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Lebanese women in politics - activism to exceed traditional representational roles

Lebanese women in politics - activism to exceed traditional representational roles

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Thursday 24 February 202207:36 pm
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مشاركة اللبنانيات في السياسة... نشاط نسوي لتجاوز الأدوار التمثيلية "التقليدية"

“They went so far as to organize and submit (partisan) petitions demanding my expulsion from the Party,” says Manal Said. This is how the campaign by the Union of Progressive Women was met by supporters of the Progressive Socialist Party when it was launched, on the occasion of the 17 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, a campaign for ending violence against women.

Manal Said defines herself as “a feminist, progressive, and secular believer in social justice to the fullest extent.” While studying in university, she was active in the Progressive Youth Organization, the youth group affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). She was missing from the political party scene for a number of years, then returned and took over the Women’s Affairs Commission in 2017.

She talks about feminist work within the party with the passion of one who wages battles on a daily basis for a cause she sees as fundamental and existential. After taking over the dossier on women’s affairs in the party, Manal, along with a working group, prepared a strategy that aims to establish a 33% quota for women’s representation in all party positions and electoral candidacies, and also to spread feminist discourse and raise awareness on women’s issues among the party’s supporters and the environment that embraces it.

This is where the confrontation began. A campaign against her emerged accusing her of acting in self-interest and for individual ambition. “It is as if women do not have the right to any political ambition or aspirations, and their role is limited to serve as means to uplift men, striving, working, and establishing electoral tools and processes so that men alone would be at the forefront,” she tells Raseef22.

Hated until she was blessed by the leader

The Progressive Socialist Party’s representation in power has been historically limited to men, as it has never had a single female candidate for Parliament, or a female minister representing the party in successive governments. Additionally, the position of party leader has been strictly earmarked for the “male” heirs of Kamal Jumblatt, the founder of the Party.

Women are even absent from secondary leadership positions, such as commissioners, as well as provincial and district officials, except in very small numbers. The only exception to this was when some progress was made by women in the last party leadership council elections in 2017, when four women out of 15 elected members succeeded for the first time when they obtained a large number of votes.

Despite this, Manal believes that this reality can be changed from within the party ranks itself. She believes that her work is consistent with the progressive ideology of the party, and asserts that she isn’t importing any Western ideas as some party supporters have accused her of doing.

She directly associates the absence of women from decision-making positions of authority in the party with the civil war and its aftermath, as the role of women during the fighting was limited to social and health work, and “the war ended and peace came, and the role mandated to women remained strictly a social one, and not political.” She also spoke of other obstacles like how “the political party is a product of its environment, and its supporters are part of a patriarchal male-dominated society.”

Manal Said associates the absence of women from decision-making positions in the Party with the civil war and its aftermath, as the role of women during the fighting was limited to social and health work.

Manal and her female colleagues encountered this clash between the political policies and principles adopted by the party on the one hand, and when applying and operating at the societal and grassroots level on the other, following their advocacy campaign in January 2021. According to Manal, what provoked the people who launched the campaign against them the most, was women daring to raise the issue of marital rape, even though the party “supports the law criminalizing marital rape.”

She recalls how both private and public social media sites and party political circles were littered with offensive campaigns, incitement, and unprecedented smear campaigns in the party’s history. She comments, “Political violence is only practiced against women. Never in the party’s history have we witnessed such a fierce internal campaign being carried out against a man.”

In a comment written by one such agitator on Facebook, he accused the campaign’s women of moral degradation, and demanded that the “leader” Walid Jumblatt, the head of the party, “remove and dismiss everyone associated with this decadence, and the immorality they are spreading on every level, and also pay heed to those responsible of giving them authority.”

This comment represents a miniature example of the type and extent of reactions that the campaign and its leaders faced, especially Manal, given her head position in the Women’s Affairs Commission. The comment draws attention to many problems, the most important of which is associating women’s work within the political party to the leader allowing them to occupy positions, as well as considering him directly responsible for their actions.

At the same time, some accused Manal of contributing to the increased divorce rate within the Druze community, and described her in the very same terms that are always used to silence women, such as “domineering”, “man-hating”, and a “promoter of Western ideas”.

In the end, Walid Jumblatt issued a statement in which he supported the women of the party in the face of what he called “narrow minds”. Again, the women were in need of the cover and protection of the ‘chief leader’, to legitimize their struggle within the party. Thus, the margin of freedom that women may enjoy remains contingent on the political decision embodied by the “chief leader” himself.

