Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move
N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006
Imported Street Women in Lebanon
Rev. Fr. Martin McDermott, S.J.
Pastoral Committee for the Afro-Asian Migrants,
Apostolic Vicariate of Beirut
Foreign women are imported into Lebanon in two forms: most of them come as domestic servants, and some come as “artistes”. Artiste is a name for nightclub dancer, masseuse, model, or barmaid, and also for the modestly unmentioned profession of prostitute, which as everybody in Lebanon knows, is a sideline that is expected of the dancers, masseuses, models, and barmaids. Prostitution in Lebanon is not legally permitted and is therefore clandestine, but tolerated and, to some extent, regulated. That means that barmaids, masseuses, cabaret singers and dancers are licensed, and also are required to undergo regular medical examinations. A foreign girl who is found to have a contagious disease must be deported within 48 hours. The General Security walks a fine line here. In order to avoid the opprobrium of public opinion, it formally forbids prostitution, but at the same time regulates the artistes into a situation where they must prostitute themselves in order to live.
But before I speak of the licensed and regulated artistes, I should say something about those who find themselves, rather by accident, in unregulated prostitution.
Domestic servants are imported from any African or Asian country, the major ones being Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. They are not brought in to be prostitutes, although sometimes their employers, both Christian and Muslim, expect sexual favors of them, too. The General Security, which has charge of foreigners in Lebanon, does not usually allow domestic servants to change employers, so if a girl runs away from her original employer because, for example, Monsieur insists on enjoying her sexually, or because Madame habitually beats her, or because she is being overworked or is not being paid—for whatever reason she runs away—she tries to find another employer to take her on illegally (since her passport and also residence card and work permit, if she has such, remain in the hands of her original employer). If she does not succeed in being illegally hired by a new employer, she finds herself on the street and will soon fall under the protection of a boyfriend, sometimes Lebanese, but often an Egyptian or Syrian migrant worker, who puts her out for prostitution. A woman can remain trapped in this, and for every year she stays in Lebanon without a residence card and work permit, she will have to pay the equal amount to the authorities as a fine before she can leave Lebanon. In a few years, she will owe several thousand dollars in fines, and so she cannot leave.
These girls can be found in the hotels and sidewalks of Beirut and on the streets, bars, and massage parlors of three coastal towns north of Beirut. These same towns (Jounieh, Maamaltain, Tabarja, etc,) also abound in cabarets, each of which will employ about 15 artistes, while some 60 to 70 establishments called super nightclubs may have as many as thirty girls to dance, to talk with the customers, and encourage them to buy drinks. The coastal area north of Beirut is the so-called Christian area, therefore the pimps and proprietors of clubs are Christian, or a few may be Muslims using Christian names. However the clientele is both Christian and Muslim, Lebanese in the overwhelming majority, with perhaps an occasional wealthy visitor from Arabia or the Gulf. In the summer, a few super nightclubs in the mountains may have rather more foreign customers, and there are a few in Beirut, but most of the activity takes place on the coast north of Beirut.
The artistes may be Muslim girls recruited from Morocco, but most are from the countries of the former Soviet Union, with a few from Eastern Europe, although those now prefer to go to HE European Union. Lebanese impresarios recruit artistes in such countries or order them from the local dealers there. Girls are brought to Lebanon in batches, on a six-month visa, and that visa can be renewed only after the girl has spent at least 12 months outside Lebanon. This way the artistes can go around to the other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean before returning to Lebanon, but my informant tells me that most of them go back home, spend their money, and then according to need some of them will return, either after the year expires, or sooner by means of a different passport with a new name. The General Security says it gives around 5,000 of these visas every year, which means there are usually about 2,500 artistes in the country.
Upon arrival, the girls are taken to the General Security to sign a contract with the employer. The General Security will formally forbid them from prostitution. Artistes in Lebanon are not free to move about alone. They must stay only in hotels approved by the General Security, strictly under the responsibility of the club owner who employs them. He must see to their good conduct. The girls are carefully watched, and police inspectors are supposed to visit to make sure they are not engaged in prostitution. However, just in case, there will be monthly medical checkups.
An artiste may have a salary of $400 or $500, possibly up to a thousand if she is a skilled dancer, but after deductions for her air ticket, the 2nd class hotel where they are kept, her food, her electricity, and her costume, the girl will hardly ever break even, and she is usually working off her debt. A mini bus brings the girls from the hotel to their club about 9:30 PM, and their working hours in the cabaret will be from 11:00 to 5:00 in the morning, and then they are brought back to the hotel. She may not leave the hotel between 5AM and 1PM, but she will be free to go out in the afternoon with the gentlemen who has made an appointment with her last night in the cabaret, and typically he may pay her between $50 and $200 for her company and favors, which she will not have to share with the owner.
