BEIRUT: May El Khalil’s positivity radiates across the room. The president of the Beirut Marathon Association, a proven success for 14 years, is a self-proclaimed dreamer, her story an inspiration to hundreds of sports enthusiasts and, of course, women. However, Khalil’s optimism fades when she acknowledges the gaping gender gap in Lebanon.
“I say not only sadly that we are still way behind,” she said, but adds that while women in Lebanon have had a tough year following a series of domestic abuse cases that surfaced in recent months and a draft law criminalizing family violence still waiting for adoption by Parliament, the year has served as a “wake-up call” for Lebanese.
“Honestly, and I started repeating this, I feel as though we are at a turning point in our lives, and it is definitely a road of no return,” she said.
According to Khalil, this year marks perhaps the first time in Lebanese history where awareness about women’s rights made gains across society. It is not only the nonprofit organizations voicing their concerns anymore, she said, but Lebanese society as a whole. And, true to her optimistic nature, she believes the Lebanese will no longer accept inaction and apathy.
It is hard to imagine how Khalil bounced back, and with so much vigor. In 2001, the runner was training for a marathon when she was hit by a minivan which sandwiched her against a wall. She spent two years in hospital, recovering from a coma and undergoing 36 surgeries. Her doctors were unsure if she would ever even walk again, she told The Daily Star.
“When I woke up I realized that I was no longer the same person or the same runner that I used to be,” she said, maintaining an air of calm as she recalled her story.
“My reality [at the time] was being at that hospital, but it became more of a dream and the reality was more of me wanting to come back to life and wanting to contribute, pay back to my community and be a better person, support other runners, bring international runners to come to Lebanon, and put Lebanon on the international map,” she said.
These objectives, she added, gave her a reason to stand on her feet, fight and become more proactive.
Launching and heading the Beirut Marathon was no easy task either, but Khalil claims that being a woman did not hinder her efforts. When asked whether it would have been easier had she been a man, she was dismissive.
“I don’t think so, and I don’t think being a woman facilitated the mission either,” she said.
“When you are genuine, people stop looking at you as a figure, whether a male or a female. You allow them to dive more into the message ... I never faced any [challenges], though in the Middle East sports is more male dominant,” she said.
The Beirut Marathon is launching its second women’s race on May 4. This year, men will be allowed to take part in the 5-kilometer race, but only if they wear pink T-shirts, Khalil explained with a chuckle.
Growing up in Mount Lebanon town of Aley, Khalil, who comes from a conservative, middle-class family, said being close to nature and coming of age in a place devoid of hypocrisy and bureaucracy taught her quite a bit about being grounded and active.
“I learned from my mom and my dad about how to be tough, and at the same time, always invest in inner strength,” she said.
“I was very spontaneous and very genuine and I always had this feeling that being positive gave me courage, even at a young age,” she said.
A mother of four, Khalil said that family has a large influence on how children are raised, particularly young girls, and both parents should do their part. Her husband Faysal, a successful entrepreneur, is both supportive and grounded, traits that her two daughters learned growing up, she said.
Khalil maintains that while most Lebanese were aware of the problems surrounding violence against women and in spite of the communities’ calls for change, there are no concrete solutions.
“We are all highlighting the problems, and we all know the different challenges that we’re facing, but where are the solutions? What are the solutions?” she asked.
While she claims not to be a feminist or part of the women’s activist movement, she said there is a need for more rallying to be done around the issue. Khalil also said more sit-ins needed to be organized in front of Parliament, and there needs to be a strategy to push people to the point of “annoyance.”
“Unfortunately, you have to become a bit arrogant when asking for your rights otherwise these rights will never be given,” she said, adding that boycotting voting during elections would be an effective strategy.
“If, let’s say, there are elections, and women all over Lebanon agree not to vote, there will be no elections. I think this solidarity ... is what we need,” she said.
In a final message to young Lebanese women, Khalil said it was important they realize that they have a role to play in society, and are, in fact, its “future leaders.”
“They can be mothers, they can be sisters, they can be friends, but they have a role to play as well, and their role is to really change mentalities and share their talents to make their society better.”