Arabs Rise for Rights, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Women on a Political Backslide

Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Jul 6 2011 (IPS) - Following five months of bitter political wrangling, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally announced a new government in mid-June. But while many Lebanese feel relieved over the long overdue appointments, gender equality campaigners despair that there is not a single female among 30 ministers appointed to the new Cabinet. It has further ruffled activist feathers that this glaring omission has failed to elicit the condemnation they are demanding.

“I have to confess I was not expecting the number of women to increase but I was certainly not expecting women to disappear completely,” says Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Lebanese gender equality organization, the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CRTD- A). She tells IPS the announcement of the new Cabinet line-up was met with “shock and horror” from fellow activists. Yet even after more than two weeks, the absence of women has been almost universally ignored by the local and international media.

Although women’s political presence in former Lebanese governments was never remotely close to the 30 percent typically seen as constituting a critical mass capable of stimulating social change, women were nevertheless present. There were two women in the previous Cabinet (as finance and state ministers) and four women in the 128-member Parliament. Women had earlier served as education, social affairs and industry ministers. Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1952.

Farah Salka of the Beirut-based feminist collective Nasawiya, says the challenges faced by Lebanese women run much deeper than achieving political representation. “That is just the tip of the iceberg,” she tells IPS. “We live in a country where women’s inalienable rights are shattered left and right by men in power who try to indoctrinate us from childhood that we should be satisfied with the status quo. The muscling out of women from the Cabinet is therefore a powerful depiction of the reality of women’s situation in Lebanon.”

With or without representation in government, Lebanese women face an uphill struggle. Although the Constitution guarantees equality between men and women, and despite Lebanon being a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other treaties obliging it to eliminate discriminatory practices, the country continues to uphold legislation that subordinates women.

Among the most glaring of these is a law barring women from passing on their nationality to their children, and lenient sentences for men who have committed “honour crimes”. Until 2009, women were not allowed to open bank accounts for their children. As recently as last week, Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani, rejected a proposed law to protect women from domestic violence as a Western threat to Islamic family values.

Lebanon’s government is based on a delicate balance between the country’s 17 recognised religious denominations. The country’s chief political parties, while technically open to all, are divided along confessional lines.

Party interests have always played a greater role in Lebanese politics than issues of equality, says Nadya Khalife, a Lebanon-based researcher on women at Human Rights Watch. She believes the preoccupation with satisfying religious interests has come at the expense of women’s empowerment. The few women who have been in Cabinet in the past were “appointed because of their familial affiliations, and not based on their merit, qualifications, or investment in women’s rights.”

Abou-Habib agrees that the religious nature of Lebanese politics weakens women’s participation. “The more power Lebanon gives to confessions, the more it fails women,” she says.

Religious courts preside over personal status laws, often resulting in gender discrimination in critical areas like divorce, child custody and inheritance. “Secularism doesn’t necessarily mean gender equality but confessionalism is certainly one of the key root causes of gender inequality,” Abou-Habib says.

Perhaps as a result of their country’s confessional system, Lebanese women’s political participation continues to trail behind many other Arab countries. Women count for more than half of the Lebanese population and voters, yet in 2009 held only 3.1 percent of political seats. The figure is dramatically lower than in neighbouring countries seen as holding more conservative views on women’s rights – 12.4 percent in Syria, 25.2 percent in Iraq and 7.7 percent in Kuwait.

The total exclusion of women from Lebanon’s Cabinet comes at a time when Arab women appear to be suffering major political setbacks. Despite significant participation by women in the popular uprisings in Egypt, only one woman has been appointed to the new 27-member Cabinet. A quota for women enacted in 2010 has been shelved.

In Tunisia, where women previously held over a quarter of parliamentary seats, women have been sidelined, with only two of 31 ministries now being led by women. The Arab feminist movement has been “naïve to think the clock cannot turn backwards,” says Abou-Habib.

Her organisation CRTD-A has just concluded a two-day regional strategising meeting with Arab feminist movements. “We all agreed that the challenge is way bigger now,” she says. “There has been a tangible rise in fundamentalist and religious groups throughout the region and these groups will do harm to women.”

According to Khalife, gender equality activists must now radically rethink their course of action. As a first step, she says, “we, as women, need to begin thinking outside the box a bit to become more involved in politics, and to steer away from this idea that politics are only reserved for men.”

Abou-Habib is less equivocal in her demand for transformative change: “It’s high time for us (as gender equality campaigners) to go on the attack – intellectually, not just on the street. It is no longer useful to go for small steps and compromises – it’s time for a serious feminist revolution.”

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