No men standing behind them

“A woman’s honor is not between the legs, it is in the head — something you do not have”. This was the famous response of Paula Yacoubian, a resigned member of the Lebanese Parliament, to the former Minister of the Displaced, Ghassan Atallah, after he accused her on air of “using unethical ways” to reach Parliament.

Atallah’s accusation, which was not based on any sort of evidence or foundations, was not the first of its kind against Yacoubian, whether on live television, or in the closed and public meetings of Parliament.

The resigned female MP, who is the first representative of a political alliance opposed to the ruling parties to reach parliament, became known for her stern responses to misogynistic statements and accusations.

The arena for confrontation is different between Paula and Manal, but the experience and its details are similar.

“In the history of political action in Lebanon, even the days of war, no one has ever been subjected to attacks pertaining to the details of his/her personal life as what had happened to me,” Yacoubian tells Raseef22. She recounts in detail a number of incidents where she was subjected to misogynistic comments and attacks during her political career, such as the time when the representative of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, MP Ali Ammar, addressed her during one of the parliament sessions by saying: “You are rayhanah (fragrant plant) and not amber.” She replied that she was not some flower or herb, and said, “I am talking to you in politics. Respond with politics.”

In another incident, during a television interview, MP Hikmat Dib, a representative of the Strong Lebanon Bloc, commented that she “wasn’t pretty when she gets angry”, in an attempt to downplay the importance of the political content she was providing. According to Yacoubian, she rarely receives responses that are related to the political content at hand and the issues that she’s addressing. The face-off always ends up being focused on her outward appearance, the way she speaks, and her personal life. For her part, she refuses to be lenient when it comes to this matter, deliberately being strict and tough in her responses and in bringing the discussion back on track, especially on issues related to gender discrimination.

In the parliament, all relationship dynamics go through its leader, Nabih Berri. According to Yacoubian, he leads the council like “the leader of an orchestra,” the deputies are like “students at a teacher’s school”, and having a good relationship with him would make life easier in this “representative class”.

Yacoubian says that Berri didn’t know how to deal with her at first, as he isn’t used to meeting female MPs with “no men standing behind them”. She indicates that he used the approach of inclusion at times, the approach of ignoring them at other times, and appeasement in exceptional cases, especially after the October 17 Uprising in 2019.

The Lebanese Parliament is still closed to women and their ideas or proposals, and this fact is evident in the laws it passes. Even the women who are affiliated with the Amal Movement, President Berri’s party, are confronted with this reality. In October 2021, Amal Representative Inaya Ezzeddine withdrew from a joint parliamentary committee meeting, after her proposal for a women’s quota was ignored and wasn’t even allowed to be put up for discussion.

At the time, Ezzeddine stated that the Prime Minister said that they “have a place for women in their hearts.” She said, “I like to say to all the women in the political parties that the issue of supporting women and their participation is only an empty label for them, and I do not think that they have any real conviction in the issue.”

The FiftyFifty NGO, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, has completed a proposed quota law for women that falls in line with the current electoral law. It stipulates that a 20% female quota must be elected to parliament, and a 40% female quota to run on electoral lists. Ezzeddine adopted the proposal, but was not able to have them discuss it for more than two minutes, even though she is part of a strong and weighty parliamentary bloc.

Supporters of the legacy – Just

It is not surprising that women have no real ability to influence parliament. This space has historically been an exclusive domain for men, with the exception of a few cases of female representation that were often associated with political inheritance.

Lebanese women gained their right to vote and to run for office in 1953. Myrna Bustani was the first woman to enter the parliamentary symposium in 1962, opening with her arrival a framework that marked women’s path in Parliament to this day, with the exception of a few cases.

Bustani was elected by acclamation to succeed her deceased father, MP Emile Bustani, meaning that her reaching the House of Representatives was linked to her blood relationship with a male politician. This was roughly the case for most women arriving in Parliament.

Yacoubian says that she is considered “one of a few exceptional cases”, as she does not come “from a political or wealthy family”, nor is she supported by any political leader who would confer “traditional legitimacy” on her political career.

Of the 15 women who have ever entered Lebanon’s parliament, only four were not elected on behalf of the “men in the family”. In addition, women often occupy the position until the first male heir, often a son, is ready, as was the case with Solange Gemayel, or Nayla Mouawad.

