Women, media and politics in Lebanon

In a country where over half of the population are women, Lebanon lacks political representation even more than some of its other Arab neighbors. MENASSAT's Simba Russeau looks at the roles women are seeking to fulfill in Lebanon after the formation of a national unity government last week.
basma barakat
Many Lebanese women like Basma have achieved great success in their careers but Lebanese women are still underrepresented in government. © Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, July 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanese women have made great strides in the private sector and are highly visible in the mainstream media as presenters and journalists. But in a country in which women make up about 53 percent of the population – more than 2 million women – their basic rights and representation has been limited in politics.

Lebanon has created an image of being one of the most tolerant Arab countries when it comes to women. In comparison to other countries in the Arab region, Lebanese women represent 28 percent of the labor force ahead of Syria with 25 percent and Jordan, which has a 21 percent participation of women in the work force.

However, when it comes to political representation in government there is only 2.8 percent participation of Lebanese women, far less when compared to more authoritarian regimes like Syria (9.6 percent) and Jordan (5.4 percent). It is a trend that worries groups like the Collective for Research and Training on Development Action (CRTDA).

Last week, the group announced the re-launching of the "Right to Nationalize" campaign, which involves lobbying politicians and doing media advocacy on the right for Lebanese women to nationalize their children if marrying non-Lebanese.

"During our field awareness of every country we met with many parliamentarians and many offered support to working to amend the law so now we need to continue to put pressure on the new Lebanese cabinet and parliamentarians," says Gender Project Officer for CRTDA, Vera Hayek.

"We have a focus group that includes members of the media who are supporting the campaign but we are starting to implement a media advocacy campaign to get the media interested in the nationalization campaign," she told MENASSAT.

Women in black

In the 1992 elections, one woman from the north of the country, one from the south, and one from Mount Lebanon (central Lebanon) won parliamentary seats. This was the first time women arrived in parliament and it constituted a fundamental transformation, since women were only present in parliamentary life twice between 1952-1962.

The women entered the elections in 1992 with the aim of challenging the political discrimination against them. However, this undertaking did not win the level of support from women in Lebanon they expected, despite the fact that women had been economically very active in Lebanese society.

Historically, the most likely way for a woman to enter the political scene in Lebanon was to fill a post made absent by a male heir.

Examples include former Minister of Industry Leila Solh, Daughter of former Lebanese Prime Minister Riad Solh and aunt of the billionaire Prince Walid Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, former Minister of Health Wafaa Hamza, a Shiite close to the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Nayla Moawad widow of former president Rene Moawad who was the Social Affairs minister in the former government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"We have this saying in Lebanon that the only women who make it to parliament are those in black because they reached their positions due to the death of a family member," journalism student at Lebanese University Sahar Charara told MENASSAT.

"They only serve a role to represent their political party but are ineffective in working on behalf of women's rights in Lebanon," she added.

Based on research conducted by the CRTDA from studies on Lebanese males and females ages 23 – 34, there is a ratio of women to men in Lebanon of about 7 to 1. Statistically, the survey suggests that this is due mainly to the economic situation, which places a huge percentage of men of this age in job positions outside of Lebanon. But, this still constitutes an underrepresented demographic in political office.

Right to Nationalize

Legislation constitutes one of the main social obstacles facing women. Women are still discriminated against in laws concerning the family, nationality, the right to travel, and the right to work. Groups like the CRTDA contend that has made it difficult for Lebanese women to participate independently in public life.

The nationality law which the CRTDA is attacking was established in 1925 and a decree in 1994 granted nationalization of some children born to Lebanese mothers.

One of the main reasons for denying the right to nationalize their children has been the highly politicized issue of Palestinians and Syrians married to Lebanese women. Politicians claim to nationalize the children of these marriages will likely shake up the sectarian demographics of the country.

But according to Roula Masri, founder of the "Right to Nationalize" campaign, research conducted by CRTDA indicates that only 1,000 Lebanese women are married to foreigners. Based on data of Palestinians and foreigners registered with General Security indicates that 1.6% are married to Palestinians and only 6.6% are married to Iraqis but the numbers are inaccurate.

"We are going to be updating these numbers by doing field research to figure out the actual demographics," says Masri. "However, the issue is not about how many women are married to Palestinians, Syrians or other foreigners but that they have to amend this law to highlight that this is a human right."

Amending Laws

Morocco amended the nationality law in 2005, Algeria and Egypt in 2007.

However, Lebanon, Bahrain and Syria have not amended their laws but Bahrain is currently working with other members of the gulf region to make the nationality law a more visible issue. 

Algeria has been the most successful, in that women were able to amend the constitution as well as the law.

"We used several strategies like creating seminars with women’s associations, advocacy work and lobbying," said Algerian women's advocate Houria Chaouche.

"Most important was the will of the women who worked to demand that the laws be changed."

According to Chaouche, women are visible on the social and economic level but are absent on the political level in Algeria. Although women are represented in the government they don’t represent the entire female population in a country where women constitute more than half of the society – trends that mirror the situation in Lebanon

"At the moment, the focus of civil society organizations in Algeria is to emphasize the importance of implementing policies that allow women into the cabinet and parliament," adds Chaouche.

Chaouche told MENASSAT that in Algeria women were able to voice the need for their basic rights without restrictions from any government or political parties.

However, they faced difficulties in getting mainstream media involved due to government control of the main national media in Algeria, but extensive efforts were made to get the independent or grassroots media to provide coverage of the nationality campaign.

"Working in partnership with Collective for Research and Training on Development Action (CRTDA), we are training journalists and media on mainstreaming gender in their stories and how to be aware of gender issues and being gender sensitive regarding issues in society," adds Chaouche.

One effective tool used in Lebanon's nationalization campaign was the use of social networking via the Internet.

"We were able to take this issue beyond borders through the use of Facebook, which we set up a group to discuss the need of changing the nationality law," adds Masri.

"Through this form of social networking we have been receiving numerous stories of Lebanese women who are living abroad. Many have children and would like to return to Lebanon with their families but are prohibited due to fact that they are unable to provide legal papers to their families."