When popular anger at the unmanaged decline of the Lebanese economy sparked antigovernment protests in 2019, female soldiers were said to have been critical in fostering an atmosphere of dialogue and deescalation. Similarly, after a devastating explosion at Beirut Port in August 2020, which sent shockwaves through Lebanon’s already imperiled political and economic system, the Lebanese Armed Forces were called upon to maintain order in the streets and distribute humanitarian aid.
More generally, according to Jumana Zabaneh of United Nations Women, the presence of female personnel has had a dramatic impact on maintaining trust with the people, and lowering the risk of sexual harassment of vulnerable women. “The more women you have in the army, the more responsive, inclusive, and gender sensitive it becomes as an institution,” she explained. “We have seen that recently in Lebanon.”
Since 2017, the armed forces have embarked on a sweeping drive to recruit, integrate, and advance women within its ranks, which has been sustained despite Lebanon’s multivalent crisis. Female representation within the armed forces has increased from 1 percent in 2017 to 5.5 percent by the end of 2021, in a force of roughly 75,000 personnel.
These efforts will culminate this summer when the 2022 class graduates from the War College, the armed forces’ officer academy. Alongside the long-mandated even split between Christian and Muslim cadets, the current cohort is nearly gender-balanced, comprised of 53 males and 47 females. Of these 47 women, the overwhelming majority will be allocated to combat and combat support roles, including in infantry, armor, artillery, air force, and naval units. As they acquire leadership experience on the frontlines, which will in turn unlock incremental command appointments over the coming 30 years, these women have the potential to effect major strategic transformation from within Lebanon’s military.
One of the four main drivers of this effort is the personal commitment of the armed forces’ commander, General Joseph Aoun, who was appointed in 2017 to what is typically a six-year term. He told our research team, “[T]here is no doubt that female personnel have enriched the [armed forces] with their capabilities. There is similarly no doubt that this is the right way to improve the organization. Female [military] personnel have proven time and time again to be as competent, or even more competent, than their male counterparts.”
Colonel Marwa Saoud, who leads the armed forces’ Gender Department, observed that “General Aoun is a believer not only in fundamental equality between men and women, but also in the important role that women can play in [the military] to secure its future.” A male commander noted that Aoun had normalized the idea of integrating women, but also the idea of being a male champion for the integration of women. Consequently, in interviews by our research team, military personnel repeatedly described a critical mass of advocates for gender mainstreaming at the top levels of the organization, thereby changing its culture.
Also, in 2017 Lebanon began developing its first National Action Plan (NAP) to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace, and Security. NAP, which was launched in 2019, explicitly set a target for Lebanon’s defense sector to increase women’s participation by 1 percent annually, along with recommendations for gender mainstreaming into senior roles, infrastructure modifications, and metrics for annual reporting, as well as detailing measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. In response to NAP requirements, the armed forces formed a Gender Steering Committee to coordinate its policies, which transitioned into the formally established Gender Department in December 2021, thus representing an important marker for the institutionalization of gender mainstreaming.
Brigadier General Youssef Haddad, head of the armed forces’ Border Control Commission and a champion of integrating women, identified as critical the intersection between the energy surrounding NAP nationally, the military’s commitment to the advancement of women strategically, and emerging evidence of the value of women for frontline units operationally.
Indeed, a third driver of armed forces’ gender efforts is recent operational experience, revealing the impact of including women in frontline roles. For example, Lebanon’s fight against terrorists occupying areas of its eastern border with Syria from 2014 to 2017, and subsequent tensions, meant that noncommissioned female personnel were required to take on frontline roles, playing a key part in civil military cooperation among border communities, conducting sensitive body searches of females at checkpoints, and collecting important operational information and intelligence in the process.
While commander of First Land Border Regiment in 2019, Haddad was one of the first commanders to deploy female personnel in frontline operations. He described them as “force multiplier” who delivered improved outcomes, displayed more rounded decisionmaking, and ensured the unit received less pushback from the community.
Finally, a landmark ministerial resolution in June 2021 officially opened the door for Lebanese women to serve in direct combat and combat support roles. Signed into law by the Arab world’s first female defense minister, Zeina Akar, Resolution No. 516 empowered the armed forces’ commander to decide all matters related to the recruitment and employment of women, including which positions and specializations to which they had access.
The desire for change at the most senior levels of the armed forces has sometimes outrun the capacity to implement it, in areas ranging from infrastructure such as female barracks to mechanisms for reporting abuse. There is some distance to go to embed structures and processes that will outlast the military institution’s leading personalities. All the while, Lebanon’s economic turmoil threatens to arrest much of the progress made, not least due to the ongoing pause on further recruitment.
However, it will be difficult to dislodge the sincere commitment to advance women among the current crop of senior commanders who have been empowered by General Joseph Aoun and the NAP, and who have witnessed first-hand the game-changing effects of integrating female personnel. By Haddad’s estimates, the military will have its first female platoon leader in 2023 and, in 25 years the first female general should be drawn from a combat unit. “By 2050, who knows,” he says. “Maybe it’s the first female commander in chief.”