BEIRUT — Whoever would have thought that the latest twist of Arab revolt against the incompetence of government, economic decay and lawlessness would be fought over topless exposure?
The clueless outgoing Lebanese Minister of Youth and Sports, Faisal Karame, ordered Lebanon’s Olympics Committee to investigate one of its two skiers competing at the Sochi games after photos surfaced of her in an Austrian calendar with other professional athletes wearing nothing but a hot pink string bikini bottom, boots and her gear.
Jacky Chamoun was set to compete in Sochi, donning a knitted wool head band with the colors and cedar insignia of the Lebanese flag. Instead of marshaling her strength for her sport, she and her fans were distracted by the leak of revealing three-year-old photos. One showed her posing with skis held close to to conceal her breasts against the scenic backdrop of the powder white slopes of Lebanon’s Faraya ski resort. The pictures went viral.
The “scandal” was aggravated by the distribution of a video of her clambering up on a ledge, showing her backside barely covered by her string bikini, as she took position for a shot.
Al Jadeed TV, a local station, aired it, calling Chamoun a “porn star.” In a country where legions of scantily dressed women, celebrities and socialites strut with tantalizing get-ups, very few were shocked. Women from religious and conservative families do cover up with headscarves and long sleeves, but they are far outnumbered.
The year began with a spate of deadly car bombs, a swelling influx of Syrian refugees, and seething public sentiment over political rivals’ inability to form a cabinet for 11 months. (The stalemate only ended last weekend, days after the controversy over Chamoun’s photos erupted.) Reports of al-Qaeda affiliates smuggling arms into north Lebanon did not help. Public rebuke and indignation crashed down on Karami like a ton of bricks for trying to ruin one of the few good things on the Lebanese horizon.
Lebanon’s liberal online news portal juxtaposed Chamoun’s alluring pinup with a picture of an armed man in camouflage fatigues under a headline screaming: “Boobs over Bullets.”
A public outcry in the blogosphere, social media and advertising circles chastising Karami for hypocrisy and a skewed sense of priorities prompted him to issue a statement of meek contrition. He said he was trying to protect the reputation of the Olympics and the Lebanese family. Chamoun, 22, an Alpine slalom skier, was cleared and allowed to stay in Sochi.
There was an outpouring of public support on her Facebook page, and fans created another page under the name “I Am Not Naked.” Young women and men posted photos of themselves topless and in varying degrees of nudity, carrying cardboard smiley face signs that read #stripforjackie. Chamoun, who began competing outside Lebanon at the age of 13, paying for her own lessons, equipment and fees, was bewildered, pleased and embarrassed by the somewhat risqué manifestations of solidarity.
In television interviews in Sochi, Chamoun, unbowed, said she would do it all over again, since modeling for the calendar was fun. She pointed out, however, that although the campaign was heartening and amusing, it was time to stop. In an apology to her critics on her Facebook page, she urged them to put an end to the flap and the circulation of photos so she could focus on her run on Friday.
Enthusiastic wishes of support for her race have continued to deluge Chamoun’s Facebook page. Christian Al Maalouf posted,”The best of luck, you Rock…” In just two days, the number of followers on her page swelled from 79,000 to 82,049.
The clash in Arab societies between openness and die hard traditionalism, spearheaded by Islamic movements, is part of the subtext in this incident. Lebanese pride themselves on living in the most open and fun-oriented Arab nation and are bent on protecting their way of life. Bloggers and columnists took Karame to task for not backing a draft law banning domestic violence in Lebanon instead — three women, including one last week, have been killed recently by their husbands after a history of battery and assault.
University students, both Christian and Muslim, spoke in defense of Chamoun, saying it was “her body.” Many also noted that the #stripfor Jackie drive was “over the top.”
“No one stripped for domestic violence,” said Dounia Katibi, “We are a very, very shallow society.”
Sara Abdel, referring to the growing concern over car bombings, said: “In a country where you are afraid to walk out, a minister wants to investigate a three-year-old calendar? This is totally ridiculous.”
Nora Boustany is a former Washington Post correspondent and columnist who now lives in Beirut, where she writes and teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut.