SPEECH Tracy Chamoun
Lebanese American University - June 8, 2015
Lebanon has recently witnessed dramatic setbacks in the security and political arena, including the cancellation of democratic parliamentary elections twice in a row undermining the Lebanese state and leading to the failure to elect a president for over a year. Against this political uncertainty, the security situation has greatly deteriorated as Lebanon is compressed by the cataclysmic effects of the war in Syria and now in Iraq that have led to an unprecedented and exponential rise in local terrorism.
Against this hugely unstable backdrop I would like to talk about what it means to be a woman in Lebanese politics today and what it meant to be a woman during the 18 year long civil war. The two are connected.
As a woman implicated in both these situations I often ask myself the question whether my life would have been very different in the past as a man during the years of the Lebanese civil war, and now in the present, as a political figure in Lebanon.
My immediate answer to the first part of the question is yes! My life would have been very different. If I had been born a male, I would’ve probably fought in the war and been killed like most of my young male friends. And if I had managed to survive those years of extreme violence, then most likely, I would’ve been killed alongside my father and my two brothers as a way of eliminating all the male heirs to the political lineage. This was the intention behind the carnage when my two brothers Tarek and Julian aged 7 and 5 were gunned down on the morning of October 21, 1990.
As far as the second part of the question about my life in politics, well if I am already dead then it’s self-explanatory! And if I had managed to survive, then most likely I would be involved in the power structure by virtue of my legacy.
The answer is there. My engagement as a man in war and politics in Lebanon would have been very different, and either more deadly or more rewarding. I will elaborate why this is so.
But before I do I’d like to point out that modern history as we know it has progressed in the last 1000 years as result of scientific, medical and technological innovations that have impacted society and led to the overall improvement of the human condition, and contributed directly to freeing women from past bondage, except in the case of nations that have remained entrenched in extremist religious beliefs and practices.
The recent rise of ISIS in the Middle East is a case in point. It is heralding the advent of a new “Dark Age” especially for women.
If we look at women’s condition in times of war, they are the silent victims of male driven action. Mother’s daughter’s, sisters all suffer the loss of their loved ones and the sense of powerlessness that they feel is compounded by their complete disregard.
Women are invisible in war. They are collateral damage, and in any ensuing peace process the few women who are given a platform, have very little outcome in the formulation of the terms of peace. The voices are all male.
As a matter of fact, the more dangerous the situation, the less likely it is that women are involved. Presently in Lebanon the security situation has become much more volatile and inevitably this escalation of the military aspect is going to be a big setback for the role of women in politics at a time when women were just beginning to breakthrough. In 2013, 45 women announced their candidacy for the parliamentary elections, compared to 12 women in 2009.
However, we need to clarify that women’s participation in political life has a very particular tenure in Lebanon and so far it has been relative to the nature of Lebanese society where there is seemingly a tug between conformity and liberalism.
A veneer of openness and modernity, gives the impression that Lebanon is “Europeanized”, however, this is only partly true, because it’s fair to say that Lebanon remains at the core a conservative society with religious values often dictating the conduct and morality of the different communities.
Women’s issues, under the Constitution come under the rubric of family law, which is uniquely assigned to the jurisprudence of religious tribunals and at the mercy of religious interpretation. Article Seven guarantees equality of rights, obligations and duties to all citizens, but then the constitution delegates all personal status law matters including marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, alimony, etc to the various religious courts.
By stating that Lebanon’s various sects should establish their own religious courts independent of the state, this waves the authority of civil Lebanese laws that protect the rights of individuals. This makes it very hard to change the law on women’s issues in a way that is uniform for all women.
The structure of the family in Lebanon plays a very important part in both society and politics in defining women’s roles.
This familial role has been maintained over the years as a result of the system of governance. This is not accidental but a deliberate process which has become institutionalized through the role of the “Zaim”, or male leader of a family, who uses his power to cultivate “clientelism” by manipulating personal favors and ensuring his succession.
Political familialism has been one of the major factors affecting the relationship between state and citizen. When the state fails to provide protection and resources to its citizens, they turn inwards towards their families, patriarchs and sects.
Almost all political blocs are based on family allegiances and personal loyalty to the leader, the Za’im. Political blocs become extended families and most followers accept that the leader’s son will inherit his position.
This has led to a society that is still by and large feudal and patriarchal in nature and the mechanism of its self–perpetuation has become entrenched in the forms of transmission of power from generation to generation.
We are witnessing this phenomenon in its most revealing aspects presently with the request by two traditional leaders to hold special elections to pass the mantle to their son’s and heirs, despite the fact, that when it was time to hold elections for everyone, these were cancelled.
The anomaly of considering holding elections in two districts as exceptional favors to two “Za’ims” is a typical example of the preferential standards and unwritten codes that govern Lebanese politics and perpetuate the patriarchal feudal system.
So the question is: within this patriarchal feudal system where do women stand in politics today? How do women start to play an effective role in government?
