LEBANON: Racism Legitimised by Law

  • by Mona Alami (beirut)
  • Inter Press Service

Women driving luxury vehicles with an Asian or African woman relegated to the back seat is a common sight around Beirut. Most domestic workers come from places like the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.

People of colour are not only mistreated by employers -- who take away their passports and force them to work seven days a week -- they also face discrimination outside the workplace. At beaches around town, nannies are seen sitting fully clothed by the pool in the scorching heat, while their charges happily play in the water.

'I booked a room for my daughter's nanny last year at one of the beach resorts in northern Lebanon. In spite of the fact that I paid full price for her room, I was outraged when I discovered she was not allowed to swim with us,' says Nayla Saab, who employs a Filipino domestic worker.

Racist practices are also seen at Lebanese clubs. Hussam Oueini, who was taking his African-American friend around Lebanon earlier this month, was rejected from one of the local clubs because of the colour of his companion.

'I booked a table for ten people, but the bouncer took a quick look at my black friend and told me the table was full, even though only seven people had showed up,' he said. Oueini complained to the bar manager, who told him the bouncer had the right to screen clients that did not conform to a certain 'look'.

A recent survey of Lebanese resorts conducted by Lebanese NGO IndyAct shows that all of the 20 beaches investigated barred domestic workers from Asia and Africa from using their facilities.

'In a similar study conducted last year, 15 of the 20 beaches surveyed had similar policies against domestic workers, showing that discrimination against people of colour has worsened in the past 12 months,' says Ali Fakhri, communication director at Indyact.

'This is symptomatic of the widespread racism that exists in Lebanon,' he adds.

The beaches and clubs where some of the incidents took place are not breaching the law, because Lebanon does not have anti-discrimination legislation.

'The Lebanese constitution states that all Lebanese are equal in the eyes of the law, but no mention is made of the rights of foreigners,' says lawyer Amal Takiedine.

According to Fahkri, the culture of discrimination is socially accepted in Lebanon, and is seen in the government and private sector as well as among individuals. He says IndyAct faced a problem with the Lebanese administration when it decided to host a conference in Lebanon that included professionals from Asia.

'We were asked to make participants -- doctors from the Philippines, Nepal and India -- sign an agreement that they would not work illegally or marry in Lebanon. It was insulting,' he says.

Racism in Lebanon does not only target people of colour, but is also class oriented and sectarian, says Fakhri. A young woman wearing the hijab, for example, was prevented from attending an electronic music concert because she was veiled.

'We were told by the music station organising the concert that tickets were not sold to people who did not fit a certain profile,' says Fakhri.

A General Security patrol raided a ballroom in the southern Beirut suburb of Ouzai recently where around 150 refugees from different African nationalities were holding a cancer fundraising event. The security members reportedly maltreated Sudanese nationals, a number of whom lacked legal residency papers.

Lebanon has many undocumented African immigrants, mostly from Ethiopia and Sudan.

'Prisons have a reputation for brutally treating prisoners, especially African immigrants, who are often jailed longer than their sentence and forced to clean police facilities,' says Fakhri.

In addition to suffering discrimination, foreigners do not have the same rights in terms of property ownership -- a cap is placed on how much they can purchase. Palestinians face stricter restrictions; they are not allowed to own any real estate and are not permitted to inherit property, even from a Lebanese family member.

Takiedine says that in the absence of a unified civil law, such discrimination will continue. 'The Lebanese legal system follows different rules of law that vary from one community to the other,' she says. 'It is a situation that naturally leads to inequality among people.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service