Women candidates sidelined in Lebanon vote

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Women candidates sidelined in Lebanon vote, Dawn.com, Friday, 29 May, 2009

   BEIRUT: Although Lebanon prides itself as a pioneer of women’s lib in the Arab world, it lags behind some of its more conservative neighbours as it readies for an election where at best just four out of 128 seats are likely to be won by women.

‘Lebanese society is more patriarchal than we like to think,’ said Fahima Charafeddine, a sociology professor at the state-run Lebanese University.

‘It took us 50-plus years to get to 4.7 per cent representation in parliament, and I can’t imagine how long it will take to reach equality.’

Half a century after women won the right to vote in Lebanon, they currently occupy only six seats in parliament while neighbouring countries are witnessing a rapid rise in female participation and representation in politics.
In Kuwait, for example, where 21 parliamentary seats were up for grabs this month, four women were elected. Syria, which has a 25 per cent quota for women, currently boasts 31 women out of 250 MPs. Iraq too has a 25 per cent quota for its 275-seat parliament.

A total of 587 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for Lebanon’s June 7 election, which pits the Sunni-led parliamentary majority against a Hezbollah-led alliance.

Only 12 candidates are women and, in a country where political dynasties rule, few are likely to cross the finish line. Three of the 12 are backed by the current ruling majority, one by the opposition and eight are running as independents.

Those most likely to make it to the next assembly are the relatives or spouses of political leaders, such as current MP Sethrida Geagea, wife of right-wing Christian leader Samir Geagea, and education minister Bahia Hariri, sister of slain ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

‘In no way are Lebanese women represented fairly,’ said candidate Therese Rizkallah, one of the few women to have served in Lebanon’s general security service and who holds the rank of colonel.

The mother-of-two said she was campaigning for Lebanese who have no political backing, and particularly for women.

‘I don’t want anyone to undermine women in my country, a civilized country where women are still marginalised,’ she told AFP.

‘I made it to the rank of colonel on my own and running for the election is at least a way to make our voices heard.’

One of the most familiar faces among the candidates is Nayla Tueni, daughter of journalist and MP Gebran Tueni who was killed in a 2005 bombing.

Tueni, at age 26 the youngest candidate, is running for the same seat held by her father and is among the women most likely to make it to parliament.

Surrounded by pictures of her father in the offices of An-Nahar, the prominent newspaper founded by her grandfather, Tueni said it was for women like her to encourage others to take a more active role in politics.

‘There are a few self-made women, certainly, but it’s true that many women — wives and daughters — arrive in parliament in mourning clothes,’ she told AFP. ‘But it’s good that Lebanon has more women in parliament, it’s really about time.’

In 2005, a national commission tasked with drafting a fairer electoral law suggested a quota for women candidates be set at 30 per cent but the article has yet to be passed.

Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, but it was not until 1974 that they were allowed to travel without having to secure their spouses’ permission.

Ten years later another law was passed letting them open businesses without the approval of their husbands, but women still do not have the right to grant citizenship to their children or spouses.

Charafeddine, an active feminist, says Lebanon has a long way to go before it overturns its age-old patriarchal traditions.

‘Lebanon suffers from a kind of schizophrenia,’ she told AFP. ‘There is the facade of modernity which is reflected in appearances — go to any restaurant and the girls dress like they were in Europe.’

Yet while Lebanese women are regular citizens in terms of responsibilities, she added, they are far from equal in terms of rights.

‘In that sense, the Lebanese woman is a second-class citizen,’ Charafeddine said. ‘The Lebanese woman will be the last to secure her rights in the Arab world.’

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