Lebanon has experienced untold suffering over the past 35 years. A civil war stifled the country from 1975-1990 only to be followed by occupation by Syrian forces the following 15 years. While Lebanon has regained its sovereignty, its women are still largely subject to political exclusion and social discrimination. Six women Lebanese leaders from government, the private sector and civil society told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center that Lebanon's sectarian and patriarchal systems must shift to a civil system in order for substantial progress in women's rights to occur.
Moderated by Carla Koppell, Director of The Institute for Inclusive Security, the panel focused on ways to build a stronger Lebanese state and empower women within civil society and politics. They developed 17 policy recommendations to be considered by the U.S. and Lebanese governments, domestic political parties and Lebanese civil society.
An encouraging development is the increasing number of women running for office in municipal elections, said Wafa Abed, President of the Institute of Progressive Women Union in Beirut. There are now three women leading municipality boards, while over 100 sit on them. Abed said she successfully lobbied her bank to allow women to open accounts for their underage children without their father's signature.
Ellisar Douaihy, training and mobilization coordinator for Women Empowerment: Peace Action for Security and Stability (WEPASS) and Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, have facilitated numerous interactions between women from different religious sects. "Once it is done, women are surprised. They begin to know they have many things in common. They have the same concerns, the same worries," says Douaihy. "Women often ask for each other's phone numbers. They begin a relationship." She added these exchanges have a multiplier effect as women return to their family and community and share their positive experiences.
Similarly, Claudia Abi Nader, a television host and vice president of the League of Lebanese Business Women, emphasized that social progress will not occur without economic empowerment. Indeed, among their policy recommendations, they advocate for the U.S. to increase their support of business development training and micro-credit for Lebanese women.
The panelists conceded that despite their efforts to modify elements of the Lebanese system, little has changed because men in power have shown little incentive to change the status quo. Moreover, local traditions can also impede women from attaining leadership positions, remarked May Akl, Foreign Press Secretary for Parliamentarian and former Prime Minister, Michel Aoun.
Nonetheless, small victories continue to be achieved by women leaders, said Lamia Osseiran, board member at the Civil Center for National Initiative. Osseiran explained how she led an effort to amend a law now allowing people to contact the civil registry and have their religious sect removed.
By Joshua Reiman on behalf of the Middle East Program