LEBANON: Women and politics in Lebanon
Article by a Lebanese woman describing the position of women in both Muslim and Christian communities as the country slid into civil war.
The mother who rocks her newborn son with her right hand does not shake the world with her left hand – Arab saying
I think I experienced my relationship with politics as the transgression of a taboo. Of course, in the 1960s we were no longer living in the era of the veil. Lebanese society, despite its reputation for Westernisation and modernism, was nonetheless still carefully partitioned: boys’ schools and girls’ schools, girls’ games and boys’ games, motherhood and homemaking for women, professional work for men… This division of roles and behaviour, seldom transgressed in practice, was instilled very early on within the family. Boys were openly preferred to girls, and girls were intensively prepared for their role as wives and mothers. Housekeeping skills and docility were the qualities most appreciated in a young girl ready for marriage. Women and politics were two opposite poles, or two spheres which never intersected. Politics was ‘public’, ‘outside activity’, ‘history’. A woman was everything that was most private, most eternal and ‘ahistoric’; the ‘within’, the ‘at-home’ that everyone, boy or girl, found in the home, the mother.
Politics was the preserve of men. We had obtained equal civic and political rights in 1953, we could vote and we could be elected. But it was good form not to make too much use of these rights. We would go and vote with our fathers or husbands, and we would vote the same way they did. Was it worth stirring up trouble in the family to vote for or against people we did not know from Adam or Eve, men foreign to our family? Was it worth the ridicule to stand as a candidate, as two women had done just after we had obtained the right to vote? Political questions were settled for us at the level of what is ‘done’ and what is ‘not done’, of what was or was not suitable for a woman. Although legally citizens, we continued to be ruled by our families and we had few, if any official relations with the state.
To engage in politics, or to ‘enter politics’ as we put it, was not the done thing for young women. We entered despite the opposition of our frightened parents. We joined as though we were joining a religion, eager to learn, to catch up on secular backwardness, serious and hardworking, obeying all the bizarre rules which governed meetings and demonstrations. The world of politics had the taste of forbidden fruit. We were proud to have been admitted, proud to meet celebrated leaders in the corridors, and especially proud finally to be taken seriously. Men, our comrades, listened carefully and with respect, and we were at ease discussing economic, historic or international problems with them. We were flying high, far from the kitchens of our mothers, and far from the embroidery work destined for our trousseaus.
It is necessary to have lived in these closed societies, where roles are rigidly defined from infancy, to understand our euphoria and also our blindness. We thought we had escaped the usual fate of women. We had slipped through a breach into the world of men. We tried to acclimatise ourselves to that world, always thinking our setbacks were due to our own ignorance. We were not yet ready to bring men and their values into question, and still less to question ‘politics’.
Our elders who, like us, could not bear their situation, did not have the same opportunities as we did. In their time, political parties did not admit women, and no woman dared to meet men publicly who were not known to her family. So they founded women’s charitable and social associations. For a long time they denied that they were involved in politics. When they took a position on a political or national problem, they took great care to show why, as mothers, they could not accept this and why, as wives, they demanded that. They led a campaign for political rights, and from 1953, they tried vainly to bring women into political life.
These women’s organisations saw the problem as being solely at the level of national power. Politics was the world of deputies and ministers. Women were excluded, and that was unfair. Several unsuccessful attempts to get themselves elected to the legislature were occasions for diatribes by these organisations against backward voters, and against women who did not understand their own interests, were traitors to their own sex and lacked confidence in the ability of women to represent them. There were diatribes also, and especially, against the power of money, electoral fraud and the manoeuvres of politicians whose victims were women candidates. Pure and innocent women mounting an assault on a corrupt electoral system were defeated by the forces of Evil (Men) and corruption. [There is an untranslatable pun in the last sentence – Mal – evil, Male – Men]. All of which said to the most indulgent ‘they can’t make the grade’ and to others ‘It’s a good thing; they shouldn’t mix in matters which don’t concern them.’
