Will Lebanon have more women MPs after May 6 poll?
In the nine years since Lebanon’s latest general elections, women’s appetite for political power has increased significantly and there are more than 100 female candidates contesting in the May 6 poll, compared to 12 in 2009.
There are four women members in the outgoing parliament — 5.12% of the total of elected members. Will 2018 witness the election of a larger number of female candidates?
Feminist movements and women rights activists have been lobbying for the increase of women’s participation in politics and many of them advocated — unsuccessfully — to include an obligatory quota for women in the election law that was passed last June. This year, 111 women are running in the elections, the highest ever number of women candidates in Lebanon.
“The fight for a fair representation of women in politics has pushed many political parties to include women on their electoral lists,” said rights activist Hayat Mirshad. “However, the real problem is that many political parties have put women in positions where it is almost impossible for them to make it to parliament.”
Under the new semi-proportional electoral law, it is more difficult for candidates who are not heads of a list or in top positions to succeed. That leaves women placed towards the end of the electoral lists with less chance of winning.
The rate of women candidates is the highest on lists formed by the civil society groups such as Koullouna Watani (We are all nationalists), which has 30% female hopefuls.
Even though the number of women candidates is the highest in Lebanon to date, it is considered relatively low to a gender-balanced parliament. Insufficient financial leverage is viewed as a major obstacle preventing women from being politically active.
“The electoral law makes it very difficult for people who don’t have the needed financial means to be visible to voters,” said Paula Yacoubian, a journalist and candidate for the Armenian Orthodox seat in Beirut 1 district.
“I am a candidate who is funding her own electoral campaign. A lot of women do not have this [privilege]. With the lack of a real support of political parties, many women were not able to run for the elections,” she said.
“Consequently, while forming the civil society’s Koullouna Watani lists, it was difficult to find women who were willing to participate in the elections and who had the financial means to do so.”
Nonetheless, in Akkar, North Lebanon, an all-women list, Nisaa Akkar (Women of Akkar) was formed by five candidates who refused to be placed in male-dominated lists on which they were unlikely to succeed.
“It is a unique and risky decision we took,” said lawyer Souad Salah, candidate for the Sunni seat in Akkar. “Many other candidates tried to intimidate us to push us to withdraw our candidacy. My husband was offered money to pressure me to quit. I come from a very conservative community and many in my own family are not supporting me.”
Salah and the other candidates are funding their own electoral campaigns. In this underprivileged region of Lebanon, Nisaa Akkar is determined to try to make a difference.
“I am a lawyer and a school teacher. We, as a list, only have the money to pay for the minimum requirements of the electoral campaign. We have no money to be visible on the media or be on billboards. We are trying to launch a crowdfunding campaign to collect the money we need to pay for our representatives in polling stations during elections day. We need approximately 700 representatives and we only have a handful of volunteers,” Salah said.
When they are not supported by political parties or don’t have the financial means to be visible as powerful candidates, women are discouraged to run for political office.
Mirshad said she expected the number of women who are likely to win in the upcoming election not to exceed the number of women in the outgoing parliament.
“It is a good thing to look at the number of 111 candidates as a positive number but it is more important to look at how many of these candidates will become members of the parliament in May 2018,” she said.
“Women have been silenced for a very long time in Lebanon and we need more than [111 candidates] to come near a fair representation of women in the political life. It is important that women support each other to reach a fair representation in politics.”
Myra Abdallah is an activist on gender issues.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.