Al Rawiya

Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Lebanon: An Introduction

A Note from the Al Rawiya Human Rights Team:  This article marks the beginning of a new series of articles to be featured in the Human Rights sections of Al Rawiya on women’s rights and gender equality. 

Credits: Hundreds of women and men march together to mark International Women’s Day, in Beirut, March 8, 2020. Cynthia Maria Aramouni

The image of Malak Alawiye kicking the armed bodyguard of former Education Minister Akram Chehayeb to stop him from attacking protesters will be engraved in the memory of Lebanese for decades to come. Countless Lebanese women from all walks of life, like Malak, played a critical role in the October 2019 revolution. Women young and old from all backgrounds led protests, chanted on megaphones, and formed human shields to protect protestors from security forces.

Credits: The viral screengrab of “Kick Queen” Malak Alawiye striking the armed bodyguard of former Education Minister Akram Chehayeb during the first few days following the anti-government protests that erupted on October 17, 2019.

They took to the streets demanding reforms in the patriarchal system undermining their rights. In Lebanon, decision-making is controlled by men and women have to deal with recurrent predicaments, as well as discrimination under the 15 separate personal religious-based status laws and courts for the 18 recognized sects.

Credits: An activist chants through a megaphone during the anti-government protests,  in downtown Beirut. March 5, 2020. Matthieu Karam

Many countries consider Lebanon a pioneer in the Arab world in women’s freedoms. However, this is an illusion. Whilst Lebanese women do have the freedom to move, dress, and live the way they want, this does not mean that they have equal rights. They live in a patriarchal society, where men and religious leaders monopolize decision-making. Politicians, religious leaders, and social norms have formed an almost unbreakable glass ceiling of boundaries and discrimination against women. Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and the writing of its constitution, women’s equality rights have not been a walk in the park by any means.  

Credits: Families of Rola Yacoub and Manal Assi mourning the loss of their daughters victims of Domestic Violence during International Women’s Day in Beirut March 8, 2014. Cynthia Ghoussoub

It is true that Lebanon has an active past of women’s activism, but to date, the movement’s accomplishments are limited. Over the years, many civil society feminist organizations have succeeded in lobbying to amend a few laws or change some policies. In 1953, the Lebanese Council of Women (LCW), one of the main feminist civil society organizations at the time, successfully lobbied for women’s voting rights. In addition, the LCW’s efforts succeeded in eliminating the law forcing women to renounce their citizenship upon marrying foreign men and ended restrictions on a woman’s right to travel without the written consent of their father or husband. In April 2014, through the collective efforts of many local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a law that recognized the need to establish protection and legal resources for women subjected to abuse by their husbands or male relatives was passed. Also, in 2017, the parliament abolished article 522 of the penal code, which gave men the chance to avoid a sentence of sexual assault, abduction, or statutory rape against a woman if a marriage contract was provided. Furthermore, the women’s movement designed many advocacy and lobbying campaigns to increase women’s participation in decision-making, but unfortunately, their success was limited. In addition, despite women’s increasing electoral turnout, less than 5 percent of parliamentarians elected in 2018 were women. This was a record high compared to previous elections.

Another supposed step forward for women in Lebanon was in 1997 when Lebanon ratified the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, yet to this day it still maintains reservations to several articles, specifically those related to equal rights to nationality, marriage, and family life. Politicians and religious leaders continue to block calls to lift these. The 18 legally-recognized religious groups all have different personal status laws and family matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, and custody are governed by the legal procedures of these religious groups. Each and every one of these laws, without exception, discriminates against women’s rights and turns their existences into living soap operas. Many key laws need to be abolished, amended, created, or passed in Lebanon to ensure women’s equality rights and protection. One of the most important ones to be amended is the nationality law. These regulations do not grant Lebanese women the same rights as men in regards to passing on their nationality to their children or husbands if married to foreigners.

Credits: Activists carry banners reading “ Our revolution is a women’s revolution.” and “Patriarchy is a killer” International Women’s Day, in Beirut, March 8, 2020. Cynthia Maria Aramouni

Additionally, besides the fact that it’s sadly a regular occurence, violence against women and girls in Lebanon is increasing incrementally. Data reported through the Gender-Based Violence Information Management System indicates a 5 percent increase in female survivors in 2020 (98 percent) in comparison to 2019 (93 percent). In the context of a crippled system, compounded crises, and the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of violent incidents are therefore climbing daily. The current protection measures, lack of accountability, and injustice towards women experiencing physical and psychological abuse will continue to hinder the advancement of women in Lebanon.