Although disgusted by these defeats, the women did not give up their project. During a meeting before the last legislative elections one woman speaker made an apologia for the Syrian and Egyptian regimes, which had allowed women into the body of deputies. Conceding that these women had not been elected but designated on the lists of single parties or simply nominated by the executive, this speaker, warmly applauded by the audience, demanded that in Lebanon as well, a certain number of seats be reserved ex officio for women nominated by the Conseil General des Femmes and the president of the republic. This support for a system of nomination was astonishing on the part of women who otherwise swore by democracy in Lebanon, and criticised the absence of freedoms in neighbouring Arab countries. But the advantages they saw in this system led them to gloss over everything which accompanied it.
Thus, they said ‘the woman would remain dignified, would not be obliged to have her photo on the walls of the town, nor be confronted with the base material considerations of an election campaign. She would not lose her femininity, nor run the risk of a humiliating defeat and would gain power.’ Alas, all this required an amendment of the constitution and the electoral law, a difficult process in Lebanon.
Perhaps the dream of gaining power could be achieved more easily and more quickly at the level of ministerial posts? Every time there was a change of cabinet (which was frequent during these troubled years) we saw these same women’s organisations rushing to the newly-nominated head of the government during his consultations: ‘women are underrepresented, you must give us a portfolio…’ The same thing happened every time: the prime minister received them courteously while they were served titbits to eat and the press, in ironic mood, noted the visit; meanwhile everyone waited for the women to finish their activities so that serious matters could be dealt with.
In fact it was pathetic. These women took their sex literally as the reason for their exclusion from power, and presented themselves as women, without any consideration of political tendencies, religions, parties, programmes, international or Arab affiliations – the essence of the political game. It was also pathetic because it took the authorities, who presented themselves as democratic, at their word: representative of all citizens, without distinction of sex, class or religion, a just and egalitarian power. It was as though the right to something was sufficient to obtain it; as though the exclusion of women resulted from an oversight, which would be rectified on the spot once it was realised.
The women who joined political parties were less naive. They regarded politics as something requiring time and work. They had transferred their ambitions for power to the party. The majority thought that the conditions of women would change if they joined political parties. They expected that political and social transformations would make reforms possible. According to which party they belonged to, they struggled for Arab unity, the Lebanese nation, or socialism, but very little for the cause of women. It was very important for them to be recognised as full members of the party. They disliked being assigned to the women’s section and wanted to prove that they were as capable as men at dealing with any problem. Thus they avoided talking about women, a minor subject, in order not to be put down. Within the many parties which, while admitting women, kept them in separate groups, the women met among themselves, waited for instructions from a party leader and were mobilised particularly when the party had to show its strength in demonstrations and especially in electoral campaigns. In these situations, women were all of a sudden necessary and even indispensable.
In 1975, as part of the activities of International Women’s Year, the Democratic Party invited representatives of Lebanese political parties to a meeting to draw up a balance sheet of the participation of women in political parties and to consider the possibility of agreeing on a platform of demands and common action. Women from the Phalangist Party, the National Bloc, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Ba’ath Party, the Communist Party, as well as other women belonging to small groups, all met together; distrustful, rivals, convinced in advance that no agreement was possible.
However, agreement was possible. It was sufficient to point to the one or more paragraphs in each party’s programme devoted to women, to realise that all the parties – at least in principle – were for equality between men and women, for optional civil marriage, for the application of the law on equal pay, for the generalisation of education for girls, for better professional training for girls, for an extension of creches etc… That this preparatory meeting was not followed by others, was officially because of the war: the leftist parties ordered a boycott of the Phalangist Party, so women from the left-wing parties could not sit down at the same table with Phalangists. In fact, it was because of the anguish provoked by the agenda.
The first question was strictly political: ‘What is the position of your party on women’s questions?’ Everybody, both on the left and on the right, was doubtful whether they would agree. How would a communist look if she had nothing either to criticise in, or to add to, what was proposed by a Phalangist? How was it possible to end up with only differences of detail in demands over women, starting from so many different and antagonistic ideologies representing the whole organised Lebanese political spectrum? Was it sufficient to attribute the agreement to the demagogy of the right, which in its programmes made promises to women which it had no intention of keeping? This was not a serious approach, and one felt that it revealed a grave problem, that of an inadequate analysis of the exploitation and oppression experienced by women in Lebanese society.
