BEIRUT: For all its virtues, Lebanese society continues to be heavily influenced by patriarchal culture, making it a daunting challenge for women to achieve political influence and power. Yet change may be in the offing.
“We need to dare to think differently,” asserts renowned Lebanese-American journalist Raghida Dergham in a telephone conversation with The Daily Star.
What does she mean? Well, Dergham has a revolutionary idea.
“Nobody is preventing us from forming a women’s political party,” she points out.
Dergham, who is based in New York but retains strong personal and professional links to Lebanon, believes that in order for women to effect change, they need to insert themselves into the decision-making process. A women’s political party would judge governmental policies based on the extent to which they advance women’s causes.
Although women in Lebanon have enjoyed the right to vote since 1952, they remain woefully underrepresented in politics. In 2009, a grand total of four women were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament: Nayla Tueni, Strida Geagea, Bahia Hariri and Gilberte Zouein. Only 12 of the 587 parliamentary candidates were women.
The first two female ministers in Lebanese history were only appointed in 2004. And the practice has not even taken hold. When Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his 30-member Cabinet in June of last year, it did not include a single woman. Mikati’s womanless Cabinet was met with heavy criticism by women’s rights activists, many of whom demanded that some ministers resign to make way for women to be appointed. Nothing of the sort happened.
To be sure, there are many vocal and politicized women who have carved out a visible space for themselves in society. Consider the frequent public protests by women’s groups in support of a draft law that would criminalize spousal rape and other forms of domestic violence against women. The draft bill has been under review by a parliamentary committee since April 2010, amid indignant calls by male politicians and religious figures to water it down.
Women’s rights activists have also held several demonstrations demanding the right to grant Lebanese citizenship to their children. Currently, Lebanese citizenship can only be inherited patrilineally.
In contrast to individual women lawmakers, whose presence in the political process has long been limited, feminist activists in Lebanon have made great strides. For this reason, the idea of feminists rallying together to advance the status of women appears feasible.
Micheline Tobia, 24, activist and editor of online-based Mashallah news, says it is simply not enough for women to take to the streets regularly with the aim of abolishing laws that discriminate against them.
“We are not taken seriously, but maybe we could be more effective within the framework of a political party,” says Tobia, who is also a Master’s candidate at the American University of Beirut.
Nadine Mouawad, head of Nasawiya, a feminist collective in Lebanon, seems enthusiastic about the idea of a women-led party with a clear feminist platform.
“The women’s movement has not been very successful because we are up against a political body that is male-dominated, so we’re always confronting the political system rather than becoming part of it,” she observes.
“As long as you don’t pose a threat to the political system, no one is going to take you or your demands seriously,” Mouawad adds.
That threat, according to Mouawad and Dergham, can best be made in the form of concentrated political action on the part of women. Indeed, all other avenues would appear to have been exhausted. Mouawad stresses that if women do not integrate themselves into politics, they might lose their last chance to become politically relevant.
There are over 100 active political parties in Lebanon, most of them affiliated with one or the other of the country’s two main political alliances. Few women occupy prominent positions in these alliances, but for some female lawmakers, a women’s political party might not be the optimal solution.
Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea fears that such a party would merely scare a good number of Lebanese men, and prefers that existing parties strengthen the role of women internally.
“A feminist political party would intimidate our male-dominated society; we would be pushing men into a corner and they would respond by not accepting us,” maintains Geagea, whose party is in the process of introducing internal quotas for women.
Rayya al-Hasan, one of two women appointed to ministerial positions by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2009, does not believe a women’s party would be advantageous.
“I’m not necessarily against it but I don’t see how such a party could be a benefit,” she muses. “I think our cause would move forward if we were better integrated into society and succeeded in convincing men that we should have a say in the process.”
Geagea and Hasan’s main concern is that the criteria for choosing candidates to enter elections on behalf of a women-led party would be based on gender rather than merit.
“[Such a party] wouldn’t be harmful but it wouldn’t necessarily be helpful, either,” Hasan maintains.
Hayat Arslan, president of the Committee for Women’s Political Empowerment, dismisses the proposal as having little chance of success, due to the makeup of the political system and the current mindset of society.
“We don’t have the maturity or readiness to form mixed-gender parties, let alone feminist ones, particularly because political parties here are personalized,” Arslan says, alluding to the personality-cult many [male] Lebanese political leaders build around themselves.
Still, she leaves the door ajar regarding the possibility of forming such a party in the future, saying that if women’s rights activists rally enough women and men to their cause, perhaps a political party could be the next step.
The uprisings sweeping the Arab world have brought to the fore many a misogynist, but also impelled women to claim their rights. In Egypt, for example, one of the presidential candidates is a woman. In light of such developments, Dergham says women should break the mold and embark on a path completely different from that of their predecessors.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel agrees and appears as though he might even champion the idea of a women’s political party, saying: “Let us see whether women would succeed more than men, particularly as we have experienced men in this field.”
He adds that women should be more persistent, aggressive and willing to run for election – repeatedly, if need be – until they achieve their goal.
Despite the differences in opinion over whether a women’s political party would be more efficient and successful in advancing women’s status, there is a near-consensus among feminist activists that adopting a quota system in Lebanon’s electoral system would be a good first step.
Hasan, the former minister, says: “We have a long way to go and one of the most important measures to be taken to enhance the role of women is the adoption of a quota system in parliamentary elections, a transitional measure to encourage more women to run for election.”