Article by Saskia Giraud-Reeves
Within Lebanese society and its political system, women are consistently underrepresented. However, the protests that have been sweeping the nation since the government introduced a new tax measure earlier this year on the 17th of October have provided an opportunity for Lebanese women to not only express their political views but to also have a louder voice in a society that often ignores them. The issues surrounding Lebanon’s poor public services and its struggling economy are particularly felt by women living in poverty, those who reside in neglected regions, female refugees and sexual minorities. It has been well-acknowledged by both those inside Lebanon and within the international community that the Lebanese legal system, its economic practices, and social and political norms discriminate against the country’s women.
Women have arguably played an integral role so far in Lebanon’s revolution. Since the start of the protests, the country’s female population has been on the frontline blocking roads and resisting police suppression. One of the most enduring images of the protests from the very first night of unrest, during an altercation between a cabinet minster’s bodyguards and protestors, has been the footage of Malak Alaywe gifting one of the security guards – brandishing his gun at the protestors – with a swift kick to the groin. This image not only went viral across the internet but also acted as a catalyst in encouraging more Lebanese citizens out onto the streets.
Journalists throughout the protests have continuously recognised the role that women have played in not only helping to pacify the police and protestors but also in inspiring others to join the cause. The first two nights of the protests saw violent interactions between the Lebanese police force and protestors, however, on the third evening, a group of women chose to form a human shield in order to prevent further violence between the two sides. This ‘shield’ became referred to as the ‘women’s front line’ and following its creation, the violent clashes halted immediately and participation in the demonstrations only continued to grow in the subsequent days as this decrease in violence allowed more people to feel safer in joining the protests.
The demonstrations are not like anything Lebanese politics has witnessed before – rather than specifically targeting the government or particular influential political figures the protestors are calling for change amongst the entirety of the political class. The protests are also occurring amongst a backdrop of severe economic crisis and deep-seated historical and political corruption. Protestors have frequently represented their demands as simply the fulfilment of their most basic rights as Lebanese citizens. However, for the female population of Lebanon these rights are even fewer.
Despite various attempts at reform, the Lebanese legal system continues to discriminate against women today. Lebanese women cannot legally pass on citizenship to their children meaning their offspring could be left stateless. Furthermore, family law including divorce, property rights, and child custody are decided by religious law which often deeply prejudiced against women. In addition, gender-based violence continues to be a serious issue for the female population in Lebanon and one which largely fails to be addressed by the Lebanese legal system.
It is not just legally that Lebanese women are underrepresented but also politically – there are only six female lawmakers within the 128-seat parliament. Not to mention the significant lack of women in certain areas of the workforce – especially in fields such as science, technology, and engineering. Lebanon is ranked 140th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report “which measures gender parity in the economy, education, health, and politics”. Over the last 20 years, women’s rights in Lebanon have like many of the other pressing issues and problems in the country have been largely ignored with just a small number of half-hearted reforms being implemented in attempts to quell growing tensions.
It is this historical neglect of women’s rights that has led to such significant portions of the country’s female population taking to the street in the current ongoing demonstrations. Wehbe who organised – with her friend Sarah – the vigil in Beirut on Wednesday the 6th of November stated to a journalist at the independent “My daughter will not grow up in the same Lebanon I grew up in. We grew up in fear. There is none of that now. If we have a problem we are going to scream about it. Now we have voices”.
Predictably there has been a political backlash against the heavy participation of women in Lebanon and certain media sources have attempted to trivialise Lebanese women’s efforts by describing female protestors as “pretty faces” amongst the demonstrations.
Furthermore, Hariri supporters have started numerous campaigns to try and prevent female activists, journalists, and protesters, from reporting on the widespread violence being carried out by the Lebanese authorities. However, Lebanese women appeared to be undeterred by this opposition and are continuing not only to fight for the betterment of their country but also their rights as female citizens of Lebanon.