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Women in Lebanon: How election dashed their political hopes

Despite minor electoral gains, women in Lebanon often don’t have the same rights as men
Women demonstrate in Beirut on 11 March 2018, to mark International Women's Day (AFP)

In the weeks leading up to Lebanon’s 6 May elections - the first for nine years - much was made of the important role women were supposedly going to play.

The numbers were striking: a country where only four women were MPs out of the 128 seats, 86 female candidates were standing for office, an increase of 74 from 2009 when just 12 women ran for parliament.

'People are not ready to relinquish their sectarian affiliations'

- Myriam Sfeir, academic

What’s more, the vast majority of them were running outside of the traditional party system, as independent candidates. For many commentators, this surge in women’s participation was a token for change.

In the end, however, just six made it to parliament.

According to Myriam Sfeir, associate director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, the traditional political system’s hold over the country was just too strong.

“People are not ready to relinquish their sectarian affiliations,” she said.

Battle lost before it began

In some ways the battle for greater female participation was lost before the election even began.

In 2017, politicians wrangled for weeks over a new law on how to hold elections, resulting in legislation so complex that Prime Minister Saad Hariri blamed it for the poor voter turnout. 

And while the new law attempted to be all things to all men, it noticeably fell short in one key aspect: adding a quota for women in parliament.

At the time, Hariri’s Future Movement was a loud voice backing the introduction of a quota to ensure 30 percent female participation in parliament.

Yet the initiative hit fierce resistance from other parties, and the idea was quickly scrapped.

But many refuse to be deterred. The women’s ministry, in partnership with the United Nations and European Union, subsequently ran a campaign ahead of the election promoting parity between the sexes.

Women queue to vote in Beirut on 6 May 2018 (Reuters)
Across Lebanon the slogan “Half the population, half the parliament” was displayed on billboards, television and social media. In Lebanon’s new parliament, however, just 4.7 percent of its MPs are women.

Many blame Lebanon’s new electoral law, which is a mix of proportional list voting - which should have encouraged non-traditional candidates, like women - undermined by a preferential vote, whereby the voter chooses their favourite personality on the list to give that candidate priority over others.

As a result, said Ammar Abboud, an expert in electoral law and member of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, hopes that a greater number of candidates would translate into a greater number of MPs were misplaced.

“With the preferential vote, members of the same list find themselves competing against each other. To minimise their losses, some candidates put women on their lists precisely because they were less likely to get preferential votes,” Abboud said.

Traditional parties, traditional candidates

Despite many women running as independents, it appears that candidates are far more likely to be successful if they are part of the traditional, sectarian-based political party system.

Half of Lebanon’s women MPs are members of Hariri’s majority-Sunni Future Movement, one of the more vocal backers of female participation.

“People are thirsty for change," Hariri said in February, ahead of the polls. "I can tell you that the lists of the Future Movement elections will include a special representation of youth and women."

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri with his aunt, politician Bahia Hariri, in Beirut on in November 2017 (AFP)
And while the election of lawyer Rola Tabsh Jaroudi - who promised to defend women’s rights in parliament and raise the issue of women not being able to pass on their nationality to their children - can be seen as significant progress for female representation, other names hint at a reliance on established family names.

In the southern city of Saida, Bahia Hariri, 65, won a fifth mandate. An MP since 1992, she is the sister of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri and aunt to the current prime minister. She also runs a vast network of charities in her hometown of Saida, which are traditionally used by Lebanon’s political class as a source of patronage.

Also running with the Future Movement was Dima Rachid Jamali, who won a seat in the northern city of Tripoli. Although the university professor was elected for the first time, she has political family connections: her father was the mayor of Tripoli.

Meanwhile in northern Lebanon’s Bcharre, Strida Geagea won a seat for the third time. She is the wife of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and led his militia-turned-political party between 1994 and 2005 while he was in prison. She is a strong player in the conservative Christian scene.

Inroads still made

Yet there is reason for optimism, with successful candidates breaking new ground. In the southern district of Sour-Zahrani, pathologist Inaya Ezzeddine, 57, won a seat with the Hezbollah-Amal coalition.

Inaya Ezzeddine won a seat with the Hezbollah-Amal coalition (AFP)
Although she is a minister of state for administrative development, Ezzeddine's subsequent rise to parliament is nonetheless significant: she is the southern city's first female representative, and her Amal Movement had never put a woman on its lists before.

Hezbollah, Amal’s ally, notably refused to field a single female candidate.

As for the raft of independent and outsider candidates, only Paula Yacoubian won a seat. The prominent TV journalist, who was the longtime host of a show on Saad Hariri’s own Future TV, gained further notoriety when she interviewed the prime minister at the height of his resignation crisis in November 2017.

Amid suspicions Hariri had been forced to resign by the Saudis, Yacoubian asked the premier blunt questions about his freedom in an often awkward exchange.

Having won a seat in Beirut on the Kollouna Watani slate of civil society candidates, Yacoubian is the only political outsider to have broken the traditional figures’ hegemony over parliament.

Chances missed

But others were not so fortunate. Joummana Haddad, a writer and activist standing for Kollouna Watani in Beirut, was projected to win a seat along with Yacoubian - only to lose out, with officials citing a technical issue. The strangeness of the situation has raised suspicions of foul play.

Haddad said: “I appointed a lawyer and we will appeal for the seat in front of the constitutional council.

I have a big mouth, I am not someone who compromises. I am not going to back down

- Joummana Haddad, election candidate

“We sent a letter asking the interior ministry for all reports from the voting polls and the place where the ballots were then counted. We also gathered reports from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections on violations that took place in the district where I was running.”

Disappointingly for many supporters of women candidates and political outsiders, Haddad’s seat was then awarded to a candidate from President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, one of Lebanon’s major political parties.

“They did this to us because the [FPM] needed an extra seat and stealing it from the civil society was the easiest option. We don’t have the means to protect ourselves like the other parties,” Haddad said.

Were she to be successful in her appeal, the Lebanese parliament would gain another woman and a loud voice.

“I have a big mouth, I am not someone who compromises,” she said. “I am not going to back down. I need to understand what happened.”

How to blunt the patriarchy?

In the end, Lebanon is intrinsically a patriarchal society. In the absence of a civil code, personal status and family law fall under the responsibility of religious institutions.

Women at a Hezbollah rally in Khiam, southern Lebanon, in August 2017 (Reuters)
How to regulate marriage, divorce, child custody or inheritance are all left to religious bodies which run the country's 18 officially recognised sects. As a result, women often don’t have the same rights as men.

Rima Tarabay, a Lebanese activist who tried to set up an all-female list for the 2009 elections, said the elections were a missed opportunity for women, as many candidates shied away from such topics fearing it would drive voters away.

“There are topics that are an essential part of women’s rights that candidates are still not touching upon, such as abortion or the possibility of living as a couple without being married,” she told MEE. “There is still a lot of work to do.”

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