The second question, although also political, was of a more existential nature: ‘In your party, what is the number of women members, and the number of women who are in leading positions? What problems do they have because they are women?’ Of all those present, only the Democratic Party could point to women in its politburo. No women representative would agree to give figures or even a rough estimate of the proportion of women members in relation to the total membership of the party. There was great reticence in admitting there were problems at all. Thus, if there were few women in the party, this was because women lacked consciousness; if they did not hold responsible positions, this was because they were not sufficiently competent – the party itself did not discriminate. Women found themselves using standard male modes of thought in regard to other women: they talked like men. The same mechanism which makes women loathe to complain of their lot in front of women they do not know, especially if they are rivals, was at work there. These women militants, when they were conscious of the discrimination which they and their comrades were victim of, when they were not themselves token women in the party, preferred to wash their dirty linen at home. They refused to question publicly the men from their own party, to recognise that their party, their men, were not the most advanced, the most egalitarian, or the most revolutionary. Alienated, and preferring their hard-won identity as members of the party to the less prestigious identity of committed women, they left without having really met, without having talked, or listened.
The possibility of politicising the women’s question, ie applying the same criteria applied to any other question, analysing it in terms of relations of power, of positions through which one group of people (in this case men) control another group (women), seems to be a long way off for at least the majority of Lebanese women. But some women began to do this. They had been militants for several years in the left parties. They had lived with and undergone subtle or brutal discrimination from society, from militants of other parties – but especially from their own comrades. They had been confronted with the disastrous consequences of the etiquette of principal and secondary contradictions, the contradiction between the sexes being, of course, always secondary. They had realised the futility of any revolution which kept intact the basic unity of exploitation and oppression, that of one sex over the other, of masculine over feminine. They had also lived through the laceration of the war, in which, although perhaps in different forms according to the side, the male order had been the sole victor.
It is this reflection, still embryonic, which I want to account for. To try to see in the present political situation in Lebanon an antagonism of class and of religious communities, but also an antagonism between the sexes, to try to see the war through, and starting from, the feminine universe (cf Mao and also M.-A. Macciocchi ‘les Femmes et la traversee du fascisme’ in Elements pour une analyse du fascisme, Paris, 1976, p128).
It is hardly astonishing that in Lebanon more than in other places women experience politics as something foreign in their daily lives, since their lives are ruled by community laws and not national ones. The principal moments of their lives are punctuated by the intervention of men from their communities and religious authorities, rarely from the state. It is essential to understand that in Lebanon all matters relating to personal status depend on confessional laws and tribunals. There is no civil marriage. There are as many different laws for women as there are religions. Marriage, divorce or separation, relationships, guardianship of minors, inheritance, all these problems have different solutions according to whether one is a Maronite Christian, a Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, or a Sunnite or Shia’ Muslim. Of course the state also intervenes: education policy, employment policy, wages, prices… But these problems are secondary, or rather experienced as secondary by most women, with the exception of politicised women who are interested in them.
In 1975 the women’s organisations held a congress to discuss the laws relating to personal status, and demanded optional and noncompulsory civil marriage. A law forbidding discrimination against women in the family was presented by women from the Democratic Party and adopted by the congress. All the parties which declare themselves opposed to confessionalism talk about the necessity of having unified and secular laws in all spheres of life, especially that of personal status. The left parties add that this reform is all the more necessary because the present laws are disadvantageous to women, but their declarations remain at the level of principles, and everyone carefully avoids entering into details.
However, at the moment of civil war, the question of women became the central point of negotiations between the right and the left, and it is not irrelevant that it also became the point of rupture.
