'The revolution is female': Why feminist issues are driving Lebanon's protests

'The revolution is female': Why feminist issues are driving Lebanon's protests
While demonstrating dire economic conditions and rampant corruption of the country's political elite, Lebanese women are also fighting for an even more basic right: to be treated as an equal.
6 min read
07 November, 2019
Lebanese women have been at the forefront of the anti-government movement [Twitter]
As victims of Lebanon's patriarchal and sectarian system, women have been at the forefront of the anti-government protest movement that has swept the country since October 17. 

While they stand alongside their male counterparts to demonstrate unemployment, poor services and the rampant corruption of the country's political elite, women in Lebanon are also calling for an even more basic right: to be treated as equals to men.

To outsiders, women in Lebanon may appear to have a degree of liberal freedom, especially if compared to other countries in the region. For Lebanon's women citizens however, the image is a well-made up facade.

Enshrined in the constitution and upheld by Lebanon's judiciary, the reduction of women's rights in Lebanon is likely more extreme when compared with the country's more conservative neighbours.

At the heart of this discrimination is a sectarian system embedded in the constitution. The law holds that Lebanon’s patchwork of religious communities each have the right to uphold their religious values. The constitution guarantees respect for "personal status and religious interests".

Maintaining these constitutional rights has been long claimed as "critical" in order to prevent Lebanon's return to civil war. The result, however, is many of the different communities uphold patriarchy as a constitutionally mandated religious right. Any efforts at reform of laws discriminating against women are blocked through the claim that they risk the stability ushered in by the country's distinct sectarian system.

Too often women's rights have been held hostage to flawed sectarian rhetoric
- Lama Fakih, director of crisis and conflict division at HRW

Under these religious personal status laws, Lebanon allows child marriages and puts major obstacles in the path of women seeking divorce - even in cases of abusive marriages. In cases where divorce is permitted, custody of children is almost inevitably granted to men. Lebanon's citizenship laws also deny women the right to pass on their citizenship to children from foreign spouses. Only children born to Lebanese fathers are afforded citizenship rights.

"Women in Lebanon have in many ways borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance in the country," Lama Fakih, director of crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch [HRW] told The New Arab.

"Some of the demands women's rights activists are making are for a civil personal status law, equality in the nationality law, a reform of the kafala system, reproductive rights, end of child marriage, protection from violence and harassment, and to be represented in government," Fakih added.

"Too often women's rights have been held hostage to flawed sectarian rhetoric."

HRW has long urged Lebanon's parliament and government to acknowledge and prioritise the need for reforms to end all discrimination against women.

"The nationality law debate is a good example of this. Women are denied equality under the law because of concerns that giving them equal rights may disrupt the sectarian balance," Fakih says. 

"This is not only a discriminatory argument, it is factually wrong, but it hasn't stopped politicians from denying women married to foreigners, and as a result their children and spouses, of equal rights."

Citizenship is a man-only domain

For decades, activists in Lebanon have demanded changes to the country's controversial nationality law, which bans the children or foreign husbands of Lebanese women from becoming citizens. 

Lebanese women who have foreign spouses or children from non-Lebanese partners must routinely apply for permits to allow their husbands and children to remain in Lebanon. Legal documents are also required for their children or partners to have access to employment, education, social services and healthcare. The risk of statelessness for children of such marriages is real. 

Karima Chebbo, the nationality campaign coordinator for the non-profit organisation Collective for Research and Training on Development (CRTDA), says her organisation actively backs the uprising in Lebanon in hope that it will lead to change in the citizenship law, among other demands.

"We support the main demands of this movement," Chebbo told The New Arab. "We want to see an end to corruption and the collapse of the elite that has abused power for personal gains. The central demands for today’s uprising are known and everyone is calling for them, and that includes us, as women.

"But what we have also seen on the ground and on social media is spontaneous calls demanding the right for Lebanese women to pass on their citizenship to children from foreign spouses," Chebbo highlights.

"These include the basic right to ensure their children have access to education and healthcare, which they remain deprived of because they do not have a Lebanese citizenship."

A recent state-led campaign sought to encourage thousands of Lebanon's large international diaspora register their claim for Lebanese citizenship.

Spearheaded by Gebran Bassil – Lebanon's foreign minister, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and arguably the most reviled politician by protesters today – the campaign aims at "maintaining" the "true" identity of Lebanon – a claim slammed by activists.

"It was unfortunate yet funny to see some politicians working viciously to pass a law that enabled members of the diaspora community to apply for Lebanese citizenship, but refusing to expand the law to include the foreign spouses and children of Lebanese women," Chebbo says. 

"The children of Lebanese women should have been prioritised, but instead Bassil was fiercely opposed to granting Lebanese women this right. So how could he lead a campaign to give this right to the diaspora instead?" she adds.

"The right for Lebanese women to grant their nationality to children from foreign spouses is a right which we will never give up fighting for."

'The revolution is female'

In leading the current protests, both through organisation and participation, women in Lebanon have shown to be fearless and bold in their demands for change of the system oppressing them.

Their role has been striking and critical, as some have put their own lives at risk to defend crowds of protesters against police brutality.

Hours into the start of the uprising last month, a striking image of a Lebanese woman seen karate-kicking an armed man in the groin became a symbol for the emerging protests.

Since then, images and videos have circulated showing dozens of women lined up, standing arm in arm in front of thousands-strong crowds to form a human wall between the protesters and riot police. 

Thousands of women gathered in a central square near the seat of government Wednesday evening, carrying candles as some banged on saucepans.

"O patriarchal powers, women's rights are not a footnote," they chanted.

"On Day 21 of #Revolution#women led protests in downtown #Beirut holding candles, making drawings, banging on pots and pans," freelance journalist Alessandra Bajec tweeted.

"Women have played many leadership roles in the current protest movement," HRW's Fakih, told The New Arab.

"From organizing a woman's march over the weekend where they laid out women's rights concerns for the new government to take up, to participating in civil society debates charting the way forward for the movement and the country, to organizing the protests and clean ups after large demonstrations, they have been on the frontlines of the movement, articulating the demands of demonstrators and inspiring others to speak out for their rights."

Three weeks into the uprising, activists on the ground have acknowledged the role of women, with the slogan "the revolution is a female" quickly gaining traction.

While the demands for equality in the eyes of the law has been a long fight, Fakih, like many on the ground, is not losing hope.

"Change never comes easy, but I do believe that when people organize peacefully and demand their rights that change is possible," she says.

"That's why it is so critical to protect the rights of freedom of expression and assembly. Security forces should respect and protect peaceful protesters speaking out against corruption and for their rights to be realized." 

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @skhalil1984