Some of the lighters contain not butane but pepper spray, and the odd mobile phone has two small metal prongs at the top, designed to discharge an electric volt capable of shocking a limb into temporary paralysis. Behind the counter, and out of sight, a bigger range of these self-defense weapons is stocked.
As the security situation intensifies in the country and amid reports of increased harassment of women in some neighborhoods, the store’s manager, who prefers that neither he nor his shop be named, says that between pepper spray and stun guns he is currently selling about 30 defensive weapons for women per week; although, he adds, “it is usually guys buying them for their girlfriends or wives.”
However, regardless of who is doing the purchasing, some women just feel more comfortable carrying a weapon.
One resident of Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood has carried a stun gun gun since 2008. “I was attacked in broad daylight by a stranger ... just days after the clashes in Beirut,” she told The Daily Star.
“I managed to fight him off, but the experience showed me how vulnerable women are, especially at times of instability. My husband bought the taser gun for me the very next day.”
“I haven’t had to use it yet, but I feel safer knowing that I have it,” she added.
Isabella, an American, brought her stun gun with her from the United States. She had purchased it online when at college in the U.S., but initially she didn’t carry it in Beirut.
“When I first moved to Beirut I didn’t carry it at all – it was still summer and I felt pretty safe walking around by myself despite the inevitable and constant barrage of comments and catcalls. One night in Hamra – I lived at the end toward Ras Beirut – I was followed home by two very threatening men and was forced to flag down a passing car in order to scare them off.”
After that incident Isabella would often call her male roommate to walk her home. She also started carrying her stun gun again.
The model she owns “is about the size of a cell phone and doubles as a flashlight,” and she says it just gives her an extra layer of security.
“I carried my stun gun with me whenever I went out at night, especially if I thought there might be a situation in which I would end up by myself. I would hold it in my hand with the switch in the off position if I was going to be walking in any area that was dark. Luckily I never had to use it, in Beirut or in any other city. I hope I never have to ... but I like to know it’s there,” she said.
Another woman, who lives in the mountains, told The Daily Star that she leaves her house every morning with pepper spray in her hand as protection against both male attackers and dogs.
None of the women The Daily Star spoke to have ever had to use their protective weapons, but those who carry them are confident they could successfully deploy a spray or a shock against an attacker.
“My husband, who has military training, taught me how to use it and advised me of certain precautions to take,” the Ashrafieh resident said. “I don’t have any doubt that I’d be able to use this weapon if I faced another attack.”
She highlighted that her stun gun has a band that straps tightly around her wrist, making it difficult for an attacker to snatch the weapon away and turn it on the victim.
However, she also emphasized that she would advise other women to carry a weapon “only with proper training.”
“It’s a weapon, not a toy”
Others are less confident.
Emma, another Beirut resident, owns pepper spray, but does not carry it. A friend gave her the spray her after she was attacked last year, Emma told The Daily Star.
“I don’t carry it because I actually think there’s quite a margin for it to go wrong. I’m not sure I’d ever be quick enough to use it, plus I could misfire, and I’d worry about enraging my attacker,” she said.
For these reasons, among others, Joe Habis, who runs a self-defense class for women at his Dojo School of Martial Arts in Ashrafieh, cautions against carrying weapons such as stun guns and pepper sprays.
Apart from the risks of misusing the weapon when under attack or having it taken and used against you, Habis says that carrying such weapons may give women false confidence and reduce the levels of precaution they usually exercise when alone.
Habis trains women in empty-hand combat and in how to use regular everyday objects, such as pencils and cell phones, defensively. He says few of the women who come to his classes carry formal weapons, but his advice to those who wish to is always think prevention first; train for any weapon you choose to take; and work on empty hand combat skills in case the weapon is taken from you.
Meanwhile, at a Beirut gym, another fitness and martial arts instructor explains that he has personally sourced Chinese-made stun guns for “friends and cousins” from a dealer he found online.
“They need it you know, especially here in Lebanon,” he said, justifying his purchase and adding that he gave the guns’ recipients “a small training so they don’t hurt themselves.”
The instructor prefers stunning to pepper spray as the latter is “possible to use on yourself” and “the wind can be a problem.”
Yara Chehayed of the Adventures of Salwa initiative, which fights sexual harassment in Lebanon, said that weapons are not popular among the collective’s members, but that a recently launched self-defense class has been well-received by the group.
Indeed, she said, “tasers are illegal in Lebanon.”
According to a Lebanese Army source, a license is “definitely” required to own or carry a stun gun because it is a potentially lethal weapon. The application of a sustained shock, particularly over the heart, can kill.
The source was less sure of the law pertaining to carrying pepper spray. The chemical compound, which irritates the eyes, is subject to varying degrees of legality around the world: in some states it’s forbidden, in others it’s freely retailed, and in still others it is legal only if used in self-defense.
At his cluttered store, however, the manager, who eagerly spoke to The Daily Star but reiterated his wish to remain anonymous, said his range of tasers was “not sold legally,” then, when queried, backtracked to say the items were “not imported legally.”
The guns, which have voltages ranging from 40,000 to 120,000 are simple to use, he insisted. “They don’t need instructions; you just charge it and use it.”
“Even the cheapest one if used on the heart or neck can cause the attacker to lose consciousness,” he added. “[If used] on the hand or leg, it can paralyze for up to 10 minutes.”
The cheapest model at his store is $40. For $150 you can purchase a device that looks like a gun and can throw electrical wires up to a distance of 5 meters, he said.
Yet, however shady his business, he was keen to highlight that a strict moral code is applied to the sale of these weapons at his store. “We choose who to sell to,” he said. “We don’t sell to teenage boys. We don’t sell to Syrians. If he looks drunk, if he has red eyes, we don’t sell.”
“When they look like gentlemen, we sell,” he added.
But according to the gym instructor the weapons are not so difficult to come by in Lebanon: “If you search on the Internet you can find a dealer.”