Now, just hours ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary election on Sunday, voters are expected to cast a ballot amidst misery, threats and corruption. It’s the first vote since the financial implosion and civil protests of 2019, and Beirut blast a year later, with newcomers hoping to break the long stranglehold of ruling sectarian politicians.
But though the numbers appear to be headed in the right direction, they don’t really tell the full story.
The protests came as the country stood at a political crossroads. Demonstrators railed against corruption and demanded accountability from politicians who had deprived us of basic services for three decades. We called for the right to be recognized as citizens — not subjects to warlords who kept us captive as women under religious laws.
The protests were also intersectional, showing solidarity with underprivileged women, and in doing so demanded the implementation of Lebanon’s constitution that had been trampled on by the warlords.
Indeed, Lebanese women have been at the forefront of every attempt to overhaul the policies and practices that discriminate against us.
We shut down the university and joined our students — the streets became the classroom for weeks and months. Loyalists and thugs of political parties beat us up and called us traitors, police forces shot bullets and detained many of us.
After the 2022 elections, we will see new women enter parliament and they, too, will be pioneers and leaders in legislation. But numbers can be misleading. Looking only at the numbers of women renders us as tokens to be celebrated. The state too has its women and they are as sectarian and patriarchal as the men.
I know this because I served on the National Commission for Lebanese Women for a year before I resigned. The Commission had no interest or capacity to advocate for reforms to improve women’s lives beyond tokenism, and the members were utterly uninterested in addressing the rights of non-nationals. (Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention yet has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide).
Women have been carrying the burden for too long and in solidarity with women from other parts of the Arab region. We are exhausted and things in many areas have gotten worse since we started. We can’t expect Lebanese women to break the cycles of corruption and patriarchy on their own.
The women who lead civil society associations, political change, protests, and campaigns for accountability must be heard.
The successive governments after the war promised her a fact-finding mission that is yet to see the light of day. Lebanon did not undergo a truth and reconciliation process after the war.
The warlords granted themselves amnesty and proceeded to govern through impunity. This is a system built on exclusionary grounds: non-nationals have no rights, LGBTQ people are criminalized, women are sub-level citizens and civil marriage is not allowed.
Now as the country goes to the ballot box, the conversation on women’s rights should never be about numbers. Numbers show us the few who succeeded and leave out the majority who are suffocating.
It is important to have more women formally represented. But without an inclusive and fair political system, the potential impact stops at that: the number of women who made it, the superstar pioneers who are resilient in the face of adversity, the lucky ones, the educated and socially privileged, and the ones who give up so much of themselves to lead a life dedicated to changing impossible structures.
We must not celebrate the ones who made it to the top without fixing the way up and making the system open to all women. Our approach should be to care for the ones who couldn’t make it, the women who died, the women who lost the roof over their heads, the non-gender conforming, the poor, the marginalized, and the women who were forcefully displaced.
These women were and will remain the crushing majority in Lebanon, before and after this election. To them we must dedicate our attention and focus on bringing accountability to the men, the warlords, who destroyed their lives.
Lebanon’s problems are severe but not unique. Womens’ inclusion in public life and dignified work are both prerequisites of freedom and wellbeing everywhere.