Thursday June 09, 2022
Poll workers preparing to count votes in the parliamentary elections on May 15, 2022 in Beirut.
Eight women were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member parliament on May 15, two more than in 2018 when a record six women broke through the financial, cultural and social barriers to become legislators. Of the eight now in the new chamber of deputies, four are independents and four are aligned with parties which have dominated the Lebanese scene for the past three decades.
Most of the women have exceptional credentials. The four “independents” are: Halima Qaaqour, a Sunni lawyer and university lecturer who belongs to United for Change; Najat Saliba, a Maronite PhD in chemistry who is a professor at the American University of Beirut and stood on the United for Change list; Paula Yacoubian, an Armenian Orthodox activist on the Li Watani list who won a seat in 2018 but resigned after the 2020 explosion at Beirut port which killed 2019 and rendered 3,000 homeless; and Cynthia Zarazeer, who represents minorities on Li Watani, is an activist in the Oct. 17, 2019, protest movement and has helped rebuild homes destroyed in the port blast.
The first two won, surprisingly, in Aley-Chouf, the mountain region with a substantial Druze population; the second two, not surprisingly, in largely Christian East Beirut. The four amount to one-third of the 12-13 “independents” who may dominate the “swing vote” which decides policies promoted by the two main blocs, neither of which as a majority. The second four are: Inaya Ezzedine, a medical doctor, and member of the Shia Amal Movement who has served in parliament since 2018 and chairs the committee on education; former Energy and Water Minister Nada Boustany Khoury who is s a member of the Maronite Free Patrioric Movement founded by President Michel Aoun who partners with Hizbollah and Amal; veteran deputy who has served since 2005, Sethrida Geagea, wife of the right-wing Maronite Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea; and Ghada Ayoub, a Greek Catholic representing Saida and Jezzine, holds a doctorate in law, serves as legal adviser to the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission, and is an associate professor of law and political science at the Lebanese University.
There were 118 women among the 1,043 candidates who stood in this May’s election. In 2018, of the 976 candidates, 111 were women. As six won seats, the 2018 election amounted to a breakthrough. In 2009, just 12 women competed for the 128 seats and only four were elected in the June poll. All were members of political families who achieved success due to the help of male relatives. The most notable women elected were Bahia Hariri, sister of slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and aunt of subsequent Premier Saad Hariri; Sethrida Geagea of the Lebanese Forces; and Nayla Tueni, granddaughter of the publisher of An-Nahar daily Ghassan Tueni and daughter of slain deputy Gebran Tueni.
Lebanon’s first election took place in May-June 1947, more than three and a half years after French mandatory rule ended. At that time politicians adopted the-extra Constitutional National Pact which specified that the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. The ratio of deputies was six Christians to five Muslims. While the allocation of posts did not change after the 1989 Taif Agreement which set the ratio of deputies at fifty-fifty.
Between 1953-1975, Lebanese voted for six parliaments, including the chamber seated in 1972 for which the term was extended due to the 1975-90 civil war. During this period eight women stood for election, following the example of Emily Fares Ibrahim, the first woman to dare. She was a feminist, poet, and writer who focused on the Lebanese Women’s Movement which was founded after Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon. No woman secured a seat.
The first woman elected to take a seat in parliament was Myrna Boustani, daughter of entrepreneur and politician Emile Boustani who died in a 1963 plane crash. She served only for a few months and did not become a candidate in 1964. Instead, she ran her father’s businesses and promoted cultural events.
It was not until 1991 that Nayla Moawad became the second woman become a deputy. She was elected after her husband, President Renee Moawad was assassinated in November 1989. She continued in the assembly until 2009 and served as minister of social affairs between 2005-08.
While women were granted the right to vote in 1953, their participation in politics has been problematic because Lebanon remains a patriarchal society and politicians rely on informal patronage networks to gain and remain in power. The system of governance mitigates against women as seats are awarded on the basis of sect and loyalty to established political parties. Securing a place on electoral lists poses another problem for women who find difficulty in raising funds for campaigns. Parties prefer to finance known male candidates who often assume the mantles of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. Politics in Lebanon has always been family affair.
Consequently, between 1992-2009 there were generally between three and six women in parliament— a total of 17 through 2018. This is a pathetic record for a country which, until the economic melt-down began in 2019, portrayed itself as the sole Arab democracy and the most socially advanced country in this region.
While women have had great difficulty securing election to the national assembly, they have done better with ministerial posts. Women held-nearly a third of the portfolios in the 20-member government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab in office from January 2020 until September 2021.
He had six female ministers serving in defence, information, justice, labour, displaced, and youth and sport. The successor cabinet under Najib Mikati, with 24 ministers, had only one woman member — who was allocated administrative reform. Since Mikati is seen as the most likely figure to form the next government, the prospects for women in the formal institutions of government women remain poor.
However, women have been in the vanguard of the movement created on Oct. 17, 2019, when tens of thousands of Lebanese rose up and demanded an end to the rule of the traditional political elite which stands accused of mismanagement and corruption. This movement has been reinforced by women-led civil society organisations formed to provide aid to Lebanese suffering from the economic crisis which deepened after the port explosion. These women are dedicated, tough, and able to command resources which, after another election or two, could get them into parliament, or selected to run ministries, or encouraged to run for president.