BEIRUT — In Lebanese political life, every step forward for women’s representation is usually followed by a setback.
A milestone was achieved during Saad Hariri’s government when a ministerial seat was created for women’s affairs, but praise for the move quickly turned to ridicule, as its first appointee was a man. In the government of Hariri’s successor, Hassan Diab, women occupied one-third of ministerial seats, including high-profile positions like the justice and defense ministries. But even then representation was unequal, and the lineup of current Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government drew an outcry, as there is only one woman assigned as a minister.
In the absence of policies to support women’s participation, women’s rights activists fear that their representation in Parliament after the 2022 elections will be equally as dismal.
But despite the odds being apparently stacked against them, advocates are pushing for a quota for women in the upcoming elections.
Last week, Parliament took up a women’s quota proposal submitted by MP Inaya Ezzeddine (Amal/Sur) that was, at least nominally, supported by her party and its leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
After an initial version of the proposal was voted down in a joint parliamentary committee meeting earlier this month, Berri placed a revised version of it on the agenda of last week’s full Parliament meeting.
Still, no agreement was reached and the amendment was sent back to committee for further study, which is usually seen as a death sentence for proposed legislation.
But, advocates have not given up. MP Chamel Roukoz (Independent/Kserouan) last Thursday submitted a new women’s quota proposal prepared by the National Commission for Lebanese Women, of which his wife, Claudine Aoun, is the head.
What we know about the law amendments
Roukoz’s proposal reserves 24 seats for women in the Parliament, or 18.75 percent of the parliamentary posts. The new draft law has not been studied by the Parliament yet but received the blessing of Roukoz’s father-in-law, President Michel Aoun. Ezzeddine said she will meet with NCLW representatives to study the strongest possible proposal.
Roukoz’s proposal differs from the one initially submitted by the Amal bloc, which aimed to secure 26 seats out of the 128 existing ones for women in the Parliament, divided equally between Muslims and Christians to maintain equal representation. The proposal also mandated that 40 percent of the electoral list should comprise women. Sects with fewer than two seats would not have to reserve a spot for a woman.
After the proposal was criticized as overly complicated, the amended draft submitted last week included a clause that would allow the Parliament, by consensus, to discuss how many seats, and from which sects and blocs, would be appointed for women instead of imposing these decisions.
Ezzeddine said her bloc had chosen to drop the clause relating to the electoral lists in an attempt to simplify the proposal.
“Between enforcing percentages on electoral lists and securing seats for women, we had to choose the latter, given that enforcing percentages does not ensure that women would be elected and have seats secured for them in the Parliament,” Ezzeddine said.
Gender expert and feminist activist, Abir Chebaro told L’Orient Today that the National Commission for Lebanese Women mandates women to run for elections on a list specific to quota seats rather than sectarian electoral lists to achieve a “women’s competition” where the woman who collects the highest number of votes would win.
Because if women are to run through electoral lists, one female candidate that wins a lot of votes but happens to be on a failing electoral list would de facto fail. Thus, this measure ensures that women will make it to the Parliament and in the proposed number of seats.
Before voting on the substance of the law, MPs were required to vote to take it up as an urgent matter, but instead the majority voted to refer it back to be studied by the joint committees again, citing “loopholes” and other issues. MP Jamil al-Sayyed (Independent/Baalbek-Hermel) told L’Orient Today that only 15 MPs voted to take up the amendment in its current form, while others deemed that it still needed refinement.
MP Ali Fayyad (Hezbollah/Marjayoun-Hasbaya), who was among the opponents of the proposal, argued that the law would mandate women’s representation at the expense of sectarian balance.
“The first law draft submitted by [Ezzeddine] took into account the sect and region, but the second one distributes women’s seats in regions without taking sects into account,” he told L’Orient Today.
Ezzeddine acknowledged that there might be some technical loopholes in the draft law amendment, but argued that these points could have been debated, discussed and fixed during the parliamentary session had the idea of giving women a quota been acknowledged and supported.
“But there was no intention to pass it,” she said.
Ezzeddine argued those claiming that the women’s quota would upset sectarian balance in the Parliament were only looking for excuses to dismiss the law.
“The women running for elections would already be representing a sect in accordance with the electoral law,” she said.
During the Parliament session, only one MP, Rola Tabsh (Future Movement/Beirut II), called for a higher quota than the one proposed — Tabsh initially demanded that there should be a 50 percent quota but eventually agreed to a minimum of 20 percent — while Fayyad along with Mikati argued that a women’s quota would only further complicate the already complex electoral law.
