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Lebanese women determined to continue fight for more political representation

Lebanon's 2018 parliamentary election has highlighted the dearth of women in parliament and the possible ways in which their numbers can be increased.

BEIRUT — Earlier this month, Lebanon voted in parliamentary elections to fill seats based on a new system of proportional representation. After the ballots were counted, women occupied six of the 128 seats. This small number looks even smaller when one takes into account that there were 111 female candidates out of 976 total. These figures indicate how difficult it is for women to become legislative representatives and decision-makers.

Previously, with so few female parliamentarians and candidates, some believed that women themselves were the problem. That is, they simply preferred not to run. The May 6 election showed, however, that women do want to take part in national decision-making, but when they set out to do so, they find obstacles in their way.

In the recent balloting, three women from the Future Movement won seats: Bahiya HaririRola al-Tabsh Jaroudi and Dima Jamali (Sunnis). Hariri, sister of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been a member of parliament since 1992. Jaroudi, a business and trade lawyer, had previously worked with several parliamentary committees and helped draft numerous laws. Jamali, a professor at the American University in Beirut School of Business, is also an expert on social policy.

Sethrida Geagea (Maronite), with the Lebanese Forces Party (LF), has been a member of parliament since 2005. She holds a degree in political science and is married to LF leader Samir Geagea, who served an 11-year prison sentence (until his release in 2005) for crimes committed during the civil war. Sethrida oversaw LF affairs while the party was temporarily inactive during her husband's incarceration.

Inaya Ezzeddine, from the Amal movement, is a member of her party's political bureau and the first (and for now the only) Shiite woman in parliament. She is minister of state for administrative reform in the current government and the owner and manager of Medical Analysis and Pathology, a laboratory in Beirut.

Paulette Yaacoubian (Armenian Orthodox), a former journalist at Future TV, won a seat running on the Kollouna Watani (All for the Nation) coalition's list. She belongs to Sabaa, a political party founded in October 2016 that casts itself as an alternative to the traditional parties.

It has become commonplace to see a small number of women in Lebanon's parliament, but since the civil war ended (in 1992), they have been under-represented in the chamber. In elections in 2009, four out of the 12 female candidates took seats, suggesting that Lebanese women are not yet perceived as intrinsic party members. Although the number of female candidates running this year overshadowed those of previous years, women continue to have little legislative access.

Interestingly, the majority of female candidates in May were not affiliated with or endorsed by a party. They included journalists and human rights and civil society activists running for the first time. Some parties, including Hezbollah, did not even nominate female candidates. Rima Fakhri, a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, said in January, “We have reservations about [women’s] participation in parliamentary elections as it would be at the expense of their families.”

In the past, the majority of women in parliament inherited their access, replacing their fathers, brothers and husbands. It has almost become the norm for women. In 1963, Mirna al-Boustani was elected by acclamation to succeed her father, Emil al-Boustani, and served into the following year. In the 2009 elections, the women taking seats were Bahiya Hariri, Sethrida Geagea, Nayla Tueni, daughter of the late parliamentarian Gebran Tueni, and Gilberte Zuein, daughter of the late member of parliament Maurice Zuein.

The women victorious in May who spoke to Al-Monitor agreed that the absence of a gender-based quota system is a primary reason for women’s under-representation. Yaacoubian told Al-Monitor, “A quota for women could be adopted temporarily, for once or twice, so that the voters get used to electing women and men grow accustomed to seeing women as part of the decision-making picture.”

She further stated, “The political class’ broken promises are another factor obstructing women’s access to parliament. This is not only limited to [the political class] not keeping its promises, but also due to the lack of accountability by the people. If enlightened men and women had boycotted electoral lists that do not include women, achieving full and proper participation and representation for both men and women would have been forced. Moreover, the majority of parties that nominated female candidates to present a civilized image recommended that their voters cast their ballots for the male candidate, making the women’s loss inevitable. Kollouna Watani has indeed given women a role and weight, with women making up more than 30% of the total number of candidates.”

Jamali told Al-Monitor, “Women in Lebanon continue to face the difficulty of being accepted as members of parliament, in raising funds for their campaigns and winning the nomination of a particular established movement. All of these factors have a role in making women's access to parliament an uneasy task.” This implies that the society's prevailing preference is for male, rather than female, politicians.

Ezzeddine remarked, “Identifying the reasons requires a rigorous and precise study on this particular issue. In the meantime, the discussion would be based on impressions and conclusions. My impression is that a positive score was recorded in the latest elections, with an increased number of female candidates. It is a positive because it is required that the culture of having female candidates be spread broadly. Unfortunately, only a few women won in the election, and the reasons are numerous, such as culture. The culture of voting for women is still not well established in Lebanon. Based on that, we demand that a quota for women be introduced, and I’m certain that the law largely alters people’s behavior. Another reason is that [a lot of] the female candidates were not on the parties’ lists. Women have better chances of winning when they are on the parties’ lists.”

These women agree that to promote the presence of women in parliament, what is needed first and foremost is the introduction of a quota for women in the electoral law. Izzeddine asserted, “I will seek to have a quota introduced and will work on legislation that would stop all forms of discrimination against women in Lebanon at the multiple levels.” Yacoubian stated, “I will propose to set a mandatory, temporary gender-based quota of at least 30% in any electoral law.”

Jamali would like to see a sufficient number of women in parliament to form a bloc to work on bills on women’s affairs. “The Future Movement’s bloc includes three women in parliament, and for us the priority will be given to women's affairs,” she said. “Based on that, we will be working on many draft laws, including a women's quota in all public and private institutions, government and the public domain. We will seek the [right of] Lebanese women to pass their nationality on to their children and to reduce violence against women. This is in addition to other bills that would change gender stereotyping toward women.”

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