It's not just Lebanon's glass ceiling that needs tearing down, it's the whole building

It's not just Lebanon's glass ceiling that needs tearing down, it's the whole building
6 min read
13 Nov, 2020
Comment: Women in Lebanon are fighting not just for better representation, but a complete overhaul of a male-dominated system that fosters inertia, corruption and greed, writes Carmen Geha.
'Lebanon's political system and its supporters are a threat to Lebanese women' writes Geha [Getty]
The very worst thing that could have happened after the Beirut port explosion on 4 August, is exactly what happened: nothing changed. This nothingness prevails in static, archaic politics conducted by the same group of men who knew that the explosives were stored at the port for over six years. 

More than three months later, over 200 deaths and still 6,000 wounded with 300,000 homes destroyed, there has not been a single arrest, and only a small group of members of parliament have resigned. They include Beirut's representative Paula Yaacoubian, the only independent and female voice in parliament.

MP Yaacoubian's relentless work with the Beirut community before and after the explosion is one reason we watch, weep, and choose to resist. We watched her submit more than 63 draft laws and legislative reforms in under two years of her term, more than any other MP in Lebanon's history. 

Made up predominantly of men, the parliament is a club for the elite to make deals, cover up scandals, and maintain a web of clientelism. Instead of MPs seeking citizens' support and council, they threaten us with our livelihoods. Unbothered by the empty threat of the ballot box, these MPs run around with guns and bags of money, while we get arrested for protesting the banks stealing our money. In her short time as MP, Yaacoubian embodied a people-centric approach to politics putting the health of the community at the forefront of her agenda.

Her resignation following the explosion did not distance her from people's grievances, she did not need a seat on the same table as the culprits. She went out and mobilised aid for hundreds of households, and earlier this month the nation watched her clean up Beirut's polluted beaches.

The Lebanese state keeps their version of feminism afloat but undermines our basic rights to our bodies, children, and political choice

Those of us women who took a leading role in Lebanon's October revolution stand to lose the most from this. At a time when we need leadership, we have a puppet caretaker government. Meanwhile, great advances for women are taking place elsewhere: Kamala Harris recently became the first vice president of the United States. And regardless of how you feel about US politics, her speech will go down in history, "because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities."

In Lebanon, women make-up a mere 23 percent of the labour force and continue to face gender-based violence at home and in the workplace. Most of the women I have interviewed over the years cite sexual harassment as the major reason for them not wanting to be in politics. Online bullying and threats against the lives of outspoken women journalists and media figures have all skyrocketed since the explosion. 

The others explain that they are disgusted by politics and would not want to even run for office because it is a role tainted with corruption and violence. "It really is a man's job because it requires back-door dealing and sending young people to die to keep your seat, it's not me and it will never be me," explained one woman I interviewed. So we watch and weep as the Lebanese state, our politicians and the intricate web of lies they created keeps their version of feminism afloat but undermines our basic rights to our bodies, children, and political choice. 

Read more: TNA Webinar Video: Can community-led recovery efforts help Build Beirut Back Better?

In Lebanon, women vote in the place of origin of their fathers and when they marry in the place of origin of their husbands, our votes and bodies are commodities. Recently, my friends and I exchanged news that the UAE had overhauled personal and family laws for greater equality in marriage and divorce, in addition to stricter punishments for men who harass women.

By contrast, rights in Lebanon are determined by 18 different religious courts and sects. Depending on which religion you happen to be born with, you may or may not be married off as a child as young as 12 because the Muslim courts allow it, legally killed in a so-called "honour crime" because culture turns a blind eye, or remain stuck in a marriage because the Maronite church does not recognise divorce.

Lebanon's political system and its supporters are a threat not only to Lebanese women, but to any woman residing here. Statistics on deaths from gender-based violence reveal that the women raped and killed here are of different nationalities. But the plight of migrant domestic workers is the most gruesome of all. After the explosion, hundreds were thrown out on the street by their employers. The kafala system, which legalises modern-day slavery, rids migrant workers of their rights the moment the set foot in this country.

Earlier this month, the Shura Council (the state court) rejected a proposal for a new contract that would give more rights to workers to terminate work, guarantee a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and a national minimum wage. The court ruled in favour of an appeal lodged by an alliance of recruitment agencies, which opposed the proposals set out in the new standard unified contract.

"It is the stuff of nightmares, of continued human trafficking and the wailing of women battered to death in households across the nation," one human rights activist told me. The National Commission for Lebanese Women, our state agency that is supposed to advance gender equality, did not move a finger for its mandate is for "Lebanese women", and migrants, like Syrian refugee women, are not nationals and therefore not within its purview.

How can we resist this system of violence and negligence epitomised by the 4 August explosion? The answer is simple: how can we not?

Women vote in the place of origin of their fathers and when they marry in the place of origin of their husbands, our votes and bodies are commodities

We continue to raise our voices, our daughters, and our youth to resist and to expect things to change. It is the tyrant's bet that we succumb to defeat and cynicism, and in response we must find solace in each other, and keep actionable hope alive.

The only thing our politicians hate more than a relentless female politician like Paula Yaacoubian, is the voice of people who believe that they deserve better. Our insistence surprises them, our perseverance in a rights-based narrative strikes them.

Just when they think they killed us all, oppressed and co-opted the revolution, bombed the city, we continue to expect that we can oust them and that things can change. It is this expectation that makes them uneasy: how can these women still resist? I see it every day and all around me, the women in science, medicine, academia, and all over the streets are resisting.

They choose to take action that fills political nothingness with concrete evidence that we can shake the status quo. We may be watching and weeping but we are also resisting. Their arrogance coupled with mediocrity cannot and will not last forever. In the end, the world slowly moves towards greater equality. Meanwhile, we keep fighting not for us, but for our present and future daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. 

Carmen Geha is an activist, feminist and scholar, researching politics, crisis and mobilisation in MENA. She is Associate Professor of Public Administration at AUB. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CarmenGeha

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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.