While the Arab region represents a diverse configuration of countries, their one commonality is their poor standing in terms of women’s rights. They share patriarchal structures and increasing conservative movements combined with a lack of political will to advance the gender equality agenda, resulting in a backlash against women’s rights.
Lebanon is no different than other Arab countries, where poor performance in terms of gender equality manifests in social, economic, and political shortcomings. Despite some recent gains, sectarian and patriarchal systems hinder gender justice. Outstanding inequalities were further exacerbated with COVID-19 and Beirut’s devastating blast at the beginning of August.
And yet, despite a steady wave of setbacks, Arab women are the face and the force of revolutions across the region. Arab women are leading the charge and demanding change in opposition to the stagnant political and socioeconomic environment that denies feminist demands.
Women’s rights under attack in Lebanon
Lebanese women-led national uprisings from October 2019 onward, demanding long-overdue legislative reforms to ensure full human rights. The legal structure in Lebanon regards women as second-class citizens and dependents. Matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance) are determined by religious structures where the absence of civil codes that govern the lives of citizens has sustained and promoted grave discrimination against women, putting their freedoms and bodily integrity in the hands of conservative religious courts. Women are also still fighting for the right to pass their nationality to their children and calling for long-overdue reforms due to government inaction.
Quotas in the parliament and cabinet are absent, even though women comprise 50 per cent of society. At present, only 6 out of 128 members of parliament and 6 out of 30 ministers are women, reflecting a dismal rate of women’s political participation and representation. Accountability to survivors of gender-based violence is limited in Lebanon. Despite having a law that criminalises domestic violence, the law overlooks certain types of violence – specifically, marital rape – removed to placate religious authorities. Further, women and girls from marginalised groups often face difficulties accessing justice in Lebanon. This has worsened as a result of stay-at-home orders and other restrictions on mobility as a result of Covid19 restrictions. In the wake of the global pandemic, the worsening financial crisis, and the Beirut blast, rates of domestic violence have continued to increase.
The financial crisis has also doubly affected women and girls in Lebanon, especially refugee and migrant communities. Family structures and state institutions often deny women access to various sectors of the labor force and relegate them to the informal economy, where they are underpaid or unpaid. Worse, women are often among the first to be laid off and often experience a doubling of domestic responsibilities during times of financial crisis.
Poor Lebanese, migrant, and refugee women are struggling to survive financially. Women employed in the healthcare sector – specifically nursing, which is overwhelmingly composed of women – face increasing emotional and physical demands as they sit, quite literally, on the frontlines against the pandemic.
To move forward we must put women’s demands at the centre
In the aftermath of the Beirut blast, women’s rights organisations released a Charter of Demands, laying out a gendered disaster response plan. The Charter identified the need for a feminist agenda ensuring women’s representation and leadership in all decision-making bodies for the response.
Lebanon, like many developing countries, suffers from NGOisation (pdf) of the women’s movement, meaning that the priorities of women’s organizations are often shaped by funding trends, placing them at the whim of donor demands. To counter this pressure, women’s groups must collectively reflect on feminist priorities, creating a unified movement to push for gender equality on their own terms, building a unified movement.
Countering anti-feminist backlash demands that women’s rights activists and groups engage all members of society. Importantly, this includes men, who are indispensable partners in fighting against gender inequality and challenging patriarchal norms. In Lebanon, anti-feminist backlash does not stem only from men, therefore it is critical to include those men in support of gender equality as advocates for the cause.
Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice builds partnerships and forms strategic collaborations to counter backlash against women’s rights by bringing together academics, activists, and researchers to exchange ideas and build a shared agenda that will fuel this movement.
There is global commitment and momentum to end inequalities – Lebanon must follow suit.