Archive | February, 2010

Lebanese women more likely to vote in spite of poor representation

26 Feb

Poll finds wide support for female quota
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, February 20, 2010

BEIRUT: Women in Lebanon may not seek out political leadership positions as often as men but they are potentially more likely to vote in elections, a new study has found.

Results from “The Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa Project” were released on Wednesday and Thursday to non-governmental organizations and academics, who also received training on how to use the data effectively to advocate policy change.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) carried out the study with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency as part of survey data collection in Lebanon, Morocco and Yemen.

“The general goal was to collect data on the status of women, especially in areas where there are gaps,” such as social attitudes toward policy change and women’s perceptions of themselves, said Rola Abdel-Latif, a research officer at IFES and the survey’s specialist.

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in June 2009 were widely acclaimed as the most competitive in years. Out of a total of 587 candidates, however, only 12 were women, a figure that translates into about 2 percent. Out of those 12, only four were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament. In contrast to poor political representation, the IFES/IWPR survey found women had a “slightly higher voter turnout” than men in the elections, with 80 percent saying they voted, versus 78 percent of men.

The results confirm those of a January study by the Lebanese Council of Women, which found slightly more women had gone to the ballot box than men.

“While civic engagement … is relatively limited, voting in the elections, which is a more direct form of political participation, was high for both men and women,” the survey said. It added that there was no difference in women’s participation in the elections “when looking at urban versus rural areas or when looking at voter turnout by sect.”

IFES/IWPR said improving the status of women was at the bottom of the agenda for both men and women voters, with only 13 percent of women and 8 percent of men mentioning it as one of the issues to be prioritized. Men and women both prioritized the same three factors that influence their votes: candidates who are not corrupt, services that candidates provide to their area, and candidate’s platform.

The survey also found widespread support for the adoption of a women’s political quota, Abdel-Latif said, with more than two-thirds of respondents supportive. Nevertheless, “this is in contrast to what we seen in Lebanon, where very few people actually go and vote for women,” it said.

Researchers also noted some “surprising” results, such as the fact more women (64 percent) than men (54 percent) are opposed to creating an optional civil marriage law, which would give couples the freedom to marry outside of religious establishments. “Unfortunately women are more opposed to this, even though the personal status laws in Lebanon are more against women than men,” Abdel-Latif said.

She pointed to the important role to be played by civil society organizations in raising awareness about the benefits of a civil marriage option. Currently, Lebanese can only be married by a religious authority, although Beirut does register civil marriages performed abroad.

The survey found an overwhelming majority of Lebanese, both men and women, supported reform of Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law. Lebanon’s current citizenship law allows men to pass on their nationality to non-Lebanese wives and children one year after their marriage is registered, but prohibits Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same.

The results of 82 percent of women and 73 percent of men supporting a change to the law were “pretty encouraging,” Abdel-Latif said.

Although the survey found that there was equal access to education between the genders, it also found a considerable gender gap in income. “Men who work for pay make much more money than women who work for pay,” Abdel-Latif said.

Almost six in 10 women in Lebanon make less than $500 a month, compared to 30 percent of working men.

Some 20 percent of men make more than $1,100, compared to only 7 percent of women. “There are still a lot of Lebanese women employed in traditionally feminized fields,” such as cosmetology or teaching, Abdel-Latif said.

Lebanese prisons teetering close to disaster

26 Feb

Rights group demands closure of two ‘unacceptable’ detention facilities
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BEIRUT: Lebanese prisons are crowded to almost twice their capacity and are dangerously neglected and mismanaged by the authorities, a damning report said on Tuesday.

The authoritative report, entitled, “Prisons in Lebanon: Legal and Humanitarian Concerns,” released by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (LCHR), also demanded the swift closure of two “unacceptable” detention facilities. The 108-page document, researched over a ten-month period, found that while Lebanon’s 20 prisons have an official capacity for 3,653 inmates, the real number incarcerated was 5,324.

In the notorious Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates are sardined into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.

It added that as most prisons had a capacity that did not match the minimum surface requirements stipulated in the 1977 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the “actual capacity” of Lebanese prisons was 2,714 inmates.

“Prisons are a major problem in Lebanon but it’s more a management problem than because there are too many crimes,” Wadih al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The Daily Star.

He called the prison system a “vicious circle” in which stifling living conditions led to further criminal behavior amongst incarcerated persons and thus longer sentences. “It’s getting worse and worse,” Asmar said.

“This overcrowding of Lebanese prisoners is an issue that should be addressed and solved urgently, not by building new prisons, but by tackling its roots at the administrative, legal and judicial levels,” CLDH said.

The reason for such cramped conditions is largely because 66 percent of those detained are awaiting trial and 13 percent are detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence, the report found. Foreigners count for 100 percent of those held arbitrarily after completing their sentences, with 81 percent having been convicted of illegal entry and/or stay.

“In Iraq, I had a house and a good job,” the report quoted one incarcerated refugee as saying. “The war forced me to leave my country and I am punished for it.”

CLDH said that because most of those detained arbitrarily were poor and without family support, they had to resort to “begging” within the prison.

“As I have nothing, no one to support me, and to earn a little food, I began to serve inmates in my cell. I wash the toilets and prepare tea. They call me the slave,” it quoted a Bangladeshi inmate as telling researchers.

“There are a lot of simple and very easy things that we can do in Lebanon to avoid more prisoners,” Asmar said, drawing attention to the need for an improved legal aid system to assist inmates who cannot afford lawyers. It also noted the lack of commitment by lawyers provided through current legal assistance programs. Because of a lack of incentive, they often don’t bother to meet their clients or show up for hearings.

The report also noted that despite an unofficial de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2004, 61 men and one woman were given capital punishment sentences between April and September 2009.

CLDH called for the urgent need to close the Defense Ministry Prison, notorious for widespread torture, and the General Security Retention Center, where foreigners are “held” underground for months. Not considered an official prison, the Retention Center’s poor management is the second leading cause of overcrowded prisons, the report said. The facility has no hot water and in contravention to Lebanese law, “aggressive and brutal” male guards are tasked with supervising women detainees. “We cannot accept to put people underground like animals,” Asmar said. The report calls for the facility to be closed immediately and replaced by another retention center “built and managed in compliance with international standards.”

Addressing the Defense Ministry prisons, Asmar said intelligence officials continued to torture and detain suspects. “For decades the intelligence services have appeared to be out of control, showing no respect for legal procedures.” CLDH noted that whistle-blowers are also targeted, citing the case of former detainee Adonis Akra. In November 2009, Akra was ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds for undermining the army’s reputation by detailing his experience of torture in the book, “When I Became Number 16.”

CLDH’s report corroborates conclusions reached by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, who submitted assessed Lebanon’s prisons conditions in August 2009.

Among other points, Rifi’s report warned that 280 Islamists in Roumieh are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, he said, adding the situation could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy.

“Jails in Lebanon need renewal, rehabilitation, utility and social services,” Asmar said. “The role of jails as a social rehabilitative institution is not being taken into serious consideration.” – Additional reporting by Wissam Stetie

Podcasts tell humanizing stories from the Arab world

26 Feb

Beirut-based NGO hopes to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of region
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 26, 2010

BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.

Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”

To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.

One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.

“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”

Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.

Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”

In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”

With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.

Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.

To download a podcast or submit a story, visit http://www.storiesofourcity.wordpress.com