Lebanese Women in Politics - Full Text Summary

Constraints to women in Arab politics are clear -- as are some antidotes, AUB Beirut-New York City seminar concludes

BEIRUT and NEW YORK CITY: Women activists and scholars came together recently to discuss why so few women are active in Arab politics. They quickly concluded that the constraint was not the lack of able women candidates for office – but rather a tangled web of legal, social, financial, and political barriers in deeply patriarchal societies that discriminated against women entering the public political sphere. Barriers to women in Arab politics were also seen to be part of wider discriminations and inequities in other fields of Arab public life, though possible breakthroughs to overcome some of these were also discussed -- including, most notably for women in politics, quota systems.   

Even when societies offered “empowerment and training” programs to help women enter and win parliamentary elections, according to AUB Political Science Assistant Professor Dr Carmen Geha, the training usually fails because it is culturally or politically inappropriate in the Arab world’s male-dominated power structures. Based on her research on why so few Lebanese women enter parliament  -- just 3% of the elected parliament is female, compared to over 20% averages in North African states like Libya and Morocco – Dr. Geha’s research identified three main constraints for this: totally male-led political parties anchored in sectarianism, the legal system that disadvantages women in many personal status fields that impact their public roles, and the nature of the electoral system that favors men in such a patriarchal society.  

In her interviews and focus group discussions with dozens of women candidates and activists, she also learned that the training they are offered by local and foreign civil society groups is 

usually disconnected from local cultural realities,  and women do not face an even playing field vs. male candidates because they are hindered by the men who dominate the social, political, and economic structures of society.  

The existing “empowerment” programs actually "perpetuate a discourse of disempowered women who need to be educated and trained in politics,” she said, adding that they  give the illusion of legitimizing female political participation, but without actually giving women a place at the table. 

What to do about this, she was asked? Her three-point proposal: “We must expand women’s access to decision-making mechanisms in society, informal and international gatherings, and the media; enhance the feasibility of women’s political campaigns through greater access to financial, social, and legal assets; and, explore how to help younger women overcome the barriers that make them uncomfortable in a male-dominated political arena defined by masculinity and patriarchy.”   

She also urged society to discuss this issue in a much broader manner that includes all rights denials or constraints, and not only those related to women, while reforming outdated laws and improving women’s access to finance, media, and political organizations. A key to achieving this, Dr. Geha suggested, was mobilizing broad-based coalitions on denials of rights and opportunities that are shared in society across lines of gender, sect, age, or income.  

The two other main speakers – Smith College Professor Bozena Welbourne and AUB Business School Professor Charlotte Karam -- expanded on these points in two main ways: how female political participation has expanded in some Arab countries, and what remains to be done in Lebanon and other countries where traditional male dominance prevails. 

Dr Welbourne, who has researched the performance of female parliamentarians in half a dozen Arab countries, mentioned several critical factors that increased the number of women MPs. 

One is the quota for women MPs that Libya, Morocco, Jordan and others have used to successfully boost the entry of more women into politics; another is the proportional electoral system that allocates seats to candidates according to their share of the votes, rather than a winner-take-all system that favors men who dominate the political parties’ lists. Autonomous funding also helps women get elected, as does their running for local municipal offices rather than national parliaments, as a first step into politics.  

Once in office, her research suggests, women pay attention to issues that matter to families, like sexual harassment, rape, or discrimination in nationality laws, which increases their chances of being re-elected.  

  AUB’s Dr Karam, who heads one of several university-wide programs at AUB to ensure gender equality, safety, and opportunity, argued for a wide-angle view of rights struggles. She stressed that, “the question of women in politics in the Arab region must be placed in the broader agendas of women’s rights as well as that of questioning developmental agendas that have not seriously reduced inequalities and multiple disparities in the daily lives of women.”      

She offered two main recommendations for change: “Keep mobilizing many actors across multiple sectors on women’s and other rights, and share information and bring to light the harsh discrimination that hinders women and other citizens; in this way society can counter the problematic power dynamics, discrimination, structural inequalities, and perpetuation of oppression that prevail in many corners of our societies.”  

“We don’t need more training of women,” she concluded emphatically, “we need feminism 101 courses to rid us of the discriminatory pre-existing structures that have failed so many of our women.”

The speakers and other participants in Beirut and New York also commented and offered suggestions on these issues, including: 

  • Much indigenous momentum across many Arab societies takes place at local and rural levels, away from the spotlights of the capital and the media, so we must look beyond women in parliament and political parties to see how women actually participate in society at many different levels. 

  • It is critical to politicize the message about women’s discrimination, activities, aspirations and rights, especially in mass media that reach into every home, so that women active in public life but not in politics are seen by all speaking about issues that matter to them and to all citizens. 

  • Some Arab societies hold back women in public life through the concurrent constraints of conservative social and religious movements and monarchical governance systems, in which case women need to explore quotas for parliament and entering into other kinds of public activities.