On International Women’s Day last March 8, the BBC featured two female members of the Lebanese Air Force undergoing pilot training for the first time. Given the significance of the event, the Lebanese armed forces released a short video showing the growing presence of women within their ranks.
The armed forces have witnessed a significant increase in female enrollment since the appointment of General Joseph Aoun as commander in March 2017. In comments to the BBC, Aoun noted that expanding the role of women was one of his “top priorities,” with the ultimate goal being to involve women in combat. A broad mix of units—including Land Border regiments and the Republican Guard Brigade—have increasingly integrated women into their ranks.
While this rise in the number of women, and the tasks they have fulfilled, is commendable, many questions still remain unanswered. In particular, it is unclear what are the underlying assumptions and strategy that are shaping and driving the armed forces’ push toward gender mainstreaming.
With the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the government announced its first call for women to join the military as privates across the armed forces. This included the military academy, the logistics brigade, and military police. In 1989 and 1991, Lebanon issued Ministerial Resolution (MR) 376 and 839, respectively, which laid out the provisions for female enrollment in the armed forces. For instance, Article 2 of MR 839/91 set a 10 percent quota for women volunteers across the Ministry of Defense’s departments. Article 3 limited women’s positions to noncombat units and Article 4 ensured the same training for male and female soldiers.
By the end of the 1990s the armed forces had succeeded in enrolling specialized females as privates and noncommissioned officers, who were then commissioned and promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Nevertheless, the number of female officers remained low compared to the number of active military personnel. Up until 2017, the armed forces had only around 1,000 females out of some 70,000 military personnel, a total figure estimated by John Knudsen and Tine Gade in a chapter for a book on civil-military relations in Lebanon.
The women initially took on administrative positions, before branching out into key units such as the military police. For example, female personnel were deployed to high-risk areas such as the Wadi Hmeid checkpoint in Arsal, one of the military’s most dangerous deployments, which was attacked by the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in 2014. Women were also stationed in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where fighting took place in 2007 between the armed forces and the Fatah al-Islam group. They helped in searching for and investigating female suspects.
Female enrollment has increased significantly in the past two years, accounting for 3,000 members of the total force in 2018—including three generals (spread among medical and administrative departments) and seventeen colonels. On September 14, 2018, about 1,650 female privates celebrated the completion of their training, the largest batch of female graduates since the war’s end. By March 2019 the mumbers of females had risen to some 4,000, according to military sources speaking at the Carnegie Middle East Center, and they were being deployed in critical mission areas.
While all of this progress is to be lauded, the scale and scope of women’s roles in the armed forces have been defined by decisions of the defense minister, not by laws or decrees passed by the council of ministers and parliament. The current decisions, which are three decades old, can be revoked by any future minister without the approval of the council of ministers. The Lebanese government and parliament have yet to pass official laws or decrees governing the enrollment of women in the armed forces, which would anchor the gains that have already been achieved. At the organizational level, the military command does not have gender-specific policies and administrative structures in place to accommodate female soldiers’ needs and enable them to fulfill their professional potential.
Beyond the structures that should govern the roles played by women in the armed forces, gender equality remains a key challenge. Lebanon does have Gender Focal Points, namely individuals appointed by the country’s National Commission for Lebanese Women throughout government agencies to address gender issues. Much as in other ministries, the Gender Focal Point at the Ministry of Defense plays a limited consultative role and lacks the authority to support and enhance gender mainstreaming within the military. By contrast, the Jordanian armed forces’ Directorate of Women’s Affairs remains a driving force behind women’s advancement.
If current and future gender mainstreaming policies are to escape the whims of individual champions or spoilers, the government and Ministry of Defense need to put in place a coherent strategy to reconcile the legal, structural, and logistical conditions that would govern effective female integration into the armed forces. In this way a solid foundation would be created for female enrollment in the armed forces, so that such a policy is not implemented for a limited period of time, then abandoned later on.
Both a governing framework and the armed forces gender mainstreaming strategy should be made accessible to the general public and not classified as sensitive national security documents. Such steps are essential if future female recruits are to properly understand the breadth and potential of military service, and if the Lebanese armed forces are to guarantee the professional utility, development, and success of its female military personnel.