Women of Lebanon, unite

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri deserves credit for his politically-incorrect, yet progressive, statement Monday. While receiving the new student government of the American University of Beirut (AUB), he called for the legislation of a new electoral law based on proportional representation and a women’s quota. “Even councils in the jungles of Africa now have more women than the Lebanese parliament,” said Berri.

At last, one of Lebanon’s oligarchs admits that the sociopolitical and economic status of women in Lebanon is abysmal.

In its Global Gender Gap Report, issued last month, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Lebanon 135 out of 144 countries that it surveyed. Lebanon is among the world’s 10 worst nations in women’s rights, including political participation and economic opportunity.

Lebanon ranked 143rd – second from the bottom – on women’s “political empowerment.” Even countries the Lebanese often look down on for the way they presumably treat their women, such as Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, ranked 121 and 136 respectively on women’s political empowerment.

On “economic participation and opportunity,” Lebanon ranked 133 out of 144. Sri Lanka, the country that gave its name to domestic work in Lebanon, was 124. If Sri Lankan women, who are banned from entering Lebanese beach resorts due to racial discrimination, have more economic opportunity than their Lebanese peers, then maybe Lebanese women should move to Sri Lanka and work as house maids there.

In Lebanon, lawmaker Gilbert Zouein is perhaps the only female politician in the history of the republic who has not won the parliamentary seat of her deceased father or brother, or on behalf of her living husband.

Over the past two decades, Lebanon has elected three army generals as successive presidents, showing a national fetish for powerful men, and their male relatives.

Even in its rampant and abhorrent nepotism, Lebanon is unfair to women. President Michel Aoun has three daughters. None of them is publicly known. However, their husbands — Aoun’s sons-in-law — have attained celebrity status.

Women’s rights in Lebanon are an embarrassment. Had the WEF gender gap report delved into other aspects of the country’s social and regulatory practices, Lebanon would have probably slipped down to the very bottom.

The nation’s antiquated laws prohibit women from passing on their nationality to their spouses or offspring. Christian politicians, and the Maronite Church, have presumably vetoed such laws for fear that Palestinian refugee men — usually Sunni Muslims — would marry Lebanese women and become naturalized Lebanese.

Lebanese nationality laws are even worse than they sound, since Lebanese men can pass on their nationality to their spouses and children, Palestinian or otherwise.

Also in Lebanon, where citizens are locked to the register of their ancestral district, women who get married are forced to be displaced from their districts and relocated to their husband’s registry. If their husbands are non-Lebanese nationals, the husband’s name and his nationality will be added to the personal identification of the woman.

Another misery Lebanese women have to go through is their inability to marry before civil courts. This forces women to settle for religious marriages, which — especially in Muslim Sharia courts — are unfavorable toward women on issues of divorce and custody of children. Islam also gives women half the inheritance their brothers receive, another injustice Lebanon’s Muslim women have to live with.

Lebanon was also lucky the WEF report has no index for domestic abuse. Reports of women killed by their mentally unstable husbands, who sometimes get away with lenient sentences, are commonplace in Lebanon. Meanwhile, domestic abuse is probably drastically underreported, and women’s organizations that try to spread awareness against such barbarian practices are underfunded and have little or no political clout.

Perhaps the Lebanese should push the issue of women’s rights to the top of their priorities. Now that Christian rights are all fulfilled with the election of Aoun as president, and with the restoration of Sunni pride with the selection of Saad Hariri as prime minister, perhaps the remaining injustice is the one pertaining to women’s rights.

The Lebanese can argue over Hezbollah’s arms, the Syrian war or the Saudi-Iranian regional conflict until they go blue in the face. But these kinds of crises have always been around, and won’t be resolved any time soon. Women’s issues in Lebanon, however, are much more pressing and have no reason to wait.

Lebanese women bear some responsibility for their misery too. The complacency of many of them, and their acceptance of a social code that conditions them to look like entertainer Haifa Wehbe, might be part of the urgent national problem that should be tackled fast.