Invisible leaders: Lessons from Lebanon’s women

Project Manager Mia Marty has supported our Lebanon project for women’s political representation for most of her time at GPG. In this blog, she describes her personal journey on the project and what she learned from her visits to the country and from working with our participants, inspiring women candidates from all over Lebanon.

A year ago, I started working on the Winning With Women, a project that was being delivered by GPG Foundation and LOST and aimed to support Lebanese women candidates running for the municipal elections. Having worked previously on gender-based violence and allyship, I knew this was without a doubt going to be a fascinating and challenging topic, but I was not familiar with the country in all its complexities. I knew Lebanon from GPG’s past projects in the region and from my own reading, but the experience of managing Winning With Women and of being in the country and in constant communication with our Associates and project beneficiaries gave me a much more subtle perspective on it – even though it still feels like I only started to scratch the surface of a very rich and diverse culture.  

Lebanon is a country with a tumultuous history. This is reflected in its politics. External influences and interests fostered a corrupt and conflictual system with political parties clashing on the basis of religion, and a crumbling state. During the initial stages of the project, we led a piece of research on women in politics at the municipal level, which was for me a real dive into the socio-economic and political characteristics of the country. We investigated and analysed what defines the local context for those Lebanese women who seek to enter the political life of their local communities. This context directly impacted every part of our project. As I was coordinating with our fantastic and irreplaceable local Associate Moataz Ghaddar on a daily basis, I learnt how to approach and navigate the elements of the Lebanese environment which our project beneficiaries had to face in their political journey.

It was a year of elections in Lebanon. Moataz and our other Associates – Josephine Zgheib and Halime Kaakour – explained and contextualised for me all the political events happening as well as the constraints and factors to take into account to properly implement the project and respond to the needs we were aiming to address. For instance reaching out to women in a specific area through our trusted partner LOST (the Lebanese Organisation for Studies and Training), it was essential to have a deep understanding of the context and situation for women candidates to make sure we could adapt accordingly.

These learnings on Lebanon culminated during the two trips the team made to meet the women candidates. Though we already knew them, for our UK-based team interactions had so far remained only virtual and rather impersonal. It was essential for us to pay them a visit and seize the opportunity to have face-to-face, constructive conversations to really understand where they were coming from, their needs, and the challenges they faced. From an implementer’s perspective, it was absolutely game-changing to be able to hear their stories directly and to witness their projects and achievements in their communities. Indeed, what struck me the most was to have tangible, visible proof that despite all of their differences, women candidates in Lebanon face the exact same issues.

Women’s political participation is obviously highly dependent on context, culture, and a collection of other socio-economic factors. However, some elements are common to all women. All Lebanese women, regardless of their social background, political affiliation – if any – and religious beliefs, face barriers both at home and in the public realm. Nonetheless, all our project beneficiaries have been providing vital services for their communities. Mona opened a community centre in Alay, Rasha built a safe space for homeless orphans in Tripoli and cooperated with the police to train them to deal with children. Despite their commitment to foster change and create sustainable communities, these women encounter obstacles to engaging in politics. In Lebanon, women are deterred from entering politics from an early age through social norms and roles they must uphold, and later on through legislation as, for instance, once married they can only run in their husband’s birth city instead of their own.

As the project worked with women from all over Lebanon, we had the opportunity to gather them together on two occasions. This gave them the opportunity to get to know each other and exchange experiences on their personal life and political ambitions. It was a highly enriching experience as they realised they were much closer than they thought to women who lived in completely different areas, with different social backgrounds and beliefs. It encouraged the creation of a network of support between these women as well as a sense of belonging and trust. Indeed, having allies is for them a crucial element in their political journey. This is particularly true of men allies. For that reason, the project trialled for the first time the integration of men into trainings. We sought to facilitate conversations and stimulate partnerships between men and women and to foster synergies so as to open the doors of public life for these committed women. Shifting our mentalities and their unconscious bias when it comes to gender is a long-term challenge, but we believe we should not work in isolation with men and women any longer, but rather bring them together to lead this battle.

The past year was a difficult one for Lebanon. The country lived through the consequences of Covid-19, the Beirut blast, and most importantly the worsening economic crisis. Parliamentary elections were held and eight women were elected to the institution, among which our Associate Halime Kaakour. This is not a significant increase, but a sign of incremental progress which may lead to more sustainable impact. The candidates involved in our programme are more determined than ever and they will be preparing for the already postponed Municipal elections, currently  scheduled for May 2023. Despite an uncertain future, they are ready to lead their campaigns. Their determination to transform their country and their communities has been a driving force for them. Lebanon’s history made it a phoenix throughout time, reviving it from its ashes. Women will be a crucial part of this rebirth.

Find out more about our work in Lebanon and the progress of our women participants: join our upcoming research launch on Thursday 22nd September at 15:45 GMT+1. The study examines patriarchal norms, family dominance, and sectarianism in local contexts, urban/rural dynamics, access to resources, gender norms and the importance of Male Allies, and offers recommendations for the promotion of women’s political representation. The event should last for up to 1:30 hours and include a Q&A. Register interest and receive more details on joining the webinar.