Women’s Political Representation in Lebanon: An Ongoing Struggle Amid a Consociational State and a Patriarchal Society

by Natasha Nazi

Abstract: The reasons behind the mismatch between women’s economic and educational triumph and staggering low political participation rates in Lebanon have been debated extensively. They have been a focal point for many scholars who, in light of the achievements of Lebanese women in other sectors, consider Lebanon a fertile ground for women to succeed similarly in the political arena. However, the Lebanese political system is structurally inhospitable to women. A sectarian electoral system breeds hegemonic sectarian leadership, clientelist networks, and a patriarchal society. Various electoral reforms have been debated and applied, yet all have failed at addressing gender inequality. This paper argues that Lebanon’s electoral law needs reform, and that the familial-political scene and patriarchal principles must be challenged. Based on all the factors hindering women from reaching political leadership, the paper suggests quotas as a way to remove the obstacles to a more gender-equal political scene in Lebanon. 

Introduction

Amongst the several political predicaments Lebanon faces today, low political representation of women is one that withstood historical, cultural, and political developments. The existing dilemma is reflected in the disparity present between high levels of economic participation and educational levels amongst Lebanese women, and drastically low political representation.

This matter has become a focal point for many scholars who consider Lebanon ready for women to be effectively represented in the political arena (Sharif, 2017). However, despite the triumphs of Lebanese women in other sectors, adequate representation of women is the political sphere has yet to be realized.

The sectarian political system is one of the main reasons for the marginalization of women. Further factors include the patriarchal society and the familial affiliations that define Lebanese politics. It is important to note that during the most recent parliamentary elections of May 2018, the government reformed the electoral law to make the electoral process more democratic and inclusive. This came in the form of a major shift from the former majoritarian system to a new tailored proportional system (Lebanese Republic, 2017). However, the reform neglected to introduce much-debated reforms such as a quota for women and lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Still, the latest election showed the eagerness of Lebanese women for expanded political representation: a striking 111 women ran for office, as opposed to 12 in the preceding elections of 2009.

However, despite this desire for participation, women’s representation did not increase significantly. Women in Lebanon are still alarmingly restricted from entering the political sphere: without reform, no substantial change is likely to take place. The purpose of this paper is to suggest solutions.

Discrimination against Lebanese women within formal politics is a function of a sectarian electoral system and patriarchal and familial political culture. This structure is amplified and sustained by the consociational power-sharing elitist formula which supplements sectarian divides and sectarian leadership. This paper argues that Lebanon’s sectarian electoral law, its familial-political scene, and its patriarchal principles help sustain an alarming gender inequality in politics. Based on the intricate system in place, this paper will suggest the introduction of a reserved seat gender quota to raise the low representation of women in the next election and to accustom the Lebanese society to women in political leadership. For the same purpose, it will also suggest the introduction of a voluntary party zipper quota.

Methodology/Approach

This paper will approach the analysis by answering the following questions: what are the most significant political reforms proposed in the literature? In what ways would they work? How would they address gender-bias in the electoral system? What are other impediments to Lebanese women’s political participation in formal politics? These questions will be answered from an analytical feminist perspective In particular, the paper will utilize Farid Jalalzai’s framework to analyze the challenges that women face when attempting to enter formal politics, which are institutional, structural, cultural and historical (Jalalzai, 2009).

Historical Overview/ Background

Lebanon’s political and electoral systems have been historically based on sectarian patronage. With the tai’f reform agreement of 1990, the electoral law aimed to stabilizing the country after a long and bloody civil war (Najem, 2012). The ta’if agreement focused exclusively on reinforcing sectarian representation rather than anything else, including gender equality in political representation (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22).Parliamentary seats are assigned based on sects (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22). The Lebanese parliament consists of 128 parliamentary seats, of which 64 are assigned to Christians, and 64 to Muslims. Within these two primary groups, seats are further broken down into religious subgroups. Muslims seats are split between Shiites (27), Sunnis (27) Druzes (10) and the ‘Alawis (2). Christian representation is much more dispersed: with Maronites making up the largest group with only 34 seats (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22). Historically, Lebanon had been divided into 26 districts (qadaa), however, for the May 2018 elections, the number was reduced to 15. Within these districts, seats are distributed based on the number of citizens and their religious affiliations. Another reform introduced for the May 2018 elections was the replacement of the majoritarian system (winner-takes-all) by a proportional system combined with preferential voting.

