Opinion: Trash, exploding glass and women cleaning up political dirt in Lebanon

We are obsessed with cleaning our homes in Lebanon. I think it’s passed down through generations, inherited from decades of war and conflict, and is exacerbated by the fact that our country is so filthy. We live in one of the most polluted places in the region, with almost no public services.
Not that our protests against the government’s failure to provide effective garbage collection services have changed much – rubbish has been accumulating since then. Just this week, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published a report in which he basically said that the current misery in Lebanon can be avoided.
Lebanon is in the grip of one of the worst economic meltdowns of the century and is still suffering from the 2020 Beirut explosion, the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion. The UN report stated that this man-made catastrophe in which we found ourselves “has deep roots in a corrupt political system plagued by conflicting interests”.

Now, just hours before Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, voters are expected to cast their ballots amid misery, threats and corruption. It is the first vote since the financial meltdown and civil protests in 2019, and the Beirut explosion a year later, that newcomers hope to break the long grip of the ruling sectarian politicians.

On the eve of this election, more women than ever are running – a 37% increase in the number of candidates compared to 2018. And the last time Lebanon went to the polls, women’s parliamentary representation also increased – from 3% to 5% .

But while the numbers seem to be going in the right direction, they don’t tell the whole story.

Yes, a record number of women are running – but the proportion for men is dismal. More women are confident enough to run for parliament. But elsewhere, more women are migrating. More women are unemployed. With the Covid-19 virus, domestic violence has increased and women have suffered, especially migrant domestic workers who feel held captive and protected by the kafala system.
As women, we suffer more from a century-old patriarchy. We are separated from each other because sectarian politics means that 15 different religious courts can control our bodies and our lives. Even before the economy collapsed, women represented only 23% of the workforce.

The protests came as the country stood at a political crossroads. Protesters denounced corruption and demanded accountability for the politicians who denied us basic services for three decades. We demanded the right to be recognized as citizens – not subject to warlords who kept us captive under religious laws.

The protests were also intersecting, showing solidarity with disadvantaged women, and in so doing demanded the implementation of the Lebanese constitution trampled on by warlords.

Indeed, Lebanese women have been at the forefront of every attempt to reform the policies and practices that discriminate against us.

We closed the university down and joined our students – the streets became classrooms for weeks and months. Loyalists and thugs of the political parties beat us and called us traitors, and the police shot and arrested many of us.

But the protests created hope and revived hope. From north to south we held hands in a human chain, we cleaned the streets, we resisted injustice and we chanted for unity.
In the last elections in 2018, a woman who ran as an independent won a seat in Parliament. In her short two-year term, before she resigned in protest of the Beirut explosion, Paula Yacoubian worked on more bills than most men did over decades of sitting in Parliament.

After the 2022 elections, we will see new women entering Parliament, who will also be pioneers and leaders in legislation. But the numbers can be misleading. Just looking at the numbers of women makes us symbols to be celebrated. The state also has its women who are sectarian and patriarchal like men.

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I know this because I served in the National Commission for Lebanese Women for a year before I resigned. The commission had no interest in or capacity to advocate for reforms to improve women’s lives beyond symbolism, and members were completely uninterested in addressing the rights of non-citizens. (Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, yet it has the largest number of refugees per capita worldwide.)

Women have borne the burden for a long time and in solidarity with women from other parts of the Arab region. We’re exhausted, and things have gotten worse in many areas since we started. We cannot expect Lebanese women to break the cycle of corruption and patriarchy on their own.

Hear the women who lead civil society associations, political change, protests, and campaigns for accountability.

Take, for example, prominent human rights activist Widad Halawani, who campaigned for nearly four decades to find out what happened to her husband after his disappearance during Lebanon’s civil war (1975 to 1990) – one of an estimated 17,000.

Successive governments after the war promised her a fact-finding mission that has yet to see the light of day. Lebanon did not go through the process of truth and reconciliation after the war.

Warlords granted themselves amnesty and proceeded to rule through impunity. This is a system built on exclusionary grounds: non-citizens have no rights, LGBT people are criminalized, women are sub-citizens and civil marriage is not allowed.

Now as the country heads to the polls, the conversation about women’s rights should never be about numbers. The numbers show the few that have succeeded and ignore the stifling majority.

It is important to have more formal representation of women. But without an inclusive and just political system, the potential impact stops there: the number of women who have succeeded, the super-leaders who are resilient in the face of adversity, the lucky, educated and socially privileged, who give up so much of themselves to live lives dedicated to changing impossible structures.

We must not celebrate those who made it to the top without identifying the way and making the system open to all women. Our approach must be to nurture those who couldn’t make it, the women who died, the women who lost a roof over their heads, the gender non-conformists, the poor, the marginalized, the women who were forcibly displaced. .

These women were and will remain the overwhelming majority in Lebanon before and after these elections. They have to devote our attention and focus to holding accountable the men, the warlords, who ruined their lives.

Lebanon’s problems are serious but not unique. The inclusion of women in public life and decent work are prerequisites for freedom and well-being everywhere.


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