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

Nobody knows Lebanon's problems better than its women. It's time you started listening
Comment: Lebanon's women have been able to participate, lead, and shine because this uprising challenges the very pillars that govern our lives, writes Carmen Geha.
7 min read
08 Nov, 2019
'The leaderless uprising didn't depend on men with financial or political capital' writes Geha [Getty]
The challenges to Lebanese women's economic and political participation are structural. We know this, and it is as true in other parts of the world as it is here in the Middle East. 

The overlapping and intersecting layers of discrimination emanating from the legal, political, social and economic structures make women the most vulnerable to oppression and discrimination.

From archaic family laws to the lowest representation in politics, we, Lebanese women, sit on the margins of literally every decision-making sphere that can influence our lives. This is our uprising, because we have a structural and existential problem with the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system. 

The uprising which started in Lebanon on October 17 has been unprecedented in its widespread sentiment that this current political system - and those behind it - has failed, and can no longer live up to the needs or the expectations of the Lebanese people.

Women, from day one, have been active on the ground. They write statements, organise recycling and cleaning initiatives, explain the constitution, rally against police violence, and lead a national outcry against this political class. And while many observers are fascinated by the role of women, we may still be missing the point that we, women, have always had an existential problem with this political system.

We have been able to participate, lead, and shine because this uprising has challenged the very pillars that govern our lives; it shifted the structure of participation. We stand to gain the most from the ending of this political system. But we also stand to lose the most. 

Why this is our uprising 

When I say that we have an existential problem with this political system and with the politicians that reproduce it, I mean it.

Despite wider efforts, mostly funded by international donors, to "empower" Lebanese women, we remain starkly under-represented in politics (a mere 5 percent of parliament) and in the labour force (just under 25 percent).

These are some of the worst numbers in the region.

We, Lebanese women sit on the margins of literally every decision-making sphere that can influence our lives

Women's empowerment programmes mostly tend to isolate women from the context and structures that govern their lives, by imparting knowledge and skills that were supposed to make them more capable of participating in politics and in the economy. 

These programmes have failed miserably. They have created a class of experts who have tried to "NGO-ize" the sphere of women's empowerment. I know this because I worked with them for many years, and exited with great disillusionment.

These programmes have also propagated a form of state-feminism that celebrates women's participation in marathons, for example, but overlooks the structural poverty and prevalent violence against women.

Again, I know this because I was appointed to the National Commission for Lebanese Women, and also resigned with great disillusionment and frustration.

Empowerment fails, I have concluded, not because it is ill-intentioned, but because it is ill-suited; it is antagonistic with sectarian power-sharing politics. Empowerment within this current political system is an oxymoron. It situates women as weak and puts the blame on us:

We need to know better, think better, behave better in order to be accepted in the public sphere; we need to work harder, smarter, more innovatively in order to earn a living. No empowerment programme has addressed the very structures that govern out lives, the very same structures that allow a handful of men to make daily choices on our behalf. 

The roots of patriarchy in the sectarian political system date back to the Ottoman millet system. Sure, everywhere in the world, men gained political capital and made choices to subjugate women's bodies and life paths.

In Lebanon, after a 17 year civil war, the men granted themselves amnesty for war crimes, put on fancy suits, and became self-proclaimed leaders of their sectarian communities

But in Lebanon, after a 17 year civil war, the men granted themselves amnesty for war crimes, put on fancy suits, and became self-proclaimed leaders of their sectarian communities. They forged alliances with the religious courts and divided up the public sector among themselves.

There is no judiciary system in Lebanon for women, you are governed from birth to death depending on which sect you are born into, or marry into. That means custody, inheritance, and divorce laws are different, albeit similarly favourable towards men. 

This uprising, or the October revolution, is ours because we stand to gain the most out of political change, and we stand to lose the most if the revolution fails.

Read more: 'Topple the regime': Students take centre stage in Lebanon's anti-government protests

The uprising has uncovered the structural challenges of our daily lives by simply showing another way of living. Because the uprising was leaderless, it did not depend on men with great financial or political capital.

Unlike normal politics and elections, the uprising did not need men who were already well known and who had managed clientelistic networks. This was an uprising of the people, and women make up more than half of the Lebanese people. Leadership roles naturally fell to women, because it was horizontal, almost feminist.

Unlike normal every-day political culture, the uprising was not rooted in sexist political institutions. Sexual harassment, so prevalent in the private sector as well as in political parties, was almost non-existent in the public spaces that men and women took over.

Unlike normal politics, the discourse and narratives of this revolution were not carried on mainstream media, which in Lebanon is funded by political parties. The chants and demands, the theme of the revolution, was born from the streets, they were written and shouted out by men, young and old. 

This is our uprising because it is changing political culture. It is becoming increasingly unpopular to host talk shows or - 'm[p]anels' - without women. It is becoming unsafe to protest without women, because we stand up to the police and block roads with our bodies and voices.

It is becoming unwise to write statements and hold talks without women, because suddenly people realise that women too, have knowledge and perspectives crucial to organising this broader movement for change. 

What happens if we are left out 

Change to political culture is not enough of it is not institutionalised in new structures, post-revolution. The uprising has initiated these structures but they need time and political commitment to become institutionalised.

The current political system has been around for almost a century and survived a civil war because it enshrined a certain way of doing business. We have an opportunity to change that now.

Revolutions bring moments of heighted opportunities for change. But what we're demanding is not just a seat at the table. We need the women to be at the heart of the transition phase and the crafters of the new Lebanese state.

If we are left out, as we were left out of the post-war agreement, the system will go back to what it was pre-17 October. The only way to challenge patriarchy, is to change the very system that reproduces it. 

Lebanese people from North to South have spoken out to condemn their politicians and call for more transparent and competent representatives.

Whether they know it or not, those demands are feminist

Whether they know it or not, those demands are feminist. Lebanese people have resisted attempts to monopolise and control the street by a few men. Whether they know it our not, this method of organising is feminist.

Lebanese people have the chance to grow seeds of a new democracy, whether they know it or not women's political and economic participation will be a prerequisite to that democracy. If we are left out, Lebanon may as well just go back to the way it was; poor, desolate, miserable, dirty, and oh well… masculine. 

Carmen Geha is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Leadership, and Organisational Development at the American University of Beirut. She specialises in academic research and policy development on women's political and economic participation. She is an activist.

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.