Six female ministers: a positive step in the right direction, but what about political impartiality?

"Help them succeed, and judge them based on the results of their actions”, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis wrote on Twitter.

The six women in the new government. Dalati & Nohra

Six women in a government of twenty ministers. This represents 30% of the total seats, and this new record can only be applauded, even if it remains well below the demands of the new generation of feminists who insist on absolute parity. The Defense portfolio went to a woman, Zeina Acar Adra, who is also Deputy Prime Minister (a Greek-Orthodox close to president Michel Aoun). This is the first time that a woman becomes minister of Defense, and the second time –after Raya el-Hassan at the Ministry of Interior-, that a Lebanese woman accedes to an exclusively ‘male’ key ministry. This is the result of the long feminist struggle for the participation of women in politics and for their holding of positions of power. This participation aims not only at achieving parity in public life, but also at tilting the balance towards obtaining equal rights. Because today, the Lebanese woman is still considered as a second-class citizen. In her family life, the Lebanese woman is the victim of discrimination, as matters of personal status are governed by religious communities and their patriarchal laws. In addition, she cannot pass on her nationality to either her children or to her non-Lebanese husband. These are only two of many, often more crucial, issues.

Close to March 8

Included in the government formed by Hassan Diab are Marie-Claude Najm (close to the Free patriotic movement, Maronite) to the Ministry of Justice, Lamia Yammine Deify (Marada, Maronite) Ministry of Work, Ghada Shreim Ata (FPM, Greek-Catholic) Ministry for the Displaced, Manal Abdel Samad Najd (close to Arslan, Druze) at the Ministry of Information, and finally Varty Ohanian Kevorkian (Tashnag, Armenian-Orthodox) at the Ministry for Youth and Sports. In addition to have impressive CVs, all these women are active in the workforce, and three of them are university professors. Despite all this, the fact remains that in this monochrome government backed by Hezbollah, these women are close to the March 8 alliance. They are far from politically independent, although none of them represents the Hezbollah-Amal Shiite duo per se, nor the Sunni community.

That being said, the new female ministers are faced with significant challenges, just like their male colleagues. They have to deal with a State that is going through an acute political-economic-financial crisis and a State that is facing a serious shortage of cash and foreign exchange. They have to acknowledge and answer the demands of a street that has been boiling with anger for 100 days, and that is calling for the departure of a political class that is perceived as corrupt and incompetent. In addition to all the above, these newly-appointed ministers have the potential to play a major role in the improvement of the status of Lebanese women. All of these pressing issues beg the following question: will they be able to accomplish their tasks, or is their appointment nothing more than a PR exercise intended to sidle up to the feminists?

Let’s hold them accountable

"This is a positive step in the right direction. Whether we like it or not, this is the first time that the ministerial cabinet contains 30% of women,” said Joelle Abu Farhat, president of Fifty-Fifty, which works towards the equality between men and women. Farhat welcomes the nomination of the six women into the government, especially since they all have "everything they need in order to deal with difficult situations”. But she wonders, whether “in this time of crisis, these women will be able to find the expected solutions knowing fully that they are part of a cabinet that does not meet the expectations of the people. However, they must be given a chance”, she insists, stressing the need "to hold them as accountable as their male colleagues". Farhat therefore invites the popular uprising to support the new ministers in this critical period in Lebanon’s history, and not to stigmatize them. "Let’s see what they can do, and we will hold them accountable”, she concludes.

In the best case scenario, the appointments have received mixed reactions, if not a sense of downright caution despite the record time in which the government was formed. Under normal circumstances, such fast action would have been welcomed and celebrated. "I have no desire to celebrate, because the participation of women in government and in all decision-making positions should be a given”, says Ghida Anani, activist and director of Abaad, an NGO that campaigns for women's rights. But, at the same time, she blames government officials for "suppressing female quotas, which are effectively 30 percent", and instead appointing women just for the sake of numbers. "This is not enough. We need skills, the right elements, and the right abilities to get the job done in order to save the country”, says the activist, who also highlights the lack of transparency regarding the female ministers’ political affiliation. But she refuses to judge prematurely, and intends to "demand accountability, without losing sight of feminist demands".

This skepticism is shared by Nada Anid, the founder of Madaniyat, a group that works toward gender equality. Anid, "as a whole welcomes the appointment of six female ministers", also expresses her "rejection of a government that is in no way politically independent. It is as if these women have been thrown to the wolves, because they have obviously been nominated in order to appease the feminists", she says with regret, denouncing "a mockery and belittling of the civil society which is asking for autonomy in decision-making”. She also deplores the smear campaign against the female ministers, where their personal pictures are being published and shared on social media.

The NO of the Thawra

From the Thawra’s (the popular revolt’s) side, the refusal is an even a sharper one. "We asked for a 50% parity, and a government of independent experts. All we got is 30% female participation, three quarters of women experts, and zero independence in regards to the political power in place", insists the lawyer Halime Kaakur, who is also a law professor and an active member within the popular uprising. Hence her "fear that these women who have no plans, no political independence, and no means to succeed [and] will not even be given a proper chance, as will be the case with all members of this government. We do not want numbers, we want skills, quality, a program, and sovereignty”, she said clearly, voicing her total rejection of the new cabinet.

But for some, these appointments are worth analyzing. Carole Sharabati, an academic, a pre-revolutionary activist and founder of Sakker el-Dekkene NGO that fights against corruption, describes as "peculiar" and even "intriguing" the nomination to the Ministry of Defense "of a woman who has no qualifications for the position", and who "is clearly out of place”. Which she considers as "a weakness, even a threat, given the opaque relations between the alliance formed by the ruling parties and the Army’s commander-in-chief". On the other hand, she believes that the Minister of Justice was an appropriate choice, and that she represents “an opportunity”, not only because of her abilities, but also because she “is already showing some willingness to initiate some changes towards the attainment of an independent justice system”.

Either way, only the future will tell how effective these new ministers are. It is within this context that Jan Kubis, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, urged the Lebanese not to allow political considerations to overshadow a great positive achievement. "Help them succeed, judge them based on the results of their actions," he wrote on Twitter.

(This article was originally published on the 24th of January)

Six women in a government of twenty ministers. This represents 30% of the total seats, and this new record can only be applauded, even if it remains well below the demands of the new generation of feminists who insist on absolute parity. The Defense portfolio went to a woman, Zeina Acar Adra, who is also Deputy Prime Minister (a Greek-Orthodox close to president Michel Aoun). This is the first...