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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

'Half of society, half of parliament' - Lebanese women campaign for more political power 

Female politicians want more than the four seats they won in the last election in  2009

A man walks by a billboard encouraging more women candidates in upcoming parliament elections reading in Arabic "Half the society, half the parliament," in downtown Beirut, Lebanon during a conference on women participation in politics. Bilal Hussein / AP
A man walks by a billboard encouraging more women candidates in upcoming parliament elections reading in Arabic "Half the society, half the parliament," in downtown Beirut, Lebanon during a conference on women participation in politics. Bilal Hussein / AP

Lebanon is campaigning to get at least five times more women elected to parliament this spring in its first vote in nearly 10 years.

Three months before the vote, Lebanon's first women's affairs ministry, in collaboration with the United Nations and the EU, has launched a campaign with the slogan: "Half the society, half the parliament."

Billboards have gone up in several Beirut districts, TV stations are showing programmes about women in politics and local groups say they are training women candidates on public speaking.

"Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament," said Jean Oghassabian, the minister of state for women's affairs. "The main obstacles are mentality, a philosophy of life, and this needs time," he added.

It is a daunting task for a Middle Eastern country that may otherwise look like one of the most liberal in the region. Despite a relatively free press, diverse religious groups and women in prominent positions in the business world and the media, Lebanon ranks surprisingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have failed to act on a movement to institute a quota for women in parliament.

There are only four women in the outgoing parliament elected in 2009, a mere three per cent of its 128 seats and a drop from 2005, when six women were elected. Since 2004, women have occupied one or two at most posts in government. Only Oman, Kuwait and Yemen have fewer. Oman and Kuwait have one and two women representatives respectively. War-torn Yemen has none but is currently without a functioning parliament.

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Even in Saudi Arabia, the monarch has appointed 30 women to the consultative Shura Council, giving them nearly 20 per cent of the seats.

"In politics, there seems to be some kind of invisible barrier for women to really break through," Christina Lassen, European Union ambassador to Lebanon, told t a conference held last week to promote women's representation.

Mr Oghassabian said last year's decision to appoint a man to the newly created portfolio was meant to send a message that it is also "a man's duty" to fight for women's rights.

Holding parliamentary elections in Lebanon is a feat in itself. Scheduled for May, these are the first elections in the country since 2009 after many delays and postponements due to general instability and haggling over a new election law.

Seats in the Lebanese parliament are allotted according to sects, with each community distributing them according to region and sectarian strongholds. Adding a new quota for women was considered yet another complication to an already complex system, said Nora Mourad, a gender researcher with the United Nations Development Programme.

Last year, politicians refused to even discuss a female quota in the new law. Members of the powerful Shiite group, Hizbollah, walked out of the room before the discussion began.

"We are against a quota. We are against imposing conditions from the outside on our policies and roles and work," said Rima Fakhry, a a senior member of the political bureau of Hizbollah. "The women's movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions. For them it is in parliament. We differ from those movements."

Ms Fakhry said Hizbollah does not see the role of legislator as befitting for a woman in Lebanon and will not nominate women to run for office.

"For us, the woman is a woman. She must work to realise the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference is in the details," she said. "She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up generations. This takes a lot of the woman's time."

Even though the country's civil war ended 28 years ago, its politics are still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties, and elections are often settled behind closed doors. Most women in politics hold posts because they are related to influential male politicians. Of the four women currently in parliament, one is the aunt of the current prime minister, another is the wife of a party leader, and the other two are the daughters of an assassinated media figure and a former minister.

The new electoral law introduces a complicated proportional representation system that preserves the sectarian nature of the parliament but - some argue - will offer women and independents a better chance. Mr Oghassabian said he expects at least 20 women to make it into parliament, and dozens more to run.

Political parties are encouraged to have a voluntary quota for women on their lis and women's groups are contemplating all-women lists as well as a campaign of "no-woman, no-vote" to pressure political parties to include women. One senior member of the Future party said he would recommend 20 per cent women's representation. Another, from the Progressive Socialist Party, said it had commissioned a review of internal literature to ensure women's issues and requests were reflected.

Victoria El Khoury Zwein, a potential candidate with a new party called Seven, said she was sceptical that veteran parties would give women a winning chance. But with proportional representation, she is optimistic she needs fewer votes to get elected.

"There must be 15 per cent of the population who want a new political class," she said. "It is not an easy battle. But we can [do it]."