Lebanese Women: Yes, They Can (They just have to struggle ten times more)
It is a very rare occurrence that my father is all smiles in the morning. Like me, we’re both the grumpy-before-I-had-my coffee kind. It is an even more rare occurrence that my father actually smiles while reading the Lebanese newspapers. A look of contempt and disgust is usually more likely to appear on his face.
So when I saw him all smiles, I knew something was up.
“My good friend Amal has been elected as President of the Beirut Bar! Now this is something to talk about in your, heyda, in your blog” (My dear father, Bless Him, has just realised Joe and I had a blog, and what’s more, has just realised what a blog is.
Even though I had some reservations (I believe BO-RING was my initial reaction at his enthusiasm for the Lebanese Bar Association elections), but being the Daddy’s girl that I am, I figured it might be something to be looking into.
Being a women’s rights worker, I thought “Hum, a Woman? For the first time in the history of the Beirut Bar?”
Definitely something to be looking into.
Amal Haddad has been elected President of the Lebanese Bar Association on the 15th of November, winning the ballot with a whooping 2390 votes, after Georges Jreij, another candidate, third in the results, supported by the Kataeb, stepped down in her favour. Ramzi Joreige, the previous President of the Bar, stepped down as well in favour of Hussein Zbib, another candidate, stating he was doing it so “the Bar is equitable, democratic and represents everyone”. The daughter and granddaughter of lawyers and Presidents of the Lebanese Bar Associations, Haddad has always made a point of emphasizing her independence towards any political party. Her electoral programme was centred around the passing for lawyers from membership to belonging to the Bar to the development of the Lebanese Bar Association and aimed at ensuring lawyers could do their jobs in the best conditions possible. After the announcement of her election, Amal Haddad celebrated the Lebanese Bar Association as a shelter for law and democracy and congratulated her fellow lawyers for the overcoming of confessional tensions, and for putting aside whatever prejudice they might have had regarding the election of a woman.
Being an independent woman, in all the understandings of the concept, is not an easy role to play in the Lebanese patriarchal and over-politicised society, but her election has proven that there might be a slight shift in mentalities in Lebanon regarding women.
This seems to be confirmed by the nomination of Raya Haffar el-Hassan as the Finance Minister. Young (she’s only 42), with a fulfilled family life and a CV that would send many of our so-called “politicians” crying in their mothers’ skirts, Raya Haffar el-Hassan has already proved her efficiency during her three previous mandates as financial adviser to the Lebanese government.
Instead of keeping a low profile, these career women are empowered by the change they can bring as women to the Lebanese public institutions: as el-Hassan puts it “being women enables us to be more resistant to pressure”.
Whether we agree or not with these women’s ideas, projects or strategies, it is somehow comforting to see that women are making it to the top spheres of the Lebanese corridors of public power. Of course, with very few women at the government (only two, Raya Haffar el-Hassan and Mona Ofeich, a 67 year old lawyer appointed State Secretary), Lebanon is hardly cutting edge when it comes to gender equality, and this is why the visibility given to these women is important. By showcasing them as much as we can, people get used to the idea of having women occupying top public positions, and it might even reach a day when there are no more eyebrows- raising when a woman dares to be assertive in her career. Their presence on the public stage provides a precedent, sets the trend and gives an entry point for women.
It also provides other female role models in the Middle East, for young girls who do not recognize themselves in Haifa and have higher expectations than being the next Nancy or having the latest nose design. In fact, I strongly believe that stereotypes about Lebanese women are reinforced by public figures such as the current popular singers: Be sexy, that’s all we ask from you, and woe betide the woman who doesn’t comply. Having women in power might shake the Lebanese beliefs that the purpose in life of women and girls is to get married, otherwise she’ll be pitied (if she’s low profile) or vividly criticized (if she openly enjoys her single life). It is high time society as a whole realises that working women bring positive change to society, add value and bring a quieter, more peaceful way of negotiations and conflict resolution, as many studies have shown.
Civil society and women’s rights organisations should enter this crack in the iron wall and advocate even more for a change in mentalities towards the role of women in the Lebanese society, and to prevent the public opinion to sleep on their bed of roses and go “Oh well, we have women! See how Lebanon is civilized? Now go back to the kitchen and stop yelling for women, you have them now”. Indeed, this kind of reaction is certainly to be expected by self-important men who probably think one or two women are good, but more would be pushing it a little too much for their liking.
Movie showing, exhibitions, conferences, building partnerships, trainings in women’s rights, all means must be exhausted so we can see more Amal Haddads and Raya Haffar el-Hassans.
So you see, my father wasn’t wrong (Daddy’s always right). This election WAS food for thought.