive. “They think that these women shun equality and prefer docility,” she added.

However, with the current invasion of Ukraine by its powerful neighbor, this perception seems to be changing, albeit slowly.

Words hurt

Stereotypes perpetuated on media and on the digital spheres have real-life effects. The more prominent they are, the more harassment, sexist and insensitive humor is normalized.

Diana, 32, the daughter of a Lebanese father and a Ukrainian mother, recalled one of the comments made about her and her Ukrainian female friends’ choice of clothing.

“Women who wear short or tight clothing are framed as typical Ukrainian – typical in the negative sense of the word. For them, typical means lacking personal ethics,” she told Fanack.

It is typically the same people, she said, who would call Lebanese women with a similar fashion sense “open-minded” but when it came to Ukrainian women, their attitudes would immediately shift. “Her mother is Ukrainian, what do you expect? Of course, she’s going to dress this way,” is just one of many comments Diana has had to deal with throughout her life.

“Women in Ukraine, who are very proud of their culture and heritage, are often referred to as the embodiment of the typical Ukrainian woman,” Diana affirmed.

Elena, like Diana, is all too familiar with such attitudes. She has been in Lebanon for the past 35 years, having moved to the country to get married and start a family with her husband. She said that the sexual stereotypes and misogynistic comments no longer get to her.

“We have grown immune to such ignorant remarks,” she told Fanack, “some people used to always ask if we worked at the casino, or to refer to us as prostitutes, but honestly I just learned to stay away from people like that.

“We have been told time and time again that we are here to warm the beds of Lebanese men but I think it’s time people learned to respect eastern European women for their hard work, intelligence, and resilience,” Elena said.

Affirming hegemonic masculinity

Claire Wilson, a gender specialist at the United Nations, told Fanack that stereotypes are one of the patriarchy’s most potent tools for dominating and controlling women. Furthermore, stereotypes of a sexually objectifying nature make women more vulnerable to harassment and abuse.

Men have more rights than women in society, especially the right to sexual expression, which can lead to society normalizing sexually active men who might target foreign women whether for sexual services or even marriage, she added.

In terms of marriage, Ukrainian women are viewed by some Lebanese men as “sexually experienced experts who can satisfy their needs,” Kaddoura said. “Second, they see them as less demanding than Lebanese women. Third, men like to feel like saviors rescuing Ukrainian women from the dread of having to work.”

The activist explained that the societal and political differences between Ukraine and Lebanon have forced many women to have two non-identical sets of demands when it comes to marriage. While the Ukrainian government provides its people with basic human necessities such as housing, schools and healthcare, the Lebanese government has largely left its people to fend for themselves, especially women, who are afforded very little rights by law.

It’s not just the media

These stereotypes are so powerful that even local politicians have used them in public. In comments on live TV, for example, former minister Wiam Wahhab said that Lebanon should import “10,000 Russian or Ukrainian women if Lebanon is a country of prostitution.”

The comments, which triggered backlash and a reaction by the Ukrainian embassy in Lebanon and a demand for an apology, were made by Wahhab in response to a question about recent talks he had had with the country’s president on the general situation of Lebanon.

Though Lebanon’s situation is in no way related to Ukraine or Russia, particularly when it comes to their women, Wahhab resorted to misogyny, which is not uncommon of him, to make a point which could have been made any other way.

Wilson says that deconstructing gender stereotypes is a long process – there needs to be constant awareness, relentless observations of what’s being said or done, and interventions to change them.

“Gender education in school is a great entry point to teach the next generation, and to explain what gender discrimination is in order to think about it all differently. Change happens when people keep having these conversations,” Wilson said.

For Kaddoura, change is already taking place. She said that the amount of misogynistic posts and sexualized jokes regarding Ukrainian women has decreased over the course of the years.

“Although this behavior was normalized in our society, many activists and feminists are quick to call it out and make sure to educate and inform the people on its harmfulness. We’re not letting things pass anymore,” the activist said.

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