An armed man has emerged as an unlikely hero in Lebanon after holding hostages in a central Beirut bank and demanding access to his own money – a move that generated broad public support.

Brandishing a rifle and threatening to douse himself with petrol, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, entered the Federal Bank branch about noon on Thursday and insisted on withdrawing part of his frozen savings of $210,000 (£172,000) to help pay for his father’s hospital bill.

Like nearly all Lebanese, the hostage taker’s funds have been off limits for more than two years. Banks, stricken by an economic crisis, have allowed depositors only token withdrawals of dollars each month that are insufficient to meet the most basic of needs.

News of the siege was quick to reach all parts of a country where nearly 80% of the population are now considered impoverished after the imposition of informal capital controls. Scenes of a defiant figure holding a bank to ransom resonated with hundreds of thousands of people held hostage by a staggering economic collapse that has crippled Lebanon and potentially wiped out billions of dollars in savings.

Soldiers and police who gathered near the bank as the siege unravelled have had their salaries reduced more than twentyfold since early 2020, with many now earning the equivalent of $70 a month. Bystanders spoke of their support for the audacious act, which many seemed to admire, despite the fact it closed down much of Beirut’s Hamra district.

“He’s not even a real robber,” said Ghassan Moula, in the street next to the bank. “He’s only asking for what is his. Our dear leaders sent all their billions to Swiss banks with the help of the central bank, and we’re all left to suffer. All of Lebanon wants to do this.”

By evening, the gunman’s stance appeared to have worked, with the bank agreeing to give him $30,000 after he rejected an earlier offer of $10,000. As night drew near, he allowed his hostages to be fed by a local restaurant, which delivered food to the bank’s door. Shortly afterwards he surrendered to police.

“No one will say he did the wrong thing,” said Ahmad Yatoum, another bystander. “Desperate people do desperate things. We are all like him, even the soldiers and the riot police liked him.”

The bank siege was the second of its kind this year, after another angry depositor doused customers in a regional bank with fuel in January and demanded his savings. He too was successful. Such acts of defiance have, however, been rare in Lebanon despite the profound and continuing suffering of its population.

Remittances from relatives abroad have long been a lifeline for Lebanese citizens, but with the local currency still falling, a political imbroglio continuing and no real sign that leaders are prepared to meet probity conditions that are essential for global rescue packages, they have been vital to keeping the country together.

Many depositors are restricted to receiving as little as $200 a month from the bank in addition to a hybrid version of the local currency, known as lollars, which is dispensed at about one-third of the market rate. There are widespread fears that dollar deposits in banks may be rendered worthless if and when a financial solution is found.

Most goods and services are now being sold at dollar values, which makes the availability of the currency even more essential to those who do not have access to offshore accounts or a ready flow of income from outside Lebanon.

“Hyperinflation has ruined us,” said George Haddad, a baker. “Even the most basic things in life like bread are out of the reach of many.”

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Maryam’s story is the reality of many women in Iran. Being a virgin before marriage is still crucial for many girls and their families. It’s a value that is deeply rooted in cultural conservatism.

But recently, things have started to change. Women and men around the country have been campaigning to put an end to virginity testing.

Last November, an online petition received almost 25,000 signatures within a single month. This was the first time virginity testing was being openly challenged by so many people in Iran.

“It’s a violation of privacy, and it’s humiliating,” says Neda.

When she was a 17-year-old student in Tehran, she lost her virginity to her boyfriend.

“I panicked. I was terrified about what would happen if my family found out.”

So, Neda decided to repair her hymen.

Technically, this procedure is not illegal – but it has dangerous social implications, so no hospital will agree to perform it.

So Neda found a private clinic that would do it in secret – at a heavy price.

“I spent all my savings. I sold my laptop, my mobile phone and my gold jewellery,” she says.

She had to sign a document to take full responsibility in case something went wrong.

A midwife then proceeded with the procedure. It took about 40 minutes.

But Neda would need many weeks to recover.

“I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t move my legs,” she recalls.

She hid the whole thing from her parents.

“I felt very lonely. But I think that the fear of them finding out helped me tolerate the pain.”

In the end, the ordeal Neda endured was all for nothing.

A year later, she met someone who wanted to marry her. But when they had sex, she didn’t bleed. The procedure had failed.

“My boyfriend accused me of trying to trick him into marriage. He said that I was a liar and he left me.”
Pressure from the family

Despite the WHO denouncing virginity testing as unethical and lacking scientific merit, the practice is still carried out in several countries, including Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey.

The Iranian Medical Organisation maintain that they only carry out virginity testing in specific circumstances – such as court cases and rape accusations.

However, most requests for a virginity certification still come from couples who are planning to get married. So they turn to private clinics – often accompanied by their mothers.

A gynaecologist or a midwife will carry out a test and issue a certificate. This will include the woman’s full name, her father’s name, her national ID and sometimes her photo. It will describe the status of her hymen, and include the statement: “This girl appears to be a virgin.”

In more conservative families, the document will be signed by two witnesses – normally the mothers.

Dr Fariba has been issuing certificates for years. She admits it’s a humiliating practice, but believes she’s actually helping many women.

“They’re under such pressure from their families. Sometimes I’ll verbally lie for the couple. If they’ve slept together and want to get married, I’ll say in front of their families that the woman is a virgin.”

But for many men, marrying a virgin is still fundamental.

“If a girl loses her virginity before marriage, she cannot be trustworthy. She might leave her husband for another man,” says Ali, a 34-year-old electrician from Shiraz.

He says he’s had sex with 10 women. “I couldn’t resist,” he says.

Ali accepts there’s a double standard in Iranian society, but says he sees no reason to break away from tradition.

“Social norms accept that men have more freedom than women.”

Ali’s view is shared by many people, especially in more rural, conservative areas of Iran.

Despite mounting demonstrations against virginity testing, given this notion is so deeply rooted within Iranian culture, many believe a total ban on the practice by the government and lawmakers is unlikely anytime soon.
Hope in the future

Four years after attempting to take her own life and living with an abusive husband, Maryam was finally able to get a divorce through the courts.

She became single just a few weeks ago.

“It’s going to be very hard to trust a man again,” she says. “I can’t see myself getting married in the near future.”

Along with tens of thousands of other women, she, too, signed one of the growing number of online petitions to put an end to issuing virginity certificates.

Although she expects nothing to change soon, perhaps not even within her lifetime, she does believe one day women will gain more equality within her country.

“I’m sure it will happen one day. I hope in the future no girls will have to go through what I did.”

All names of interviewees were changed to protect their identities.

By Tuhin

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