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Fri May 26, 2023, 02:56 PM

Lebanese feminists protest after woman harassed over swimsuit

Lebanese feminists protest after woman harassed over swimsuit

Incident renews debate about modesty and women in public spaces under the hashtag #Sidon.
Mayssa Hanouni Yaafouri, centre, protests on the Sidon beach that she was forced to leave for wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a sign that reads, 'You have your own freedom and I have mine' [Courtesy of Diana Moukalled/Al Jazeera]
By Urooba Jamal
Published On 22 May 202322 May 2023

It was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday in May like many others for Mayssa Hanouni Yaafouri. But her regular jaunt at Saida Public Beach in Lebanon’s coastal city of Sidon was interrupted. On May 14, two men who called themselves Muslim sheikhs approached Yaafouri and her husband, demanding that the pair leave because Yaafouri was wearing a one-piece swimsuit. Yaafouri stood her ground and told the men she can wear whatever she wants at a public beach. But the men refused to listen.

“They said it’s their law – the power of the sheikh,” Yaafouri told Al Jazeera. The two men left, only to return about 10 minutes later with at least a dozen others. They began kicking a football around the couple, surrounding them and flicking sand in their direction.
A man intervened to tell the clergymen that it is “not in our religion to attack a woman”, Yaafouri said. But it soon became clear their group was not going to retreat, and the man who intervened advised the couple to leave the beach for their safety. The incident sparked a protest this Sunday with about 70 feminists, activists and journalists gathering in Sidon from across the country to support Yaafouri.

Women protest in Sidon for the right to wear what they want at public beaches on May 21, 2023. A larger group of counterdemonstrators was also there [Courtesy of Diana Moukalled]

“We’re just asking for our rights,” she said. “My problem as a woman after what happened, after my incident, is only about my rights. It’s not political. It’s not religion,” the woman in the middle of Lebanon’s renewed swimwear debate said. Lebanese law does not ban bathing suits in public, but women in the more conservative, Sunni Muslim-majority coastal city about an hour south of the capital, Beirut, tend to wear them in private. A sign at the public beach states alcohol is prohibited and that “decent attire” must be worn. Yaafouri, however, has been going there for the past five years and had not faced any issues wearing her swimsuit until now.

Diana Moukalled, a feminist journalist who coordinated with Yaafouri to organise Sunday’s protest, said there has been an uptick recently in harassment of women at public beaches in Lebanon. “Unfortunately, with the collapse of Lebanon, … we are seeing increased will and appetite to harass and intimidate women,” Moukalled told Al Jazeera. Public spaces like public beaches, she said, are being “occupied” and “segregated” by various “political parties, fanatics, radical people and sectarian groups”.
The protest, Moukalled said, was both to support Yaafouri’s right to dress as she pleases at public beaches as well as to reclaim public spaces for all Lebanese women – whether they want to wear a bikini or a burkini.

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