The ‘Committee for National Dialogue’, laboriously created during one of the many cease-fires that marked the war, attempted to list points of disagreement and bring together different points of view. It broke down over the question of secularisation. The left demanded total secularisation, as did the Christian right. The Muslims wanted political and administrative secularisation, but refused secularisation of personal status, considering it a matter of private and non-political problems. Since the beginning of the war the left had been a prisoner of its Muslim allies. Its leader, Kamal Jumblatt, known for his misogyny and political opportunism, declared that since the ‘Muslim and national side’ was not ready for such a reform, they could put the question of civil marriage to one side. One could not open a breach in alliance over such secondary problems! The important thing was to remain united in the face of the enemy and to deal with ‘political’ and military problems. It should be noted that this abandonment by the left of the women’s cause went almost totally unnoticed.
The Christian right affirmed that for its part it wanted civil marriage. Assured of a Muslim rejection, it could allow itself all sorts of proposals to give itself a modern and Western image. In a recent interview with Le Monde, Beshir Gemayel stated: ‘Alone, we achieved secularisation a long time ago.’ Describing the federal structure he supported, he said: ‘Each community should rule itself according to its own laws, and no one should impose their views on others.’ But isn’t this precisely what happened before the war? As for secularisation, that is a trap-word for women. For the Napoleonic code was a secular code, as was the Rocco Code, drawn up by Mussolini in fascist Italy. What sort of code then, are the Phalangists and the Guardians of the Cedar, allied to the Lebanese monks, preparing for us?
Here we touch on a very important aspect of intercommunal relations. We are dealing with two communities struggling for power, for leadership. Within each community, masculine domination over women takes place under different conditions and according to different laws, but it is nonetheless implacable. It is a matter of keeping the women for the men of the community. However, Muslim men have legal access to Christian women; the reverse is not true. A Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim without at least converting and in that case losing her inheritance. Marriages are very common between Lebanese Christians and foreign Christians. Mixed marriages are very rare between Christian men and Muslim women, and often in these cases the man converts to Islam.
When civil marriage is discussed, traditional Muslim men immediately imagine a cohort of young women, their daughters and sisters, rushing into the arms of Christian men the minute the law is passed. This threat is absolutely untenable. One exasperated Muslim said to me: ‘When we discuss secularisation with Christians they ask me: will you give us your daughter in marriage? Would that they would leave our women alone!’
For centuries, these communities have lived side by side with myths concerning the women of the other community. In the Muslims, the Christians see the East with all its seduction, its sensuality, and its docility, in short – the harem. The Muslims imagine Christian women as being more advanced, more educated, and more modern than their women. To join them is a promotion. But as intercommunal relations remained relatively rare, because of the fear of reprisals from jealous fathers and brothers (sometimes leading to crimes, qualified as ‘crimes of honour’) negative myths grew up, helping to make frustration tolerable: ‘Bunch of whores’ said Muslims of Christians who rejected them; ‘stupid and ignorant women’ said the Christians of Muslim women they lusted after, but who were inaccessible.
A kind of rule operated in peace time, an implicit understanding between the males of the two communities, recognising the mutual right of each over the women of their respective communities. This entente, based mainly on fear of reprisals, protected women of the two camps in the first stages of the war. Few women were kidnapped, and if they were arrested they were quickly released. They could move around more easily than men; militiamen on barricades did not ask them for identity papers. One got the impression that if one side broke this agreement and started to seize women, it would be terrible. If the walls, which held back repressed and aggressive desires, suddenly broke, the consequences would be uncontrollable.
These walls were effectively broken at times, when the war reached extremes of violence: Quarantina, Damour, Clemenceau, Tel El Za’atar. These were points of no return, where through the association of sexuality with power, by the rape of women and young girls, the aggressors signified their absolute (but momentary) domination over the other camp. In all the random shelling, houses in flames, banks looted, hotels destroyed, factories sacked, some elements of the patriarchal order – religious, political and military leaders and women’s property – were spared. This ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, based on a cult of authority and hierarchy, and on an extraordinary respect for force and violence, as much in their own camp as within the enemy camp, led to some aberrations: Hawi, military leader of the Phalangist militias, was captured by the Palestinian resistance and released several hours later. When people wanted to hit Chamoun, they executed his nephew; and as a reprisal, it was Jumblatt’s sister that was assassinated.
