Coronavirus, political turmoil, economic collapse won't stop Beirut's women marching this Sunday

Coronavirus, political turmoil, economic collapse won't stop Beirut's women marching this Sunday
Comment: This International Women's Day, Carmen Geha celebrates the resilience and solidarity of Lebanese women, fighting for their rights in a system stacked against them.
6 min read
05 Mar, 2020
'Discriminatory politics and policies govern our lives' writes Geha [AFP]

"This is just what we needed, a corona outbreak," is something you will hear many times a day in Beirut.

The year 2020 really does feel like an apocalypse. Beirut is right at the center of geopolitical turmoil, economic collapse, political disaster, and now a public health hazard. In the midst of it all, we will march this Sunday, 8 March to mark International Women's Day.

This march has become the highlight of the year for many of us, a time for feminist collectives and women's groups from across the country to unite and make their voices heard. This year it feels not only ominous, but also imperative that we walk side by side. Today more than ever, everything and everyone seems out to get us - as though all we really have is each other.

I know women all over the world suffer shared grievances in both their private and public lives. But in Beirut, here is what we are up against:

Killer politics and killer policies

The Lebanese political system feeds on killing its women. From the moment we are born until the day we die, discriminatory politics and policies govern our lives. Until very recently a rapist could escape punishment by proposing to marry his victim.

Marital rape and child marriage are very much legal. Divorce and custody are regulated by 16 different religious courts, and while they are different depending on your sect, they all undeniably favour the men.

Last week a heartbreaking video circulated of a mother wailing behind barbed wire looking over her daughter's grave. The father, who had sole custody of the child, would not allow her mother near her daughter, even after her death.

Every day it feels like we need to put on a suit of armour just to be able to get to work on time, and be seen

Lebanese politics and policies make it impossible for women to reach public office. Elections, so clientelistic and sectarian, favour men as the representatives and protectors of the sect. Sect-based representation thrives through partnership with religious institutions, where women are completely absent from any decision making about their own lives.

The nationwide revolution that started on 17 October could not get politicians to budge and change their ways of corruption and self-serving politics. No cries, however incensed, could get them to bring a competent government that can address the mounting layers of economic corruption and environmental disaster.

Abusive workplaces

Our currency is faltering and we are defaulting on paying our international debt. Hundreds of companies have shut down and hundreds of employers are paying half salaries. With schools closed, Lebanese mothers are more stressed and under pressure than before.

Like everywhere in the world, we have a gender wage gap. This is true in all sectors, and also in my own institution of higher education, according to research conducted by our own faculty. But unlike other places in the world, sexual harassment is not criminalised. In fact, it is rampant. 

All the women I've interviewed for my own research on women and politics say that they were harassed within their political parties, and that this was the norm. In the economy, we make up only 23 percent of the formal employed labour force. Precarious working conditions and informal jobs are widespread, and probably account for most of working women's employment.

Constant threat of violence

On top of all this, we live under the constant threat of violence. And I don't mean getting raped on the streets, or being mugged at gunpoint - although that too happens. I am talking about a culture of widespread and daily violence that occurs because of easily accessible weapons, and the constant fanning of sectarian tensions.

As the new year dawned, Hezbollah vowed to avenge the US killing of Soleimani, and we all ducked for days, wondering when a war would start.

Most political speeches by our male leaders end with gunfire to celebrate how grand and important the leader is. As poverty increased in recent months, more people took the streets and were met with brutal police violence.

Several peaceful protestors, young men and women, were left blinded or brain damaged for life because of a severe police crackdown. The same political class the protesters are trying to fight against appoints the judiciary, so there's no real chance of fighting back.

Read more: Nobody knows Lebanon's problems better than its women. It's time you started listening

Where we stand is together

This feeling that it's us versus the world is not exaggerated. Every day it feels like we need to put on a suit of armour just to be able to get to work on time, and be seen. Every day, we have to fight off the feeling that everything is getting worse by sticking together.

Last year, when my colleague and friend Dr Zeina Halabi suggested we form a women's alliance, more than 100 women faculty jumped at the idea. This year, the AUB Women's Alliance will march under the slogan of "Women Professors for Accountability." 

Accountability is what our collective efforts aim at this year, accountability for corrupt warlords and accountability at the workplace, and in our private lives. This year's #IWD theme is all about "collective individualism", and so from Beirut I feel empowered and hopeful because we are building collectively and strategizing collectively. 

The Lebanese political system feeds on killing its women

"I just get things done, it is not rocket science," my friend tells me as I ask her about a project. She brushes off that I am impressed, and says it comes down to just working hard.

'Just working hard' I think, 'just working hard'. What a bad way of phrasing hard work and all the emotional labour that goes into getting things done, against the odds. What an unfair world it is that makes us attribute our effort to 'just hard work'. It is not just hard work. It is important we recognise the work we do collectively, just to be seen, and just to fix the mistakes of the men who came before us.

This is certainly how politics and life are in Beirut; a series of unfortunate failures by fortunate men who will not step aside to let anybody else govern properly, and certainly not a woman.

But next time it will be different. I am certain, because we are slowly reclaiming public space and political space that will amount to the representation we so badly need to fix this country, and fix our lives. 

Carmen Geha is a political activist and an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. She specializes in research on social movements and protests, women in politics and refugee policies. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CarmenGeha

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.