Of the 15 women who have ever entered Lebanon’s parliament, only four were not elected on behalf of the “men in the family”, occupying the seat until a male heir could claim it.

The relations of a political position with family and blood ties are closely tied to personal status laws, and their impact on the position of women in society, and subsequently in politics. Although Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on April 21, 1997, it had reservations about the paragraphs regarding personal status laws and equality when it comes to granting nationality, which stripped the convention of some of its most important contents.

The subjection of personal status laws to the authority of religious courts makes it imperative for women to remain within male-dominated patriarchal, family, and religious structures. It also, in its deeply entrenched patriarchal character, establishes the family as a basic unit for organizing the political community, and consequently these laws establish the position of the man as the head of the family. They transfer the same structure from the family to the ruling government and public positions, and legalize the classification of women as second-class citizens. Therefore, the foundations of women’s position in the political sphere are distorted and unjust, as long as their inferiority is entrenched within laws.

In this context, in October 2018, Yacoubian submitted a proposal to amend a law aimed at lifting Lebanon’s reservations regarding the CEDAW agreement. On that day, Future Movement MP Rola Tabsh sprung up in her face, declaring, “I do not accept this equality”. With a cunning and traditional move, the patriarchal authority pitted women against each other, and the human rights issue became the subject of controversy even among the members of the same oppressed group.

Feminists, not female faces

Tabsh is not the first woman in a decision-making position to clearly stand up against fundamental demands for achieving gender equality. At an earlier stage, former MP Gilberte Zwein stood against demands by feminist human rights organizations for a law to protect women from domestic violence. She did not even object, from her position in the joint parliamentary committee, to making fundamental amendments that distorted the law and produced a text that did not align with the aspirations of activists in the field.

This battle was central to getting Zoya Jureidini to run in the former parliamentary elections for the Chouf and Aley districts. Jureidini, who has headed the “KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation” organization since 2005, decided to move on to political work and representation, after having worked on trying to pass the domestic violence law.

“We faced great difficulties introducing the law, and we have directly experienced how the authority handles women’s issues and its way of imposing settlements on issues of basic human rights,” she tells Raseef22. From here, she and her colleagues realized the difficulty of extracting women’s rights under the existing parliamentary structure, and decided to fight the battle by nominating her for candidacy. “We do not only need to see female faces in decision-making positions, but we also want women who carry feminist discourse and demands, women who fight for this,” she adds.

According to the World Economic Forum report, Lebanon ranked 112 out of 155 on the “Women’s Political Empowerment” indicator in 2021, marking a remarkable progress compared to previous years (147 in 2018).

The impact of the formation of Hassan Diab’s government in January 2020, after the resignation of Saad Hariri and his government following the public pressure that resulted from the October 17 Uprising, cannot be overlooked when it comes to the aforementioned progress. For the first time, Diab’s government included six women ministers (30%), including the minister of defense, making Zeina Akar the first female defense minister in the Arab world.

“The subjection of personal status laws to the authority of religious courts forces women to remain within male-dominated patriarchal, family, and religious structures. It establishes the family as a basic unit for organizing the political community”

But this encouraging picture on the surface did not reflect positively on women’s actual reality, especially in light of the unprecedented economic crisis that Lebanon is witnessing, as women have not achieved any significant gains, whether be it in political representation, or in daily life issues.

Soon, Diab’s government fell in the aftereffects of the Beirut port explosion that rocked the country on August 4, 2020, and a new government headed by Najib Mikati was formed. The new government included only one woman, returning the “encouraging” picture back to the way it was.

Who are you to have an opinion?

Ever since she was a political science student at the Lebanese University in the late 1990s, Halimé El Kaakour has dreamed of being a member of a political party. She attended preliminary meetings, browsed the internal bylaws of most political parties, but never found a place for her in any of the options available at the time. Instead, she replaced this with volunteering in non-governmental organizations on the one hand, and personal political education as well as progressing academically in the fields of international relations and human rights on the other.

Kaakour remained on the margins of political action until 2015 — with the popular movement that broke out to protest against the garbage and waste crisis, but then turned into a widespread protest against the country’s general situation, known at the time as the “You Stink” movement — with the emergence of a secular political movement that represents her. Here, her actual political career began, and with it began the challenges exclusively related to her gender.

When the “Women in Front (Nissa'a Ra'idat)” organization that works to shed light on the experiences of pioneering women in their fields, put her name forward to run for the 2018 parliamentary elections, she says she was not ready to fight the battle, “neither financially, family-wise, nor politically”.

