For weeks, the heart of Beirut has been beating with hope, joy and optimism for change. Protesters have brought life back to downtown, a once near ghostly neighbourhood. Today the square is filled with families, young people, women, children and street vendors. It is now ringing with jubilation for change, a space for creativity, where history is being made before our eyes.
The revolution has swept the whole country and everywhere women have been at the forefront. They have created an atmosphere of security that has allowed families with young children to return day in day out to the protests.
Despite two months of protest, political powers are still refusing to give up their seats. But the revolution has remained largely peaceful, and women have played an essential role in keeping it as such.
Sarah Boukhary, WILPF’s Interim MENA Co-Director, couldn’t wait to go back to her home country Lebanon to protest with others on the streets. “It’s the first time that Lebanese people have gathered hand-in-hand to free themselves from sectarian divides and stand together against inequality and oppression. Taking part in this scene is something I’ll always cherish in my memories” she says.
The revolution is feminist
One of the most notable and unique things about the Lebanese uprising is the participation of women in large numbers, but that should not come to anyone’s surprise because women in Lebanon have been organising and demanding change for many decades.
From all different ages and backgrounds, Lebanese women and girls are shaping the direction and character of the revolution. They are on the frontlines of demonstrations, standing in the faces of soldiers and their tanks, and forming buffers between security forces and protestors to prevent outbreaks of violence. Lebanese women still wounded by the civil war have been insisting that this time around the revolution must be first and foremost about national unity. Women in Lebanon not just protesting for their rights, but for the rights of everyone.
“I absolutely believe that our revolution in Lebanon is feminist. Not only because it seeks transformative change, but also because it’s intersectional. It’s intersectional in the sense that it’s seeking to end multiple forms of oppression, not simply economic inequalities. Many revolutionaries in Lebanon are calling for an end to different forms of oppression, whether it’s classism, patriarchy, racism, environmental oppression, centralization and homophobia,” says Sarah.
“The system regulating private life (marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance) in Lebanon is not governed by a unified civil code; instead it is based on 15 different legal systems. This has a disproportionate impact on women and girls from all religious sects because these laws favor men and don’t give equal rights to women. For example, under all religious laws whether Muslim or Christian, men have guardianship rights over children, and women are forced to give up custody of their children at a specific age in case of divorce. In addition, Nationality Law denies a Lebanese women the right to pass her nationality to her children if her husband is not Lebanese, while it allows a Lebanese man to do so.
Lebanon ranks one of the lowest countries in the world on the Gender Gap Index (140 out of 149) and its ranking in terms of women’s participation in the labor force is one of the lowest globally. Women in Lebanon are also underrepresented in the political sphere: their representation in the Parliament constitutes less than 5%.”
Exhibiting, as they have, unwavering courage and a creative approach to protesting, Lebanese women have become the focus of misogynist attitudes. In several local and Arab social media channels and a number of ill-informed media outlets, Lebanese women have been mocked, made fun of and disrespected in the cheapest of ways.
“Women protestors faced a serious sexual objectification and the strong exercise of their civil and political rights has been reduced to their physical looks. A couple of examples are when an Arab newspaper shared an article entitled “Lebanese babes: all beautiful women are revolting”. Women news reporters in Lebanon have also been attacked and faced misogynist slurs. In a way, this sexual objectification is actually inevitable given that the machismo-dominated social structures and mind-sets are pervasive in the region” says Sarah Boukhary
But this has definitely not held women in Lebanon back; they’re resisting these misogynist attacks in the best way possible: by remaining perseverant, powerful and vocal in support of their political and socio-economic demands.
On the first night of the protests in central Beirut, one woman kicked a Minister’s armed bodyguard in the groin. Little did she know that her brave move would become one of the Revolution’s most iconic images. Not only was she defying gender stereotypes, she was very literally striking the features of the corrupt system they are fighting, that include patriarchy, injustice, dominance of the powerful and militarization to name but a few.
“From the first days of the protests until today, women in Lebanon have powerfully grounded themselves as leaders of this revolution” Sarah continues.
