The countdown to political progress

Women gear up to run in Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections

This year will see some economic actors sitting in the sun. It does not require special astrological powers to predict that the first half of 2018 will be good for the bottom lines of local advertising companies, social media platforms, billboard operators, pollsters, and audiovisual companies. Driving down any urban highway or country road and browsing through their favorite media, the Lebanese political consumer is being bombarded with messages about the upcoming parliamentary elections. 

State institutions set the stage in late 2017 by booking advertising and media space for several public awareness campaigns to encourage voting. Also, since early this year, campaigns by political parties, new movements, and individual candidates are coming out in increasing numbers, as contenders enter the contest for winning public attention, and ultimately, voters. This, too, is only normal, and even gives room for hope that the next Parliament will enjoy a double blessing of greater diversity and less stagnation and political paralysis.

The May 6 vote will be important for economic and social peace and development. Lebanon’s first elections in almost a decade will be conducted under a new election law, and marks—for the first time in most citizens’ political memory—an opportunity to challenge an equilibrium of interest-mongers that has blocked the nation’s advancement internally almost as much as the external phenomena of regional violence and international power plays.   

Within the mix of election campaigning and politicians’ positioning to look attractive to voters, one novelty stands out, and could even be more hopeful than the general bombardment of promises. It is the presence of female candidates in the elections. More women have announced their candidacies—or at least their strong intent to run for Parliament—than in 2009, when the last elections were held, or in any previous election in living memory. According to figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 1.7 percent of the candidates for parliamentary elections in 2009 were women.

While no assessment of registered parliamentary candidates can be made before the official lists are published after the March 7 registration deadline, political officials in Lebanon have spoken out publicly and in interviews with Executive for more women in Parliament (the Ministry for Women’s Affairs adopted the slogan, “Half of society, half of Parliament;” see interview with Minister Oghassabian, while other sources within the political class have for several months been speaking of expectations that more women will run. No one interviewed for this article placed the figure lower than 80 women candidates.

Executive reached out to women who had announced their candidacy for the upcoming parliamentary elections in early February in an effort to gain a deeper of understanding of what motivated them to run for Parliament, and of their experience in what some prejudiced parts of society have viewed as a men’s arena for far too long.

Not new to the game

Hayat Arslan, a candidate for the Druze seat in the Chouf, says she has worked for women’s political empowerment since 2001 through an NGO called the Committee for Women’s Political Empowerment, which she founded that year to lobby for a quota for women in politics. As one of the NGOs encouraging women to run for the elections in 2013, which were later postponed, the organization counted 40 female candidates at the time, including Arslan. She says that some of these women stepped up to the plate again as soon as the current elections were announced.

Many of the female candidates that Executive spoke to built up public experience doing social work at charity organizations or NGOs, while others got their start in municipal politics. Victoria Zwein, a candidate in the Metn district, was one of the first women to run for—and win—a municipal council seat. She was elected to the municipal council in Sin El Fil, a district adjacent to Beirut, in 2004. Adding to her experience were activities in the areas of urban development and women’s empowerment, as well as projects with the international UN body ESCWA.

A breakthrough into politics on the municipal level also provided an important stepping stone for Josephine Zgheib. She is currently a municipal council member in Kfardebian, in the mountain area to the north of Beirut, where she was the first woman to win a seat, she tells Executive. Her biography also contains experience in the NGO field, through an organization she founded.

Nada Zaarour enters her race with experience in the national political scene: She is a candidate in Metn, and one of four parliamentary contenders—two women and two men—nominated in four different electoral districts by the Green Party of Lebanon. Zaarour is in her second-term as president of the Green Party of Lebanon, which was founded in 2004 to advocate for environmental protection and sustainable development, as well as human rights.

Breaking point

It is perhaps these women’s interaction with their communities’ challenges through public service work, and with the challenges of their own daily lives, that drove them to decide to run for Parliament. Kholoud Wattar, a candidate for Beirut 2, recounts an incident that occurred during her charity work, where she was trying to raise money for someone who needed urgent medical care and had to sweet-talk a certain politician to secure his help, despite the fact that healthcare is a basic right for citizens. “I decided to run for elections because I never again wanted to be in a position where I had to beg for my rights in my country,” she says. Wattar tells Executive that she aims to assemble a complete women’s list that can compete for the seats allocated to Beirut 2.

Every female candidate who spoke to Executive identified the country’s dire economic, environmental, and social state as the main motivation for their candidacies. “It’s a sin if we don’t run for Parliament in these elections because the situation in the country has become very dangerous. The level of pollution is extremely high, there is no greenery in the mountains to speak of, [and] our constitution is not being respected. We can no longer watch from the sidelines,” says Zgheib.

