Step Toward Equality: Quota for Female MPs in Lebanese Parliament

Article Summary
Though Lebanon allows women to run for office, social conventions and informal discrimination have kept the actual level of female political participation depressingly low, writes Fahmiya Sharafeddine. Implementing a quota for female MPs could help combat stereotyped gender roles and empower women to take advantage of their rights, she argues.

These days, discussions about women's participation in political life are taking on a populist dimension. In addition to the fact that these discussions generate many easy arguments about the relationship between the opportunities available to Lebanese women — which have increased in recent years — and their position in society, this topic also evokes the underlying complexities of the Lebanese system.

Perhaps I do not need to elaborate on what I mean by “easy arguments.” At a theoretical level, the participation of women in political life does not raise principled objections within Lebanese society. It raises no objections at the level of human rights, since the law has long permitted women to participate in political and public life; nor does it raise any at the social level, as the innate diversity of Lebanon’s sects and political parties underscores the importance of such participation. We believe that the fact that these positions have been adopted by Lebanese political actors (whether sects, parties or individuals) reflects a general awareness that women’s participation in political life is critical for the new world order. Here, talk of participation takes on special significance not because it will directly frame political action. Rather it is necessary to investigate the subject to reveal the truth behind the alleged “modernity” of this specific political discourse in Lebanon.

Thus, the issue of women’s participation in Lebanese politics may seem simple; but in fact, it is a complex issue. The participation of women in politics is an easy political choice in the sense mentioned above — that is, when the issue is used as a slogan in domestic and regional or international political battles. But in reality, women are abstaining from participation in politics. This is reflected in the percentage of women in the Lebanese parliament — one of the lowest rates in the world, at 2.3 percent. The abstention of Lebanese women results from the prevalent political culture, which in Lebanon relegates women to second-class citizenship.

Political culture encompasses all perceptions and actions that define people’s lives and choices within a given society. It defines all social practices that justify discrimination against women under the pretext of their intrinsic difference, dividing and predetermining the social roles of both men and women. What this actually means is the subordination, repression and exclusion of women from decision-making positions. To speak of the difference of women has become commonplace in Arab culture, as has ignoring the history of women around the world. This history irrefutably demonstrates that women — regardless of their religion, culture, country or identity — share a history of suffering, marginalization, exclusion and repression.

Recent parliamentary and municipal elections have shown that women's participation in political life is not easy under the present conditions. The conditions under which women participate in government are currently dictated by social, cultural and religious authorities. In addition, some have made the facile claim that women themselves are not exercising their own rights, or that women do not elect other women — as if this did not apply to men as well.

These evasive statements do not illustrate the real condition of women in Lebanon at every level. The reality of Lebanese women is much more complicated than what appears on the surface — it contrasts with all of the superficial claims of modernity that surround Lebanese life. What is the reality of women in Lebanon, and how does this reality come into play on a practical level?

The Lebanese experience is based on a dominant social culture that in theory gives preference to everything new. This is linked to Lebanon’s longstanding openness toward the West, along with many other elements such as its multiconfessionalism and, to some extent, its multiculturalism. This characteristic is frequently cited by the Lebanese themselves when describing their country.

We agree with Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, when he says that Lebanon, being the only country in the Arab region with a democratic, pluralistic system and constitutional environment, has been very much affected by this characteristic and the social interactions it entails. However, Lebanese democracy has failed to invigorate political life, and — in contrast to the claims of many — has not been able to take the required steps to modernize social life.

The issue of women’s participation in political life is perhaps the best representation of this dilemma. Despite the presence of a constitutional environment that has long given Lebanese women the right to run in elections and vote, Lebanese women have not entered parliament until recently.

We may agree that the obstacles to women's participation are not restricted to those relating to human rights (discrimination against women in personal-status laws), but are in fact primarily rooted in education. They relate to the predominant values of the Lebanese family, where standards are set for the images and roles played by men and women. This may explain why Lebanese women have been so late to assume a political role. This issue calls for all of us to radically rethink our educational system, which still fosters stereotyped gender roles, reinforcing traditions of male dominance, as Pierre Bourdieu has noted.

