The protest in Lebanon have been going on for over a hundred days, and they have been marked by high female representation from women of various backgrounds and profiles. All over the country, women stand out by taking on multiple roles, by organizing discussions, leading marches, cooking, cleaning the squares, building human shields to de-escalate tensions, analyzing the laws to reform the current system and a multiplicity of other actions. Since the interview was conducted the government stated that it would continue working with the parliament and the civil society to improve women’s rights, their role in public and political life and fight against all forms of discrimination against women. In line with the national strategy for women in Lebanon adopted in June 2012, the concerned ministries should support this work within the current laws and regulation. Without specifying any measures, this statement means women cannot rest and must keep on fighting.
Women can no longer be considered second-class citizen and a non-priority by the government. Even if it was clear before the protests, in the past four months women have demonstrated that they have the skills and the strength to bring the change they want to see happen not only as women but also for the country as a whole. They have nothing to lose, rather everything to win, and this uprising has shown their solidarity across the country to change the status quo. It is unlikely that they will settle for less than what they have been asking for, for years and all along the uprising. A change has already happened, it cannot be unseen and will not be forgotten.
A discussion with Jumanah Zabaneh, January 30, 2020
About Jumanah Zabaneh: she co-authored the UN-Women report “Understanding the Role of Women and Feminist Actors in Lebanon’s 2019 Protests” published on the 13 December 2019. She took care of the data collection, by gathering testimonies from women all around the country and on-ground observations.
The protests have been going on for more than 100 days in Lebanon, how has the situation evolved in general and in terms of women’s participation since the report was published mid-December?
I think that the style of the protest has changed: we see fewer mass demonstrations which used to be the frequent at the beginning of the protests. Women were participating in high numbers in those types of protests, in our paper we talk about 50%, but at certain gatherings and demonstrations there were more than 50% women participating, specifically during women’s and feminist marches.
Now we see more clashes between protesters and the security forces. As soon as the protests become violent, we’re seeing a withdrawal of women from the front lines, or in some instances, women formed a buffer to prevent violence. From what we’ve seen, there have been a few exceptional cases of women confronting and taking part in the times of clashes. This reinforces our theory that women favour peaceful protests. They are still participating in high numbers, but when things turn into clashes and violencethe number of women is reduced, you don’t see them as much in the pictures, fewer are at the frontline than before.
There have been mixed reactions within the women’s rights community to the appointment of 6 women in the current cabinet. What is your take?
Achieving women’s rights is not only the job of the 6 women ministers, of course we would like them to push a women’s agenda forward but that’s also asked from the rest of the cabinet, the prime minister and the parliament and all kind of decision-making, political parties and so on. Women’s rights are everybody’s business: education, tourism, culture: it should be something that all ministries commit to. With regard to the Ministry for Women Empowerment, minister Safadi has recommended to the prime minister how to phase the portfolios placing the work under the National Commission for Lebanese Women, which I understand the PM has approved.
We saw on the street last week, women mobilizing for their right to transmit their nationality, and it has been on the agenda of women and activist groups for a long time, do you think that there will be a push in this direction?
Years and years of fighting and mobilizing women eventually led to an increase of representation in which 6 out of 20 minister positions are now filled by women. This demonstrates that finally the issue of female representation and discrimination against women is put on the table and that we should keep pushing to get achievements done by this government. The ministerial statement committed to equal rights for men and women and to the implementation of the national action plan on Women Peace and Security. We take it as a commitment to equal nationality rights too. The demands of the protests were clear about what women want to have in place and legislative reforms regarding personal status laws, nationality law and sexual harassment. We will build on that and continue to fight for these issues, as much as possible with the current composition of the government and the situation.
In the report you stress how women endorsed different roles, and diverse the women in the protests were, was this heterogeneity impacted on the long run?
It’s the opposite actually, the fact that the protests are taking place all over the country, compared to previous ones, makes it more inclusive and shows the diversity of women: women with disabilities, women in professions, mothers, students, women across all socio-economic classes as well as the high visibility of LGBTQI persons, especially lesbians, queer and transwomen.
What is refreshing is that different generations are taking part in the movement. We were really surprised, towards the end of the second month of the protest: you would see big students’ and schools’ movements, with girls, adolescent girls taking it to the streets. The intergenerational dialogue within the women’s movement is engaging as well as the emergence of new actors and ways of mobilizing: all of these new emerging faces that we are seeing in the feminist movement are using non-traditional way of mobilizing like social media, street talks, community talks, public talks. The way they see things are different:
While more experienced women, feminists would like to organize, unify and have clear path in relation to the women’s rights agenda, the younger generation wants to be part of the bigger change in the country, the governance, to increase transparency and accountability. They are less interested in organizing and coming together, grouping. They are more eager to engage with the wider movement.
How do you perceive the intergenerational solidarity?
We are witnessing some natural cooperation, coordination and dialogue that are done without much effort, it’s very organic. For example, if we look at the de-escalation efforts that happened in some hot spots like Khandak el Ghamiq and Tayyouneh:
It was the older women that took the streets under the banner of ‘mothers’, but the organization and the representation, was also shared by a lot of young women. However, the leading roles had been given to the mothers as they still have memory of the war, which is something no one wants to bring back.
It came naturally, they didn’t sit at a table and decided it, the roles were endorsed spontaneously. From now on, we would like to see how this intergenerational dialogue can lead to an agreement on what are the priorities for women’s rights to look forward.
What are the achievements for women in the protests according to you?
