Lebanon’s Crawl to Equality

12 Jun

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and was written for Common Ground News Service.

Patriarchy and political dynasties have shut out women who wish to govern.

By Dalila Mahdawi

It sees itself as one of the Middle East’s most liberal countries, but Lebanon’s lack of women politicians is conspicuous. While Lebanese women today enjoy senior positions in the private sector, political appointments have all but eluded them.

Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, yet to this day they face considerable obstacles to entering politics in a country where political dynasties and patriarchy rule.

Most Lebanese women who do go into politics do so “wearing black” – that is, filling a position made available by a deceased male relative, and for which there is no other male relative available. Two examples are Myrna Boustani, who became the first Lebanese woman in parliament upon her father’s death, and Nayla Mouawad, who joined the body after becoming a widowed first lady of Lebanon.

But even when a female politician is elected to parliament without the help of a tragedy – as Bahia Hariri was in 1992, well before the assassination of her brother Rafiq Hariri, the five-time prime minister – it still seems to be a requirement that she hail from a rich and traditionally political family. It is virtually impossible for an independent, self-made woman to enter the political arena.

Unfortunately, the issue of women’s political participation was only superficially addressed by Lebanon’s elections on Sunday. The elections, which saw a Hezbollah-led opposition defeated by the Western-backed March 14 coalition, were widely hailed as the most competitive in years. But out of 587 candidates, only 12 – or a mere 2 percent – were women.

Worse, only four of those 12 – Nayla Tueni, Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea, and Gilberte Zwein – were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member parliament. And all of them belong to political dynasties.

Lebanon’s instability has in the past helped drown out voices calling for gender equality. Over the last relatively trouble-free year, however, those voices have become louder and more persistent – most notably in a campaign to alter Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men from transferring their nationality to their husbands and children.

Beirut has also been pressured to amend discriminatory family laws and to make greater efforts to combat gender-based violence.

But during the run-up to the elections, the closest the country came to a national debate on women’s role in politics was a war of slogans. The opposition’s Free Patriotic Movement played on the well-known French saying “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Be beautiful and shut up”) with posters urging women to “Sois belle et vote” – “Be beautiful and vote.” The March 14 coalition responded with “Sois egale et vote” – “Be equal and vote.”

The parties were keen to attract women voters. But none of them explained how exactly they intended to promote women’s rights.

Women will be able to play a greater role in the governance of Lebanon only if the country’s political system moves away from its traditional sectarian system and toward a secular meritocracy. In 2005, a national commission to draft a new electoral law suggested introducing a 30 percent quota for women, but this was rejected. If the parties are serious in their calls for equality, they could impose voluntary internal quotas to ensure that a minimum number of women run in intraparty and national elections.

Lebanon has a duty to eliminate gender discrimination. Beirut amended the national constitution in 1990 to embrace the International Bill of Human Rights, paving the way for international human rights to be applied to national legislation. It might be too late for this year’s elections, but greater political participation by women could be encouraged in the 2010 municipal elections.

As long as Lebanon continues to hinder women’s rights and prevent women from entering the political process, the country cannot enjoy true democracy. Men and women alike must work to encourage the election of more women members of parliament.

Lebanese women have had the right to die as part of their country’s army for the last 18 years. They should also have the right to help formulate the laws that govern every Lebanese citizen – man or woman.

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