According to the candidates, it would be futile to complain about the political establishment’s performance without providing voters with an alternative. “The situation [in the country] has deteriorated badly, and no one has the boldness to stand up against the establishment and say enough is enough. We have reached a critical point where we either initiate positive change through this election and give future generations hope in the country to work further for it, or continue [on our current path], with generation after generation of people in the establishment holding on to power,” says Paula Yacoubian, a former political show presenter for Future TV who is running in Beirut 1 with Sabaa, a party formed last year.

Most of the women Executive profiled say they are running as independents on lists that are not from establishment political parties—groups with current representation in Parliament—but rather have been put together by coalitions of “anti establishment” political actors who come from civil society, protest movements such as the anti-garbage groups of 2015, or political backgrounds that are otherwise separate from the mainstream establishment.

While establishment political parties spoke positively about the potential increase in female candidates in the early run-up to the elections, several of them announced candidate lineups in late February that did not include a single woman. Of the three parties who announced their candidates at that time, one—Hezbollah—had already stated that it did not consider fielding female candidates to be coherent with its positions; another, the Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party, presented a female-free list; and the third, the Shia Amal party founded by cleric Musa al-Sadr in the 70s and for decades led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, announced a sole female candidate, sitting Minister of State for Administrative Reform Inaya Ezzeddine.

The difficulties that female candidates face in the machines of political parties were further illuminated at a Beirut conference about female candidacies in late January, where the overriding tenor of established parties was revealed to be power-centric, prioritizing their perceived short-term chances to win or defend parliamentary seats over the idea of diversifying their candidate lists by including more women.

Some women who were still contemplating their candidacies when they spoke to Executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity, that they had been pressured by political parties when discussing the possibility of running. One businesswoman with NGO experience who was leaning toward running as an independent revealed that a political party had pressured her to either join its list or not to run at all. This sort of behavior by political parties is hardly surprising, given that power pressures and entrenched practices in systems all over the world rarely fully deserve their “democratic” labels, but it seems specifically noteworthy in the Lebanese context because of two factors.

First, many female candidates relate more to independent agendas and feel more represented and equal in the political company of other independent candidates. “Women and men are equal as activists outside of this circle or club of politicians,” says the Green Party’s Zaarour. And Zwein, who began her political career in 2004 with the National Liberal Party that was established by the venerated politician Camille Chamoun in 1958 and has been led by his son Dory—today an octogenarian—since 1990, said she can no longer identify with a party which revolves around a patriarchal leader.

Zwein declares that she will be running with Sabaa in the parliamentary elections. “I’m a person who believes in political parties as major stakeholders for positive change in any country. But I couldn’t find any party in Lebanon which I believe I can work with. Most of the time, it’s a family business or a family political party, or it’s really extreme religion. It’s hard to believe that political parties will actually allow women to be present as ministers or as candidates, and the proof is that till now there are no women on the parties’ lists,” says Zwein.

Secondly, in cases where political parties do embrace female candidacy, the support structures for women aspiring to political roles appear to need much more development. Rindala Jabbour, a high-ranking member of the Free Patriotic Movement who won the party’s internal elections to run for parliamentary elections in West Bekaa–Rashaya, tells Executive that men and women are treated as equals in the party, but that she would have hoped for affirmative action to support qualified women like herself. “In some areas, you feel there is no difference between men and women, and it’s all about having the right personality [and skills] for politics, such as being able to negotiate and present your ideas clearly. In other regards, however, you feel that there should be some positive discrimination,” she says.

“Today, we’re fighting for women’s representation in politics in Lebanon. Thus, as a party, you should support your female members, and maybe give them some privileges over men to level the playing field, so to speak. I believe there should be some initiatives to support qualified women within their parties to help them rise to power. This is not the case, and you run for party elections like a man,” Jabbour elaborates, adding that one such initiative could be to assist female candidates with campaign financing, as she herself comes from a working-class background and not from a rich family.

Outside old boxes

Beyond the internal realities of anti-establishment movements and political parties alike, the rise of independent women in Middle Eastern politics is noteworthy on another level. This level is the political context of a region where many countries that are not equipped with one of two conventional power-transmission mechanisms.

Conventional wisdom in past research of women’s entry paths into political arenas worldwide was that overcoming gender barriers in parliaments required either the support of a political party or the presence of a gender quota, said Bozena Welborne, a researcher and professor of Middle Eastern politics and the role of women in politics at Smith College in the United States, at a conference panel on political inclusion hosted by the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute at the end of January. Curiously, this perception matrix is not necessarily as applicable in the Middle East, she explained. “The Middle East and North Africa lead the world in terms of the number of women who have been elected as independents,” she said. 

