When people took to the streets of Lebanon on October 17, it was widely reported to be from a WhatsApp tax the government was hoping would reduce the hemorrhage of an economic meltdown. In fact, the misjudged move was the spark which lit the tinder box of a myriad of issues which have been vexing the Lebanese for some time.
One key area, overdue for reform, was women’s rights, and so it was little surprise to the Lebanese themselves that so many women were out there from day one.
One key area, way overdue for reform, was women’s rights, and so it was little surprise to the Lebanese themselves that so many women were out there from day one. Only western media found it a quirk of the protests, which in turn appeared to prompt Arab media to trivialize the women’s presence even further by making them sexual objects, with one Saudi outlet publishing a montage of photos, referring to them as “babes.”
A tweet by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawires, making a coy reference to watching the Lebanese women protesters being akin to viewing porn, also went viral on social media, demonstrating the extent to which women have been stigmatized in the region.
Both international and regional media have dehumanized the women’s protests and the women themselves in Lebanon. But, that is nothing compared to what they have had to deal with in Lebanon itself, as the gap between their demands and the laws that determine their status – the same laws which were designed to appease them – seems more like a gulf growing each day.
Women in Lebanon are still victims of an anarchic legal system which protects men.
Women in Lebanon are still victims of an anarchic legal system which protects men, giving women no edge at all on getting financial help from former husbands, let alone rights to their children. In many cases, they have little say in ending their own abusive marriages – all because of the country’s confessional system which has proven to be omnipotent against any tactics that women’s rights associations lobby for in the parliament.
Zoya Rouhana of the feminist organization KAFA said the raft of personal status laws is intertwined with sectarian politics.
“Unfortunately, this renaissance that we’ve witnessed and seen on the streets lately through the leadership of women … is not reflected in the laws,” she told a small group who had gathered to discuss a KAFA-proposed draft for a civil personal status law.
The new laws adopted in 2014, which were introduced presumably to protect women against not only abuse but also manipulation due to an antiquated legal system, might fool observers into thinking that reform was happening, albeit at a slow pace. Sadly, like so many things in Lebanon, there is a huge difference between laws adopted in the parliament and their actual implementation.
Moreover, at the last moment, the laws were watered down with the result that marital rape is still not recognized in Lebanon. Another example, perhaps more shocking, is that girls as young as nine years old can still be married off to older men.
The problem is very much about two legal systems at odds with one another – and a ringing endorsement for a much-needed new federal system.
The problem is very much about two legal systems at odds with one another – and a ringing endorsement for a much-needed new federal system which could trump it, if adopted.
Women in Lebanon are largely governed by the community rules of a given religion, depending on where they were born and who they chose to marry. Despite new shiny laws being passed appearing to offer a new layer of protection, Lebanon still operates under a legal system of 15 separate personal status laws that are administered by autonomous religious courts – which of course override any fancy laws adopted at a ‘national’ level.
“Women have really borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance and we see that in the personal status laws,” said Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch Beirut office director. “These are egregious abuses that are resulting in violence against women, that are resulting in outcomes where children are not being taken care of by the parent that is most suited to take care of the child, where families are really not well served.”
“Women have really borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance and we see that in the personal status laws.”
One example, alluded to by Fakih, is rights for Shia women who in most cases lose custody of their children after divorce.
But violence is also a big issue.
In 2018 alone, it was reported by a women’s rights association that there were 37 deaths from wife beating alone.
When parliamentary elections were announced in the same year there was much hope therefore that many more women in both the parliament and government on a ministerial level would redress this imbalance, as a number of horrific murders of women by their husbands seemed to dominate the media – made all the more repugnant by the fact that in most cases men were expected to walk free due to their acts being considered a crime of passion.
And this is, chiefly, the main reason why women protesters are out in force in such great numbers today as three women ministers, and one former TV presenter-turned anti-corruption MP have turned out to be fake. The game is up in Lebanon on women in government as there is hardly anyone in the protest movement who believes that these four women are anything but part of the corrupt system and entirely created as a diversion to stifle an undercurrent of subversion from erudite women’s rights groups and the thousands which support them.
If the protest movement succeeds in ending the present draconian confessional system, women will be big winners in terms of gaining real rights rather than merely token ones adopted by parliamentary decree.
Women are in the news in Lebanon for being on the front line of the demonstrations as they have their own reasons why the confessional system has to be abandoned. They are anxious not to be labelled as a ‘group’ or a movement themselves, as they stand beside their men in the chanting, but their role is important. If the protest movement succeeds in ending the present draconian confessional system, women will be big winners in terms of gaining real rights rather than merely token ones adopted by parliamentary decree; government itself will be made up of women ministers who are not stooges to the corrupt elite but genuine arbiters of women’s rights, as well as the parliament itself (arguably the most corrupt institution in Lebanon).
Under a new, non-confessional system, Lebanon would once again be a beacon in the entire Arab world for women’s rights, which would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect in other Arab countries which are also indulging themselves with ‘window dressing’ reforms.
Currently women play a vital role in assuring that their men aren’t arrested when the protesting reaches fever pitch with security services, whilst organizing kitchens to ensure that people are not deterred from turning up because they are hungry.
A recent demonstration in December which was reported on heavily by western media, was a good indication of how the next parliament will be made up of a good number of women MPs. And how present laws adopted in 2014 and being mulled for an overhaul in 2017, will be enforced, casting a shadow on the confessional legal system, at least, if it is indeed still there, given the protesters’ assiduous resolve to remain firm on their demands.
For the moment though, protesters – and the women’s rights groups which have been championing for change – are only too aware that they have their work cut out. Wobbly regimes in the region need to take note that the women are the most formidable– and therefore most powerful – of all those who make up the protests. They have simply nothing to lose and too much to gain.