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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Parliament 2022: Lebanese Women Fight for Democracy

Lebanese Women
A supporter of a civil society movement in front of the Ministry of Interior in Beirut on May 7, 2018. Anwar AMRO / AF

Dana Hourany

On March 2, Hezbollah‘s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah announced that the party will field 13 candidates in Lebanon’s 2022 May elections. Out of these 13, not one woman was chosen. Though this trend is certainly not Hezbollah specific, it is emblematic of Lebanon’s political arena in general; an arena that is produced by men for men, and one that allows a small percentage of women to participate.

According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 rankings, when considering political empowerment specifically, Lebanon ranks 149 out of 153. Oman and Yemen are the only Middle Eastern countries with a lower ranking.

In the 2018 parliamentary elections, women comprised 51% of voters, outnumbering male voters in 14 out of 15 electoral districts. That year, 113 out of the registered candidates were women but only six of them made it to parliament.

Women are preparing to join the electoral war with more drive and tenacity in the months running up to the May general elections. New parties, especially those born out of the October 17 uprising, are relatively more inclusive than established parties, observers note. But analysts think that more work is needed to attain equal participation.

50/50 is a non-governmental organization that promotes women’s empowerment at all levels and raises awareness about gender equality politics. Joelle Abou Farhat, one of the group’s co-founders, told Fanack that a quota is required if real change in the polls is to occur.

The organization drafted a proposal to change the electoral legislation to include a women’s quota. The bill, which consists of two articles, proposes 26 reserved parliamentary seats for women out of a total of 128. This equates to around 20% of the parliament, as well as at least 40% of men and women on candidate lists. The measure is still in the process of being approved.

“Because men hold 96 percent of power positions, voters are unaccustomed to seeing women in these roles. It is all the more vital to have a quota so that Lebanese citizens become accustomed to voting for women candidates and seeing them participate in regular political work,” Abou Farhat said.

Though conservative and traditional views remain deeply entrenched in Lebanese society, activists and women leaders are working hard for change.

A journey of obstacles

Lynn Harfoush, General Coordinator at National Bloc, told Fanack that when she first joined the party, she was tasked with monitoring the news. It was only shortly that she realized she had bigger ambitions, and so underwent a series of political and public speaking training to enable her to become one of the bloc’s leading faces.

“When I was appointed member of the executive committee, one of my core causes was to see more women in politics and that’s what I’ve been proactively working on,” Harfoush said.

She considers women to be key players in social and non-profit initiatives, however, their talent is very much needed in politics, she said.

This is why Harfoush launched “Siyasiyat” (women  politicians), a programme that provides women activists and journalists in lobbying, media training, public speaking, personal branding, and more.

“We don’t have to be just activists, and we shouldn’t be limited to such a stereotype,” Harfoush said.

To Harfouch, building a solid community is necessary, and a step towards fighting the cultural myth that “women are women’s worst enemies,” she said.

Harfoush and two of her colleagues at National Bloc were able to lobby for a 50/50 law that ensures equality in municipal and parliamentary candidacy.

However, not many parties followed suit.

The issue, according to Abou Farhat, is still rooted in society. Due to a dearth of female presence in politics and a lack of conviction in women’s capacity, people are taught to believe men are better and more equipped for political life. Additionally, the media fails to recognize and celebrate women’s accomplishments and efforts. Moreover, establishment parties do not create a framework for women to participate in politics and do not encourage them to do so.

“We need a national plan that supports women’s involvement in politics. All political parties must include women candidates on their lists,” Abou Farhat said.

“In light of the current economic crisis, women need to be supported with the right resources in order to fund their campaigns,” she added.

A cultural battle

In 2009, there were just 12 female candidates, increasing to 113 in 2018. Although no official numbers on the number of registered candidates have been revealed yet, experts predict a large increase this year.

Harfoush explained that two main elements obstructed women’s advancement in politics. The first one is, the way society has stereotyped both men and women.

“Male politicians are not expected to dedicate all their time and effort to nurture kids and take care of the family. As a woman in politics, you feel guilty and torn between the two,” she said.

Political work, she continued, is an extroverted labor that entails several meetings with community members and public speaking. Because this is a job that society considers men to be superior at, women are not taken seriously.

“I see it in other parties when we are in meetings, some male participants show clear signs of disinterest when women are providing their input on certain topics,” she said. “Additionally, women fear public backlash as they are heavily scrutinized and judged in comparison to their male counterparts.”

Harfoush, who was born into a Shiite family, recalled a television interview with a male colleague in which the two of them were discussing the Shiite political group Hezbollah, their weapons, and Iran’s expansion in the region.

Soon after, she claims, Hezbollah supporters of the group launched an internet smear campaign against both.

“My male colleague was accused of being a spy. I, on the other hand, was framed as a woman who slept her way to the top. I was the target of largely slanderous, largely misogynistic remarks,” Harfoush said. “This of course caused plenty of family drama.”

Harfoush explains that she often receives the advice to quit it all. However, she maintains the battle is one that is worthy.

More needs to be done

Abou Farhat stresses that in order for change to occur, women must obtain at least 40 seats in parliament. While women and men have different political perspectives, both are needed for the development of a functioning state, she said.

“Women’s political agendas are typically more focused on meeting people’s needs, and on injustices including women’s rights. Laws cannot remain patriarchal and unjust,” Abou Farhat said.

Personal status laws, for example, are highly unjust towards women. Issues related to divorce and custody rights remain in the hands of patriarchal religious authorities.

Although women’s role in politics has evolved, from planning events to being part of the decision-making process inside political groups and parties, Abou Farhat explains, much more needs to be done.

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