Despite the reform and a ten-fold increase in the number of women candidates in the May 2018 elections, few women candidates were elected. The results can be explained by the lack of any specific attempt to address gender inequality as part of the reform. No quota system was introduced, and most major political parties did not implement voluntary party quotas either, hence no real change was seen. The issue has been extensively discussed by party leaders and in parliament, but no action was taken, suggesting that the discussion was geared toward maintaining a modern public image.

After being unrepresented for thirty years, women in Lebanon have held parliamentary seats uninterruptedly since 1992 (Abu-Zayd, 1998). Nevertheless, elected women have frequently played a descriptive role as part of continuing a family legacy or ask tokens within their political parties. Historically, the percentage of women in the Lebanese parliament has never exceeded 5%, which does not reflect the reality of women’s active economic and social presence (Abu-Zayd, 1998). Within the Middle East, Lebanon stands out as a country that enjoys relative political and social openness, religious liberty, and partial press freedom, and yet it has one of the lowest representation of women in politics in the region and the world (Henderson, Nelson & Chemali, 2015). For example, Algerian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Moroccan women gained suffrage over a decade after Lebanese women, yet their countries have notably higher numbers of political representation of women (UNDP, 2017).  Today in Lebanon, women account for 4.6% of the members in parliament, namely six women out of 128 members. Moreover, they account for only 13% of the ministers in the council of ministers, with four women out of thirty ministers.

The Sectarian Context

“There is an inextricable connection between women’s discrimination and the sectarianism system” said Dr. Saadeh, a Lebanese professor of History. Many scholars agree this connection is a major obstacle to women’s political participation (Kingston, 2011). With parliamentary seats molded into sectarian fronts, hegemonic sectarian leaders present themselves as the protectors of the sect and dominate elections. Such patterns have been continuous since the formation of Lebanon. Both Saadeh and Kingston (2011) argue that the lack of a civic identity in Lebanese politics makes non-confessional political parties and movements powerless, and entrenches sectarian identities within political parties. In turn, gender equality issues have been neglected, in the face of sectarianism and the sustenance of the sectarian system which is deemed as “existentialist” (Sharif, 2017).

Political parties have been inhospitable institutions for women in Lebanon; indications such as the exclusion of women from decision-making positions point to gender equality not being a main concern (Kingston, 2011). Kingston further explains that the sectarian electoral system in Lebanon works to reproduce the existing order because of the “locally based nature” of representation, which ties families and male figures in a “patron-clientelist” manner.

Moreover, democratic gaps within the existing majoritarian electoral system have been a subject of debate in the literature. The existing law was deemed as “outdated and controversial,” undermining democracy, and exacerbating sectarian tensions (El Machnouk, 2017). Reforms to the Lebanese electoral law have been implemented since the formation of Lebanon in 1943 (El Machnouk, 2017). However none have addressed gender equality and women’s low representation in parliament. In the May 2018 election, the electoral system shifted to a proportional law, which also granted voters a preferential candidate vote. Nevertheless, although many parties campaigned for the idea of introducing a quota for women, the reformed law did not include one, and women and women’s issues remain marginalized in the political scene. Over the years, several reforms have been proposed, however, none publicly endorsed a gender quota. The main proposals included a mixed-member proportional law, an orthodox gathering proposal, and a nationwide PR proposal, all of which centered on sectarianism.

