Municipal elections offer political first step for Lebanese women

Female candidates won big in May's municipal elections across Lebanon, with a substantial jump in female representation from the last local elections in 2010.

al-monitor Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, a Beirut Madinati candidate, shows her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot at a polling station during Beirut's municipal elections, Lebanon, May 8, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

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women in politics, women, walid jumblatt, municipal elections, local elections, lebanon government, lebanese politics, lebanese parliament

Aug 12, 2016

According to the National Commission for Lebanese Women, some 600 women were elected during the 2016 municipal elections, an increase of 15% compared to the last elections held in 2010. More educated and more present in the work sphere, women seem to be gaining representation in the public sphere, serving their local communities.

In Baakline, 15 people are elected to the city council, including the president of the municipality. Sara Bou Kamel, a telecommunications engineer running as an independent, almost won the 15th position on the city council in the Chouf area, but ended up 16th, losing by five votes.

Bou Kamel is highly involved in her community through her activities with the nongovernmental organization TERRE Liban. She worked with the previous municipal administration to implement garbage-sorting solutions in Baakline and to train people to fight deforestation and prevent fires.

“I come from a family that was already involved in politics. I was raised to care about this country,” Bou Kamel told Al-Monitor. “Even though I implemented TERRE Liban's branch in the Chouf, leaders of the community would prefer to talk to [founder and President] Paul Abi Rached than me. I wasn't taken seriously as a woman, which was a bit frustrating since it was about my own village.”

However, the garbage crisis in the summer of 2015 pushed her to more extensive involvement. She met You Stink activists and learned how to mobilize others around her. “I was lucky that Baakline has many projects in coordination with the European Union, like the one on democratic participation in the municipality,” she said. “There is a committee for each zone of the city that meets to talk about their issues in order to present them to the municipality, and I was involved in one committee. I felt that I can lead something, and I was encouraged by many people such as the former mayor, Nouha Ghosseini, who is an important figure in the community. It helped for people to think a young lady can participate. Baakline is a kind of prototype.”

Although more women have been elected in local elections, there are currently only four women in the Lebanese parliament. Rima Majed, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “It still shows a very low political representation for women, but municipalities are better than the parliament because women are not representing or related to male politicians.”

She added, “It shows a bigger role for women in communities, which can be explained in different ways. Lebanese society is in a period of transition, with a clear shift in female employment, for example, but men are still dominating the public sphere. Still, women are more independent financially because working is often a financial necessity for a household, and there is an increasing phenomenon of unmarried women, because there are more and more divorces. A lot of women in Lebanon have reached the stage where they feel they can take charge of public matters. They are well educated and they work. Society can also be considered a bit more open. It's still not [the norm] — very few women were elected in Akkar and in the south  but in Arsal, one woman won. We can't generalize, but women do participate more and more. There is still a long way to go, and that should be helped with proper measures and policies to balance gender in our society.”

Majed also emphasized the importance of the community, telling Al-Monitor, “Municipalities are a lot about families, not necessarily politics. In small localities, active women get more visibility, especially with their personal network, whereas it's more difficult in bigger cities for women, as parties and big families have a lot of weight there.” Another problem women face in local elections is that the system is not based on proportionality. The full list either wins or loses. “It indirectly reinforces the patriarchy.”

She added, “If the list containing women fails, women can't reach the municipality.” Yet according to Decree-Law No. 118 of 1977, these elections should be of the majority plurinominal type and not a list system like the parliamentary elections. This situation led Bou Kamel to fail, even with the support of her parents, an important political family of Baakline that agreed not to have representatives from the family run against her so that their daughter could lead her own independent program. But her first steps in politics paid off, she said, “People, especially the young ones, were very supportive. They contacted me and they know I am good and active on the ground, reliable. It was a great experience personally, and people started to know me although I didn’t go to school in the village.”

The path for women in Baakline was blazed a long time ago by Ghosseini, the former mayor who is currently a lecturer for three Lebanese universities. In 1992, she returned to Lebanon from studying in France. Five years later, with the support of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, her students and the Lebanese association Baladi, Baldati, Baladiyati (My Country, my Town, my Municipality), she decided to be part of a list in the 1998 municipal elections.

Ghosseini told Al-Monitor it was a real challenge for a woman at that time. “The electoral list was prepared by compromise with the families and political forces of Baakline. It was not so easy for me to find a place as a woman. The support of Jumblatt was essential for me to be accepted — first as a city council member, not mayor — by the male members of my family and the religious leader of my town. The election results were inspiring: I had the best score in the poll with a surplus of 200 votes out of 2,089 compared to the second winner. These results clearly show the aspiration of the people of Baakline for change,” she said.

However, a compromise was established and the municipal mandate from 1998 until 2004 was shared under the direction of two mayors belonging to the great families of Baakline. Ghosseini was then elected as mayor and president of the federation of municipalities of Chouf Souayjani for two consecutive terms: 2004-2010 and 2010-2016.

Herself inspired by two women elected as mayors in 1963, Soulayma Dorgham in the Bekaa Valley and a Mrs. Eid [author’s note: Ghosseini didn't remember her first name] in her own region, Ghosseini considered Bou Kamel's loss a success. She said, “It doesn't have to be for women a reason to renounce politics. We have to change mentalities by a constant presence in every election. Failure is not the end. We women must always work and support each other to increase the number of women in politics and encourage them in the short term to invest their commitments and convictions in serving others, this being possible because municipal elections are local elections focused on family and services, whose objective is optimizing the well-being of residents. Municipal elections are considered the first level of the expression of authority and power to local democracy. Subsequently, women can access regional and even national levels.”

This wish is shared by a number of women who have organized themselves to challenge the dominance of male representation in the Lebanese public sphere. One, Women in Front, is an association created to motivate women to participate in the legislative elections that have been pushed from 2014 to 2017. From this group, lawyer Nadine Moussa became the first woman to submit her candidacy for the presidential elections that still have yet to be held.

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