Lebanon is facing one of its worst years since its establishment in 1920, as it deals with simultaneous financial, economic, social, and healthcare crises. It is safe to say that Lebanon has never been stable in its century of existence, amid wars, assassinations, and popular uprisings. But one thing has been constant in Lebanese politics, namely a lack of widespread female participation. There are reasons why such participation is vital for a successful and prosperous nation.
The first is that women tend to manage crises well. As leaders around the globe struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, countries governed by women appear to be handling the spread of the virus in a sounder way than those governed by men. In fact, one study has shown that Covid-19 outcomes are systematically better in countries led by females. Taking into account the multiple factors considered when evaluating a government’s response to the pandemic, the study emphasized that a leader’s gender could be a leading reason for the success of a response, given that attitudes toward risk and empathy counted just as much as clear and decisive communications. The study concluded that with regard to immediate reactions to the coronavirus by world leaders, females came out on top.
A second reason is that women, through their engagement in fighting for equal gender rights, tend to be more sensitive to human rights. Therefore, by being in public office they could improve the government’s responses on human rights issues, paving the way for greater equality in society.
Women are also aware of the systemic obstacles that have been placed in their way. Before any discussion of their participation in politics, the Lebanese must first address the fact that women’s status in society remains unsatisfactory. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to a United Nations committee reviewing Lebanon’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The report affirmed that the country had failed to make progress on recommendations in a previous review from 2015, which included implementing an integrated personal status code that guaranteed equal treatment for all citizens. Nor had it amended the discriminatory nationality law that forbids women married to a foreigner from passing on their Lebanese nationality to their children.
Because Lebanese citizens are governed by the personal status laws of their religious sect, as opposed to a unified, national personal status code applicable to everyone, the state has little control over issues pertaining to marriage, property rights, and childcare. The main victims of this situation are women. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and discrimination are among the problems many women face on a daily basis.
A third reason that female participation in politics could benefit Lebanon is that it would remove the damaging consequences of barring a large segment of the population from shaping policies that affect them. Some more conservative communities in the country frown upon women being active in the community, preferring that their role be limited to domestic work. These outdated ideas have helped to maintain inequitable laws in place. That is why appointing women to high-ranking government positions could be a first step in breaking the social stigma surrounding women in politics. By creating precedents in this regard, the society would create a new normal, one in which female participation in politics becomes mainstreamed.
In 2016, the new government established Lebanon’s first minister of state for women’s affairs. In a blatant insult to women, the minister chosen for the post was a male. However, for the first time in the Middle East, Lebanon also named a female as interior minister, when Raya al-Hassan was handed the portfolio. She promised then to use her new role to advocate for women’s rights.
However, placing women in decisionmaking positions is not enough and may only end up being empty tokenism. It is important to distinguish between guaranteeing the presence of females in politics and ensuring that qualified, progressive, and capable women take on roles involving public responsibility.
For instance Lebanese political parties are often family businesses, so that women who have made it into positions of power often inherit this from their fathers or husbands after their death. Yet this does not constitute real change to the status quo, nor is it a guarantee that competent women can make it to the top. It merely perpetuates the traditional structures of the society, whereby women enter politics only because, momentarily, there are no men to do so.
More importantly, for change to be long-lasting and profound it must be accompanied by radical changes in the law and the removal of legal obstacles that prevent women from securing their rights. In an example of the absurdity today, a woman can get a favorable ruling in a civil court if she is the victim of domestic violence, but a religious court may overrule this if it doesn’t comply with religious law. In other words the clergy can overrule the law of the land.
During the Lebanese uprising in October 2019, one of the protestors’ demands was the advancement of women’s rights. Women and men demanded amendments to Lebanon’s laws in order to protect women and put in place a secular Lebanese state. They understood that only such a state would bring about real change by implementing the same laws for everyone, regardless of whether they were males or females or the sect to which they belonged.
The road begins by creating a unified personal status code that allows for the equal treatment of men and women, to serve as a foundation for more far-reaching transformations in public life. We can only hope that a spirit of change will prevail and transform Lebanon’s political landscape. It is time to see what accomplished and talented women can do for their country in this direst of times.