My answer is that they stand where anyone who is an outsider to the traditional “Old Boy” network of politics in Lebanon stands: At the mercy of a Lebanese leader who will afford them the privilege of taking them on his electoral list and securing their chances at being elected.
As such it is a closed system and now more than ever after Parliament extended its own mandate twice in a row, and there is no new electoral law in sight that could guarantee fair representation!!
Going back to the matter of political access for both women and men in Lebanon it is fair to say that newcomers have little chance to breakthrough and women even less.
Why do I know this? I know this because I was given the privilege of being an insider by virtue of the fact of my birth into the system, and I admit that I would not have had anywhere near the facilities to advance in the political field where it not for my family.
On a personal level, I have never encountered any disrespect or disregard as a woman. On the contrary there is a great courtesy that is always extended to me due to my grandfather and my father.
My family heritage allows me to breakthrough the gender barriers by virtue of a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the transfer of legitimacy to women through their husbands, spouses and fathers.
For this I am honored certainly, but I am aware of the irony and I am diligent not to waste this privilege on perpetuating a system that only accepts women leaders as clones for their male counterparts.
Women need to be seen in their own right. Woman need to be accepted for what they know - Not who they are.
In my opinion however, the only way to restore equal rights to women in Lebanon is to restore “true” democracy first.
My grandfather Camille Chamoun was the first president to give women the right to vote. Now we need to ensure for women, the right to govern. To do that we must bring back democracy to a country that has waived it aside. It is only by fighting for real democracy that we can ensure the fair representation of women.
Here are some recommendations to restore democracy:
Firstly: We have to protect parliament from the abuse of self-prolongation by restoring to the President of the Republic the exceptional right to dismantle parliament in the event the MPs should desire to extend their mandates. This prerogative was removed from the presidential powers after the Tai’f accord and we have witnessed the negative results of such an amendment in the last two years where, the extension has brought about complete stagnation and created the domino effect of destabilizing all the other state institutions and messed up national electoral deadlines.
Secondly: We have to adopt an electoral law based on proportional representation with large districts in order to break the existing duopoly between the Zaim driven lists and thereby shift the electoral momentum from sustaining the status quo, towards healthy competition based on political parties and political programs. This will allow for newcomers with new ideas to breakthrough and enter the otherwise closed system.
Thirdly: as far as women are concerned, I am advocating the imposition of the participation of woman through a transitional quota for the first mandate, and it is important in any election to also technically insure the fair placement of women candidates on electoral ballots so that their chances at being elected are ensured.
Fourthly: we have to encourage women in the military and security agencies as well as ensure their fair promotion.
To conclude I would like to say that I have been implicated in Lebanese political life since my birth. I lived through 18 years of war, lost my whole family as martyrs to this nation and I consider myself a third generation Lebanese.
I feel that it is high time to usher in a “Third Republic” which would reflect the deeper concerns of this nation and would bring about a transformation through the advocacy of a different form of leadership, one that is held accountable, insures fairness of representation, as well as operational transparency.
Equally, for change to occur, there has to be a complete reversal of the role of government. It must change from one that is self-serving to one that is based on encouraging sustainable development and being service oriented. As such, women have a big role to play in the establishment of these new values.
Women are inclusive and accommodating, women are strong and protective, and their participation in government can only bring balance to a society that has suffered for years from extreme male stereotyping and the valorization of violence as a solution to political divergence.
Today, in this world of polarizing conflicts, of raging extremism, moderation is the key, understanding, listening and hearing each other are the best weapons we can deploy to counteract the widening schisms between people and creeds. I am not saying that women are the answer but what I am saying is that balance is the answer - Balance between the masculine and feminine energies, to create lasting equilibrium.
This is by no means declaring that women are not strong and capable of military leadership. “Women in Governance” does not imply that women are relegated to women’s issues. It means that women should have equal access to making all relevant decisions including security; the military, foreign affairs, the economy, industry and all the sectors normally viewed as male bastions.
There is an inherent paradox reflected in my title today, which was: From invisibility to visibility. This is a paradox that women have to resolve within themselves. In politics in Lebanon today a women leader is invisible. To be seen she must act like a man. Therefor to be visible she must become invisible as a woman.
This has to change. The visibility of a woman must be as a woman by virtue of her nature, her qualities, her acumen, her insightfulness, her personality, and her political capabilities.
In the coming ages, as long as religious extremists do not succeed in castrating them, women will be the guiding lights of a new way of operating in the world, based on cooperation not domination, on sharing not hoarding, on giving and not taking.
Finally, for women to play a significant role in Lebanon, a shift has to occur in the perception of women by both women and men, and as Albert Einstein said the realization has to dawn that: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” The consciousness that defines women’s roles in Lebanese politics as mother’s, daughters, or wives of important men in Lebanon is no longer valid and has to change.
Therefore the work being done here in this forum today is vital to raise such awareness and to shift the prevalent consciousness that limits women and their access to leadership. I am truly honored and privileged to be part of this exchange as I consider women’s issues to be at the core of the creation of a fair and just society.
Thank you all Tracy Chamoun