Freedom of speech in LebanonJail? Don't make me laugh!
Shaden Fakih is one of very few, if not the only, woman on the comedy scene in Lebanon. As Shaden Esperanza, she performs all over the country and is notorious for her political jokes. She comes from a left-wing, Shia family and outed herself as queer on television two years ago. For allegedly humiliating Lebanese security forces and damaging their reputation in a video posted online, she – a civilian – stood trial before a military tribunal last year.
Shaden, when you look back at the revolt in Lebanon, when the whole country was on the streets in autumn 2019, what do you see?
Shaden Fakih: I am filled with sorrow because there was hope. During the revolution, everyone took a risk and hoped. There was no way to walk the streets without feeling that. Now, however, there is a gaping wound. We tried. For me, the struggle will never stop. If I ever stop fighting, it will be because I'm dead. But when you look at the faces of the people on the streets now, you see collective disappointment, collective loss. We had the chance to change something, and things simply got worse instead. Sometimes it's hard to find anything funny in that.
When did you start performing as a comedian?
Fakih: Coincidentally, it was 2017. I was at an "open mic" event and everyone was telling their stories. So I told mine.
Which one was that?
Fakih: My coming-out story. It was a Pride Week event. I came out to my parents when I was 19 years old. And when you've come out to your parents, the world doesn't matter anymore.
How did your parents react?
Fakih: I am very privileged. I attend family functions with my girlfriends like anyone else [laughs]. Most people I know who are gay or queer or whatever live a double life. I am very lucky. That's also why I think it's important to come out – because I have that privilege and because I myself have struggled with my identity and self-acceptance. That's why it's a necessity for me.
Lebanese comedian Shaden Fakih, who covers topics such as politics, religion, and homosexuality, says stand-up helps her live her ‘absolute truth’ pic.twitter.com/ZqQQOeRjvw
— Reuters (@Reuters) March 10, 2022
Three years ago, shortly after the revolution began, you came out publicly on Lebanese television. What made you do that?
Fakih: I took part in a television programme called Lebanon 2030, and during the interview I thought: 'Okay, I'm on national television, and it's time'. We should also show on national TV that there are homosexual people, so I said out loud: "I'm a lesbian". I made a joke about it.
What was the joke?
Fakih: "If you know someone who could change me, send him over." But what I was actually saying was that anyone who belongs to a minority knows any level of rights or acceptance you get from society is fickle. The United States and abortion are the perfect example. The moment you stop fighting, rights can easily be taken away.
For me, it's a fight against the system. And I'm not just fighting by talking about my homosexuality. I am first and foremost a homosexual person, a queer person, who talks about politics, so that we have a voice in politics. So that we are represented. The question of whether people accept me or not is not even up for debate. Acceptance has never been my issue. If people don't like it, then I won't try to convince them, that's their problem. I am here and I am queer. I don't ask for space, I take my space. And me taking the space I want is also down to my privileged status. Another person who is queer and lives in different circumstances, in a different class, may well take a different approach.
What were the reactions to your coming out on television?
Fakih: I don't know. It doesn't matter. For me it was important, a big deal – it felt good. I am going to be successful in my career and I am not going to give you the choice of accepting me or not, because I exist.
Do you feel that you are putting yourself in danger?
Fakih: When it comes to things I say about certain people: yes, sometimes. What is the alternative? When I perform, people are not allowed to film me.
But you perform anyway?
Fakih: Enforcement is the job of security: if they see someone filming, they delete it.
Where do you perform as a comedian?
Fakih: In different bars and cafes, in Beirut, Batroun, Tripoli, Broumana. Once or twice a week, or every fortnight. I'm working on new material right now. I want to write about all the Abrahamic stories that talk about rape and accuse the woman. Those in which rape is not even acknowledged.
What is it like being a woman on the comedy circuit?
Fakih: You have no idea how much sexism there is in comedy. These comedians who are supposed to be woke and progressive! You're literally one woman or two at most, surrounded by ten men. And the way they look at each other when you take them to task, or when they ask you your opinion and you actually give them your opinion ... it's so tiring. Even comedians want to talk without a sense of responsibility. What's wrong with rape jokes? I'm not even saying they shouldn't make rape jokes! Make rape jokes! But with a sense of responsibility. Not censorship, responsibility. Don't make jokes at the expense of the woman or the victim. But no. No. They don't want to be held accountable, under the damn pretext of free speech. But all I'm saying is: what you say has an effect. You can write a great, well-written joke about rape – that is not at the expense of women.
Your jokes are critical often of religion and politics. But the one joke for which you were summoned to the cybercrime bureau of the Lebanese security forces a while back was actually harmless ...
Fakih: That was during a lockdown where the website for the passes wasn't working yet and I was still issued with two fines for leaving my building. So I called the internal security forces and said: "I have my period, what should I do, please bring me sanitary pads!" That's why I was court martialled last June. Do you want my opinion? They jumped on this joke because it was the only legal way to take action against me.
Many people, always civilians, have been summoned to the military court since the revolution began. Who was standing by your side?
Fakih: God! No, God is not on my side. God is always on the other side. But, imagine, the people responsible for the explosion in the port of Beirut are still out. And the people who stole our money are still out too. And I was meant to go to jail for a joke involving panty liners? That's ridiculous. But that's their way of scaring us. Personally, I wasn't worried. When they called me to tell me my date to appear before the military court, I posted a video saying: "Guys, you think I'm scared? No, habibi! You don't scare me."
Have you ever considered leaving Lebanon?
Fakih: There was a time after the explosion when I thought: maybe we can't stay here. But I have never said this country is dead. Staying here is a form of resistance. I don't know at what point it can be considered self-destruction. We don't know where the line is between resistance and self-destruction. But I don't want to leave either. Where should I go? Germany or Canada. I would have to learn a new language in Germany; it's cold, what would I do there? How can that be a good life? Okay, I would have rights and be treated like a human being – culture shock! Lebanon is where I want to stay. The problem is I can see the potential of this place.
You can definitely see that the revolution has brought Lebanon a certain openness, despite everything that has happened in the last two years.
Fakih: Our generation has done a lot when it comes to terming, naming things. And once you name things, you can't ignore them. If I feel uncomfortable because someone is doing this or that, it's not because I'm crazy and they're just joking, it's because they're pressuring me, dismissing what I say and harassing me. It's called mansplaining. There is a word for that now. Even my mother uses these words now. That's why it's so hard to declare this country dead. We are evolving socially. Conversations are much more open, people are much more open. Five years ago, if a sex tape came out, the woman was called a slut and blamed. Two years ago, someone released a sex tape of a student and everyone was on her side. You can see it before your eyes – change is happening. Not in the way we would have liked. But look at what happened in Tripoli, where sixteen-year-old girls stood up to their bullying teacher –he was kicked out. If that's not the result of a revolution, I don't know what is.
A kind of #MeToo?
Fakih: Exactly. What does it achieve? It means that other schoolgirls will know: If I am sixteen years old and my forty-year-old teacher gives me a massage, then there is a problem. They will know that they are not just crazy because they feel uncomfortable. And they will speak up.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2023
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