If you’d happened to be walking on Beirut’s seaside Corniche last Saturday, April 22, you would have witnessed a most singular sight: 31 wedding dresses appearing to float in the Mediterranean sky, like otherworldly ghosts descending upon the earth.
But an apparition the dresses certainly weren’t. Rather, they formed part of an ephemeral installation by Lebanon’s most celebrated sculptress Mireille Honein, who staged the show for 24 hours to protest the archaic, misogynistic Article 522 in Lebanon’s penal code, which stipulates that a rapist will be cleared of any criminal charge if he marries his victim.
“When I heard about Article 522,” says Honein, “I was aghast. It’s an aberration. The woman is victimized initially when she’s raped, and then she’s subjected to rape for the rest of her life because she’s forced to marry her attacker.”
Over the course of her 30-year career, Honein has often created installations to disseminate either political or feminist messages. Her classic “Public Captif” (“Captive Audience”) for example, was a life-sized installation that depicted a group of people mindlessly imitating and following their leader.
For this latest installation, Honein flew in her dresses from Paris (she splits her time between Beirut and Paris) a few days prior to the show. She had worked on the dresses for two years, in 2012 and 2013, first as a form of critique against the institution of marriage and later as a statement against the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies. “Marriage for me is a prison,” says Honein. “That’s how I first started thinking about this installation.”
Using mostly silk paper, but also cardboard, cotton thread and tulle, as well as eccentric materials like mini cupcake liners, Honein created 31 dresses (one for each day of the month), some of them long, others short, which at first appear to be regular, if unusual, wedding outfits. In Beirut, Honein grouped the dresses together on the seaside Corniche, and suspended them from a rope, each hanging with a noose around its neck – a bride’s corpse swaying under an unforgiving sun. “Marriage is a hanging, a death sentence for these women,” says the artist. “And a white wedding dress, which symbolizes purity, gives a cloak of innocence to the rapist.”
While Honein’s installation lasted only one day, she believes that it already had an impact on certain Arab societies. Two days after the installation, Jordan announced that it would scrap Article 308 (the equivalent to Lebanon’s Article 522) from its penal code, and Tunisia looks set to revoke its own identical Article 227.
“My installation was a form of protest, a way for me to fight for women who are victims of rape and against this law.”