The situation in Lebanon
Political, economic and environmental crises in Lebanon have each been building disastrously for decades. Corruption and sectarianism amongst the ruling elites are debilitating and it has been many years since the country has seen a properly functioning central government. Lebanese people have had enough of nepotism and a political system that is based on sectarian identities. Power cuts have become part of life, making it difficult for small businesses and normal people to thrive; running water is undrinkable and in many neighbourhoods comes straight from the polluted sea, rendering impossible simple tasks like taking a shower or washing fruit and vegetables. More than 25% of Lebanese citizens live in poverty, and more than half of refugee communities in Lebanon live in extreme poverty. The health system is broken and very expensive which makes even a basic check-up a financial nightmare for most people.
The political system
Leadership roles in Lebanon are divided based on Sectarian affiliations. The president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Parliamentary seats are also allotted according to strict sectarian quotas.
From the beginning of the revolution in Lebanon protesters have united in chanting, “all of them means all of them,” suggesting that there is no single sect or single person to blame but the corrupt ruling elite as a whole.
“Revolutionaries in Lebanon have very clear demands. They want first and foremost an end to Lebanon’s sectarian political system and the rampant corruption in the country. We no longer want to be ruled by war criminals who were never held accountable for the crimes they committed during the 15-year Lebanese civil war. They have deprived us of options and made the inequalities and classism seem like ordinary,” said Sarah Boukhary.
How environmental issues fuelled the revolution
Just before the October revolution started a mass fire had engulfed a huge forest areas. Firefighters were poorly equipped and poorly prepared. The fire ruined houses and led to the evacuation of thousands of people. Lebanon had to rely on other countries to help extinguish the fire and only fortuitous rainfall was able to decrease the intensity of the blaze.
Two years prior to the revolution, Lebanon faced one of the most horrendous rubbish crises the world has ever witnessed. Rivers of trash swept the country. The stink was unbearable and forced many people to stay home. Waste and sewage water were disposed of irresponsibly in the sea causing many beaches to become hazardous to swimmers.
Amani Beainy, an environmentalist and a WILPF Lebanon Section member declared: “In my opinion, the environmental struggle was one of the factors that led to the outbreak of the revolution. For me, the revolution is an inseparable extension of the sit-ins that we started two years ago as environmental activists in the “National Campaign to Preserve Marj Bisri”.
Amani and her fellow environmentalists organised mass protests and sit-ins to oppose the building of Bisri Dam.
The dam sits at the meeting point between two active fault lines that, if triggered, would lead to earthquakes that could devastate the region and Lebanon in particular, thus threatening the lives of every Lebanese citizen. Such an earthquake could have major long-term consequences; and many people in the region have not yet recovered from the memory of the last major earthquake back in 1956. And the project epitomised the corruption of the ruling class, which has undertaken projects, and shared quotas at the expense of Lebanon and its people.
“A few weeks before the outbreak of the revolution, we organized a sit-in in Riad El Solh (the same square where the Tishrin Revolution began). We had highlighted for years the corruption behind the “Bisri Dam” deal and uncovered false statements and violations of both the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) and the law, which raised people’s awareness of the extent of the corruption of the people in power. We drew the attention of the wider community to the performance of corrupt authority and the crimes surrounding the Bisri project,” she continues.
Today, Amany and her group managed to stop any further work and forced government contractors to withdraw all machines and bulldozers from Al Marj which has become a space for the revolutionaries, like the rest of the squares in Lebanon.
“The Lebanese people will keep protesting and will remain steadfast until they take back all their rights, save Lebanon from the economic crisis, hold the corrupt to account, return to the people looted money and form non-sectarian institutions aimed at establishing social justice and living in dignity,” Amany said.
Hopes for a better future
With the revolution being leaderless and decentralised comes the reality that people in Lebanon have different perceptions of what might be coming next. For Amany, her hope is that the revolution is able to “translate the anger of the protestors into action”. She is determined that collective organising is needed for Lebanon to witness non-sectarian elections, retrieve looted money, hold the corrupt accountable, and one day become a secular State.
Sarah also thinks that without emancipating society from clerical oppression, very little progress can happen for women’s rights. “While hopes are very high, it’s important to remember that the road ahead is very challenging and full of bumps,” says Sarah. “The changes we are demanding are multi-dimensional and multi-level, which means that change cannot be anything except gradual”.