Lebanese parliament: A men’s only club?

Awkwardly, women have shown themselves reluctant to rally around the advocacy groups that have kept the principle of a women’s quota alive.

2017/07/09 Issue: 114 Page: 13

The Arab Weekly
Makram Rabah

There are many indica­tors to measure a country’s socio-politi­cal progress but perhaps chief among them is the status of women and their integration into different sectors of society, including their presence in public office.

Although Lebanon was among the first Arab countries to give women the vote — in 1952 — later governments failed to capitalise upon this progressive move. Lebanese women are still denied legal mechanisms that would protect their rights and empower them to compete for public office.

Despite the country’s vanity and proclamations on the superi­ority of the Lebanese way of life, only ten women have won seats in parliament, a shameful number by any standard.

Moreover, the electoral law passed recently by the Lebanese parliament catastrophically failed to address the under-representa­tion of women. Rather, it may make the situation more difficult for women to achieve parliamen­tary parity.

Essentially, the introduction of Lebanon’s new system of propor­tional representation bastardises a series of fairly good proposals and fabricates a new system, designed primarily to protect the wishes and aspirations of the ruling establishment.

While ostensibly promoting a reformist agenda, the new system discards a long list of reforms, including the secularisation of the political process, the lowering of the voting age and, most impor­tantly, the introduction of a quota system stipulating that women must constitute at least 33% of any electoral list of candidates.

Given this new system of voting, people are expected to vote for closed lists rather than candidates. The adoption of a women’s quota would have obliged parties to give one-third of their electoral ticket to female candidates or risk being disquali­fied, a proposal that was denied.

Most Lebanese political parties preach the message of women’s empowerment, going so far as to appoint women to key posts within their organisations. However, when it comes to forming electoral lists, women are deemed either unfit or unrepre­sentative of whatever party is composing them. Moreover, violence against women remains endemic in Lebanese society and the state drags its feet when dispensing justice in such cases.

Throughout the protracted negotiations that led to dropping the quota, Hezbollah was blamed for its resistance to its inclusion. The reality, however, is that none of the other parties were particu­larly keen either and were all implicitly responsible for its even­tual demise.

Few familiar with Lebanon’s sectarian patriarchy can claim to be surprised by this or any resistance to reforms that may loosen the political elite’s grip on the reins of power.

More alarming has been the docility with which the Lebanese public — and women in particular — greeted this unjust usurpation of their constitutional rights. Women comprise 51% of Leba­non’s population and are notably more likely to attend university. Unfortunately, most of those women did not join the handful of protesters who demonstrated at the Lebanese parliament and were brutally assaulted by parliamentary police.

Despite women’s unemploy­ment reaching 15%, few appar­ently felt it incumbent upon them to take to the streets or to organ­ise effectively against a demon­strably corrupt male political class.

Realistically, if Lebanese women aspire to empower their own, they would unwaveringly boycott any list that does not include capable women activists and candidates who can properly voice the concerns of the entire population rather than act as window dressing for archaic sectarian political parties.

Awkwardly, women have shown themselves reluctant to rally around the advocacy groups that have kept the principle of a women’s quota alive. Instead, most seem to have joined the herd mentality that typically favours sectarianism over citizenship.

Despite the rhetoric, Lebanon remains far from the top of any democratic index and the state building so desperately needed in the country will remain nothing but an aspiration so long as Lebanon’s leaders and their followers refuse to truly engage with change. It is true that fundamental change does not come from the adoption of a women’s quota alone. Rather, it comes from a popular awakening that renders citizens no longer content to stake the country’s future on the likelihood of its poli­ticians growing a conscience.

Perhaps on Mother’s Day instead of posting a picture of their mother with a hackneyed and borrowed quote, the Leba­nese would honour them by voting enough women into office to signal the beginning of the formation a truly modern state.

Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.

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