Lebanese voters will head to the ballot boxes in just a few days. One of the major changes to the electoral scene after thrice-delayed parliamentary elections has been the increase in the number of female candidates, up from 3 percent of overall candidates in 2009 to 14 percent this election. This time around 111 women initially registered to run, and 85 made it onto lists.
Lebanon’s numbers show progress in the bid to increase the number of female members of Parliament, but not nearly enough. We need to have a national discussion about why we are so far behind other countries in the region, and what obstacles Lebanese women must overcome to obtain their basic right of representation in Parliament. The overarching theme of these challenges is the pervasive ideation and institutional influences of sectarianism and patriarchy. These trickle down into electoral battles favoring strong men, father figures, and former heads of militias. The patriarchy is further entrenched when a man is chosen to head a ministry solely responsible for executing policies and programs to advance the rights of women. But more worryingly, women now have to appeal to this minister, and other men, to step aside or to grant them the equal opportunity to be ministers, parliamentarians, and mayors.
Because of sectarianism and patriarchal influences, the electoral system favors men time and time again. One exception is the all-female list running in Akkar, but even independent lists emanating from civil society could barely secure a 30 percent representation of women. Men make the deals, negotiate the alliances, and head the lists as spokespersons and representatives. Men already embedded in the political system who are more likely to retain their seats. This is what sectarianism and patriarchy reproduces, a system with the man as the savior and the facilitator of a woman’s access to votes and visibility.
The second part of this problem is the argument that there are no competent women willing to enter politics. Out of a total of 75 electoral lists, just 48 include women. This leaves 36 percent of lists all-male. The official line is shared across most parties: Not enough women could be convinced to run. Other parties placed emphasis on the traditional role of women in the home as a barrier to their involvement in Parliament. Women, it seems, are required to pass a test of competence and availability not placed on their male counterparts.
The third problem is that political parties and civil society have got it all wrong. Women do not need to be put in rooms and trained to be good candidates. They do not need female branches within political parties to identify female candidates and groom them into becoming mouthpieces of their leaders. For women to be better heard and represented we need to move away from the political discourse of sectarianism and patriarchy. Recent literature shows that fighting patriarchy would go against the customs rather than codified rules of Lebanon’s political power-sharing system. It would require the end of secretive deals between men that craft legislation and regulations, form governments, make political appointments and employment decisions across state institutions, and ultimately divide the spoils amongst themselves.
Lebanon is failing to do justice for its women and needs to create bonds of political solidarity on structural inequalities that require different solutions. Lebanese women do not have the same rights as Lebanese men: they cannot pass their nationality to their children, they suffer discrimination in divorce and custody battles because of the absence of a civil status law, they earn less than men, and women remain bound electorally and administratively to the ancestral district of her father or husband. To improve the representation of women is to make the system less patriarchal and less sectarian. But that would require focused structural political reform. Until then, we shall enjoy a male minister hailed for supporting the candidacies of women and male heads of lists bragging about including one or two token women within their ranks.