Citizenship and Gender in the Arab World, The role of women’s organizations and other NGOs in highlighting citizenship’s and women’s rights, the Case of Lebanon
Lebanon. A country full of contradictions, where women’s movements were very active since the beginning of the 20th century in areas going from education to culture and politics, but it was not until 1953 that all Lebanese women received the right to vote and run in elections as candidates. This achievement did not result in women’s representation in the parliament until the early 1990s, apart from one exception in 1963. We can also observe that today there is a majority of women in Lebanese Universities amounting around 54.5% of the graduates, while they represent only 29% of the workforce and they have few opportunities to rise to senior levels.
Lebanon ratified the CEDAW in 1997 with reservations regarding nationality; personal status laws; and on the settlement of disputes. The reservations related to personal status are premised on the fact that Lebanon lacks a unified personal status law. Establishing such a law and lifting these reservations is of primary importance if gender equality is to be secured. Similar to Syria, Lebanese women are unable to pass their nationality to foreign husbands and their children, the definition of and punishment for adultery differs depending on whether the perpetrator is male or female, and men are given reduced sentences for committing so-called “honor killings,”. Systemic bias is also reflected in discriminatory provisions of the multiple personal status laws, which apply to citizens based on their religion. Under these laws, women are at a disadvantage in terms of marital rights, divorce proceedings, and child custody.
There is actually a popular belief, especially in the west, that women in Lebanon have more rights than in other Arab countries, but as quite rightly pointed out by Lina Abou Habib, the Executive Director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CRTD.A),: “Images of Botox women driving big yellow 4X4s does not mean that these women are enjoying their rights, people outside Lebanon look at only a small island of prosperity” (Equality without reservation: An interview with Lina Abou Habib, CRTD.A April 28, 2009) Lina Abou Habib and her organization CRTD.A is a non-governmental feminist organization based in Beirut and working across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Gulf region on the critical issues of gender equality, citizenship, economic rights and leadership. Their structure involves a network of women’s rights and feminist organizations across the region in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco and Algeria. CRTD.A is the country coordinator of the Equality without Reservation campaign which calls for the lifting all reservations on the CEDAW and the ratification of the CEDAW Optional Protocol. This campaign was launched in June 2006 during a regional meeting called by the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) to review the status of the implementation of CEDAW in Arab states. A statement was produced during this meeting entitled the Rabat Declaration in which Arab States were publicly denounced for having failed to implement CEDAW and for maintaining a situation whereby gender inequality remains persistent. The CRTD.A is also the regional International Gender and Trade Network antenna and is also included in the Arab Women’s Right to Nationality campaign as well as the Women’s Work Campaign. In relation to their campaign in different Arab countries, they have succeeded in securing the right for women to pass citizenship to their children in Egypt and Morocco, which both amended their laws in 2004, as well as in Algeria which granted women full citizenship rights in 2005.
The CRTD.A and Lina Abou Habib have been the leader of a campaign, which many organizations participated in, launched in 2002 entitled “My Nationality Is a Right for Me and My Family” concerning the right of Lebanese women to pass their citizenship to their husbands and children. The different NGOs struggling around this issue have since then not stop being active and raising public opinion in organizing public events such as sit-ins and demonstrations; press conferences and communication using mainstream media channels, petitions and more activities. They gathered many times on special occasions to raise awareness, for example on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25 November 2009 more than 130 women and men gathered at the Order of Engineers to take part in a press conference organized by the Arab Women’s Right to Nationality Campaign, or how many times did they manifested rally in front the Ministry of Interior to denounce their injustice. They have received a lot of media coverage but until now without any concrete success. During these campaigns the NGOs actors also insist on the principle of equality and non discrimination, especially concerning the exclusion of Palestinians from a possible law granting the right to Lebanese women to pass citizenship. The Lebanese politicians have always refused to allow such a law that would grand the right for women to pass on their citizenship to their children and husbands according to different reasons going from the fact that this would create a demographic imbalance in favor of one community against another or that these restrictions are made to protect Palestinians’ right to return to Palestine guaranteed to them by UN General Assembly resolution 194 that was passed months after their exile in 1948. In both case, these arguments are misleading in our opinion, firstly because recent statistics from the State show that in the framework of mixed wedding, only 0,1 to 1% Lebanese women are married to Palestinians (Orient le Jour, Droits de la femme au Liban : de légers progrès, mais la bataille reste longue, Par Nada MERHI | 08/03/2010) and secondly if the Lebanese State really wanted to secure the right of Return to all Palestinians why are Palestinian women married to Lebanese men granted the nationality, as well as their children. The problem is therefore from a lack of political will and machismo from Lebanese politicians to grant full citizenship to Lebanese women.