If certain of the leaderships were hit during this war, those who survived emerged even more ingrained with authoritarianism and violence. Both sides attributed their previous ‘defeats’ to the softness of their leaders; they wanted the strongest leaders, the best armed militias, the most organised – that is the most easily controllable – population. Any questioning of authority had to be fought, any criticism or reservations were put down to laxity; politics was no longer a citizen’s right, only guns talked. These were phallic values par excellence.
The people had to be mobilised to accept the infernal life that gripped the combat areas, Beirut in particular: scarcity and sometimes total lack of water, electricity, bread, vegetables and meat, children without schools, workers without jobs, stealing and looting, destruction and death. Those responsible for the war were aware that it was the women who bore most of the burden of everyday life. They attempted to gain their support. Radio programmes were specifically directed at women from both sides. Despite references to the ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ – or the Arab destiny of the same Lebanon, these programmes were very similar. They talked about ‘the necessary contribution of women to the national cause’, and of ‘the price to be paid’. They exalted the spirit of sacrifice of the mothers who had borne the heroes. Heroes, yes, but how to acknowledge their deaths, and the death of so many victims of random shelling and the bullets of snipers? ‘Ommash-shahid’, the mother of the martyr, became the object of endless glorification. The violence of the apparatus and ritual of funerals was useful as a means of making death unreal, and silencing the women’s grievances: the profusion of guns, shots in the air, the bodies removed to the wailing of the women, and the men accompanying the hero-martyr to his final resting place.
Pathetic as always, women from the women’s organisations, corroded like everybody by the confessional evil, completely bypassed by events and not knowing what to do, took up a position against the war. One day they tried to remove the barricades of the militias and this led to kidnappings. Going from east Beirut to west Beirut, from Phalangist barricade to progressive barricade, they spoke in the name of wives, mothers and sisters. They wanted an end to the killing. They had built homes and now, contrary to the saying, the sons were destroying the country. Of course, their campaign had no success, although it reflected the feelings of many people.
Women belonging to parties, and many others who joined in during the war, organised assistance and food for both camps. Not having been able to leave the area controlled by the progressive forces and the Palestinian resistance during the whole of the war, I don’t know in detail what happened in the Christian camp. However, everything leads me to believe that women from both sides ran into the same problems.
On the progressive side the disorganisation would have reached unmanageable proportions without the participation of the women. They formed aid teams, provided help for the injured, welcomed refugee families, gave food for the fighters, sewed sheets and linen for the hospitals. An incredible amount of energy was and continues to be expended. Very few men militants took part in this work unless they were overseeing it. This was considered to be women’s work, and regarded with contempt; men who participated in it felt themselves diminished, and were mocked by their comrades. Everything was just the same as in the family. For women, the servile jobs, for men, the noble jobs; in war the noble jobs were carrying arms and fighting.
Women did take part in the fighting – and their presence was considered to be neither natural nor obvious. On the surface, men were proud to have women fighting in their ranks. This conformed to the scheme of ‘people’s war’. In actual fact, the presence of women was felt to be an intolerable blow to their virility. They defended themselves by attacking: sexual and verbal aggression or attempts to put the women down. The attitude of military instructors was full of condescension, as though they were saying: ‘I’m too important to waste my time with women.’ The military commanders were no better. Women fighters were always given the least prestigious arms on the excuse they had not had enough training, and the worst places on the pretext of ‘protecting’ them. To be treated as equals, the women had to be more courageous and more competent than the men, and at that point they became the token women, heroines. Each party and each militia had a few of them.
In addition, the women fighters had to defend themselves against the ever-present accusation of being whores. ‘In the trenches, it’s an orgy’, was a fantasy often expressed by men fighters talking about the enemy camp or rival militias. Women had no right to be there, they were a nuisance. Every pretext was good.
And why were we there?
Why, even by taking up arms, did we fill precisely that role given to us for all (patriarchal) eternity: that of the beautiful woman fighter, or the avenging mother defending her little ones? Why were we involved in a struggle from which we would gain nothing?
Why did we let ourselves into this sinister adventure?
Yolla Polity Sharara