Nayla Mouawad

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)–Nayla Mouawad is an extraordinarily popular member of parliament here. There are hints she may seek an even higher office.

That represents an enormous transition for Mouawad, who was appointed a dozen years ago by the Lebanese government as a member of parliament, inheriting the seat of her assassinated husband, late President ReneMouawad.

For many at the time, including most of herconstituency, Mouawad was considered a mere custodian of the parliamentary seat reserved by Lebanon’s patriarchal system of political hereditary for her son, who was only 17 at the time.

That’s not quite how it turned out. Today, she is a prominent member of the opposition, a well-established politician and a potential candidate for the presidency in 2005 elections. In the last round of parliamentary elections in 2000 she won more votes than any male candidate in her district.

But despite the magnitude of her success, Mouawad–as one of only three women in a 128-seat parliament–remains highly exceptional.

Her success as a female politician is remarkable not just in Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East, where the scarcity of women in political posts is becoming glaring.

When the League of Arab States recently discussed the annual Arab Human Development Report with the United Nations, for instance, women’s weak political participation emerged as a constraint on the region’s progress on human rights. At the Amman Summit of Arab Women in Jordan last month, Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa said women’s advancement in the Arab world will be hobbled as long as they are so poorly represented in parliaments.

One Country’s Struggle

Despite the regional absence of women from politics, Mouawad nonetheless finds it surprising in a country such as Lebanon, where women are well-established and active players in the private sector.

A United Nations Development Programme for 1998–the most recent year for which comparative statistics are available–indicated that Lebanese women’s participation in the labor force is the highest in the Arab world. Women represent 28 percent of the job market, ahead of second-ranking Syria, where women hold 25 percent of the jobs and third-ranking Jordan, where women’s work-force participation is 21 percent.

Yet, women’s participation in the Lebanese parliament is 2.3 percent, far less than 9.6 percent in Syria and 5.4 percent in Jordan.

Despite the 1952 abolition of legal obstacles to women’s formal participation in the political life, not one woman has been appointed to a ministerial post. Before the early 1990s, only one woman ever reached parliament; Myrna Bustani was elected in 1963 to complete the term of her deceased father.

Women have been conspicuously absent from the upper ranks of public administration and the judiciary, as well. Even at the municipal level of government, the 140 women elected in 1998–as council members of 708 cities across the country–hold less than 1 percent of the available seats.

Analysts and participants in the country’s political system chalk up women’s virtual absence from public and political life to a number of obstacles.

According to Mouawad, the recruitment of politicians from leading families in the country (such as her own) is a huge barrier because women so rarely take leadership roles inside the family.

“We are still a very clannish society,” Mouawad said in an interview with Women’s eNews. “It is still very exceptional to see a woman in the position of a family leader.”

Political Doors Opened by Men

In her 2001 study, Lebanese Women and Politics, Marguerite Helou, a professor at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at the Lebanese University, backs up Mouawad’s argument.

“Female entry to parliament was not through free competitive elections with equal opportunities, as it was through the prevalent traditional social structures,” Helou wrote. “The door to such structures is not opened to the woman except by the man or in his absence.”

Among prominent Lebanese political families, Helou found that the most likely way for a woman to work her way onto the scene was in the absence of a male heir, as was true in the cases of both Boustany and Mouawad.

The law professor also found that a chief way for women to advance politically was through the help of an influential male relative. One prominent beneficiary of that is Bahia Hariri, an active parliamentarian whose candidacy received crucial assistance from her brother, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mouawad also cited women’s lack of self-confidence. Given the dominance of parliament by the big political clans, Mouawad decided that the best point of entry for political aspirants of either sex was the municipal branch. In 1998 she went across the country encouraging women to run for municipal office. Despite her efforts to rally female candidates, only 500 women–among 10,000 men–declared candidacies. Of them, only 338, actually ran for office.

Rola Ajouz, the only woman in Beirut’s municipal council, agreed that Lebanese women have trouble seeing themselves in positions of political power and responsibility. Women in Lebanon, she said, also lacked organizational, bargaining and negotiations skills.

“We make up 52 percent of the votes, we are quite strong, but we are still unorganized and not united,” she told Women’s eNews.

Ajouz, 35, said that, if women’s organizations in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Council of Women, had internal elections and were capable of nominating two or three parliamentary candidates, they would have a good chance of winning.

Ajouz, only 29 when elected, also pointed to family politics as the point of entry, but with a very different perspective.

“In this country we have seen that a father is not ceding the place for his own son,” she said, referring to political competition for the same offices among male family members. “Why should we think that they will invite us with open arms? We need to compete and we need to fight. If we are not strong enough we have only ourselves to blame.”

Despite their tendency to prod women rather than blame men for Lebanon’s political gender gap, both Ajouz and Mouawad have contended with cultural guidelines imposed only on women such as dress codes and lifestyle restraints.

Mouawad, in particular, has carved out a female identity in a male-dominated world. She became famous for this in the wake of her husband’s assassination when–against family pressures–she eschewed violent reprisal against her husband’s killers.

“They were saying look, she is a woman, and she is weak and she doesn’t want to fight,” Mouawad told Women’s eNews. “Now they know I didn’t choose the easy way, or the easy fight, and they know that by forgiving, I have saved them from a long cycle of violence.”

Alia Ibrahim is a senior political reporter at The Daily Star in Beirut.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Rene Mouawad Foundation
(In English and French):

Lebanese American University
Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World