Beirut, Lebanon – In a country where women make up only three percent of parliament, a record number of 86 female candidates will be competing for Lebanon’s 128 legislative seats in elections on May 6.
In fact, out of the total 976 candidates who originally registered to run, 111 were female candidates – a staggering surge compared to just 12 women in 2009.
The record number has generated a sense of hope in many Lebanese about women’s participation in the country’s politics, with onlookers commending it as a turning point for women’s rights.
Yet as the pool of hopeful candidates dropped down to a final list of 583 people, 22 percent of women dropped out of the race.
For many of the remaining 86 women, the country’s political parties and even media institutions seemed not to be yet ready.
In the conservative northern district of Akkar, a group of women resorted to creating an all-women’s list because local groups “didn’t take the issue of female candidacy seriously”, the group’s leader Rola Elmourad was quoted saying.
Catherine Batruni, a researcher who specialises on women’s political participation in Lebanese history, said that Lebanon is still lacking a “solid overarching umbrella movement that galvanizes the masses of women”, and there is a lot of work left to be done.
When it comes to measuring the gender gap, international institutions give Lebanon a nearly failing grade.
According to the 2016 Human Development Report, a report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), female participation in the labor market is 23.5 percent, compared to 70.3 for men.
The country also has a Gender Inequality Index (GII) of 0.381, ranked 83 out of 159 countries in UNDP’s 2015 index. The country ranked 137 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and 142 when it comes to political empowerment.
In concrete terms, these figures reveal a near-total absence of legislation that protects women from abuse of all forms, as well as policies that might facilitate their advancement and equal treatment.
This, despite the abundance of women’s groups and non-governmental organizations that are currently active in the country.
In fact, at the very heart of the dilemma of women’s rights lies the sectarian makeup of Lebanese politics and policies that patch the country together.
‘Personal Status Laws’
To begin, there are 18 officially recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and there is no civil code that regulates issues of personal and familial status.
Instead, there are 15 distinct “personal status” laws, administered by religious courts aligned with the country’s diverse communities.
A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), surveying 447 recent legal judgments and interviewing tens of people, found that “across all confessions,” women faced legal and other obstacles in matters of divorce, pecuniary rights, and child custody, among other issues.
“It’s not just that Lebanese women are subordinate to men, or unequal to men; they are unequal amongst each other,” said Batruni.
“That means that 18 different Lebanese women, from 18 different sects, all have completely different rights and are all being judged in courts [run] by men in a system that favours men.
“We all have different access to divorce, child custody, and inheritance. It’s insane.”
Batruni says another example is the discrepancy in some religious courts when it comes to judging men and women, regarding the act of adultery.
It was only in 2011 that Lebanon repealed the criminal code provision, article 562, which mitigated sentences for so-called honor killings, and only in 2017 did parliament scrap a law that allowed rapists to avoid prison by marrying their victims.
Also deterring the advancement of women’s rights are provisions over half a century old.
For example, under a 1925 law, Lebanese women married to foreign men cannot pass their nationality to their children or spouses.
Men, on the other hand, can pass their citizenship to their children, wife, or multiples wives.
Lebanese politicians have consistently argued against granting women this right, for fear of shaking up the country’s delicate sectarian balance.
Lebanon is home to more than 174,000 Palestinian refugees, according to government figures.
Lebanon also has the world’s highest numbers of refugees per capita, due to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Around 1.5 million Syrians have fled into tiny Lebanon.
Earlier in March, Gebran Bassil, foreign minister, announced he would be proposing a draft law to parliament to remedy the situation, which has been a core issue of the country’s women’s movement since 2006.
Women married to non-Lebanese men will be allowed to pass on their nationality to their children, except if they are married to men from “neighboring countries,” Bassil tweeted. The exception, aimed at Palestinians and Syrians, is to avoid “naturalization”, he said.
“I would love to know what the Lebanese state’s argument was before the Palestinian crisis,” said Batruni.
“This law has been in place since 1925. There was no Palestinian crisis in 1925.”
Sitting at a feminist cooperative in Beirut, Nadine Moawad, a prominent feminist activist, recounted the time when she spent countless hours taking screen-grabs and recording civil registries of registered voters, which the Lebanese government had released to the public – a traditional practice before each election.
Because women and men vote in separate polling stations, which has apparently been the case since women got their right to vote in 1953, Moawad stumbled upon endless sheets containing women’s voter registration data.
She learned that obstacles to Lebanese women’s rights extend beyond legislation.
“When you look at the [data for] women, you see incredible diversity in their names, their sects, and in the notes next to their names: ‘She got married; she was removed.’ Or, ‘She got divorced; she was moved out of the file’,” Moawad said, describing the sheets of data which have since been removed from government websites and could not be independently verified by Al Jazeera.
Moawad said women are listed by bureaucrats under their fathers’ registries. If a woman gets married, her record moves to that of her husband’s file.
If a woman gets divorced, her record moves back to that of her father’s. Conversely, men fall under a broader “folder” of the sects they ascribe to.
“That is when it became clear to me that the problem is not in the individual sect that they ascribe to. It’s in the title of the folder. It’s in the way that the folder is classified,” said Moawad.
“It’s almost as if in 1905, or I don’t know when, the Ottomans had a computer and they created these folders and gave them sectarian names.
“So for example, Shiite_Baalbek: that’s the name of the folder,” she said, referring to a predominately Shia district of Lebanon. “And now we are not allowed to change the folders’ names.”
“And then you understand why women can’t pass on their nationality,” said Moawad.
“It’s not only that we’re afraid there will be a surge of Muslims who are Sunnis [that will shake up] the demographic balance,” she said.
It’s also because, according to the current bureaucratic system, “You can only add children of the man or the wives of a man [to his file]. The woman can’t add [dependents]. She’s actually a plus,” she explained.
Several Lebanese women who spoke to Al Jazeera expressed a frustration over this issue, including a Beiruti artist who complained about not being able to vote for her own father, who is running for a seat in one of the capital’s sub-districts, although she has lived there her entire life.
“I can’t even help my community politically, because I have to vote in an area I don’t know,” said the artist, who preferred to remain unnamed, referring to her father’s hometown outside of Beirut.
“My mother comes from the south and we have a house in the south. So, even the south is closer to me than where I am actually from on paper.”
Moawad believes that the issue of women voters categorised by their family’s sect is one of life and death.
“As long as it’s on our registry, someone could kill you because of your sect, or they could appoint you because of your sect, or they could marry you because of your sect,” she said.
True reform, according to her, would be “no longer a relationship of families to the state, [but] the relationship of the individuals to the state.”
In the broad view, Batrouni noted that the accrued momentum of decades of women’s rights activism, both globally and in Lebanon, has resulted in such a high number of women running in this election cycle.
But for Moawad, this is not enough. “If it’s a female, sectarian, hateful MP or if it’s a male, sectarian, hateful MP; I have no interest in gender representation.”