She stresses the importance of the economic challenge that is faced by women who are not supported by businessmen or traditional politicians and capital owners. She also stresses the negative family and political influences that affect women's opportunities. Even the village that a woman comes from may stand as an obstacle to her acceptance by people, especially since in the Kaakour constituency, and specifically for the Sunni seat in Chouf, it is customary for a man from the village of Shhiim (also Chehim) to run for office, as well as another man from Barja. Here, when she proposed her name — she, who hails from the small village of Baasir, who is unmarried, and does not belong to a political family — she was attacked, because she “does not align with the traditional roles assigned for women.”

In the same context, Halimé recalls one of her interviews on the “Kalam Ennas” tv program, a weekly political tv show. They asked her about her ownership of a “chalet” by the sea. “No one would dare question a man in his forties about the source of his ownership of a normal apartment. Rather, it is seen as something that is normal and self-evident,” she tells Raseef22.

The dream of joining a political party accompanied Kaakour until she and a group of individuals founded the LNA party, a social democratic party that was founded by a group of activists following the October 17 Uprising.

Zeina el-Helou, one of Halimé’s colleagues in the party, shared her dream and sorrow over the absence of a political framework that represented her. But in contrast, Zeina had a previous partisan experience that only “lasted for 15 minutes,” as she tells Raseef22.

At the beginning of the nineties, Zeina was influenced by Michel Aoun’s leadership figure following his exile to France, and was constantly listening to cassettes of his speeches. In his speech, she saw a platform for the return to a real state, after she had grown up amidst the rule of militias in the war. This interest continued to accompany her until she decided to join the Free Patriotic Movement. In her first year of university, she attended a preparatory meeting for new students, and there she heard another recording of Michel Aoun. this was in 1996, after the April war that Israel launched against Lebanon, which Aoun did not even mention in his recording. Zeina, a southern Christian woman who has been greatly affected by the war and the occupation, asked the young man in charge there, and he replied that it was not important and not a priority. When she disagreed with him, he said to her, “Who even are you to have an opinion?” Zeina has never forgotten this incident, and says that it has imprinted on her mind and political conscience. She’s sure that he would never say such a thing to a man. This is how her first partisan experience ended only 15 minutes after it began.

The mentality of this young man continued to be ever present everywhere she went in her political career. In every experience, there were those who undervalue the importance of her opinion just because she’s a woman in a space ruled by men. Today, she is in her forties, married and the mother of three daughters, and the parameters of her experience have become very different.

She also experienced structural discrimination in the professional field, when a man was once chosen for a promotion at her expense simply because of gender. In her opinion, a woman is deified and held sacred in society as long as she adheres to her traditional position at home, in motherhood, and even in non-leading positions in the professional hierarchy, but the moment she crosses these lines, her demonization begins.

She faced similar challenges after assuming the position of General Secretary of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a non-governmental association concerned with monitoring elections and working on electoral reform. The fact that she is a woman was reason for celebration and pride at the start of her assignment, but it soon turned into a nightmare after she refused “to submit to the attempts of influence and domination by some men in the organization.”

Zeina and Halimé see in the experience of founding a new party, in which they placed a gender approach within its foundations, as an opportunity to create a safe political space that meets their aspirations. The experience is still in its infancy, and even the men among the party members still need some guidance to completely get rid of the remnants of the male-dominated patriarchal society, but for them, the step at least provided a space for criticism, review, and collective building based on gender-just foundations.

Are women hostages?

Zeina correlates her ability for political action and maneuvering with her economically solid position, and having the asset of her own independent decision-making at home. This was not achieved without any challenges and confrontations, she explains. She believes that her freedom was not the result of a societal change of traditional roles, but rather her individual ability to secure a home helper. She transferred her tasks within the family to another woman. This adds yet another additional dimension to the levels of discrimination, as the emancipation of some women remains conditional on a system that guarantees the economic oppression of other women through various tools, including the Kafala sponsorship system, according to Zeina.

From this point of view, feminist activist Ghina Al-Andary believes that improving the status of women in public affairs depends on changing the political system from its foundation. For her, improving the balance of power within the rules of this unfair game within the system did not bring direct benefits or radical changes to women. However, she does not deny the importance of small gains and the accumulation of previous successes that have been achieved through the power of women’s struggle outside “partisan” political frameworks, and most of them were the result of work carried out by organizations that do not carry a political label in the direct or traditional sense.

