BEIRUT: In a country where hearing the word “yes” with respect to amending women’s legal rights is rare, Rita Chemaly has reason to be excited: Three parliamentary commissions have accepted changes to grant female employees 10 weeks maternity leave subject to a parliamentary vote.
As these seemingly tiny amendments have come a long way, it is appropriate that the National Commission for Lebanese Women, for whom Chemaly is a consultant, has called their national campaign to amend provisions in legislation that discriminate against women “The Long Road Ahead.”
Lebanon was once considered a pioneer of women’s rights after the country achieved important milestones to establish gender equality.
These included granting political rights to women in 1953, giving married women the right to choose their citizenship in 1960, allowing women to be elected in local councils in 1963, establishing equal social security benefits in 1984 and driving back honor crimes in 2011.
However, Lebanon certainly has a long road ahead to becoming the regional champion of equal rights, as women have not been granted fully equal citizenship, despite the existence of constitutional guarantees and U.N. treaties pertaining to human rights that bear Lebanon’s signature.
The NCLW secured other small victories in 2012, including allowing employed females to grant social security coverage to their unemployed male spouses, winning mothers the right to claim family abatement allowance for their children and protecting female heirs’ exemption rights from duty fees under the inheritance law.
However, any sign of progress with respect to the so-called “big laws” over the past year has come to an effective stalemate.
The nationality law still prohibits Lebanese women married to foreigners from granting their nationality to their husband and children. The inherent discrimination in the law stems from the country’s reliance on religious personal status laws that women’s rights groups have argued place women at a disadvantage.
After a ministerial committee rejected amending the nationality law in January on the grounds that it would disrupt the country’s demographic balance by potentially naturalizing Palestinians, NCLW responded with a detailed riposte.
“For example, on the issue of the Palestinians, we wrote that we would ensure they don’t become citizens after the age of 18,” Chemaly said. “This was a condition we made to make sure the law would pass.”
Chemaly maintained that the absence of legal protection from domestic violence was one of the most dangerous barriers to women’s rights, as “the MPs are not taking a stand,” and Parliament has yet to vote on a bill.
“The fact is, Lebanese women are not considered full citizens and this is total discrimination,” Chemaly said.
While the subject of women’s rights is replete with legal hindrances, some women are making headway in the private sector, with a few even claiming they have never had to deal with inequality issues.
Arabianbusiness.com recently compiled a list of the 100 most powerful Arab women. Among them were 12 Lebanese, including No. 15-ranked Christine Sfeir, who runs the successful restaurant empires Dunkin Donuts Lebanon and Semsom.
“I think it’s an issue of choice,” Sfeir said when asked about the disadvantages women face in the private sector. “There is no difference between men and women in the workplace; it is really about character and how much people want to work.”
Sfeir, however, said that in order for women to strike a healthy balance between work life and home life, “you need to have a supportive husband.”
“In the legal system and public sector this is where there is in an issue [for women’s rights], in the private sector it is about making choices and having a support system, because there are only 24 hours in a day,” said Sfeir.
“Ideally, for there to be equality, both men and women should also work inside the home,” said Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, director at the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World.
“If the husband doesn’t pitch in, as is the case in a lot of Arab countries, then the working mother is doing more than her fair share of duties at home.”
Men are still men in the traditional sense, she added, and approve of women working because the household usually needs the extra income. According to Dabbous-Sensenig, what is needed most to propel women’s issues to the fore are role models in the public sphere and women who hold positions of power, especially in the government.
“Young women need to see older, more successful women in centers of power so that they are encouraged to believe in themselves,” she said, adding the deeply engrained confessional system works to thwart efforts to make serious progress with respect to women’s rights.
But she pointed to the rising divorce rate as a statistic reinforcing the idea that women are increasingly able to picture themselves without the supporting role of a husband by their side.
In Lebanon’s confessional system, where very few women are included in candidate lists and a mere four occupy seats in a 128-member Parliament, encouraging women’s representation in government has become the singular mission of the nongovernmental organization Women in Front and its co-founder Joelle Abou Farhat Rizkallah.
Some activists have argued that women’s lack of representation in Parliament has made it difficult to conceive of their role in public life, and in some cases might have impeded reforming basic laws that place them at a disadvantage.
“Men clearly have a problem with women taking part in politics,” said Rizkallah. “And it’s difficult because the political structure is not easy to change and we have to work very hard to shake the mentalities of the Lebanese and encourage women to run for office.”