Women political participation in Lebanese politics: Can allyship make a difference?

Mia Marty is GPG’s Project Coordination Assistant. Having worked, last year, on our project exploring the role of male allies in supporting women in politics, she discusses applying the project’s findings and core values to our new programme supporting female candidates hoping to run for the upcoming municipal elections in Lebanon.

Global Partners Governance Foundation just launched the second phase of its Women Political Participation project in Lebanon. It will work with local partner LOST (the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training) and political experts to improve gender representation on the Lebanese political stage. It will build on the achievements reached during the first phase of the project, which identified a selection of exceptional women who could participate in capacity-building training to coach the future generation of female leaders in Lebanon.

The past tragedies the country has endured have highlighted the vital role women play in the community. They were at the forefront of the 2019 protests, of the handling of the aftermath of the Covid19 crisis, and of the Beirut explosion of August 2020. The country’s upcoming municipal elections are an excellent opportunity for women to take their legitimate place on the political stage. There is a strong desire for social and political change in Lebanon, and its citizens have been protesting en-masse against the very establishment that led the country into one of the worse national crises it has ever known. Now more than ever is the right time for women to make their voices heard and to prove themselves as valid and qualified candidates and as recognised leaders of their communities. GPGF and its partners will seize this momentum to work alongside these women to support them in achieving their goals.

The conjunction of circumstances which characterise Lebanese society may lead women to find themselves particularly vulnerable to inequality, discrimination, and marginalisation. The country’s context can sometimes prove highly patriarchal, subject to sectarianism, and overall averse to women’s empowerment. Its structures of power have historically rested in the hands of wealthy men issued from the country’s leading political families – the Zuama – who belong to highly influential networks, handle the political life of their community, and decide who runs for office. With direct access to considerable financial resources and high-level, international political networks, these systems are by essence exclusionary. Often, women can only hope to become involved in political life when either supported by Zuama or stepping in for a deceased, formerly politically active father or husband. This patriarchal political system’s hereditary logic dominates government, ministries, and parliament, which maintains the same elite families in power. This system is fundamentally grounded on hegemonic masculinity and shows symptoms in every layer of Lebanese society. Adding to this, the political sphere is structured in reflection of the sect quotas defined in the 1932 census, which strengthens the hold of some prominent families and feeds into a highly clientelist system: positions for family members, services, networks, are exchanged between sect members and exploited to serve private interests.

Through such a system, women can be confined to the private sphere, enjoying limited agency. Cultural and sectarian traditions push women into financial dependence on their male counterparts, and escaping this situation is currently near impossible in the midst of a deep economic crisis.

So, we ask: what is the place of women in this context, and what allies can they draw upon to make their voice heard in the political sphere?

A year ago, GPG’s developed a 5-modules training on Male Allies for the International Republican Institute and its Women Democracy Network. Observing the scarce representation of women in global politics, the project sought to question the root problem of gender bias and stereotyping, unpacking those notions to bring men and women together, and to help shift the assumptions we inherently carry with us. In practice, it encourages both men and women to move beyond gender and work hand in hand with each other, as individuals who want to make a change and have the capacity to bring their country forward.   

Becoming an ally is however not an easy journey. Questioning the beliefs, culture, and history which made someone who they are can be challenging, especially in a society where gender preconceptions can be deeply entrenched. GPGF, in collaboration with its local partners and Associates, will work with men and women locally to question what the concept of Allyship means to them and how they can apply it within their own social and professional circles. It is essential not to isolate gender groups as they will learn how socialised norms hinder women’s progression in society just as much as they overburden men with high expectations.

Women who are willing to engage in politics in this challenging context need to know they can count on allies – men and women – who will support and vouch for them. They need to be able to identify those allies, engage with them strategically, and maintain those relationships. Conversely, the country needs allies – men and women in positions of power – who will actively encourage, assist, and endorse female candidates. Taking these steps will support the building of a more representative Lebanese political stage and will impact the country’s society as a whole.

The approach we are taking is people-centred and adaptive, meaning that participants can apply the learnings and exercises of the course to their own context, at their own pace. They will be invited to consider how they can mobilise and sustain strategic partnerships in their environment to serve the needs of their campaigns and, ultimately, of their communities. By mobilising values of cooperation and working together, we seek to change the segregating behaviours which would push women to the margins of society.

Changing behaviour is a big challenge. It takes a lot self-questioning and realisation, but it allows for meaningful, lasting change. One by one, incremental changes make for a more sustainable path to progress and development than one radical shift. If Lebanese men and women in politics work together and support each other, women’s political representation will move forward, building, in turn, stronger institutions and democracy.