An Uprising in Parliament? Lebanon’s 2022 Parliamentary Elections

Lebanon’s 2022 parliamentary election was held in the midst of economic turmoil, and the first since the October 2019 uprising and the world’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions that devastated Beirut’s port. Despite ongoing commentary that there would be a low turnout, 49 per cent of voters cast their ballot – on par with the 2018 figure.

This year’s elections were defined by political and gender activism, opening a window of opportunity to discuss issues from civil marriage to secularism.

The October 17th MPs

For the first time since the first post-war 1992 parliamentary elections, alternative political groups, who reject traditional sectarian political parties and advocate for a feminist and secular agenda, won over 10 seats in the Lebanese parliament – unprecedented in the contemporary history of Lebanon. These groups, known as the October 17th Ministers of Parliaments (MPs) or as ‘Change MPs’, hail from the various strands of society that joined together for the October 2019 uprising – a revolutionary movement that seriously dented the Lebanese neoliberal sectarian system.

It was a long-awaited opportunity for many Lebanese to reinvent themselves and their relationship with their country and politics – a reinvention that saw people pour into the squares and streets to protest. It represented a break from the corruption, patriarchy, and sectarianism in the country. This moment and the deliberate mismanagement of the multiple crises that followed it, culminated in the recent win of Change MPs in parliament.

These MPs are in a position to bring the demands of protestors and civil society at large to the table, especially in issues such as civil marriage. If this group of diverse parliamentarians succeeds at building alliances and coalitions over strategic demands, their leverage will certainly grow. Whilst change in Lebanon tends to be excruciatingly slow and incremental, at best, this gradual shift in representation could make progressive change significantly more likely.

Women’s representation in the new Parliament

Despite these successes, an enduring feature of Lebanese politics perseveres. Having won the right to vote and stand for elections in 1953, Lebanese women only entered parliament 10 years later when Myrna Bustani was elected, replacing her late father.

The percentage of women in parliament has remained low since then, with only three to six women being voted into parliament over the last five elections. While in 2018 women represented only 11 per cent of running candidates, they represented 15 per cent in 2022 – the majority of whom came from the capital district in Beirut. The number of women elected in 2022 rose from six to eight – half of whom are from four of Lebanon’s major political parties.

Although the representation of women in parliament remains low, 2022 has the highest number of women from alternative political groups in Lebanese history – four in total. Their unprecedented win and that of the Change MPs in general represents a challenge to the traditional make-up of the Lebanese parliament. Yet, whilst these Change MPs have made commitments to human rights priorities, openly challenging the sectarian political establishment’s general resistance, backsliding and backlash against rights remains a daunting call to many, and politically risky. The heightened sectarian, political and economic tensions in the country are all linked, and act as a major impediment for positive and progressive change.

New Voices in parliament are a window of opportunity to counter backlash

Although priorities in Lebanon today are focused on economic reforms, the incoming parliamentarians are expected to revive debates around several human rights and gender justice issues, particularly civil marriage. In May 2022, shortly after the end of the elections, the civil marriage debate spiked again and galvanised discussions on social media. Several clerics took to social media to spew false information about all forms of civil marriage, demonise the ‘Change MPs’, and incite hate and violence against them. Until recently, ‘backlash’ against civil marriage has been one of the most contested topics brought up by the media.

Indeed, while some Change MPs claim to hold a feminist agenda, the battle against the embedded norms and practices, as expressed by the ‘old guards’ in parliament, complicates the chances of progress and reform.

Countering backlash in the political system

The political stand-still, the ruling parties’ mismanagement of the Lebanon’s crises, and the very design of the sectarian power-sharing political system, all conspire to ensure resistance and regular backlash against progressive reform. And entrenched patriarchal culture is a central to it.

Challenging discriminatory laws and practices through new voices in parliament – coming from the fringes of the country’s rigid political institution – is itself a symbolic ‘win’ against backlash forces.

The four-year parliamentary journey for the newcomers is marred with challenges amidst a tense political landscape, a crumbling economy, and patriarchal sectarian barriers. In 2022, the battles of civil, political, economic and gender rights have seeped into parliament after having flooded the streets. The Change MPs agendas remain promising and the prospects for change remain high as many young people in Lebanon see in them a long-awaited beacon of hope.

Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis

Feminist activism and organising for gender justice are rapidly evolving. We are seeing new energies and new ways of building a feminist future. This is happening in a time of multiple and interconnected crises, adversely impacting women’s, trans folk’s and non-binary people’s rights, as well as gender equality gains made in policy, discourse and practice.

To explore the challenges to feminist and gender justice activism and to identify new energies in the field, Sohela Nazneen and Awino Okech were invited to guest edit the Gender & Development journal’s special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis. You can also watch the authors discuss their articles in an Institute of Development Studies’s webinar held in November 2021.

Why now?

Feminist activism has faced new and diverse challenges over the past decade. The rise of conservative and populist forces, the growth of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, and austerity in many countries are just some of these challenges. These have led to an increased dismantling of civil liberties, freedom of speech, expression and peaceful assembly.

Across the globe, feminist and gender justice activists are recalibrating their actions to face these challenges.

From Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and climate justice activism, we are witnessing a growth of transnational and intergenerational organising. Feminist and gender activists are seizing the moment to reimagine democracy, gender and power relations, and humanity.

Feminist activism requires presence across policy, online spaces and the street…

What we explore

In this special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis, we set out to answer two central questions:

  1. How are movements sustaining thriving, robust and resilient spaces and alliances in a world of multiple crises?
  2. How is politics of solidarity created at the national and trans-national levels?

To answer these, we explore varying themes and collective mobilisations for feminist and gender justice actors through 20 articles from different regions of the world. Below are some examples of what you will find:

Nothing is as it seems: ‘discourse capture’ and backlash politics; Tessa Lewin

Tessa Lewin develops the concept of discourse capture, analysing how gender equality is undermined by right-wing political parties and women’s groups as they co-opt progressive feminist agendas. Tessa details examples from around the world, including the US pro-life movement, the ‘Vote No’ campaign in the Republic of Ireland, the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ in Uganda, and more.

Femonationalism and anti-gender backlash: the instrumental use of gender equality in the nationalist discourse of the Fratelli d’Italia party; Daria Collela

Daria Collela explores the media strategies of right-wing political parties in Italy, and how they frame people of colour, especially those of a Muslim background, as perpetrators of violence against women. Daria argues that these nationalist forces use gender equality agendas to bring together a diverse set of actors to promote racism, anti-migrant agendas and xenophobia.

The resistance strikes back: Women’s protest strategies against backlash in India; Deepta Chopra

Deepta Chopra analyses the strategies used by Muslim-women activists in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India. These women led a four-month-long sit-in protest against the police violence inflicted on student activists and India’s discriminatory citizenship laws. Deepta details how the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh used inclusive frames for claiming citizenship, rotated care work duties with younger women of the community so the latter could participate, and how the performance of poetry and songs transformed the Shaheen Bagh as a space for building cross-sectional solidarity.

Visible outside, invisible inside: the power of patriarchy on female protest leaders in conflict and violence-affected settings; Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider

Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider examine the Hazara women’s protests in Balochistan, Pakistan. They look specifically at how the women went on hunger strike and drew national attention to the killing of and violence against the men of their community. Women’s participation transformed the movement from male-dominated violent protests to women-led peaceful ones. But despite women being the face of protests, they are still excluded from key decision-making structures, drawing attention to the slow pace of change.

Gendered social media to legal systems, online activism to funding systems

Other articles in this issue explore how South-South transnational solidarity is built. They examine the role of public performance, street protests and intergenerational dialogues in creating solidarity across diverse social groups and generations in the movements such as “A Rapist in Your Path” in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and the anti-abortion rights movement the Green Wave in Argentina. There is a focus on queer and feminist activism in online spaces in Nigeria (such as #ENDSARS), Lebanon, Brazil and how online engagements help to raise contentious issues but also pose a significant risk to activists. For many authors, how to sustain movements and protect spaces for autonomous organising remain key concerns. Several of them focus on the development of alternative funding mechanisms and influencing bilateral negotiations as key pathways for sustaining activism.

Further articles analyse how having a seat at the table in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina were important for making and sustaining pro gender equality policy change and explore the ways an active and effective feminist presence in policy political spaces can help to counter gender backlash.

The strength and determination documented in the articles of feminists and gender justice activists, gives us hope for a better, equitable, fairer future.

Continuing the fight for women’s rights in Lebanon

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.