Lebanese women want greater political representation; By Dalila Mahdawi


It sees itself as one of the Middle East's most liberal countries, but Lebanon's lack of female politicians sticks out like a sore thumb. While Lebanese women today enjoy senior positions in the private sector, political appointments have all but eluded them.
Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, yet to this day they face considerable obstacles entering politics in a country where political dynasties and patriarchy rule. Most women who do enter politics do so "wearing black", filling a position made available by a deceased male relative. Two such examples are Myrna Boustani, who became the first Lebanese woman in parliament upon her father's death, and Nayla Mouawad, who entered parliament after becoming a widowed former first lady of Lebanon.
But even when a female politician arrives in parliament without the help of tragedy – such as Bahia Hariri in 1992, well before the assassination of her brother and five-time prime minister, Rafic Hariri – it still seemed to be a requirement that she hail from a rich and traditionally political family. It is virtually impossible for independent, self-made women to enter the political arena.
Unfortunately, the issue of women's political participation was only superficially addressed in the 7 June elections. The polls, which saw a Hizbullah-led opposition defeated by the March 14 coalition, were widely hailed as the most competitive in years; but out of 587 candidates only 12 were women, a figure that translates into a mere two percent. Even more deplorable is the fact that out of those 12, only four – Nayla Tueni, Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea and Gilberte Zwein, each of them hailing from political dynasties – were elected to Lebanon's 128-member parliament.
Lebanon's instability has in the past helped drown out the voices calling for gender equality. Over the last, relatively problem-free 12 months, however, those voices have become louder and more persistent – most notably in a campaign to alter Lebanon's discriminatory nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men from transferring their nationality to their husbands and children. Pressure has also been brought to bear on Beirut to amend discriminatory personal status laws and greater efforts to combat gender-based violence have been urged.
But during the run-up to elections, the closest the country came to a national debate on women's role in politics was a slogan war between the opposition's Free Patriotic Movement, who played on the well-known French saying, "Sois Belle et Tais-Toi" (Be Beautiful and Shut Up) with their "Sois Belle et Vote" (Be Beautiful and Vote) poster, and the March 14 coalition, who responded with "Sois Egale et Vote" (Be Equal and Vote). Parties were keen to attract women voters, but none made clear how exactly they intended to promote women's rights.
Women will only be able to play a greater part in the governance of Lebanon if the country's political system moves away from the traditional status quo of a sectarian system towards a more secular meritocracy. A national commission to draft a new electoral law in 2005 suggested introducing a 30 percent women's quota, but this was rejected. If parties are serious in calling for equality between the genders, they could impose voluntary quotas within their structures to ensure that a minimum number of women run in both intra-party and national elections.
Lebanon in fact has a duty to eliminate gender discrimination. Beirut amended its constitution in 1990 to embrace the International Bill for Human Rights, thereby paving the way for international human rights to be applied to national legislation. It might be too late for this year's elections, but with enough willingness, greater political participation by Lebanese women could materialise by the 2010 municipal elections.
So long as Lebanon continues to hinder women's rights and prevents women from entering the political process, the country cannot enjoy true democracy. Men and women alike must work to encourage female parliamentarians. If Lebanese women have had the right to die as part of their country's army for the last 18 years, they should also have the right to help formulate the laws that govern every Lebanese citizen, man or woman.


* Dalila Mahdawi is a journalist at The Daily Star, Lebanon's only English-language daily newspaper. This article first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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