The orthodox gathering law, which was initially approved by the major Christian political parties in Lebanon, is said to have emerged from the roots of Christian grievances (El Machnouk, 2017). Based on the proposal, Lebanon would comprised one large district where every sectarian group would elect candidates from its own sect to parliament regardless of their district affiliations. The system calls upon a proportional law while preserving regional sectarian quotas. The Orthodox proposal has been characterized as “morally questionable” as it is seen as drowning Lebanon further into ethnic and sectarian divides. It would probably intensify tensions based on sectarianism by incentivizing candidates to “play the ethnic and sectarian card” while appealing to voters (Reilly, 2002, p. 156). Overall, the proposal is reflective of the preoccupation with sectarianism and neglects to address the gender inequality.

The abolishment of the sectarian system, as suggested by the nationwide PR proposal, was faced with backlash as it was said to aggravate sectarian and ethnic tension in a community ingrained in sectarianism such as the Lebanese community (El Machnouk, 2017). The nationwide PR proposal suggested an electoral reform whereby the proportional law would be applied to Lebanon as one district with no sectarian quotas in place. This proposal embodies the longing desire to abolish the contemporaneous sectarianism within the Lebanese political and electoral systems. Nonetheless, the proposal is not free from sectarian ambitions as it would benefit Muslim-majority groups present in Lebanon today (El Machnouk, 2017). Due to the rising share of the Muslim population in Lebanon accompanied by the Shia’ religious parties large influence, this proposal falls into Lebanon’s sectarian whirlpool. According to the literature, this system would help the main ethnic or sectarian community become hegemonic (Reilly, 2013, p. 1). In short, the nationwide PR reform, while masked as a way to leave the historical sectarian hole Lebanon has been trapped in since its formation, would leave Lebanon worse off, possibly on the verge of a new civil war.

Lebanon’s deep-rooted sectarianism is usually debated as a chicken or the egg dilemma: should sectarianism be overcome by law, partly as suggested by the nationwide PR electoral law, or should it be eradicated from everyday life and people’s self-segregation first? The literature suggests that one cannot entirely precede the other (El Machnouk, 2017), as the “complex, multi-directional system of causality” ties institutions and the culture in complex ways (Almond, & Verba, 1989, p.35). With people beginning to move away from the religious divides, with, for example, relative openness indicated by higher-level mixed religious marriages, now it might be a good time to reduce the sectarian composition from the house of parliament. This would come as the first step in a long journey of eradicating one of the major factors contributing to various difficulties Lebanon faces today, one of which is gender inequality.

Sharif (2017) explains “Attaining women’s full rights in Lebanon would threaten the basis of the sectarian system and the correlation between sectarian and political interests.” As such, gender equality and sectarianism are in divergence in Lebanon. Lebanese women lack full citizenship, as they are not sanctioned to pass their citizenship to their children and partners. This is due to the historical fear of Palestinian settlement which would “endanger the demographic distribution that the sectarian system is founded upon.” Hence, Lebanese women are not given the same rights as Lebanese men. Sharif (2017) points out that “excluding women who would be competent at delivering change from high decision-making positions is arguably “safer” for maintaining the current political sectarian system and status quo”.

The Patriarchal Society and Familialism

Patriarchal practices within societies worldwide have detrimental impacts on women and men. Patriarchy can be understood as “the privileging of males and seniors and the legitimating of those privileges in the morality and idiom of kinship.” (Sharif, 2017). The centrality and domination of the “father figure” stems from the notion that the father is the head of the family and the household, thus responsible for all members of that family and their affairs (Library of Congress, 2004). Younger males are also reared to grow up and adopt such characteristics dictated by societal gender roles (Sharif, 2017). In the Lebanese context, some patriarchal practices which marginalize women’s rights are clear in the political arena, as well as in personal status laws and religious institutions.

Jalazai explains that women’s participation is bound to sets of challenges which restrict them from entering formal politics; such challenges include institutional, structural, cultural and specific views, and historical factors (Jalalzai, 2009). All of these restricting factors exist in Lebanon and obstruct Lebanese women’s paths into political careers. Institutional factors are based on electoral systems as explained by Jalazai. The impediment of women’s participation is clearly linked to the electoral system in place. Institutionally, with the system being governed by sectarianism, women and other marginalized groups in society do not have equal opportunity in representation. “Most men and women suffer from the sectarian system’s disciplinary techniques, women far more extensively and violently than men” (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.7). Women, even if present as candidates on electoral lists, are usually positioned in unwinnable seats.