Credits: Woman carrying the Lebanese flag stands in front of riot police during International Women’s Day, in Beirut, March 8, 2021. Simon Haddad

When it comes to the political, peacekeeping, and security spheres, women in Lebanon are significantly underrepresented. While there is wider recognition of the need to involve women in such matters, in practice women’s official engagement in these fields remains insufficient. This is partly because of Lebanon’s power-sharing political system, where executive power is shared amongst confessional lines. This model gave a major role to political elites in moderating inter-group conflicts and negotiating any peace or security agreements. Unfortunately, the ruling class is mainly male-dominated and represents the key religious sects in Lebanon. Thus, women were never present at the negotiation tables in the first place. 

Correspondingly, social norms and discriminatory labor laws and policies are leading to women’s economic marginalization. In this patriarchal society, men are considered the main breadwinners and the sole income generators of the household. A woman’s role in the household is perceived as a conventional one and more complementary to that of the man rather than an equal one. Such social norms and perceptions create an environment of vulnerability and marginalization where women feel economically dependent on the male figure of the family. They will continue shying away from claiming any of their rights or standing in the face of domestic violence for fear of losing their financial security.

Under these conditions of extreme and structural gender inequalities, Lebanon is facing an unprecedented economic and political crisis, compounded by multiple shocks that have hit the country in the past few years, including the October 2019 revolution, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August Beirut Blast. These multifaceted crises come on top of the Syrian refugee one, which represents a huge burden on the country’s fragile systems as it is.

Credits: Women banging on metal barricades during the anti-government protests in downtown Beirut. March 5, 2020. Matthieu Karam

The country is on the brink of collapsing and this is affecting its development and stability. More than 50 percent of the population is now living under the poverty line and people are fighting over basic commodities in supermarkets. Women are severely affected as large numbers are being laid off in spades, there is a substantial increase in gender-based violence, and as usual, they are carrying the burdens of the households in this patriarchal system.

A holistic gendered approach is needed to address these deep and structured inequalities. In addition, without institutional reforms, amendments, and the adoption of key laws that ensure good governance, anti-corruption, and gender equality, the country won’t recover from this unprecedented crisis. Importantly, in transition periods, gender roles and social norms can be changed with the breakdown of existing social practices and state policies. The citizens of Lebanon have the opportunity to transform gender relations and create opportunities for women to challenge their current restrictive gender roles and assume leadership positions. Now is a good time to implement a new gender-sensitive social contract with the state. 

Credits: Women take the streets during International Women’s Day, in Beirut, March 8, 2020. Cynthia Maria Aramouni

It is the right time to ensure that women are participating in the socio-economic recovery and response on both local and national levels. Future assessments and recovery/response plans must be developed in a gender-neutral way to ensure they are addressing the needs of both men and women equally. Ensuring women’s inclusion in both the planning and implementation of the recovery will help address the needs of women and tackle some of the barriers they are facing to access their basic needs in the first place. Most importantly, by supporting locally-led peacebuilding networks, forming female mediator networks, and opening dialogue spaces with grassroots groups, in particular those established by the protest movement post-October, the national Women, Peace and Security Agenda can be adequately informed. In that context, it is also imperative to increase the role of civil society women networks and activists in the oversight of formal structures. Moreover, gender-based violence must be addressed through the collaborative efforts of both international and local actors in changing the societal mindsets and reforming the current structures. Finally, without the creation of a unified personal status code, gender equality will continue to be a dream that might never come true.

Mirna Sabbagh
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Mirna Sabbagh is a proud Lebanese and a grateful Canadian. She holds a Post-MBA Diploma from York University in Canada and currently researches and works on policy and social innovation especially in relation to women, youth, refugees, and peace building. Mirna, a social and political activist, has a lifelong involvement and commitment in driving opportunities and change for those facing obstacles and barriers in their lives and communities. She is committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and dreams of a united, peaceful, and prosperous Lebanon.

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