Her findings about independent female MPs in the Middle East showed that they succeeded in many countries of the region because of quotas, but without any party support. Welbourne later elaborated by email. She and a student had conducted research into the allegiances of parliamentary women in countries around the world between 2015-17.

That MENA leads the world in this regard, when seen in the context of the often weak roles of political parties in the formation of popular will in MENA countries, suggests that highly educated women with well-developed personal social networks (educators, for example) who compete for office in countries with flexible, parallel, or mixed electoral systems (thus outside of completely closed-list electoral systems), have a comparatively higher chance of succeeding as independents.

In the wider context of ongoing change in the political environments of professed democracies, the increasingly effective use of social media hints at an evolution in politics where non-party-dependent agenda-setting mechanisms and access roads to politics are gaining importance, functioning either as an alternative to or in conjunction with political parties.

Underrepresenting women in their lists might backfire on political parties, but so too might any attempts to use women as insincere tokens of pretend-equality, or stooges of interests of whatever partisan group, tribe, or sect, and not as equal decision makers. When such attempts of utilization or political exploitation of female authority are made, they are not missed by politically astute women. “Parties are choosing dull women who are not prominent in their communities to be on their lists because they don’t want women to challenge them or compete with them on the preferential vote,” Wattar notes with disdain. “These parties need to show that they have women to appear as ‘politically correct,’ but who are these women?” she asks.   

Support a sister

While encouragement for women’s participation in Lebanon’s political life has come a long way since 2004, it still has some way to go. Zwein was pregnant when she ran for municipal elections in 2004, and she recalls people telling her that she should go take care of her family instead of campaigning. Zgheib was single when she ran for municipal elections in 2010—she was the only female candidate—and people attempted to discourage her by asking her what she would do if she got married and left town. Wattar says that when she told her family that she had registered for the 2013 elections, her husband was shocked and her seven brothers threatened to disown her. For these women, things have changed a lot: Now, the three of them have the full support of their families and communities, and Zgheib proudly recounts that four women ran for the Kfardebian municipal elections in 2016.

Confirming a philosophical maxim from Friedrich Nietzsche—a man perceived as deeply misogynistic but perhaps also an indiscriminate hater of homo sapiens—that says, “What does not kill us makes us stronger,” Lebanese women in politics say they have turned the opposition to their dreams into whetting stones to hone their individual strengths. Wattar says she feels certain that she can influence a whole legislature of men just as she turned her own male relatives from opponents to supporters of female participation in politics.

 The women profiled for this article say they were largely supported by the women in their communities when they announced their candidacy. Jabbour says she was worried about the response from other women inside the party because she had the misperception that women tended to be jealous of each other’s successes, but the response was the exact opposite, and she counts the women of the FPM as her biggest allies and supporters.

Livia Bergmeijer | Executive

“Being aware of our role and power as women started with the 2013 elections, and many of the same women are running today for Parliament. So we have already started to work together and have already decided that we will empower each other. Although some of these women are from contradicting parties, we are working together for the welfare of women, and it’s amazing,” explains Wattar.

Despite progress, elements of a patriarchal mentality still abound in Lebanon, and despite the vocal support they have been given, some of the candidates Executive spoke with worry that the prevailing cultural environment will sway voters into voting for male establishment types. “Voters say they want to vote for women, but so far, the fearmongering has been stronger in instilling fear in these people that they should vote according to their sect so that the za’eem will not lose. This mentality is stronger than the motivation to have more women in Parliament and to vote for women,” says Yacoubian.   

The road of women candidates to Election Day on May 6 is by no means easy. “There are many handicaps for women running for elections. To begin with, women are not rich in their own right; their husbands, fathers, or male relatives are rich, and they prefer to spend [money] on men who are running. You also have the patriarchal mentality that still prefers men to run, not women. And you also have the media, which is very partisan and controlled by the politicians,” cautions Arslan.

The bottom line is whether female candidates—be it as full independents, anti-establishment, or establishment members—will have succeeded very convincingly or only “fought respectably” in this good fight for increased presence in Parliament.

Hopefully, Lebanon will at least move forward enough to no longer be among the countries ranked lowest for female representation in their national legislatures, a ratio that neither reflects the skill and leadership abilities nor the many achievements of Lebanese women over the decades in different areas.

The upcoming election will be a step toward better governing if it results in higher rates of  inclusion for women. Hopefully, the bedtime stories that the first-time Lebanese voters of 2018 will one day tell their granddaughters and grandsons about the political dominance of men in Parliament and cabinet will all start with, “Once upon a time … ”

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.