On a hot spring day nineteen women activists from the Middle East and North Africa met in Geneva for the MENA Agenda 1325 organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). WILPF’s reporter met Manar Zeaiter from Lebanon over lunch to hear more about the situation in Lebanon.
Allowing no time for warm up interview questions, Lebanese women’s rights activist Manar Zeaiter, dives straight to the heart of the discussion. “Women’s rights are my life,” she exclaims, with a twinkle in her eye.
The petite Lebanese lawyer kept her cool in the chaos of the United Nations cafeteria as members darted from counter to counter in search of much needed sustenance to maintain them during the Human Rights Council. Having examined all the options available, Manar Zeaiter was drawn to the healthy living counter. Her initial grimace at the sight of tofu on offer made it clear that this exotic delicacy would not be on her menu. Instead, she chose the perhaps more appetising option of sardines and carrots, accompanied by a fresh green salad.
Born and brought up in the Baalbeck, home to Lebanon’s greatest Roman ruins, Manar Zeaiter was taught from a young age to give great importance to the values of sincerity, equality, freedom of expression and respecting order.
Invaluable training as a lawyer
A spritely grin spreads across Manar Zeaiter’s face as she confesses to me that she did not originally want to be a lawyer; her ambition was to become a journalist. However, as there was no journalism course offered at her local university, she opted for law instead.
Her initial resolve to study law may have been weak, but her experience as a lawyer has enabled her to assist many women who are struggling for justice in court in Lebanon. Her legal knowledge and experience of the judiciary system are of great value to the women she helps who could not have taken a case to court alone. “I work with women without asking them for money. I am happy to help them and to give them advice for free,” says Manar Zeaiter, nodding enthusiastically to affirm her point.
First taster of defending women’s rights
Manar Zeaiter’s first taster of defending women’s rights came when she offered help to a woman who was having trouble with a divorce case in court. This experience opened her eyes to the great need that existed in the area of women’s rights in Lebanon. Since then, her thoughts have constantly been occupied by her desire to help women and to eliminate the current discrimination and violence against them.
Since 2009, Manar Zeaiter has been working for Rassemblement Démocratique de la femme libanaise. The direct contact with women that characterised Manar Zeaiter’s first experience in this field is central to the organisation’s work as it allows them to identify the real problems women are facing.
“Lots of people are against our work but at the moment there is a change.”
“Universities are starting to teach international conventions. That is a change. At the Rassemblement Démocratique de la femme libanaise we have young girls coming to work for us and raise the voice for women’s rights. That makes a change.”
Role of the media
The media is an essential tool that the organisation uses to raise awareness. In a country where media networks are heavily influenced by political parties, Manar Zeaiter tells me that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been invaluable to her organisation’s work.
Throughout the interview, Manar Zeaiter repeatedly stressed the importance of dialogue; dialogue with the community, the government, the media and women.
Main issues regarding women, peace and security in Lebanon
One of the main issues regarding women, peace and security in Lebanon is their absence in politics. Whilst the law permits them to participate in politics, there are many obstacles which prevent them from doing so. Barriers, such as the cultural view that women do not have a place in politics and laws that discriminate against women, are the reasons behind their ‘absence’ that runs throughout all spheres of politics, including parliament, town councils and political parties.
Another issue is the strong influence that religion has on Lebanese politics. In a country with eighteen different religious communities, matters become somewhat complicated.
A concrete example of the consequences this can have for women’s security is what Manar Zeaiter terms “a war” regarding a law to protect women from domestic violence. A draft law is currently in the Lebanese Parliament but it faces strong resistance. One of the many arguments given by the opposition it that such a law would be unnecessary as domestic violence is already forbidden by religion. In theory this may be the case, but the high percentages of women who have suffered at the hands of their husbands highlights the fact that greater protection is needed. A key problem related to this is the fact that there are no official shelters in Lebanon where women can take refuge in order to escape domestic abuse.
Determination, diligence and delight clearly mark Manar’s approach to fighting for women’s rights in her country.
MENA Agenda 1325
The scope of the MENA Agenda 1325 project is new territory for Manar, which she views as “very important”. She informs me that the conference in Geneva has been a significant time for her; allowing her to decode the complexities of the sometimes daunting United Nations system. In addition, meeting and sharing with others who are working in the field of women, peace and security has enabled her to gain a better understanding of the current climate in the MENA region.
For Manar, the discussion is highly relevant to the current state of insecurity for women throughout the MENA region. “It was very important to discuss with other participants about the obstacles we face and how we can strategise together to overcome them.”
Manar hopes that the MENA agenda 1325 is only the beginning of what promises to be a fruitful partnership between WILPF and women’s organisations throughout the MENA region.
Learn more about WILPF’s MENA Agenda 1325 project.