At UN Women, we work on social norms, masculinities, and the image of women and their status in society. What happened in the protests has moved us forward, like years ahead, it’s massive! There is a wide consensus that women have a central role in times of insecurity or protest like what we’ve seen. They have challenged the common image, showing day after day that they are capable of doing all sorts of things, not only within their traditional gender roles, leading talks, chanting, discussing technical portfolios like oil and gas, corruption, governance, aviation, privatisation, etc. What caught our attention was to see the leading role women journalists had in these protests: the way they de-escalate conflict, defended protesters, and made sure that interaction between military forces and protesters stayed peaceful. We saw the emergence of strong female public figures in all source of sectors, in the academia, in arts, in tourism. For example, by organizing local tours like what’s happening in Tripoli to give an alternative picture of the city, all of this is women-led. The central role women played in the protests has put pressure on the new cabinet to ensure proper women representation, rather a minimum women representation because the demand now is 50/50 as well as to be represented as multi-taskers.
The fight against sexism is central in the protests as we have seen protesters oppose the sexism that sparked against women in the cabinet even if they don’t endorse it. There were a lot of groups, even those critical of the new government, that issued public statements against sexism and behaviour revealing toxic masculinity against women ministers. One of the battles that the protesters are fighting is one against patriarchy and by condemning this behaviour even within the movement, they are establishing advanced foundations towards this path.
In women’s marches, or gathering for women’s issue the crowd is mainly made of women, such as the one on the nationality law, how could those demands be mainstreamed in the rest of the movement, what should be done towards that end?
I disagree with you, what we see in the women’s marches and across the country reveal that it has become a public demand. Nationality rights are not confined to the usual people leading these campaigns. From UN Women estimates, there were about a 20% representation of men in these gatherings, which is a first. Nationality rights go hand in hand with obtaining a unified personal status law. There is a consensus, even the president made a statement about it, that unified personal status law is the first steppingstone towards a secular civil state which is also one of the protesters’ key demands.
I do believe that through the protest, women’s rights have become part of the global reforms, that the global reforms have endorsed the women’s rights demand. They became part of each other instead of parallel paths.
What is missing in the current movement regarding the women’s mobilization?
I think, the key conversation now is about the harsh economic situation that we are facing. Even if there is a commitment by the government to move forward on the women’s rights agenda in terms of legislation, on discrimination, representation and all of that, the economic situation is impacting the whole population and we know from evidence collected in other countries that went through similar situations as Lebanon, that women pay a hard price when there is an economic crisis. Unless there is a solution that includes gendered perspectives on the economic crisis, women will continue to suffer. And we know that with economic crises, come higher levels of violence against women: negative coping mechanisms towards women which are usually linked to gender-based violence, exploitation and abuses. Now the issue is: how to prioritize women and protect them in this time of economic crisis so that we preserve the gains of the past three months and mitigate the negative consequences.
Moreover, the allocation of enough resources to the women’s rights groups and feminist groups to continue do what they have been doing for years is crucial and we need to push for it and hold the government accountable. It takes place on multiple levels: the government allocating resources for women, the economic crisis and its impact on women and enough resources for women’s rights organisation, emerging groups, feminist groups to continue the work they have been doing. Government budgets’ allocations, economic crisis mitigation and resources made available by the international community to the women’s rights groups
We witness a feminist surge all around the world and the media has covered quite extensively the presence of women on the streets in Lebanon, they’ve been at the front page of many newspaper. Do you think that this could impact the often-under-funded women’s rights organisations?
Yes, it helps. What we see now is that with the economic crisis there are many threats on women being pushed on negative coping mechanisms, more violence at home, more marginalization from the job market, higher unemployment, more poverty and so on. But we also see opportunities, and this is what we try to communicate through our monitoring: we are worried from the economic hardship situation. But we also see a lot of opportunities when we plan forward, we should look at both: how to mitigate the threats and the risks. But also, how to build on the opportunities. Now we have women ministers in place, we have higher status of women in the eyes of everyone. We have the emergence of a movement decentralized in every region, some that were invisible before like Balbaak, Akkar, Nabatyeh, Hermel, Sour. In all these places there’s an interesting intergenerational dialogue happening and lots of innovation in the way women are mobilizing, dialogue and channel their demands. In our bilateral conversation with the donors, the international community, embassies, within the UN, we are trying to highlight both. It’s important to look at the humanitarian emergency consequences of the hardship situation but we should also keep an eye on the opportunities, not to lose the momentum. We tend to think short term: people are hungry, unemployed but we must also look on how to achieve longer term results, because there is a momentum now and it’s time to act. Everyone wants to look good, show they are modern, progressive, efficient, effective all of it, so that’s the time to push for results. There are also new feminist and women’s right actors that need to be supported and given more space in the media.
In previous uprising, women have also been at the frontline, but afterwards, they suffered a backlash on women’s rights, how could we avoid it?
It’s already encouraging that we reached 30% representation in the new cabinet, it will be difficult in terms of any composition of body of decision-making in the country to go back to below the 30%. We must make sure that this government commits to longer term changes in terms of women’s equality, legislative reforms and the implementation of the national action plan on women peace and security that enforces women’s presence in decision-making bodies. The third thing is to make sure that the donor community understands the importance of both: short term goals and long-term gains. And everyone is working towards this. As UN-women we are also measuring the impact on the economic crisis on women so that we highlight that extra measures need to be put in place, to avoid that women affected by the economic crisis go back to the situation prior employment etc. We are acting on behalf of the UN, and then obviously with the government through short term, middle term and long-term work. We developed a framework that we are sharing with everyone we are working with mediation skills, and life skills for women. At the level of the community, referral to services and at the level of the country, legislative reform, policy and budget allocations.
Another crucial point is the potential backlash against women’s rights activists. We have seen the case of women being threatened, traced as well as their families being contacted and threatened, specifically on social media. Despite it all, women are relentlessly pushing for change. And they will get there!