Today, Lebanon is the first Arab country to have a female Minister of Interior. This achievement was made possible by women who have fought hard throughout the country’s history to break into politics, a domain that once belonged exclusively to men. These female pioneers led the way for Lebanese women to, slowly but surely, be represented in the echelons of power.
Saad Hariri appointed four women to ministerial posts in his new government, but Lebanon still lags behind other countries when it comes to female representation in politics. There are just six female MPs out of the 128 members of Parliament.
L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) is honoring three women who made an impact in Lebanese politics before 1975 and who advanced the cause of women’s rights in Lebanon, even if there is still a long way to go.
Myrna Bustani was the first woman to be elected to Parliament in 1963. Nohad Soueid, the “Sicilian widow”, fought to keep her husband’s parliamentary seat in Jbeil. And Laure Moghaizel pushed to modernize Lebanese law to support women’s rights.
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Myrna Bustani: The first female parliamentarian
Myrna Bustani was not preparing to enter the world of politics. But her father, the businessman and MP Emile Bustani, passed away in 1963, and Myrna, as an only child, was obliged to take over his political legacy. At the age of 25, she stood as a candidate in the election held in the Chouf to fill the vacancy left by her father’s death and was automatically elected. It was the first time a woman became a member of Parliament.
Bustani served the remainder of the term, but did not seek re-election. Even though she didn’t pursue a longer career in politics, her presence in Parliament continues to carry symbolic weight. “I didn’t stay long in the Parliament, because politics is tiresome and useless. But it was important for me to step in after my father’s death, and furthermore, it was the first time that a woman played such an important role in the political arena,” Bustani told OLJ. “My entrance to this masculine world was very nice. It was an interesting time, but I no longer wanted to be part of the political life. I believe that my presence in Parliament was very interesting for women, but I wasn’t made for this life.”
During her time in Parliament, Bustani focused on working within the parliamentary committee on education. Today, she is no longer involved in politics, but is an accomplished businesswoman and runs the family-owned Al-Bustan Hotel in Beit Mery. She has an immense passion for the arts and music and established the prestigious Al-Bustan International Festival in 1994. She is also an active member of numerous civil associations.
Nohad Soueid: The Rock of Jbeil
In 1965, Nohad Germanos was a 32–year–old widow and mother of six children between 6 months and 12 years old. After her husband, Antoun Soueid, passed away, she stood as a candidate in the by-election to fill his seat in Jbeil, but was opposed by the notorious Raymond Edde, who won the election. “Nohad Soueid is originally from Aqoura (a remote area in Jbeil). When she decided to run for elections after her husband’s death, she had the electoral voices of the two decisive communities in Jbeil: Aqoura and Qartaba, the latter being her husband’s native town. She announced her candidacy to the Legislatives in 1965, wearing a black head veil, looking like a Sicilian widow. She was the first woman in Lebanon to stand up against Raymond Edde,” says her son and ex-parliament member Fares Soueid.
Nohad Soueid was affiliated with the Destour Party, founded by the late President of the Republic Bechara el-Khoury, and was close to the Nahj movement. She fought Raymond Edde’s National Bloc for years. Edde was with the Helf movement, which was close to Kataeb and the National Liberal Party (PNL). Soueid went on to play an important role in by-elections in 1996 by backing the candidacy of Najib Khoury, who won the election. She also ran for a seat in Parliament in 1968 and 1972, but didn’t win. In 1992, Soueid finally reconciled with Raymond Edde and they decided to boycott Jbeil’s elections at the request of then Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. In 1996, she ran for Parliament again and finally won. She held her seat until 2000 when she relinquished it to her son, Fares Soueid. Nohad Soueid passed away in 2016 at the age of 84.
Laure Moghaizel: The Lebanese Simone Veil
Laure Moghaizel was neither a deputy nor a minister, but she fought within two political parties and pushed for the modernization of Lebanese laws. Like Simone Veil, a French women’s rights advocate, Moghaizel pushed to reform many laws that discriminate against women. A lawyer by training, she was active within the Kataeb party in the 1940s and ‘50s and founded the Lebanese Democratic Party in 1969 with her husband, Joseph Moghaizel, and Emile Bitar, Bassem Jisr and Samir Nassar. The party, which attracted a new elite, aimed to make Lebanon a secular country and to overcome religious differences and allegiances. It did not survive the Lebanese Civil War.
Moghaizel’s work and perseverance, however, helped Lebanese women gain a host of rights that they were previously denied, including: the right to vote in 1953; the right for non-Muslim women to gain inheritance in 1959; the right for women to keep their nationality after marriage in 1960; the right to move freely without their husband’s permission in 1974; access to contraception in 1983; the same retirement age as men in 1987; the right to work in the field of trade and the ability for female diplomats to marry a foreigner without being summoned to the local administration in 1994; and the ability of married women in regards to life insurance contracts in 1995.
In 1996, Moghaizel also convinced Lebanon to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. She passed away in 1997 while still working on many unfinished projects, including securing the right for Lebanese women to pass their nationality to their children and the implementation of a civil law on personal status.
(This article war originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 8th of March)