March is a special time. For millions of Lebanese, all along the political spectrum, the month of March evokes the passion of 2005, when civilians peacefully struggled for, and over, the future of their country.
March is also a time to reflect on the fate of half of those people – women.
The Lebanese have just celebrated International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day with an endearing blend of exuberance, flourish, traditionalism and commercialization. Flowers, phone calls, gifts and adoring proclamations have reminded women how special they are.
Meanwhile, and over the past few months, domestic civil society movements have campaigned to reform a cluster of archaic laws – on governance, citizenship and criminality – that severely restrict women’s rights. As usual, Lebanese women have been receiving a lot of attention.
But the celebrations, while sincere, are empty. And the activists have been as ineffective as their cause is noble.
Women in Lebanon remain marginalized at home and in the public sphere. Laws, practices and attitudes shaping women’s lives are glaring failures in a country built on parity (and a place that fancies itself as an Arab laboratory of liberalism).
The kids are alright: Let mothers enjoy, and transfer, full citizenship
As it stands today, Lebanese law prevents a woman married to a non-Lebanese man from passing citizenship on to her children. Much like the right to property, which women in Lebanon also don’t enjoy fully, the integrity of citizenship and family rights erodes when the state restricts transferability.
The problem isn’t abstract: Many children born and raised in Lebanon must periodically reapply for permits to continue living in the country. No clear judicial standard exists, so these children must deal with the administrative maze of Lebanon’s corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. As the children grow into adults, they must confront restrictions on foreign labor, property ownership and a host of other implications.
It’s nonsensical. As thousands of diaspora members may claim citizenship – and the rights that flow from it – through paternal consanguinity, thousands of people born and raised in Lebanon depend on the arbitrary decisions of the security services.
Just a token! Start with political parties and cabinet posts
In 2012, four decades since men began tearing Lebanon asunder – and after two decades of rule by warlords, dark merchants and armed clerics – women remain remarkably absent from (formal) positions of power.
No women serve in Lebanon’s cabinet. Only four women – the usual assortment of wives, sisters and daughters – are Members of Parliament.
A quota system, which many activists propose, may fix the numbers gap. However, in a political culture that derides women for being outspoken and active, a quota would amount to little more than a paper reform. (Indeed, without changing other aspects of Lebanese electoral law, a quota system would probably add a bunch of “yes women” to the flock of male sheep that is Lebanon’s legislature.)
Lebanese constituents should pressure their leaders to encourage, or at least allow, women to emerge within each party’s framework. Furthermore, with men clamoring for posts that offer prestige or enable patronage, women should take under-appreciated, but vitally important, portfolios: Culture, Education, Environment, Labor, Tourism and Social Affairs.
To be sure, women may not be any more peaceable or competent than their male counterparts. On the other hand, especially given reactionary Lebanese attitudes to women, perhaps ladies should be tasked with teaching kids, cleaning up the country, attracting and welcoming guests, and adding that cultured touch. It’s worth a try.
No means no – even if you “put a ring on it.”
The question of rape – specifically, “marital rape” – has claimed much attention in recent months. Under current Lebanese laws, male rapists may evade prosecution – because their actions aren’t defined as rape in the first place – if they’re married to the victim. More bizarrely, the law essentially shields rapists who subsequently propose to their victims. (How romantic.)
Capturing the archaic impulse perfectly, parliamentarian Imad Hout recently told The Daily Star that “[t]here's nothing called rape between a husband and a wife,” but only the act of “forcing someone violently to have intercourse.”
Here’s a crude series of thoughts. Slavery, in its most rudimentary form, is nothing more than “forcing someone violently to work with no pay and with no reasonable expectation of regaining liberty.” Murder, conceivably, is the mere act of “forcing someone violently to die.” Would Hout decriminalize slavery and murder because of cute semantics? No.
Similarly, notwithstanding the genuinely complicated debate over what constitutes psychological abuse, and whether such abuse should be criminalized, the laws on physical violence afford women no protection. Or perhaps battery is nothing more than “forcing someone violently to meet my fist with her face.”
The state must criminalize rape and physical abuse of women.
Educate to appreciate: Boys, girls, men and women are living in a dangerous fantasy
Deeply ingrained social attitudes in Lebanon – or, at least, along its urbanized coastline – have crafted an alluring ideal type of sorts. The fantasy resembles what many people, not entirely without merit, imagine the country to be: a vixen that is equally Mediterranean and Arab.
Many men desire, and many women desire to be, her. She’s sexy, sociable, serene and supportive. She’s prickly at first, because it would be unladylike to let her guard down too early. But she’s tender and caring, almost oppressively so, once you get to know her. She cooks and cleans. She’s virginal, but sultry. And she’s smart – enough to be entertaining, but not enough to be threatening. (Talk about the “Goldilocks zone.”)
Men have certainly shaped an incentive structure that prods many women to prance around like Barbie dolls. And to deny that men dominate the public sphere in Lebanon is to live in convenient denial.
But women, too, have perpetuated and at times celebrated these ideas and roles. Many women – including aspiring reformists – have acquiesced to a flattering, but fundamentally shallow, existence.
In the past few months alone, to say nothing of the preceding decade, women have valiantly demanded equal rights. They’ve worked with limited resources, confronted a public that often treats them like an amusing distraction, and have fought for attention in a place preoccupied with sweeping geopolitical trends and myopic tribal disagreements.
True change, however, will require introspection and balance. If public campaigns work to change how men perceive women, they can also work to change how women perceive themselves. In schools, let’s start teaching children – boys and girls – that women, while pretty, are more than trophies.
Women’s rights for women, not just the Lebanese
The Lebanese must push for the rights of women in Lebanon, not just the rights of Lebanese women. Alongside racism, sexism drives the blatant disregard for the rights of domestic laborers in Lebanon.
In dealing with “the help,” many Lebanese confiscate their passports, restrict their mobility and emotionally deride them. Even worse, perhaps mistaking them for their wives, many Lebanese sexually or violently abuse their maids.
Some men are openly beating maids like dusty rugs. Some spoiled sons are raping, and then orchestrating the deportation of, nannies. Some women, so eager for their rights, and trusting maids to raise their children, won’t trust them around vases, beads and linens.
Clearly, then, many men don’t treat maids as well as they treat Lebanese women – which isn’t that well at all. In turn, many Lebanese women don’t treat maids as equals. That needs to change.
March 21, 2013
Individually, many Lebanese people transcend, or strive to transcend, these failures. But individual acts of benevolence, kindness or understanding are not enough. Collectively, we’ve created a system that fails women – and fails us all.
Next year, alongside flowers and chocolates, let’s give women something more.
Anthony Elghossain is an attorney with a global law firm based in Washington, DC.