It was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday in May like many others for Mayssa Hanouni Yaafouri. But her regular jaunt at Saida Public Beach in Lebanon’s coastal city of Sidon was interrupted.
On May 14, two men who called themselves Muslim sheikhs approached Yaafouri and her husband, demanding that the pair leave because Yaafouri was wearing a one-piece swimsuit.
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Yaafouri stood her ground and told the men she can wear whatever she wants at a public beach. But the men refused to listen.
“They said it’s their law – the power of the sheikh,” Yaafouri told Al Jazeera.
The two men left, only to return about 10 minutes later with at least a dozen others. They began kicking a football around the couple, surrounding them and flicking sand in their direction.
A man intervened to tell the clergymen that it is “not in our religion to attack a woman”, Yaafouri said.
But it soon became clear their group was not going to retreat, and the man who intervened advised the couple to leave the beach for their safety.
The incident sparked a protest this Sunday with about 70 feminists, activists and journalists gathering in Sidon from across the country to support Yaafouri.
“We’re just asking for our rights,” she said.
“My problem as a woman after what happened, after my incident, is only about my rights. It’s not political. It’s not religion,” the woman in the middle of Lebanon’s renewed swimwear debate said.
Reclaiming public space, whether in a bikini or burkini
Lebanese law does not ban bathing suits in public, but women in the more conservative, Sunni Muslim-majority coastal city about an hour south of the capital, Beirut, tend to wear them in private.
A sign at the public beach states alcohol is prohibited and that “decent attire” must be worn. Yaafouri, however, has been going there for the past five years and had not faced any issues wearing her swimsuit until now.
Diana Moukalled, a feminist journalist who coordinated with Yaafouri to organise Sunday’s protest, said there has been an uptick recently in harassment of women at public beaches in Lebanon.
“Unfortunately, with the collapse of Lebanon, … we are seeing increased will and appetite to harass and intimidate women,” Moukalled told Al Jazeera.
Public spaces like public beaches, she said, are being “occupied” and “segregated” by various “political parties, fanatics, radical people and sectarian groups”.
The protest, Moukalled said, was both to support Yaafouri’s right to dress as she pleases at public beaches as well as to reclaim public spaces for all Lebanese women – whether they want to wear a bikini or a burkini.
Several MPs expressed their support for the women’s protest on Twitter.
Michel Moawad, a member of the Renewal Bloc in the Lebanese Parliament, tweeted that the incident “constitutes a flagrant violation of the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution” and “contradicts the history of the city and its true values”.
He called for the men who accosted Yaafouri and her husband to be handed over to the judiciary.
Mark Daou from the Taqaddom party tweeted that “no one has the right to impose his opinion or belief in public spaces”.
On Sunday, a group of about 100 to 120 male and female counterprotesters swarmed the demonstrators, Moukalled said.
The Sidon municipality on Saturday had banned both the women’s protest and the planned counterdemonstration.
The army stood between the two groups as the counterprotesters hurled insults at the demonstrating women, Moukalled said.
She said she was dismayed that authorities treated both groups equally, saying that one side is asking for their given rights to be respected while the other is encroaching upon them.
Both women said an online backlash has been directed at their protest as well.
“As we [were] protesting, men were on the beach swimming and enjoying the right to have free access to the beach when women were not allowed to,” Moukalled said. “It’s not acceptable.”