Beirut Diary: It Happens in the Bathroom

Graffiti in bathroom stalls is usually an exhibit of messy jargon and crude comments and not the most obvious site for serious discussion and advice seeking. In Lebanon, however, stalls in female bathrooms are emerging as the centre for conversation on issues that are too personal for the home, too intimate for friends and too reserved for magazine advice columns. Despite the centrality of the family in Lebanese culture and the importance of peers and a large social network, bathroom stalls seems to be a prominent space for young women to anonymously open up about sexuality, body image and tradition.

On the surface, Lebanon has garnered a reputation as the beacon of liberal thinking and modernity in private affairs in the Middle East. But at home, young women can still be subject to the stifling dictates of tradition, prompting a sense of confusion and isolating guilt. Sometimes it’s just difficult to vocalize personal issues when you have expectations and defined roles. However hushing them up helps open doors – or in this case close them up and write all over them – that can relieve the confusion and guilt.

This phenomenon has prompted Samia Osta, an MA candidate in Sociology, to research and write her thesis on the topic of bathroom graffiti and female identity at the American University in Beirut (AUB). Osta first observed the phenomenon from the perspective of a Lebanese migrant having lived and studied in three different countries.  For example, she didn’t note the same sort of angst and questions about body and sex as she has in the bathrooms of AUB while living in Montreal – a place known for its political and outspoken graffiti.

It seems that nothing can quite escape the snake like chainmail of questions and responses – every bathroom is covered with scrawls and inquiries. Osta has been documenting the different types of penmanship that appear in bathrooms all over the campus for more than a year. She’s noted revelations such as “I’m gay but nobody knows” and desperate questions about sexuality and relationships, which sometimes indicate that an intervention may be needed. The most persistent themes in these writings are almost always about intimacy and body issues. A fact that suggests formal support networks, or structures such as counseling may not be available or used by these women. And the anonymity of bathroom writing shows that these kinds of issues are still quite taboo in Lebanese society.

Osta mentions that her own experience of growing up as a Lebanese woman in a culture surrounded by taboos and lack of discussion about intimate topics compelled her to write and research the issue of bathroom graffiti as an outlet for young, university-educated Lebanese women. Of course, these are not simply scrawls on a stall – they signify larger societal issues of boys having later curfews, girls having to show more face time at home, and finding less acceptance in going out frequently with friends. Additionally, large contingents of Lebanese young adults live in their family homes until they are married. This complicates the access young women, especially, may have to information about pregnancy or what to do when in an abusive relationship.

Whether the bathroom is a viable outlet for women to share these concerns is something that concerns Osta’s research. One thing is for sure, while men’s bathroom graffiti can carry the generic crude humor or strong political sloganing, girls are using this as a space of intimate conversation. It shows the high regard Lebanese youth hold of their peers, often going to people of their generation before anyone else. This is a universal phenomenon, but the fact that writing in the bathroom is so distinctly personal sheds a new light on the societal make up of the society. Who did the mothers of these girls rely on 20-30 years ago? Is the bathroom a new type of salon for today’s twentysomethings?

For a generation used to the voyeuristic exposure of online social networking, the bathroom is as anonymous a space as can be. There is less self-absorbed instant gratification here, and a greater degree of dealing with taboos through helping girls relate to one another’s issues – albeit in secret, of course. The graffiti does help generate a small community behind closed doors and above the toilet seat. Questions will have entire maps leading to answers, rebuttals, and sometimes, insults and deep and personal reflection. One particular graffiti conversation started after a girl declared she may have become pregnant and was unsure what to do. In response, people offered advice that was practical – referring her to the doctor, advising her to talk to the partner – and responses that were somewhat confrontational such as citing religious declarations on pre-marital sex. All of this whether you are looking for it or not.

Osta hopes to contrast her preliminary findings with universities that are based in Arabic. So far, all the writings at AUB, an elite university with an overwhelmingly Lebanese make-up, are in English which points to interesting contrasts between different social classes and language groups in Lebanon. She suspects Arabic universities would have similar tales in the toilet, but hopes to confirm her suspicions with further research. For now, it’s safe to say that the bathroom is a sacred place for young females, but for reasons beyond primping and prepping. Topics often left as hush hush find a way – through some ingenuity – to flush themselves into the everyday conscience.