Women’s political participation in Lebanon and the limits of aid-driven empowerment [EN/AR]


Author: Gabriella Nassif


The question of women’s political participation in Lebanon could not be more timely. As of 17 October 2019, nation-wide protests have erupted in response to increasing austerity measures that culminated in a tax on Voice over IP (VoIP) calls, commonly referred to as the “WhatsApp tax.” Calls for a non-sectarian and “non-political” revolution have drawn Lebanese representing nearly every sect, every class, and every gender out into the streets, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29, 2019. In a familiar scene witnessed during the Sudanese uprisings in 2018, and in Chile and Iraq in 2019, women were once again at the front line. At one point, a young woman – now memorialised as the symbol of the uprisings – was videotaped kicking an armed bodyguard to prevent him from attacking protesters; at another point, an arm-in-arm link of more than 30 women separated protesters from riot police in Riad Al-Solh.

But the reality reflected in these images, and in news agency accounts of women protesting, is not reflected in the current socio-political reality in Lebanon. In 2018, Lebanon ranked 147th out of a total of 149 countries according to the Global Gender Gap Index, with one of the lowest rates of women’s political participation in the region. Women in Lebanon have been unable to crack the “political glass ceiling,” and continue to make only piecemeal advancements. For example, though the 2018 Parliamentary election boasted the highest number of registered women candidates in the country’s history, less than 5% of the total 128 parliamentary seats are now occupied by women. Similarly, though the appointment of four women to the ministerial cabinet in an accomplishment worth celebrating, marking a first in the country’s history, these women collectively make up less than 10% of the cabinet.

The low rates of women’s political participation are attributable not only to women’s underrepresentation in formal political positions, but are equally a consequence of women’s position in Lebanon as “second class citizens.” The many structural factors that sustain this reality – including the personal status codes, social perceptions of women that tie them to the private realms of the family and the household, the limited legal protections women have access to, and the processes of gendered citizenship more broadly – have been well documented. Research into the specific role of women in Lebanese politics, however, is less comprehensive. Extant literature focuses primarily on the various structural factors that prohibit women’s political participation, such as sectarianism, political clientelism, and political familism. As Zaiter and El Masry, a notable exception to this literature, argue, a focus on structural factors, while important, cannot account for women’s individual experiences of, and within these systems. Micro-level analyses are critical to any discussion of women’s political participation in Lebanon, and can broaden understandings of women’s political participation outside of formal political structures.

Another dearth in this literature on women’s political participation in Lebanon is an analysis of the role of international development, and donor-funded initiatives focusing on “empowerment.” Women’s political empowerment programming (WPE) and women’s political participation (WPP) programming in Lebanon are expansive. Though programs focus on a range of issues, they overwhelmingly share the same goal: to increase women’s formal political participation. To date, there has been no systematic review of donor interventions on WPP or WPE initiatives, at either the global or regional levels. Information that does exist is usually produced by the donor agencies and their local partners in the form of program evaluations and short programmatic descriptions. These documents, generally, do not offer larger critiques of the socioeconomic landscape in Lebanon, and, therefore, cannot account for the underwhelming impact of these initiatives. Why have these programs been unsuccessful in advancing large numbers of women into formal political positions?

This report seeks to answer this question, and to fill the gap in the literature on women’s political participation and empowerment, by conducting a mapping of WPE and WPP initiatives in Lebanon from 2009 to 2019, and analysing their collective impact on the current status of women’s political participation. The report begins with a general discussion of women’s political empowerment and political participation, and traces how the historical development of these two concepts globally affects the ways that current WPE and WPP initiatives are structured in Lebanon. Next, the report analyses how the assumptions underpinning definitions of women’s political participation have produced poor WPE and WPP project results, using evidence from a selection of initiatives that occurred in Lebanon. Finally, this report presents a larger mapping of WPE and WPP initiatives in Lebanon from 2009 to 2019.