Lebanese women seek their place in parliament

Lebanese women who won the right to vote in 1953 are calling for more seats in male-dominated parliament.

By Hala Boncompagni – May 23 , 2005

In countries like ours, women enter politics in mourning clothes”. Christian opposition MP Nayla Moawad, who made the comment, is one of a few women running for a seat in Lebanon’s male-dominated parliament.

She was propelled onto the tribal political scene by the 1989 murder of her husband, president Rene Moawad.

Most female candidates for the four-stage polls that open May 29 are, like Moawad, linked to male political figures.

Bahia Hariri, who will be running for the fourth time in south Lebanon, is the sister of Rafiq Hariri, the five-time former reformist prime minister murdered last February 14.

A UN goodwill ambassador and respected activist who has devoted her life to improving women’s conditions in Lebanon and other Arab countries, Hariri, 53, insists on introducing herself as “the sister of the martyr”.

Ghinwa Jallul, a professor of computer sciences, ran for parliament for the first time in 2000 on Hariri’s ticket in Beirut and is competing again as a candidate for the late premier’s Future Bloc.

“I have no political heritage. I came from a pragmatic background,” the 42-year-old and mother of three said in her family home as her nine-year-old sought her attention and permission to go out play with friends.

Three months after Hariri’s death, Bahia and Ghinwa still wear black clothes in sign of mourning in keeping with tradition, although as women they have long broken ranks with the conservative ways of their country.

Along with Moawad, they are stalwarts of the anti-Syrian opposition which, along with international pressure, helped drive Syrian troops from Lebanon last month.

They are the only three women deputies in the outgoing 128-seat parliament.

All are widely expected to be re-elected, and will likely be joined by Solange Gemayel, widow of slain president and former Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel, who was killed in an explosion in 1982.

A newcomer to politics, Gemayel is running uncontested for the Maronite seat in Beirut, on the list of Saad Hariri, the slain ex-premier’s son.

“We hope the Lebanese will become again Lebanese. We hope to put the past behind us,” she said in one of her first campaign statements, quoting from a speech her husband gave two days before he was murdered.

Female activist Sana Solh said four women deputies in parliament is not enough.

“We are still being marginalised,” said Solh, a vice president of the Lebanese Women’s Council, a non-government organisation that has campaigned to secure a female quota to ensure more seats for her peers in parliament.

“We want 30 percent of parliamentary seats to be held by women,” she said.

Others disagree and say women should win their seats through fair, competitive elections.

“Lebanese laws concerning women date from the Middle Ages,” said political analyst Samir Franjieh, himself a member of the opposition.

Nevertheless, Lebanese women are among the most liberated in the Arab world.

They won the right to vote in 1953. They are judges, lawyers, university professors and their participation in the labour force is the highest of any Arab country.

But it was not until 1974 that Lebanese women 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 they cannot pass on their nationality to children born from marriages with foreigners.

The “widow” label does not bother Moawad, a strong-willed woman who dared last year to run for president, a post that became unattainable for her when the term of incumbent head of state, Emile Lahoud, was extended by three years under Syrian pressure.

“I will run for president in the next elections. In this era of globalisation, politics are not a male affair only,” she said.