“Gender assessment identified the structural constraints that carry the seeds of discrimination and women’s vulnerability, as rooted in laws and regulations, sectarian dynamics, socio-cultural values, decision-making structures, and public policies and development strategies ongoing conflict and security problems, and a rise in social conservatism” (Avis, 2017). In other words, structural constraints are rooted in various fundamental areas in Lebanon. Although the majority of people believe it is time for women to step into political roles (UN Women, 2017), in practice women are still discriminated. Jalalzai (2009) explains that “even when women’s education and professions fit the background of politicians, women are still less likely than men to run for office, often feeling unqualified.” Furthermore, women face additional pressures as part of the traditional “family demands” which often put a political career out of reach. In Lebanon, 92% of women say they are the ones who perform most of the household work, putting them at a disadvantage from perusing a political career (UN Women, 2017).

“The longer women have been habituated in political roles, the more likely they will be political contenders” Jalazai (2009) explains. Historically, women have never occupied more than six seats in the Lebanese parliament. As such, the continuous underrepresentation of women fosters continuous underrepresentation.

Helou argues that Lebanese political parties mirror the country’s patriarchal and sectarian social characteristics. Most parties have a “central, patriarchal figure, who is the leader of the party” which reinforce patriarchal practices (Helou, 2011). Parties are viewed as a reproduction of the social system present in society. Familial-type loyalties which are present within the parties reflect society’s male-controls. She explains that the social system gives males a privilege, especially those who are older and thus subsequently discriminating against women and the youth. Wafaa’ Dikah Hamzeh, a former Lebanese minister remarked that gender stereotypes form a “key obstacle to women in politics”; especially since traditionally society does not assign women the role of political agents (Sharif, 2017). Kingston (2011) explains that the personal status laws and religious courts reflect the patriarchal notions present in Lebanon, which hinder women from having their full rights. Such practices along with institutionalized patriarchy are culturally obstructing women from making their way into the political arena.

The nature of Lebanon’s political familialism factors into the historical exclusion of women in politics. Suad Joseph (2011), defines “political familialism” as:

“The deployment of family institutions, ideologies, practices and relationships by citizens to activate their demands in relation to the state, and by the state actors to mobilize moral grounds for governance based on a civic myth of kinship and a public discourse that privileges family.”

Political familialism is exercised within political parties in Lebanon, where political positions are inherited, they are passed on from father to son, sometimes through more than one generation. Some examples include the Harriri family, the Frangieh family, the Gemayel family, and the Jumblatt family. In the absence of a male heir, a son-in-law, daughter, wife, or sister might step in to ensure the continuation of the political and familial legacy. In the Lebanese context, it is generally presumed that political positions will be passed down within the family which “institutionalizes political familialism within the state apparatus and promotes electoral familial politics” (Joseph, 2011). Political familialism could be exemplified with the Gemayel family, whereby Pierre Gemayel founded a political party, after which both his sons, Bachir Gemayel and Amine Gemayel, followed in his footsteps and took politics as a career, becoming presidents of the Lebanese Republic. Following Bachir Gemayel’s assassination, his wife Solange Gemayel took on a political career and became a member of parliament. Today, Pierre’s grandchildren Samy Gemayel and Nadim Gemayel are also members of parliament and continue to hold the highest positions in the political party, established by their grandfather.

The case of Solange Gemayel, a widow continuing on the political legacy of her husband is not a unique case. “Women in Lebanon often come to power in mourning clothes, stepping into a seat vacated by an assassinated father or spouse” (Iborscheva, 2012). A former member of parliament Nayla Tueini campaigned under the slogan “My father gave his life for the freedom of the country so I decided to continue and try to accomplish what he wanted” (Biedermann & Fifield, 2009). Women like Solange Gemayel and Nayla Tueini often play a descriptive role when in political leadership positions as they are merely centered on keeping the husband’s or the father’s legacy alive rather than constructing their own (Iborscheva, 2012). As such, even when women reach high political positions they often do not represent women, rather they represent their family and male relatives’ goals. Lebanese women hailing from political families are regarded as “household names” continuing the long historical establishment of their family in political affairs (Iborscheva, 2012).

