Since the new year, several Lebanese rights groups have been demanding that the government established by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Dec. 18 implement a quota of 30% of seats for women in the May parliamentary elections. Women's rights organizations had expressed dissatisfaction over the appointment of a man to head the new Ministry for Women's Affairs, Jean Ogasapian.
Hariri's newly appointed government is composed of 29 men and one woman, and a ministry for women's affairs was implemented for the first time in Lebanon. Led by Ogasapian, a parliamentarian from the Future Movement and consultant for private and public institutions on social cohesion and women's empowerment, this ministry will have the task of advocating for new laws and amendments favorable to the advancement of women in Lebanese society.
The day after the news broke, the feminist organization Kafa issued a press release condemning the creation of a special ministry for women and the fact that only one minister is a woman. Kafa criticized the idea of one ministry specialized in women’s affairs and said women should not be exiled to one institution.
“The new government shows that politicians intended to keep women away from the government because the male intellect is still dominant in themselves and their minds,” the press release read. “As for the Ministry for Women's Affairs, we stress that our main problem is not with the minister who was appointed, because we originally did not ask for the establishment of a ministry for women's affairs.”
The release went on, “There have already been women in the ministries of education, finance and social affairs, and no one can deny their ability to fill such positions. Our main demand for the government is to respect the right of women to full citizenship through active participation in political life and in the management of the country equally with men.”
Other groups like FE-MALE are not against such a ministry, but worry about its possible efficiency as a nascent entity with no pre-defined budget. “The idea of having a ministry for women's affairs is positive because women's issues need a lot of work and struggle in Lebanon. So it is good to have a specialized entity to work on this topic,” FE-MALE co-founder Hayat Mirshad told Al-Monitor.
“But I am afraid that it is a kind of opiate to say the government did what we wanted but in the end there will be no action. If we consider these numbers — 3.1% of women in parliament and only one female minister — we can see clearly that political parties do not support women to run in elections, even in smaller ones like the municipal elections,” she added.
Mirshad said that this ministry is “not a primary one, like the defense or foreign affairs ministries. It doesn't have its own budget or system, so it is an incomplete step.” She added, “I am not sure about its efficiency, so we have to wait now to see what will be done.”
Ogasapian said that studies about the ministry's strategy, vision, core values and the current situation of Lebanese women have already been conducted, and the next step is to properly apply their findings. “We are already in the process of recruiting relevant people who have experience in women's issues and coordinating with United Nations organizations in order to receive funding and international expertise on the subject,” he told Al-Monitor.
“Our first focus after that is to establish a 30% quota of [women's] participation in the political world, in parliament, the government and inside the ministries themselves,” he added.
The quota initiative was announced by Hariri on Jan. 3. The next focus should be to work on amending laws discriminating against women in Lebanese society, Ogasapian said, adding, “For example, we need to address discrimination regarding work and social security. Our goal is to bring women and men [together] as equals.”
Asked about a man being picked for the minister position, Mirshad said, “First, I think no one can feel the suffering of women as much as a woman. A man can be a supporter of the cause but can't possibly feel what women go through."
She noted, “It is also a question of power dynamics. We have to create spaces for women to have a voice and act, as they are directly concerned, so the [leadership] of these spaces shouldn't be for men. Plus, picking a man for this ministry is like saying that political leaders couldn't find a single woman able to lead it, and this is quite insulting, patronizing even.”
Ogasapian does not see his gender as a problem. He said, “The question of women's rights is not limited to the struggle of women,” but the responsibility of society as a whole. He asked, “Why couldn't a man carry responsibilities and defend [women's] rights in order to reach equality? The question of fairness and justice is the duty of a man too.”
Two of the main struggles feminist organizations in Lebanon have been leading for years are the right for Lebanese women to [pass on] their nationality to their spouse and children, and amending the domestic violence law to improve protections for women.
“The fact that women cannot pass their citizenship to their children is not fair. They contribute to society" and their families should benefit from it, Ogasapian said, adding, “We have to work on it, but many Christians are concerned about the confessional balance of the country if this becomes the case. For the domestic violence law, amendments are possible and we can work on it with the organizations that are asking for a change.”
Some Christian leaders believe that if women could pass on their nationality, it would mostly benefit Muslim foreigners — although there are no figures available to support that point — and if Lebanon becomes more heavily Muslim, Christians could lose political space in the country.
Ogasapian reported meeting with women's rights groups to learn about their demands and projects. He said, “So far, they did a lot and reached some success. They should continue doing so. My work is not to replace them. Instead, I will help them by lobbying in parliament and in the government in order to support their demands.”
He continued, “The main thing the minister can do is to raise the voice of women in public and between politicians, and to show support for women’s causes.”
The Ministry for Women’s Affairs seems like a good idea on paper for Lebanese women, but it will need to take concrete actions in the next few months to prove itself.