BEIRUT: As a consultant for the National Commission for Lebanese Women, Rita Chemaly is expertly acquainted with the complexities inherent to the fight for women’s equality rights in Lebanon – but last July she faced a personal struggle.
At seven-months pregnant, she was one of many expectant mothers waiting for Parliament to approve key amendments to the national labor law that would extend maternity leave to 70 days, over the legally allotted 49. But the caretaker assembly failed to convene, and advocates of the draft law had to take a legal detour and approach the Cabinet, which then approved their request.
The decision is known as the amended Article 15 of Decree Law 5883 and its approval by the Cabinet was a source of delight for Chemaly.
“We were very happy,” she said of the decision. “For working parents in Lebanon, the 49 days that are counted from the day of delivery were clearly not enough. If I hadn’t taken my personal vacation leave after those 49 days, I would have left my child with his grandparents, because I am lucky enough to have them. Others are not so lucky.”
She cited the maternity leave extension as one of the breakthroughs for equality rights in Lebanon this past year, along with Law 3950, approved on April 4, which grants female civil servants the right to family compensation.
But despite the extensive lobbying that brought them to light, these were relatively simple amendments to draw up and pass in light of the indiscriminate national politics at play. Chemaly identified the draft law to criminalize family violence and amendments to ensure equal citizenship as the most pressing, and regrettably, subject to the vagaries of personal status and sectarian politics.
The draft law to protect women from domestic abuse was approved unanimously by a parliamentary committee last July, just weeks after Rola Yacoub was allegedly beaten to death by her husband in front of her children. Chemaly believes that once the general assembly reconvenes, the law will likely pass “because of the impact that civil society has had and the lobbying done by the national commission and the role played by the media over the issue.”
When Dar al-Fatwa opposed the draft law in 2011, it did so on the grounds that it conflicted with the prerogatives of the religious courts, contradicted existing laws and subverted the authority of the father as perceived in Islam and the well-being of the family unit. These objections were countered by the commission, which argued that religious laws were not supposed to tackle the handing down of punishment, such as imposing sanctions on perpetrators.
“I believe that all religious authorities feel threatened by any changes because, clearly, they would lose power and they are not ready to do that,” said Samira Aghacy, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, based at LAU.
“The good thing about Lebanon is that there are so many civil rights groups and NGOs working very hard ... but the patriarchal system and sectarian society and the predominate mentality regarding the superiority of men are resistant to amendment, and we remain completely at the mercy of religious institutions in Lebanon,” she said.
“Sectarianism is destructive. As long as we have this system, women will be underdogs,” she concluded.
But while the debate about domestic violence centers on religious opposition, the one raging over amending the citizenship law is a thornier and overtly political affair, as opponents argue it is incompatible with Lebanon’s confessional system. Last January, the ministerial committee studying the draft nationality law rejected it in its entirety, claiming that reforming the current law would “pose severe threats to the stability of the country and the fragile demographic balance of Lebanon,” explicitly citing Lebanese women married to Palestinian men as a key demographic concern.
“I am afraid that the nationality law will not pass, especially now, as we are witnessing the Syrian refugee influx. Our opponents will use this against our lobby,” Chemaly said. “But people need to understand that this is a right and that women are not second class citizens.”
The citizenship law was adopted in 1925, well before the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948, a fact pointed out by Fahmia Charafeddine in her field study examining the subject. “This proves that the law is discriminatory in its origin and has nothing to do with the concerns about and fears of Palestinian settlement in Lebanon,” she said in the study.
Her seminal work found that approximately 77,400 individuals were marginalized under the citizenship law, of that number, 41,400 were born to a Lebanese mother.
For the director of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Abdel-Salam Sidahmed, gender inequality in Lebanon is not limited to nationality and family violence.
“I’m afraid there are shortcomings in all areas of concern as far as women’s rights go, and with regard to the way the authorities are dealing with the issue, it doesn’t seem like a priority somehow,” he said. “In terms of legal inequality, there are these issues [nationality and domestic violence] but there are other issues as well. In personal status there are various areas of concern, be it inheritance, the dissolution of marriage, complex issues like civil marriage.
“What is important for us is that there should be legislative reform in all these areas. New laws have to be adopted in conformity to CEDAW [Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women]. Then at least you have a framework.”