“I studied the law amendment and found out that it can’t be applied because of some loopholes in the text,” said Sayyed. “I informed the MPs that I’m for the women quota and the law but it should be refined.”
Sayyed argued that the latest women’s quota proposal brought forward by Roukoz would conflict with the country’s existing proportional representation voting system.
Under the current law, if Sect X is allocated 10 seats in Beirut, for instance, parties A and B representing the people of Sect X from Beirut would each have an electoral list of candidates. If A gets 60 percent and B gets 40 percent of the votes, then six of the members from A qualify as MPs, while four candidates from B win seats.
The proposed amendment, however, states that women who get the highest number of votes would win the seats, regardless of electoral lists, Sayyed said, thus adopting a majority rule, rather than proportional, voting style.
“Adopting distinct systems for both genders, treats women as a different species,” he said.
Fayyad also argued that the proposed quota would conflict with the current electoral law.
“A woman who got the most votes would win at the expense of the candidate who received the least preferred votes on an electoral list,” he said. “So a woman can succeed from an electoral list that failed, while a woman from a failing electoral list could win.”
Sayyed suggested that the quota should have a transitional phase in which women would get 20 reserved seats in the upcoming Parliament elections, but would run normally like men within the framework of the electoral law, and electoral lists would not be accepted if they did not have at least one woman.
On the other side, Tabsh expressed the Future Movement’s support for the women quota, saying that they “would agree on any proposed number for reserved seats or percentage in the electoral list.”
The joint parliamentary committees will take up the proposal again on Tuesday. The proposed amendment must be revised and submitted to Parliament again before November. Any election-related laws must be passed at least four months before the date of the elections; thus if the committees do not finish quickly, the law would not be passed in time for the 2022 polls.
Prospects for change
Ezzeddine argued that while the women’s quota has been seen as secondary to the other issues the country is facing, women’s representation will be key to its economic recovery.
“It has been proved by studies that social and economic collapses, on a global scale, are caused by the marginalization of women and youth,” she said. “Thus, a sustainable rescue and recovery plan would necessitate women to participate in decision-making, especially when it comes to politics.”
Chebaro agreed, pointing to studies that show that profitability and growth of companies increase when more women join managerial boards
“A women’s quota is not favoritism towards women, but rather a positive measure towards enhancing governance,” she said.
Halime Kaakour, women’s rights activist and professor in the faculty of law and political sciences at the Lebanese University, said that ideally the Parliament should consist of 50 percent women and 50 percent men.
“But at the time being we will agree on 33 percent for women … because we need women MPs to support women MPs,” she said.
In some other countries, such as France, political parties are obliged by law to have an equal number of women and men on their electoral lists or face a fine, Chebaro said.
“We don’t have that in Lebanon,” she added, saying, “It does not matter whether the quota encourages increasing women on electoral lists or creating lists just for women and securing seats, what matters is that a quota passes to empower women in politics.”
Kaakour does not completely agree.
“A women’s quota is one of the best practices in the world, but it is not enough, especially for our situation in Lebanon,” she said.
Beyond a quota in Parliament, she said, the legislature and government should advance an agenda to strengthen women’s rights, and women should be engaged in decision-making in all arenas.
As for the reasons behind the resistance to a quota system, Kaakour explained that politicians would lose much of their support if they substituted their sectarian representatives, who are currently men, with women.
Chebaro added that women’s prospects in Lebanon are limited by the patriarchal system under which political blocs and officials frequently bequeath positions to their sons. In the rare instances in which a woman does get into power, she added, they are usually related to powerful men.
“If you take a look at the names of women MPs you would realize that most of them are either a politician’s mother, daughter, sister or aunt,” she said.
Policies aimed at increasing women’s representation are usually shot down, she noted. For instance, resigned MP Sami Gemayel (Kataeb Party/Metn) had suggested in 2017 to decrease election fees on women running for office but the Parliament dismissed his draft law. Chebaro added that political blocs also engage in what is called “purple washing,” which refers to using women’s empowerment and issues for campaigning purposes. Blocs often promise to include more women in electoral lists but end up having only one or two women.
Chebaro said that the multiple different quota proposals introduced by different political blocs confuses MPs and wastes time. “The ideal way to go about it was to join forces and create one inclusive law amendment.”
As for the prospects that some version of the women’s quota will actually pass, Chebaro noted that Lebanon was among the countries that pioneered women’s right to vote and run for Parliament in the Arab region in 1952.
But today, she said, Lebanon has fallen behind in empowering women in politics because “there is no political will.”