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The fight for gender equality in Lebanon

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The explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, killing 200 people, was a tragedy that grafted itself onto an ever-growing layer of Lebanese crises: massive social unrest, political instability, serious governance problems, economic meltdown, and a currency crash, all overlaid by the COVID-19 pandemic and an already overstretched health system.

Lebanon as we know it has been in existence for just over a century, first under French mandate and, since 1943, as an independent state. It was a founding member of the United Nations and played a key role in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

Yet not everyone in Lebanon has the same rights when it comes to passing on citizenship.

“Lebanese women who marry foreigners cannot pass on their citizenship to their children, yet Lebanese men married to foreign women can,” said Claudine Aoun, president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, a government body.

Aoun identifies two main culprits: the patriarchal mentality and the Lebanese confessional political system. This system accommodates the country’s religious diversity (six Muslim and 12 Christian sects), by allocating senior positions and civil service jobs by religion.

Women without the same rights as men

“Women are simply not recognized as citizens the way men are. We have had some advances on women’s equality, but the citizenship issue remains a taboo,” Aouan said.

This can be traced in part to the confessional system, and political parties are at a stalemate: what one group considers discrimination, another sees as culture.

“Each religion chooses the rights that suit its program, so wide recognition of women’s equality is difficult,” she said. “We need to convince people that this is not only a women’s issue,” she said.

The nationality issue is highly sensitive but at least it is now being discussed, especially since a two-year campaign led by UN Human Rights, known as “equality in nationality,” helped break the deadlock by forcing this taboo issue into the open.

“When the social protests erupted [in 2019], the first banners at the front were those held by women demanding the right to nationality,” said Roueida El Hage, Regional Representative for UN Human Rights in the Middle East. “This showed the awareness and support of civil society groups for human rights, which must be integrated into all policies.”

In another positive development, the government has recently adopted a law against sexual harassment, so there is hope momentum will be maintained despite the country’s troubles.