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Power, Presence, Politics, Patriarchy

In 2005, I was in Afghanistan. I had been there for years already – reincarnating myself so I would not have to leave. That year I was newly-reborn as the Senior Gender Officer for the parliamentary elections. We had succeeded in getting a 25% quota for women. And my job was to secure and support female participation in all aspects of the election – as candidates and as voters. And that is precisely what we did. Afghanistan still has 25% women in parliament – maybe even more by now. Rwanda has over 60% – it’s the highest in the world.

And Lebanon?! Well – in its infinite wisdom and support for gender equality [sarcasm], our government ignored years of advocacy to support women’s political participation and rejected the appeal for a 30% quota in June 2017.

Here’s a history lesson: women have had the right to vote in Lebanon since 1953! But they were excluded from parliament until 1991. 2004 was the first year a woman served in any government capacity in Lebanon. It’s like we completely didn’t realize women were political agents – and more than half the population – until 5 minutes ago! Today, women represent 60% of the total electorate and hold a total of 4 out of 128 seats in parliament. Women only occupy 3% of ministerial positions and 5% of seats in municipal councils. In the one-line history of women in politics in Lebanon, only 8 women have been appointed to ministerial positions and only 10 female parliamentarians have been elected – ever.

For a country seemingly obsessed with equal representation when it comes to archaic sectarian divides, I gotta wonder where the counting went wrong here, and why the representation is so flawed. The 2016 Global Gender Gap report ranked Lebanon 139 of 144 for political participation. Ummm, that’s low.

And we only have one female minister. Granted, a female body doesn’t necessarily bring female interests, but there are plenty of very qualified female bodies who have been denied public roles for, like, ever. Even our (ex-)minister for women is a male – but I’ll save that for another time!

Even if you (or I – ohmy!) ever decided to run for public office, our entire private life would be subject to so much scrutiny that we would be driven away. Yes, this might be true for all politicians and public figures, but female politicians are subjected to dissection like bacteria under a microscope – as if we’re only looking to magnify the tiniest flaws. Meanwhile, male politicians enter the public arena with blood on their hands, with criminal records, and with a history of sexual abuse. The microscope somehow misses those “details”.

So how are we to engage in political life?! Many who have gained access to this boys’ club have done so “in black”, meaning as widows of former politicians. This is likely to increase due to the rejection of the quota. So we might expect to see more political-widows in the future. I’d sleep with one eye open if I was a political dude these days.

Meanwhile, our recent political hiccups have made an already-messy situation more, er, messy. In spite of this, political activists and coalitions still encourage women to run – through their political parties or independently. Lebanese electoral law guarantees seats for different confessional groups – so there are ways for women to be politically present, amidst the mess. A colossal clean-up is long overdue. Such messes may bring opportunities for women, if we are able to unite and claim that space.

While the presence of female bodies may not increase female power, the dominance of male bodies certainly won’t bring us any closer to equality. And nowhere near Afghanistan.

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