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No country for women

Your weekly Lebanon roundup from NOW.

Lebanese women hold placards as they protest against the country's political paralysis and deep economic crisis in Beirut on the occasion of Mother's Day, on March 20, 2021. Photo: Anwar Amro, AFP.

There is literally no woman in Lebanon who hasn’t been cat-called, followed on the way home or to work by some relentless random “admirer”, who wasn’t stalked or hasn’t received unsolicited messages from unknown numbers in the middle of the night. 

But gender-based violence and sexual harassment are pervasive in Lebanon. What’s more, the economic crisis combined with the pandemic lockdowns have led to spikes in domestic violence, women’s rights NGOs warned last year, and the trend probably continued in 2021.

The curious case of Marwan Habib (curious for how he got away with it for so long) has taken the spotlight in Lebanon after he was arrested and appeared in court in Florida last weekend, after he broke into a woman’s hotel room and assaulted her. But that is just an exponent of the reality on the ground.

The story, worthy of a horror movie, becomes more incredible as the perpetrator masterminded a detailed plan to convince the hotel personnel to give him the key to the room. 

The details are shocking. And the most shocking thing is that this could have been prevented if Lebanese law enforcement did their job properly when scores of women across the country reported him. But they didn’t. 

The problem is not just harassment. It is the way society in general treats women. It is the fact that the country’s predominantly male politicians disregard women’s rights, and the way state institutions ignore legislation that aims to protect women and turn a blind eye to heinous crimes committed against women. 

Women are just lesser people. They have fewer citizen rights, are allowed less social space. This inequality is not always, or only, in the law, but enforced or perpetuated by social practices. In Lebanese society, women are allowed limited control over their own bodies and their consent, be they born in Lebanon or expats. 

Women are still murdered in Lebanon by male members of the family in honor killings. Domestic violence is widespread and largely accepted by communities and ignored by law enforcement. 

Sexual harassment was finally outlawed in December 2020 and the legislation on domestic violence has been relatively updated. However, within the conjugal space, law enforcement has no place: the new law does not criminalize marital rape. 

Civil law is still enforced by religious courts that discriminate against women when it comes to divorce and child custody. 

Lebanese society in general limits women’s free will and shapes them to be dependent on men (be they fathers, brothers or husbands). 

Women, even in the extremely rare occasions when they reach positions of power, have restricted space for professional maneuver and those restrictions sometimes come disguised as a way of shielding them from a cruel and toxic environment full of predators. 

Former Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi, told journalists a little over a year ago that a woman could not do his job because it meant “stooping too low”. 

Predators are produced by the same toxic system that supposedly shields women from the toxic world. Predators in turn reinforce the system that restricts women’s social space in order to “protect them”. 

The root is in the culture of purity that categorizes women as pure or impure removing the notion of consent from social norms. Purity is not necessarily a question of morality, but also of social status. Women from well-off families are to be valued, regardless of their morality. The consent is not theirs, it’s the families’. Women of lower status, including domestic workers, are disregarded regardless of their morality. They don’t have the right to consent. 

This same toxic system that allowed Marwan Habib’s behavior to go unpunished for so long also allowed a man to drag a woman by her hair in full daylight, where all his neighbors could see him. No remorse. 

Sure, it’s the society, the consequences of centuries of patriarchy and weakness of state institutions. 

But the answers to all these problems have to come from the political sphere. Without the political will to meet the civil society halfway and adopt legislation to empower women, allow their access to all walks of life and properly punish crimes against women, there can be no progress.

The Lebanese political scene, however, remains dominated by patriarchal figures and dynasties. It’s a place where women are never taken seriously as politicians, therefore their perspectives are discarded as unimportant. There is proof enough in the fact that an entirely male committee that designed a now-defunct subsidy system to cope with the economic crisis did not deem fit to include sanitary pads in the list of necessities, but included razors. 

Yes, Lebanese women are empowered, educated, fit to run for political office and make a difference. So many of them have been most active in the civil society, they organized protests and were most prominent in the anti-establishment movements in 2015 and 2019. 

But they have no access to state-level decision making, and they have been refused that access with disdain. State affairs are for men to handle, be they government or Parliament. 

“We don’t have time for this stuff” we’ve heard Lebanese politicians say, even last year. PM Najib Mikati dismissed gender representation in the government as a marginal issue. The parliament committee discussing amendments to the electoral law also rudely dismissed a bill on women’s quota in the Lebanese general elections this year. The bill, which emerged from the civil society, written by political science and gender experts, has been dismissed by a 78-year-old MP as “we don’t have time for these new details.” None of his male commission colleagues questioned his statement and the issue was only covered in a few short news pieces in the mainstream media before being abandoned altogether. 