Even if the legal conditions for equality between the genders were present, they would not automatically bring about the required change, as studies have shown that legislation alone is not sufficient. The issue requires major amendments to social and cultural norms, and the adoption of "a completely new mode of thinking, one that does not support the traditional stereotypes of men and women. We need a new philosophy, one that views all people as efficient and essential elements for change," according to  Bourdieu. So, is our Lebanese system representative of a new philosophy of change?

We do not need to give a detailed answer to this question. It is enough for us to examine our own experiences over the past five years on the issue of the women’s quota (a parliamentary quota mandating a female-participation rate in the elected body) to understand the firm resistance to any potential changes in women’s social status.

Here, I will address the quota not as a temporary procedural tool that lifts the injustice imposed on women in the field of politics, but will rather approach it as a training tool that gives women increased opportunities to prove their capabilities and potential in fields that remain closed to them. We view the quota as part of a comprehensive developmental process, although — based on its legal and social proceedings — it is indeed a temporary act. I call this quota temporary because I assume that the success of women in eliminating complete male domination of legislation and decision-making — and their effective participation in these areas — will totally eliminate the need for such a quota. This is similar to how the current sectarian political system precedes the transition to a civil state.

Some might say that my suggestion is nothing but a wild dream, and that my ideas have been bound by those who oppose the quota. Some claim that the women’s quota is undemocratic since all discrimination contradicts democracy, while others do not hesitate to declare their longstanding hostility towards women. These two positions represent significant obstacles to women’s participation in politics.

We would like to discuss freely and clearly the right of women to full participation in the management of society and the state, starting with their constitutional rights and ending with what they have achieved in terms of their potential.

The women’s quota is not an end in and of itself. It is rather an essential requirement in a society that has been able to accomplish much on the road to modernity, but has not been able — for a number of reasons — to break away from male dominance based on religious belief. Therefore, to discuss the quota is not to speak in legal terms, as it may seem at first glance. It is rather purely a cultural discussion. The glass ceiling that has prevented women from taking on a regulatory/political role is still thick, and to penetrate it would require fundamental changes in laws and in cultural and ideological systems that continue to exclude women from decision-making fields.

Let us start by transforming the current environment of objectification — that is, the environment where all of women’s external inhibitions find their root — to one that supports them through a quota law that allows them to fulfill their practical capabilities and potentials. However, this must be accompanied with basic amendments to school and university curricula, as well as in the media, which has become an essential part of the educational system. We must also decide upon measures that will bind all parties. These include the status of women in the electoral lists, mandating financial support for them and providing them with chances to campaign in the media. To adopt a quota system is the worst legal choice, as the saying goes. But, objectively speaking, since Lebanese women have surpassed the limitations imposed by traditional femininity — having worked and succeeded in every profession they have taken on — is it not time for men to surpass the conventional limits of masculinity?

Giving women equal rights should not be seen as a favor on the part of men. It is rather a woman’s unquestionable right. I argue that it is the duty of enlightened men to publicly declare their support for this right. Many countries in the Arab world and beyond have already done so. If full equality is the goal we seek, the quota would be but one step on the road to achieving it, and we must begin now. Is Lebanese society ready? Are all parties convinced? The answers to these questions can only be found in practice, and there is nothing encouraging in this regard so far. Therefore, what should we do, and what mechanisms should we adopt?

Let us discuss openly the stance of society toward women — and not only toward the quota. Let us answer the following basic question: What does society expect from women, and what does it want for them? Lebanese women have made their goals clear: at the very least, to participate in the management of society and state. Lebanese women have decided to obtain their rights. Will Lebanese society, its parties and its sects determine what they want from and for women? We cannot indefinitely wait for an answer. We believe the proverb that says, “A right demanded is never lost.”

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