Where are our women MPs?

Out of the 587 candidates running in the Lebanese parliamentary elections this year, only 12 are women. If half of the female candidates make it, which, judging by previous election results and current alliances, is highly unexpected, female representation in parliament would amount to a mere four percent.

Increasing female political participation has been listed on practically every single political platform, from Hezbollah’s to Future’s, but Lebanese women still show dismal numbers in parliament, something their sisters in many countries across the globe surpassed a long time ago.

Of the 12 women who are running this year, only a few are listed on the tickets of political parties.

That is because political leaders who are forming the lists are not likely to include women because they consider them a liability, according to Marguerite Helou, Lebanese University professor and women’s rights activist. “Politicians want whoever gets them votes and money… Lists are usually negotiated in the absence of women, and the politicians don’t really care about women’s rights,” she said.
The women whose candidacies have been endorsed by March 14 and the opposition coalition include Future Movement MP and Minister Bahia Hariri, the sister of the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (running in Saida); Strida Taouk Geagea, the wife of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (running in Bcharre); Nayla Tueni, daughter of slain MP Gebran Tueni (running in Beirut I); and the Free Patriotic Movement’s Gilberte Zouein (running in Kesrouan).

Solange Gemayel, the widow of former President Bachir Gemayel, has stepped out of the race in favor of her son Nadim, as has Nayla Mouawad, who has made it in to every parliament since her appointment in 1991 following the assassination of her husband, then-President Rene Mouawad, but who gave way for her son, Michel, who is running for a seat in the Zgharta district.

“It’s as if they were keeping the seats warm for their sons,” said Lina Abou Habib, executive director of the Lebanese Collective for Research and Training on Development Action (CRTDA).

Other females running in the elections include lower-profile first-timers in districts such as Tripoli, Zahle, Hermel and Baabda. But their activity so far has been limited.

Magda Braidy-Rizk is a candidate who hails from a well-established political family in Zahle. She is holding on to her bid despite the fact that her name does not appear on any of the two major electoral lists in the district.

“I was encouraged to run for elections. In fact, certain civil society organizations and families in Zahle urged me to go for it. They wanted a woman in the parliament who can represent them and appear in public circles,” Braidy-Rizk told NOW Lebanon.

Braidy-Rizk recently held her own rally and presented her political platform in which she demands a quota for female representation in parliament.

“Even though not all women might make it, it is a good step forward. It is women’s fear that prevents them from daring to present themselves to the public and by doing that, they marginalize themselves,” Braidy-Rizk said.

But in fact, women who want to be in the public domain in Lebanon are faced by a number of social, cultural, financial and political barriers.

“We live in a patriarchal society where people’s social roles are predetermined. Add to that the confessional system, which fortifies the patriarchy... The traditional feudal nature of the system demands a type of access that is available for men and not for women,” Helou said.

There are also financial restraints stopping women from entering the race.

“The financial deposit candidates are supposed to present and the new law on campaign finance which requires candidates to hire an auditor for their electoral campaign accounts make it more costly for women to run for elections,” Helou said, adding that women in Lebanese society are still not fully financially independent and free to dispose of the family’s common property, including money.

The civil status of women is another limitation. “In previous municipal elections, a husband divorced his wife as punishment because she submitted her candidacy against his will,” said Helou.

With all of the factors working against them, it is up to women themselves to insist on raising their level of political representation in the country. But even women’s rights movements and think tanks tend to be divided over politics, sect and other considerations, activists have complained.

“Members of [social and nonprofit] organizations do not belong to one party or one sect, and they are not obliged to vote for a woman candidate just because she’s a woman. But that does not mean that they can’t launch a campaign to finance women’s electoral campaigns,” Helou said.

“Women reproduce and strengthen the culture that they themselves work so hard against. In their political thought, they are divided along sectarian and regional lines, much like men,” Abou Habib said, adding that the ones who do make it to political posts don’t do much to change the system.

Yes you can

One suggestion floated a lot is quotas for a certain percentage of female deputies in parliament. Although the quota system would not be a permanent solution, it could help women in the short-term, activists say.

 “I am pro-quota because unless you shake the system, it can’t be changed. It may not be democratic, but nothing else in the system is,” said Abou Habib.

Helou agrees that a female quota is a good measure, but it may not be completely successful. “The question is how it will lead to the actual participation of women in the future… because in Egypt for example, when quotas were removed, the number of women [in parliament] dropped.”
But activists agree that the status of women in Lebanon can only improve when they push for their own rights and when they are able to do so in an atmosphere free from backlash and intimidation. After all, there are wonderful things female representatives could bring to parliament, such as “working hard for the benefit of other people,” noted Hamadeh, which is something the Lebanese don’t see enough of from their current set of representatives.

  • Mounira

    we MUST have more women in Lebanese politics!!! we should have by law represented 35% in seats. however i think another factor that keeps women out of the political circus is just how dangerous it can get for not only them but their family aswell. look what happened to may chidiac enemies like syria have no code of honour even against women.

    August 25, 2009

  • Paul Fadoul

    Lebanese women need to mobilize in order to obtain their rights in Lebanon. They represent over 50% of the population. They should ask themselves what they are doing wrong that they have so few rights. They need to take matters in their own hands and organize and change things.

    May 24, 2009

  • Solvil

    Woman, nowadays really play major role in politics. But like a man its up to this woman politician to prove her worth in the political arena where it has always been dominated by men.If elected and hold a key position in the government it is worth proving that woman will not just be beautiful decorations but we too can make good decisions in life. And more so, maybe soon a woman could be the key to Lebanon's unification. GO GO WOMEN IN POLITICS. I salute you.

    May 23, 2009

  • Rana

    It is not important to have women in parliament if these women do nothing to improve upon women's rights in this country. So what if we have 12 or more if those women cannot take forward equality and rights agenda. I would rather see men taking on the parliament and do something about our rights then see women filling in seats and do nothing, or worst yet, as Lina Abou Habib said, keep the seats warm for their sons!!!But yet again, both genders are doing nothing in that regard anyways...it is a sad situation.

    May 12, 2009

  • wahab hajj hassan

    It is really good to write about this matter, eventhough it became cosumed in Lebanon. However, women who joined the parliament recently, did not prove themselves and stayed in the shade of their husbands/brothers... I personally welcome the women's presence, new faces, not to satisfy the woman for losing a husband or son. Parliament is not an award afterall, and if it is so, then all lebanese people should be MPs.

    May 12, 2009