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    Gains and Hurdles for Political Women

    A wall adorned with campaign posters of candidates running for the municipal elections (AFP photo/Anwar Amro)

    NOW Lebanon’s Paige Kollock interviews candidates and election experts, including Tajaddod Youth coordinator Ayman Mhanna, about women’s participation in the 2010 Lebanese municipal elections.

    Lebanon’s municipal elections are halfway through, and already monitors are noticing a small but welcome demographic shift toward the election of female candidates.

    With residents in three of Lebanon’s electoral districts having cast their ballots, women’s representation in municipal councils has already increased from 2 percent in 2004 to nearly 6 percent. The increase comes despite the fact that a draft law to impose a quota of women candidates was never passed. But experts say, despite the increase, females still have a long way to go in order to gain political weight in Lebanon, a society dominated by male politicians.

    In Lebanon’s 128-member parliament, there are only four women. The cabinet of 30 contains two females: the minister of Finance and a minister of State. This jarring gender gap led Interior Minister Ziad Baroud to propose a “gender quota” that would mandate that a certain percentage of nominees on the electoral ballots be reserved for females. Though the cabinet gave the idea their seal of approval in January, adopting a 20 percent quota for women in municipal councils, parliament didn’t agree and failed to pass it. Nonetheless, many parties took it upon themselves to put forth women candidates in these elections, whether to show their progressive nature or to gain votes.

    Farha Ajami is a grandmother from the Bekka Valley who won a seat to represent her village of Saghbine. Despite having minimal political experience, she was asked to run by the local Free Patriotic Movement branch just days before the election, and accepted because she “wanted to support the party.” Due to her prominence and popularity in her home town, she did not have to raise money, shake hands or make a single call, but is enthusiastic about her new position.

    “We want to fix our town, make gardens and parks for kids and for people to sit in. We want to fix the roads,” she told NOW Lebanon.

    Ajami says she did not face any discrimination as a female candidate, and in fact was encouraged to run by her husband and daughter. She believes at least half the seats for local representatives should be reserved for women because females work hard, have good ideas and are not as violent as men.

    While that may be true, some women still face resistance because of Lebanon’s patriarchal society, according to the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide. Ayman Mhanna, who works with NDI in Lebanon, says that among the many challenges for female candidates, their own families can be one of the biggest.

    “Men are skeptical about women not being able to cope with everything…work, politics and their domestic duties. A second element is related to peer pressure because other families in the town may ask why the female of the household is running for office and not the man.”

    Mhanna says still others question how active women will be on their councils if elected. To overcome these stereotypes, NDI started a campaign called “Shariky” to help teach women the techniques they need to run a proper campaign, and to provide a forum for women to help each other. Seventeen participants in the Shariky program ran for municipal council seats in Mount Lebanon, the first mohafaza to vote, and eight of them won, a remarkably high percentage.

    Dala Ghandour, 29, who campaigned for a seat in the Beirut municipality, was one of the Shariky participants. She was defeated, but still got an impressive number of votes – 1,470 – for a young female candidate with no experience or party support. She too says men were surprisingly encouraging.

    “On the contrary, I had both old and young men saying, ‘Yes, we will vote for you.’ No one told me ‘You’re a woman’ or ‘You are too young.’ If we want to change the rules of the game, we have to start doing something. It’s about small steps. A lot of people on my Facebook page said ‘Thank you for running’ because they know we need new blood, new faces, new ideas,” she said.

    According to International Foundation for Electoral Systems Director Richard Chambers, while many of Lebanon’s neighbors, such as Jordan, Syria and Palestine, already have quotas for women in government, there are many ways to get around mandatory quotas and that voluntary ones have proven more effective.

    “If you’re a political party, all you want to do is to win seats, and if you know you’ll have a greater chance of winning seats by meeting this requirement, you’re going to do it. I think, with these [Lebanese municipal] elections, every party woke up to the fact that they had to do it and that in fact it could improve their image,” he said.

    Even parties with conservative attitudes toward women, such as Hezbollah, have put forth female candidates, and women account for a larger percentage of voters than men, so it is only a matter of time until women gain a foothold in Lebanese politics.

    The fact that a woman’s quota passed the cabinet’s approval is in itself a milestone, said Chambers. “And it’s a milestone being pushed by a male-dominated cabinet.”

    Paige KOLLOCK
    NOW Lebanon

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