Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors
BEIRUT: “I act peacefully. I do not back down, but I am very peaceful in my approach, because I believe that in peace, we can do everything,” activist Hayat Arslan said. It’s an attitude that has served Arslan throughout her life, whether dealing with family, friends or work. The women’s rights advocate is now famed for her extensive work in the field, but it’s only thanks to her persevering attitude that she has managed to step out of the more traditional role of wife and mother.
The key, Arslan says, is to use words rather than fists.
Married into a prominent and wealthy Druze family, Arslan nevertheless maintains her humility and simplicity. Clad in an elegant suit and wearing only minimal makeup, the 66-year-old told The Daily Star about her evolution from someone living a sheltered life to an influential activist who has set up organizations to help other women.
Arslan hails from the mountainous Chouf – a background reflected in her choice of apartment in Beirut, with its scenic balcony view of Mount Lebanon – and grew up with what she describes as very conservative, but reasonable parents.
While there were limitations on her going out and the way she dressed, she felt her mother and father never differentiated between their sons and daughters with respect to opportunities.
Her family was “comfortable economically,” and although this contributed to their open-mindedness in comparison with other families in her Druze community, it also prevented her from interacting with those who lived with less or facing issues such as women’s rights.
At the age of 20, she married Druze Emir Faysal Arslan. A prominent leader, her husband was the son of Emir Majid Arslan, one of the figures involved in Mount Lebanon’s initial formation as an independent state in 1922, and the brother of MP Talal Arslan.
It was then that she realized that not everyone was as well off and that many people needed help.
“The Arslan home was open to everyone who wanted to come in and issue complaints and all those things, and I was very shocked,” she explained. “All sorts of things I could not take in at first, and then I found out that this is the way the world worked.”
But her passion for activism and politics did not happen overnight. When she got married, she did not have an academic degree yet and later quit her law degree at the Lebanese University just a year into it when her two children were born.
By the time she was 28, Arslan began to search her soul for something more; but what?
Always fascinated by the reasons behind the Lebanese Civil War and the relationship between citizens and their leaders, she decided to apply for the political science department at the American University of Beirut.
She got in, but then faced another problem. Her husband did not immediately take to the idea of his wife “leaving” her children and attending university, and neither did her father.
Eventually, after a lot of convincing – quietly, calmly and without aggression – she enrolled at AUB.
“I kept my convictions,” she said with a shrug.
By the time she had graduated, she was ready for a deeper level of public involvement.
So in 1983, at the age of 35, she founded the Society of Lebanon the Giver, a non-governmental organization focused on education and social welfare. It began with building a school in the remote southern town of Hasbaya to cater to the area’s educational needs and later went on to initiate a women’s economic empowerment program.
“I felt that the status of the woman was really miserable and very different from the example at my home [from] my family and relatives,” Arslan said.
She has also founded a training school for women in Aley, the Committee for Women Political Empowerment, and the Civil Society Dialogue Table.
“I found that at the finest levels of culture and education, women have to claim their rights, they are not just given to them just like that,” she said.
The discovery prompted her to back the controversial female quota system, a law that was drafted underneath Prime Minister Saad Hariri and that aims to close the enormous gender gap in politics.
“Once I started with women’s political empowerment, I was convinced that without a quota, there would be no chances for women.”
For the moment, however, the law is still awaiting approval.
There were other challenges too.
She describes her Druze background as a “double-edged sword.” While it pushed her and gave her drive, there were always matters that could not be discussed and behavior that was frowned upon.
“There are barriers, and you have to be up to what is expected from you,” she admitted.
But being Emir Arslan’s wife also opened doors, and while she and her husband may not have seen eye to eye on her going to university, she credits much of her success to his support.
“He was a very open-minded man. He did not stop me from doing anything; on the contrary ... he gave me a big push,” she said.
Arslan’s aura is one of positivity, and even though she admitted there had not been enough progress in terms of women’s rights in Lebanon, she pointed out that things were nevertheless moving forward.
“First, and most importantly, we are achieving the idea that there is a civil society ready to claim [its rights] by using words and not violent actions.”
There will be difficulties, she added, but these should neither shock nor hinder young women.
“Nothing should make us move backward, nothing should shut us up ... nobody is better than us.”