This is a piece I wrote for Hibr, a Lebanese Arabic-English youth-run monthly, back in 2010. “Prostitution is theoretically still legal in Lebanon”, as it’s shown on Wikimedia’s map (in light green, while blue stands for the ban on pimping and brothels and dark green for an absolute ban), but the reality is far from being regulated and there is large room for exploitation. Another case to support the legalization of prostitution.
Lebanon’s hypocritical war on whoredom
Prostitution is theoretically still legal in Lebanon. The specific law regulating brothels was issued in 1931 and it was never abrogated. However, the last licenses for brothels date back to before the civil war. Also, prostitution is actually prosecutable according to article 523 of the Penal Code, which provides for prison sentences of up to one year for the sex workers, and article 525, which provides for imprisonment of up to two years for their pimps. However, Internal Security Forces (ISF) Major Elie al-Asmar says that when a sex worker is a victim of human trafficking, she is not prosecuted, but transferred to a rehabilitation center after the approval of the General Prosecutor.
Unfortunately, the picture is more complex than this. Hiba Abou Chakra, a social worker from Dar al-Amal, one of the few Lebanese NGOs supporting sex workers, explains that the girls working on the streets frequently come from difficult family backgrounds, some of them being part of a family working in prostitution. Therefore, if the pimp is the sex worker’s husband or a relative, she would be less inclined to reveal his identity. Moreover, the girl will be arrested, even if she willingly became a prostitute out of survival. ThePenal Code, conceived to punisha crime, fails to grasp the troubled social fabric of sex workers.
“Artists” & “barmaids”
The same lack of understanding applies to the criteria regulating the “undercover” distribution oflicenses among sex workers. The General Security is responsible for handing over “artist” visas to theforeign prostitutes working in the ‘Super Nightclubs’ of Maameltein, while the ISF distributes “barmaid” working permits to those girls enticing clients inside bars. The conditions for such a license include a clean criminal record, health check-ups, a contract between the girl and the bar owner and, if married, a written agreement from her husband, explains Maj.al-Asmar. The possibility that the husband could be at the same time her pimp is not taken inconsideration. In addition, the supposedly uncompromising nature of this “war on whoredom” is in fact debatable.“The nightclubs’ owners cannot obtain licenses for sex workers and it remains theoretically forbidden to receive clients in hotels,” points out Abou Chakra, “but the State knows perfectly that, if willing to investigate, it would find clients and even condoms inside these hotels.” For this reason, “Dar al-Amal doesn’t believe in the need to legalize new brothels,” concludes Abou Chakra. “It is possible to create a legal framework for the already existent places.”Quite predictably, Maj. Al-Asmar refutes these accusations. “If we find that a girl works as a prostitute, we arrest her and the manager of the bar,” he clarifies. “We don’t give licenses to cover prostitution.” Nevertheless, if the girls were working exclusively as artists or bartenders, the mandatory health check-ups every three months, including HIV tests, would seem rather over-attentive. “We are doing medical check-ups on the girls because they are exposed to the risk of working as prostitutes, ”admits Maj. al-Asmar.
The case for legalization…
When asked about the advantages of a hypothetical return to legalization, Maj. al-Asmar warily recognizes that, security-wise, it would make it easier to monitor the places where prostitution is practiced. In addition, the law issued in 1931 took into account the girls’ working conditions. Medical checks were mandatory twice a week, not every three months, and the rights of sex workers to receive medical assistance were meticulously regulated (art. 22 ff.); the girls were free to leave their job at any moment (art. 21), whereas today, they might face threats from the pimps and risk being arrested for disclosing their profession; and the site of each brothel was determined by the competent authorities, as long as it had met the required hygienic standards (art. 7).
…and for amendments
On the other hand, the 1931 law is outdated; hence Dar al-Amal is preparing an amended draft law to submit to the Parliament. This law aims to improve protection from sexually transmitted diseases within brothels, and increase sanctions against the perpetrators of violence against sex workers and those who hire underage girls. Any ideal draft law should also eliminate restrictions on the time the girls may spend outside the brothel (art. 19): limited freedom of movement is still the case of those sex workers dwelling in hotels near the ‘Super Nightclubs’ in Maameltein. According to the Minnesota Post (June 2010), Lebanese directives require women to be in the ‘Super Nightclubs’ between 8 pm and 5 am, but between 5 am and 1 pm they are usually locked in their hotels by the club owners.
A legal & political minefield
Considering the hardships faced by sex workers due to the lack of a legal framework, the Parliament needs to address the situation urgently. In the end, the security forces are merely adhering to the flawed legal guidelines they are given. The legal project carried out by Dar al-Amal could change the status quo “but we’re not expecting a significant response to our initiative, considering the influence of religious leaders in Lebanon,” Abou Chakra admits bitterly. “And then, some people are opposed to the idea in itself of prostitution; they believe that [by legalizing it] we are accepting violence against women.” Conversely, sex workers are currently exposed to any sort of abuse, due to their illegal status. “The kind of services sex workers are in need of range from medical and legal assistance to financial support for their kids,” stresses
Abou Chakra. The current legal framework grants them a medical check-up every three months, nothing more.