The problem is that, if these major political issues are treated as details at the state level, sexual harassment, marital rape, women getting beaten to death or simply shot to death are also details in the eyes of the male politicians who decide the fate of the country and reject bills. Period (sic!). 

In other news

Hezbollah, as always: Lebanon continues to be caught in the middle of the rift between Saudi Arabia, Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah.

The Kingdom, as well as several other Gulf countries, cut ties with Lebanon at the end of November over statements by former Information Minister George Kordahi on the Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis. But the reasons ran much deeper, according to the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs: Hezbollah’s grip on the Lebanese state.  

Who’s the terrorist: Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut Walid Bukhari said on Thursday that Hezbollah was a threat to Arab security

The statement came three days after Hassan Nasrallah called King Salman a “terrorist” in a speech on the anniversary of Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Suleimani, assassinated in 2020 in  Baghdad. 

Meanwhile: The country’s government remains paralyzed also because Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, are opposing the probe into the August 4, 2020 Beirut port blast that killed 227 people and wounded thousands. Hezbollah says the probe is influenced by Washington and only targets Hezbollah’s allies.

Mikati said he is determined to call for a cabinet session, but nothing concrete has happened since October. 

“For God’s sake, have mercy”:  PM Mikati has made headlines last week too after he told Nasrallah to stop inflaming things. “Nasrallah’s comments do neither represent the Lebanese government nor the majority of Lebanese,” Mikati said. “For God’s sake, have mercy on Lebanon and the Lebanese, and stop the hateful sectarian and political rhetoric.”

Dialogue on the renewal of the National Dialogue: President Aoun called on December 28 for the relaunch of the National Dialogue Conferences. The National Dialogue is a tool meant to gather all political stakeholders and negotiate spikey issues: rights of Palestinian refugees, security situations, Hezbollah’s weapons. 

Over the years, the meetings have arrived at some negotiated conclusions, such as disarming Palestinian factions outside the camps, or re-establishing diplomatic relations with Syria after the 2005 withdrawal. But it has always failed to address the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which requires disarming Hezbollah. 

The last National Dialogue Conference – which only included leaders of sectarian factions, but not members of the civil society- happened in 2014 at Baabda Palace. Another session was held in 2016 at Nabih Berri’s residence. 

One question, though: Aoun announced that he wants the conference to happen before the end of January, and met with PM Mikati in preparation. He is reportedly scheduled to start meetings with other stakeholders on Tuesday, January 11. 

Judging by his December 28 speech, Aoun would like to put on the table the renegotiation of the defense pact (e.i. Hezbollah’s weapons), one of the hard questions that were never addressed back in the day. 

 But it’s no longer 2014. The Lebanese political scene has changed, and the political culture has changed after October 2019. The relevant political leaders back in 2014 no longer hold the same credibility and the dialogue is not inclusive of the new political forces in the country. So what’s the point? 

Protests: A few hundred Lebanese anti-vaxxers staged a protest to refuse mandatory Covid-19 vaccine pass, in the center of Beirut on Friday. 

The rally took place as the Ministry of Health announced a vaccination marathon targeting the education system – educators and students, amid a spike in cases of COVID-19. On January 8, Lebanon counted 7,547 new cases and 17 deaths. 

More protests: Demonstrators angered by the blackouts stormed an Electricite du Liban substation in the Aramoun region north of Beirut on Saturday, EDL said in a statement. The company announced more power cuts caused by the incident. 

Lebanon +:

Jasad magazine is back: Empowering women is not enough, the time has come to empower, educate, and tackle the roots of where violations occur, author and activist Joumana Haddad told NOW last year, when Jasad was still a project.

Launched in 2009, Jasad is a pioneer when it comes to questions of body, gender and sexuality in the region, Joumana Haddad’s Jasad is advertised as a platform for freedom and unapologetic self-expression, but it is more than that. You can find it online here together with Joumana’s editorial. 


Sarde after Dinner hosted stand-up comedian Hussein Kaouk and playwright Mohamad Dayekh, both the targets of social media harassment campaigns for “smearing the Resistance”. Watch the podcast here. 

Jad Ghosn recorded a 25-minute episode of his Reflections, looking at 2021 and the political “rhetoric of hypocrisy to cover up the void of any political proposal”.

Till next week, we’ll keep an eye on President Aoun’s National Dialogue initiative. 

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