Feminists, in her view, have always been active in politics even when women were completely absent from decision-making positions. She tells Raseef22 that “the feminist struggle outside representative institutions succeeded in highlighting certain files and issues, and in building a supportive public opinion, particularly on the issues of violence against women, harassment and the Unified Personal Status Law.”

Prior to the October 17 Uprising, Ghina was only active within feminist frameworks (non-governmental organizations and groups composed of feminist activists). At that time, politics in its broader framework — that is, the political organization that deals with all political issues, including women’s issues — was not available in a way that satisfies her.

Things changed after the uprising, political action became much more available, and women’s issues gained wider ground after being somewhat generalized in the rhetoric of emerging groups. On the other hand, Al-Andary believes that adopting women's human rights demands does not mean the existence of safe and just spaces through which women can be politically active, as “wherever women are, they will face silencing, an approach of superiority, and repeated commanding attitudes from men.”

All these feminist activists have agreed that October 17 was a turning point in both their political experiences and their political position. But Ghina delved into more than the elation of participation and the encouraging image of women taking the lead in demonstrations, movements, and activism. She says that the transition from the moment of confrontation and revolution to the spaces of political organization and closed meetings, where planning and cumulative work bring men back to their acquired positions, reveals the deep gap between the sexes. She cites images from meetings she’s attended, where men generally take up dominant spaces even in the way they naturally sit, as well as in their voice, their motions, and their movements. On the other hand, women are often a numerical minority, and their position is fictive, while authority and decision remain in the hands of men.

Many battles... one marginalization

“They called the list of ‘student’ at the Saint Joseph University (USJ) the list of women and gays,” says Verena El-Amil, an activist in Mada Network — a youth political network that includes secular clubs in universities, regions, and unions — while speaking to Raseef22 about one of the student-led political work stations. The candidates on student lists in the academic year 2021/2022, the majority of whom were women, were used by the parties in power to fight and discredit them.

However, Verena points out that with the success of secular and independent student clubs, and their accumulation of work for years, this strategy is no longer useful. The parties instead then turned towards adopting the candidacy of women and more moderate figures.

In her opinion, the university workspace is somewhat easier to confront, because the impact is direct and clear, and students are more receptive to progressive ideas and proposals. The biggest challenge remains in moving from the student experience to the broader political space where choices are fewer and the size of women’s confrontation increases.

On the outside, men still largely hold the keys to political organizations and influence, even in opposition and alternative spaces. Verena believes that the solution is through being aware of the existing reality, through effectively confronting the dregs of male-dominated thinking, and through the solidarity of women to fight common battles together.

This issue does not stop at political parties. Union guilds, too, are still a fortified male den that men have a strong hold on. A quick tour of the union councils and their members is enough to clarify this picture. According to the United Nations Development Program UNDP and the Central Administration of Statistics, women make up 52.6% of the workforce in Lebanon, while their presence and active engagement in the labor market remains less than 30%. Working women are not treated equally to men, and are marginalized in workers’ bodies.

In the battle she fought in the name of the Alternative Press Syndicate ASP through her candidacy for membership in the Lebanese Press Editors Syndicate, Elissar Kobeissi faced a mix of men who had dominated the syndicate for years. She was not the only candidate, and her battle, by nature, had more to do with union and labor above all, but the symbolism of her fighting the battle alone gave her a certain gender specificity.

Just like what had happened with the list of students, an e-mail to the press syndicate described them as “the queer gays of the left”, making gender identity and sexuality identity once again an object of insult in the eyes of some.

The Press Editors Syndicate, like other labor bodies in Lebanon, has never seen the election of a female syndicate member. In it, women always occupy secondary positions. Elissar recalls election day when they asked her to stand for a commemorative photo of the female candidates, “Women warring in politics lined up together, like a beautiful image on the sidelines of their serious political battle.”

Today, some women are preparing to fight the upcoming parliamentary elections in May 2022, either in candidacy or in organization. Although October 17 stood as a positive milestone for many women active in public affairs, the nature of the battle today is still governed by the same discriminatory laws and the same rules of the game that is governed by a male-dominated patriarchal system of leadership par excellence.

However, it is clear that women, with the diversity of their battles, are present on different frontlines of confrontation: whether representative and revolutionary, parliamentary, student-led, and syndical, or in the traditional partisan and the emerging opposition. This is the ground on which many women depend to reach not only equal representation, but also a just political system. 

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