I am informed that this is not always the crass form of prostitution it sounds like. Rather often men form attachments to these girls, who may be beautiful, intelligent and cultured, often underpaid schoolteachers, divorced or unmarried, who find it impossible otherwise to support the child or two they have left in the home country. Sometimes, in the afternoon, the client will take her shopping, or to a restaurant, or to another hotel or his rented chalet. Of course, if the client is generous to the club owner, he may take the girl with him for a longer time, even though this is not quite legal.
Sometimes relationships form and they may want to marry. I have heard of a few cases where this has worked well. But it is rather rare since the girl’s stay is limited to six months, and it was perhaps to prevent this sort of thing that two years ago the General Security made a rule that an artiste or housemaid is not allowed to marry in Lebanon.
It used to be said that a girl might sign up as a dancer or singer or even a stripper without intending to prostitute herself, but nowadays by the time they get on the plane they know the real story. At the General Security on the first day, the artiste is given a booklet of rules, rights and duties. One of these rules says: “The Night Club Dancer has the full right to accompany a customer voluntarily, but not for prostitution purposes.” If she is caught prostituting herself, nothing happens to the client, but the girl can be deported immediately, and the owner of the nightclub can say that he had no idea this girl was going to do such a terrible thing. It is much the same if the client has beaten or raped the artiste. She will be immediately deported, and no charges will be made against the client. It is also the same if the girl is found, upon examination, to have a disease. She will be deported within 48 hours. Tough luck for her. Suppose she refuses to prostitute herself or she displeases the club owner in any other way. He just says, “You are on the next plane.” And she either submits or is soon gone.
On the other hand, if the girl at any time decides she has had enough and wants to go home, provided she is not in debt, the club owner cannot stop her, for the General Security will see to her freedom to go.
But naiveté sometimes plays a part. Oriental Asian masseuses can come to Lebanon in some ignorance of what at least some of the customers will expect of them. A few years ago, I met a Filipina girl who had escaped from a massage parlor. The owner of the parlor had not paid her and her companions, and they were being told they owed him money for their food , lodging, and air ticket. When one day the usual guard of their hotel was absent, this girl urged her Filipina companions to escape with her. But they refused to move, because they still believed the owner’s promises of the wealth they were going to earn from their work. So the girl ran away alone, came to us, and we were able to seek the help of the police, who made the employer give up her passport and buy her a ticket home.
That freedom, of course, is allowed only to the artistes and masseuses. The runaway housemaids in illegal situation are still trapped and cannot leave unless they can pay their fines. After the tsunami, an exception was made, and the General Security permitted 5,000 Sri Lankan women in illegal situation to leave without paying the fines. I am also told that many of them have since returned to Lebanon, using different passports and new names.
What about other Arab countries? I am told that in Jordan, the artistes are freer and more expensive. And I am told that in the cities of the Gulf, the artistes are restricted to being only artistes, and are fairly well paid.
Two kinds of foreign prostitution are current in Lebanon. The real “women of the street” are the runaway housemaids at the mercy of their pimps until they escape from them. The prostitution of the artistes is theoretically forbidden and in practice is regulated. Control of the unregulated prostitutes is in the hands of pimps who can be either Muslim or Christian. Control of the artistes is in the hands of men who are culturally Christian.
Speaking of this latter kind of prostitution, who suffers? Obviously the girls and women whose poverty drives them to sell their bodies. But in a deeper sense it is the Lebanese Christians who are harmed. For women in these coastal towns have become a mere commodity like other things bought and sold. A friend of mine who lives in one of these towns tells me that recently a Syrian prostitute has rented an apartment across the street, and two others are living down the road. In the afternoon and early evening these ladies sit out with the village girls who have plenty of free time to talk. It would be foolish to think influence is not being exercised here.
My friend has a theory that the Syrian military intelligence designated this area for prostitution in order to corrupt the Christians. But although the Syrian army in Lebanon was guilty of many crimes, I am not sure they were to blame in this matter.
When, forty-five years ago, the National Casino of Lebanon was being built in this area, official assurance was given that it would be only for foreigners, and that Lebanese would not be allowed to gamble in it. But the rule was soon changed. In the same way, one hears now and then of a husband and father neglecting his family because he is madly attached to a foreign prostitute.
Beside the church in that Christian town are a parking space and a grotto shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. Near an adjacent telephone booth the ladies of the street gather and wait. And behind the church’s parking space is a hotel from whose balconies foreign artistes and their Lebanese and Syrian sisters look down. The proprietor of the hotel happens to be the nephew of the priest who is pastor of the church.
-Sigma Huda, “Mission to Lebanon,” (U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights), http://daccessdds.un.org/ doc/UNDOC/GEN/G06/109/71/PDF/G0610971.pdf/OpenElement
-Chalhoub, Rita, et al., “Coeur et Corps à Vendre : Veçu et Réalité des Femmes Prostituées (Unpublished thesis, Université Libanaise, Faculté de Santé Publique, Section II), 2003.
-Lebanese Republic, “The general directorate of general security : Females working at Nightclubs, unmedical Massage and Modeling : Rights and Obligations” (2005).