BEIRUT: Women’s advocates are striving to get at least five times more women elected to parliament this spring in the first vote in nearly 10 years, the country’s first women’s affairs minister says.
While an increase by a multiple of five seems like significant, numerically it would add to a small relative increase.
But the increase still remains an intimidating mission for a Middle Eastern country that may otherwise look like one of the most liberal and open-minded in the area.
Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.
“Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Oghassabian said in a recent interview with the AP. His ministry, in cooperation with the United Nations and European Union, is behind a campaign to support more women to run for Lebanon's first governmental election in nearly a decade, which is set for May 6.
Since the beginning of the year, a campaign was launched encouraging women to participate in the elections. Billboards and television advertisements have carried the slogan “Half the society, half the parliament.”
Victoria El-Khoury Zwein, a potential candidate with a new party called "Sabaa," meaning seven in Arabic, agreed that a "patriarchal society" is holding Lebanon back.
“The situation in the country is intolerable. We need new faces in parliament so it’s about time women took matters into their own hands and gave back to their country with all their heart,” Zwein said.
Zwein was elected twice as a council member at Sin El Fil municipality.
“I was able to do so much change while working in the municipality so imagine how the situation will be if I participated in parliament,” she told Annahar.
Last year the country passed a new electoral law, but with no quota for women's representation in parliament. While quotas would seem to fly in the face of a democratic election, such an adjustment is used in other systems – in other countries - such as education or employment to adjust longtime structural imbalances.
"The role of women in parliament will positively affect women's rights, but it will not be limited to just that," Zwein said.
Each religious groups is reserved a number of seats in Parliament under Lebanon's multi-confessional power-sharing system.
In light of the current political system, gender researcher with the United Nations Development Program, Nora Mourad, stated that adding a women's quota was too complex for some parties to consider.
Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah told AP “the women's movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements."
Fakhry stated that Hezbollah doesn't see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. Therefore, her group won't nominate women to run for office.
"For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details," she said. "She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman's time."
Most women in politics have their positions because they are related to prominent male politicians. Of the four women currently in parliament, one is the aunt of the present prime minister, another is the wife of a party leader, and one is the daughter of an assassinated media personality.
Still, Oghassabian said he expects at least 20 women to make it into parliament, and dozens more to run.
The new law introduced a complex proportional representation system that maintains sectarian quotas in Parliament. But others believe it will also offer women and independents better prospects.
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