Lebanese NGOs have also initiated various projects in an effort to break the silence regarding domestic violence and abuse. A group of NGOs including KAFA (“Enough”, nonprofit organization against violence and exploitation), the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) have all established 24-hour hotlines that allow victims to report abuse and receive counseling. They have also launched awareness campaigns in an effort to focus the attention of the general public, the authorities, and experts on the plight of victims. Finally, they provide female victims with free legal advice, shelter, and access to social workers throughout their recovery process. These organizations have drafted and lobbied the government to pass a law that would explicitly ban domestic violence for a long period now. The Ministry of Social Affairs was however cooperating on issue relating to domestic violence with a number of local NGOs for several years now, and even in some cases undertaking joint projects with the private groups. Sit ins and marches were also organized by women activist during the International Women’s Day in 2009 to highlight domestic violence, sexual and psychological abuse and pay inequality. The efforts of these women organizations were finally rewarded very recently by the endorsement of the Council of Ministers of a draft law to protect women from domestic violence. On this occasion members from the Kafa organization were received by the Minister of Justice, as well as other women’s organizations (Orient le Jour, 9/04/2010, La délégation de Kafa, reçue par Najjar, salue la démarche du gouvernement pour les droits de la femme).
In relation to discriminatory laws, the Lebanese Working Women’s League has lobbied to amend some of it, and pleaded for the introduction of a new law penalizing sexual harassment in the workplace. The organization activities also include the possibility of advising working women regarding all employment issues. An initiative concerning the new electoral law was launched by the gathering of different women’s right NGOs such as the Lebanese Women’s Council, the League of Lebanese Women’s Rights, and the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering, demanding the establishment of a 30% quota for women’s representation in the Parliament. This reform was ultimately rejected by the parliament commission.
Many women organizations and NGOs in Lebanon have also struggled to include another notion of citizenship not linked to religious affiliation, but that would include all Lebanese independently from its community. A recent event was organized in downtown, Beirut, where dozens of married couple in wedding dresses exchanged symbolically their vows to support their right to a civilian status code in Lebanon (Orient le Jour, 19/03/2010). Chaml, (Young Lebanese citizen non sectarian and non violent) was the organizer of this demonstration which had as main demand the right to contract a civil marriage. They have sent to the Parliament secretary a document asking that the law on the Civil Personal Status, which has been on the agenda for a quite a while, be finally debated and adopted by the Parliament. The organization Chaml has also declared that this first step could be a way to build the path to a civic State in Lebanon where each citizen would be ruled by the same laws. A successful campaign was made between 1997 and 2003 in relation Civil Personal status which gathered around 60 000 persons of more than 75 parties and associations (Orient le Jour, 19/03/2010).
Another organization has been very active called « the citizen movement » which struggle for civil rights and the respect of the principle of equality between citizens. The lawyer Karim Kobeissi is one of the founding members of this organization and is still playing a great role to raise awareness among the population to build a civic State far from communities rule. M. Kobeissi and the Civil Centre for a national initiative, which also struggle for a civic State, have launched an initiative in 2007 to erase the confession from the State civil registry, which gathered several personalities such as Mgr Gregoire Haddad and the historian Kamal Salibi. They presented this request to the Ministry of Interior in 2007, but without any concrete result until now. An initiative quite similar still going on, but less ambitious, was launched around five years ago by the Family Rights Network chaired by the lawyer Me Doughan. This initiative aims to establish a single civic code for the eighteen communities in regard to areas which are not directly related to religion, such as the custody of the children. The campaign for example in this framework calls to rise the age at which the father can claim the custody.
There is also a future march organized by Lebanese Laique Pride gathering people from Lebanon and outside through facebooks, blogs, internet and press release, which will take place on Sunday 25th Apri 2010 in favor of secularism in Lebanon. They will march from Ain El Mraisse towards the Parliament. A very interesting initiative linked to the idea of building a similar and equal citizenship for all in Lebanon.
We would also like to highlight the role of HELEM, Lebanese organization for the protection for Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals and Transgenders, which struggles to erase article 534 of the Penal Code criminalizing sexual acts deemed as “contradictory to nature”, as well as the introduction of non-biased sexuality education in schools of children to thirteen for boys and fifteen for girls. Although it focuses on gay and lesbian issues, Helem membership is open to any person who shares values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore is directly part in the struggle for full citizenship without any discrimination.
Women organizations and NGOs struggling for citizenship’s and women’s rights are definitely very active. They have had some successes, but their task is not easy in a sectarian political system where the main priority of Lebanese politicians is to keep a sectarian balance against all odds, including full and equal citizenship for all, especially for women.
Nevertheless, optimism is as usual vibrant in Lebanese civil society.