Editor’s Note: Lina Duque, MBA, is a Lebanese Canadian writer, social media strategist and frequent speaker at universities and international conferences. Follow her on Twitter @LinaDuqueMBA. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
If you’re following the news about Lebanon, you’ve probably seen the footage of a female protestor kicking an armed guard that went viral last month at the outbreak of the nationwide anti-government protests. The video appropriately captures the bravado Lebanese women have shown throughout the demonstrations.
Women are leading on the frontlines of Lebanon’s “October Revolution,” which has maintained momentum over the past month. Whether they succeed in helping to overthrow the current regime could determine the future of Lebanon and improve women’s rights in the country.
It is an unprecedented time in Lebanon’s history. Mass protests erupted on Oct. 17, triggered by a tax on WhatsApp that came on top of a deteriorating economic situation and several embarrassing failures by the government, including its incompetence in putting out fires that ripped through the country in October. Many thousands of people have taken to the streets, united in their condemnation of government corruption and the ruling elite. Similar to their counterparts in Iraq, protestors are fed up with a sectarian, power-sharing system that has failed people over and over again. In Lebanon, protests have led to the resignation of the prime minister and forced the parliament to cancel its session twice. As protesters mark Lebanon’s Independence Day Friday, the country faces a potential political deadlock and a looming economic crisis.
Women have been key mobilizers in this uprising, leading marches, organizing sit-ins, chanting, discussing politics, and setting up tents, among other functions. On more than one occasion, women formed a human shield to protect protestors from riot police. “Women have naturally claimed their space in the public sphere, not only in traditional roles restricted to feminist issues,” Carmen Geha, activist and assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, tells me over the phone from Beirut. “We are real partners in this revolution.”
Local and international media have taken note of women’s role in the uprising. An-Nahar, a leading daily newspaper in Lebanon, published on its front page the Lebanese national anthem, adding “women” to the lyrics so the anthem reads that Lebanon is the birthplace of “women and men,” not only men. The revised anthem was sung for the first time by thousands of women at a candlelit march in downtown Beirut on Nov. 6. Even though this change is not official, it is a major win for Lebanese women in their fight for equality.
Lebanon currently ranks 140 out of 149 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2018 maintained by the World Economic Forum, lagging behind Gulf Arab states such as Kuwait and Qatar that are generally viewed as more restrictive of women’s rights. Lebanese women are significantly underrepresented in Parliament, holding only six seats out of 128.
Women in Lebanon have long borne the brunt of discrimination embedded in a sectarian political system that leaves them vulnerable and unequal to men. Laws governing marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance fall under the mandate of the various sectarian courts. There are 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s different religious communities that are administered by religious courts, all of which discriminate against women, according to Human Rights Watch. Activist groups have long called for adopting a unified personal status law that treats women and men as equals.
One of the protesters’ top demands is establishing a non-sectarian civil state, which would, by default, result in progress toward women’s equality, as overhauling the system could lead to civil laws that treat women and men equally. Another demand is reforming the nationality law. Lebanese women, unlike men, are banned from passing their nationality to their children and spouses.
Protesters in a Beirut feminist march earlier this month chanted the lyrics of a traditional song that’s sung to a girl on her wedding day. They changed the lyrics from “She’s going out of her father’s house” to “She’s going to protest, she’s going to strike, she’s going to demand freedom, she’s going to take down a regime.”
Whether this strong showing by women will translate into meaningful change will depend on the political outcome of this uprising. It is certain though that this revolution has brought into the spotlight women’s role in public life, even leading to better practices on the ground. “Now when holding events and press conferences, activists and organizers make sure that women are well-represented,” Geha, who’s taking part in the demonstrations, tells me.
The road ahead is not easy. But the past month has given the Lebanese people hope for a new future and a gender-equal world. Both plights go hand in hand.