Recommendations

Women’s political participation is one of the indicators of gender equality within a country. Despite being relatively open in its societal social practices, Lebanon ranks very low on the political indicators of women’s participation because of a sectarian electoral system, patriarchal practices, and political familialism. Based on the influence of political parties in Lebanon, voluntary party quotas following a zipper system would make the most impact especially in parties which win high numbers of seats. The zipper system is defined by Hawkesworth (2012) as a system ensuring “men and women alternate from the top to the bottom of the list”. Voluntary party quotas of 30%, which is the critical mass for women to represent a substantive role, alongside a zipper system is most likely to create the most substantive tip in the gendered political scene. Kingston explains political parties are “embedded within the country’s political system” as such could play an intricate role in promoting gender equality. Being parts of the problem, political parties would transform to become part of the solution. Helou explains that parties, as well as men within these parties, have the responsibility to promote such internal quotas to raise the number of women involved in the Lebanese political life (Helou, 2011).

Alongside the voluntary internal quota, the literature points toward reserved seats quotas which would ensure a rise in the number of women representatives in the next election. Saadeh (2011) highlights the importance of “demolishing sectarianism” which is tied to women’s advancements. Moreover, she suggests a quota system granting women a minimum level representation. A reserved seat quota may be beneficial to implement in Lebanon, however, only if the seats exceed 30 to 35% of the total number of MPs to reach a critical mass.  Women in reserved seats are inclined to be more loyal to the men who appointed them than to an electorate. This, therefore, undermines chances of substantive representation for women (Hawkesworth, 2015, p.199). Thus, critical mass is needed to see a difference in women’s behavior in political affairs. (Jalalzai, 2009). Although a reserved seat quota would ultimately lead to the promotion of women tied to political families into power, a critical mass of women in parliament could ensure otherwise. Moreover, the representation would accustom the Lebanese society to women in positions of political power, hence continuing the device of this representation with the election of substantive candidates in preceding elections. Furthermore, “women support policies that are beneficial to women and minority groups” (Jalalzai, 2009). As such, the inclusion of women, even if playing descriptive roles at first, would ultimately benefit the country’s gender equality status.

Given that the main reason for women’s underrepresentation in formal politics in Lebanon is the sectarian and electoral system in place, reform to the system on a structural and institutional level is the main solution to the issue of gender biases as well as other biases that affect people’s representation in parliament (Salloukh et al., 2015). Reform of the electoral law would be the most transformational since even if a quota system is applied with the echoes of the sectarian system and the corruption currently in place it is doubtful that it would produce sufficient result by itself. A new and reformed non-sectarian electoral system is the way Lebanese women among other marginalized groups would get the chance to join the political life (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.176). Decentralization alongside other institutional and structural reforms would also be necessary to reach a “new kind of Lebanon” (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.176). Namely a Lebanon with a more open electoral system and a less sectarian approach to politics. However, as quotas have worked in other part of the world to raise the numbers of women in politics, quotas would be reasonable in the Lebanese context as an initial step towards resolving the issue in place.

Conclusion

Article seven of the Lebanese constitution states that “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civic and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction” (The Lebanese Constitution, 1997). The dilemma Lebanon is facing today is one that displays a mismatch of the relative freedom it enjoys in both its democratic political system and its culture. As such, the question of why openness is not translated into formal politics with a high number of women’s representations is one that is critical. All the reforms suggested to the electoral laws are fixated on coinsurance of the elite to keep their political standing rather than on serious suggestions for better representation of the people, including women and the youth. As such, and with the electoral system, the patriarchal practices and the familialism preventing women’s advancement, quotas seem to appropriately disentangle women’s low representation in Lebanese politics. Through quotas such as the voluntary party quota, or the reserved seat quota a change could transpire.

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