Lebanese American University


Op-ed: The gender politics of Lebanese pop music

Faculty member Abir Ward discusses Lebanese pop music.

Lebanon — often seen as the most socially advanced of the Arab countries — is still dancing to pop songs with lyrics like “we don’t have girls who get employed with their degrees,” while the United Arab Emirates has succeeded in narrowing the gender gap in economic participation and parity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival (according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report for 2010).

Gender discrimination in Lebanon may be less blatant than elsewhere in the region, but it takes insidious forms. It has made its way into our popular music, and from there seeps into the minds of fools who, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, digest “art into pedantry.” Something as seemingly trivial as pop music can indeed strengthen gender discrimination and affect the economy, society, and women’s already weak self-image in a patriarchal culture.

Nordic countries Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, top the charts in gender equality, and countries such as U.A.E., Kuwait, Tunisia, and Bahrain now lead the Arab world. “Low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness,” says Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. Schwab goes on to add the corollary conclusion: “Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper.”

Judging only from appearances, one might conclude that Lebanese women already enjoy the freedom to pursue their chosen careers. But how many, for example, participate in politics — the shaping force of a country? Many job markets are effectively off-limits to women. When asked, many men say that it’s the woman’s fault. She is the one who prefers to stay home, looking after her nails and hair instead of running a political race. But if laws are drafted forbidding any government coalition from including less than 40% females, then women may feel encouraged to toss out their nail-files and join the race.

Lebanese pop and folk songs treat women, in many contexts, as a controlled commodity in a country that prides itself variously as an entrepreneurial hub, a global party destination, and a breaker of world records. These competitive instincts and sources of national pride could use some rechanneling. Instead of striving to get Lebanon into the Guinness World Records for the world’s largest tabbouli or hummos plates (culturally significant as such things may be), we should be competing with the world’s most advanced nations for gender egalitarianism. Our regional reputation for liberated and enlightened women is something of a Mediterranean mirage. We are liberated consumers, free to shop, go out, be seen, dress and behave boldly and extravagantly. We are not, however, achieving parity in education, power and influence.

Any diagnosis of this condition must begin by looking at our self-image, and it is here that popular culture — music in particular — can be most pernicious. Pop music hooks into us: it sets the rhythms and verbal refrains of our thoughts when we hum and sing along; we take it into our bodies when we dance. “The Republic of My Heart,” sung by Mohammad Iskandar, resolves its apparent concerns about workplace harassment by suggesting that women should be pampered and kept at home instead of encouraged to hold jobs. The lyrics sounds addressed to a lover, while the video-clip shows Iskandar addressing his daughter. Women and girls are thereby conflated, with both being told that “sheghlik albī w ‘aṭftī w-hanānī, mā raḥ urdā bi-ayyā shī tānī” (“your work consists of tending to my heart, love, and care, and I will not accept anything else”). Men hear that they are justified in what they’re already doing: women then should feel happy that the men in their lives — fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, even uncles and cousins — are exercising this unsolicited control over them. The domain of this supposedly benevolent male sovereignty can then extend to what women wear, whom they befriend, and other minute details of their lives which many songs by Iskandar and others address.

In Desire, Self, Mind, and the Psychotherapies, R. Colman Curtis discusses how the gap between the ideal self and reality causes great dissatisfaction in the individual, and how the media is responsible for creating this illusion of the accessibility of this ideal self. In other words, television, radio, magazines, and other media present an ideal self, and create the self-loathing we feel for failing to meet that standard. What about when the opposite is true: When the media trivializes what we’d been raised to believe was an important goal in our lives? My parents raised me to regard education as the only acceptable weapon for self-defense in a highly competitive world, as the sine qua non of success. Still, I see people at almost every family wedding dancing to songs that many educated people consider degrading — to say the least — to these very ideals.

Shouldn’t this stop? What are the ramifications of these kinds of lyrics on our culture? “Al-musiqa al-musi’a” — “detrimental” music, as Dr. Eliya Francis at the Lebanese University School of Education puts it — pervades uncritical minds and, I would argue, arouses emotions through melody and rhythm that facilitate the internalization of its lyrical message, which happens to be a dangerous one.

Can there be a critical aesthetics of Lebanese pop music? Do the standards of taste involve only rhythm and melody, or do they extend to lyrics as well? What do low standards in the realm of lyrics convey about a culture? Those are questions applicable to a range of musical genres, including rap, reggae, and rock, and the prolegomena of this op-ed are merely prefatory to a larger work in progress. Examination of the impact of pop lyrics on Lebanese culture and ideals is necessary in an era of consumerism, when plastic — in every sense — has become the basic tissue of our culture. 

Abir Ward is a part time English instructor at LAU Beirut. To contact her please email:  abir.ward@lau.edu.lb.


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