Written by Laudy Issa and Shara Jazzar
How the harassment and threatening of female leaders dissuade other women from exercising their civil rights
When first-time candidate Nayla Geagea takes a seat as the only woman at the debate table, her answers reflect a calm and collected persona with an extensive background in law, research, and human rights. The independent candidate, running during Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections with newly-formed political campaign LiBaladi1, provides suggestions and constructed opinions to help solve some of the country’s most pressing issues. Her answers, however, are cut short. Her extensive work on legal research and drafting policies is undermined. The male candidates take it upon themselves to intervene, to drown out her words with theirs despite the presence of a moderator.
Her unisolated incident serves as yet another reminder of the price women pay for pursuing careers in politics. She would eventually withdraw her candidacy for lack of agreement with the only civil society list that would include her. Nayla Geagea provides just one example of how women are often both directly and indirectly pressured to withdraw their candidacy by men because of their gender.
Sharing her personal testimony, Jordan’s Siham Kawar described how thirty men approached her brother to push him into pressuring her to withdraw her candidacy in 2007.2 Kawar is a three-time winner of municipal elections in Al Fuheis through the women’s quota. Some of the men, all from her tribe, also attempted to convince people not to vote for her in 2013 and 2017 because of her gender and her independent affiliation.
“The tribe supports male candidates for the elections, not females, because they believe that they are more competent than women,” said Kawar, who also disclosed of the discrimination and belittling that she experiences inside the Municipal Council itself.3 “They try to contradict me in everything I suggest because I am a woman, even though deep inside they know that I am right.”
While her brother supported her, other women are dissuaded from joining politics because of their families. The sons of Jordanian activist Falha Al-Athamneh, who also won in 2017 through the women’s quota, took time to be convinced of their mother’s decision to run for Al Sherah’s municipal council.4
“The young men in my town opposed my participation in the elections, including my teenage sons who don’t vote, because I am a woman and they consider that the municipality is a place for men,” said Al-Athamneh. “I had to speak to them and convince them that I was not taking any man’s place because I was running for a seat granted by the women’s quota. This means that if I didn’t get the seat, another lady would.”5
Another incident engraved into the psyche of women who might have been considering entering the Lebanese political sphere is that of Rima Hmayed, another independent Lebanese parliamentary candidate who ran for a seat in the South with the Kollouna Watani6 coalition. On the day of the elections, Hmayed reported to the Lebanese Association for Democratic elections7 that she was assaulted outside of a polling station by supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, two of the traditional political parties that ran under one coalition during the 2018 parliamentary elections.
The Kollouna Watani coalition also included journalist Paula Yacoubian, one of the six Lebanese women voted into the 128-member Parliament and the only independent female candidate to have been elected. In addition to the gender-based discrimination experienced by the member of Parliament, Yacoubian’s status as an independent representative subjects her to a qualitatively different form of gender-based political violence than candidates affiliated with major political parties. As seen in a studies conducted by Lebanon Support,8 women in sectarian parties are limited to tasks that are traditionally associated with mothers and caregivers. These tasks are mostly limited to branches of the political party that are linked to social affairs, dealing with women empowerment and the rights of the wounded rather than field work that could allow them to build electoral alliances.
While Paula Yacoubian has been criticized for being “everyone’s breastfeeder,”9 a derogatory term used by a political analyst on television to insinuate that she works towards pleasing everyone, a quick look at the social media accounts of independent candidate and women’s rights activist Joumana Haddad reveals the criticism and hostility faced by women in leadership positions for being too outspoken. Haddad has been criticised in the replies on her Twitter posts for being “ill-mannered” and has been subjected to sexual slurs in response to her different opinion on civil and social affairs. While attacked for their positions, independent male politicians and leaders are not similarly reprimanded for their marital statuses or targeted for their sexual morality.
Being owned and run by the different well-established sectarian groups in Lebanon, media platforms such as television, radio, and newspapers often perpetuate the hegemonic patriarchal ideologies that hinder the inclusion of women in politics. As illustrated by Yacoubian and Haddad, female leaders are often discussed in terms of the men they are related to or portrayed using sexist stereotypes that peg them into conventional caregiver roles.
The internet, particularly through social media and forums, is also used as a tool for harassment and intimidation. Attacks and insults flooded the Facebook page of independent representative Reem Rawajbeh, who won in the 2017 Jordanian municipal elections, according to her testament.10 Shocked by her sudden decision to run for elections without consulting the tribe and a predominant belief that women should not be in leadership positions, her tribe widely opposed her but the women’s quota acted as the necessary legal structure that would enable her and other females to exercise their civil rights.
Aside from the presence of a general patriarchal culture that advocates for women in traditional roles and men in leadership positions, the lack of legislation and legal measures both inhibits women from occupying roles in the public sphere and threatens the effectiveness and safety of the female representatives currently in power.
Prior to her election to Ar Ramtha’s municipal council in 2017 through the women’s quota, independent Jordanian candidate Salam Al-Zo’bi was never invited to receptions where she would be able to network and discuss her electoral platform.11 Being restricted access to such events limited her ability to form alliances for her campaign.
“Women are not socially allowed to take part of them,” said Al-Zo’bi. “People from my tribe opposed my participation in the municipal elections because I am a woman, an educated lawyer and not wearing the veil.”12
Following her elections, she quickly realized the obstructions facing women who make it past the initial patriarchal principles that dissuade them from reaching political power. The men would casually discuss issues pertaining to governance prior to official municipal sessions, where women are subsequently excluded from the quick decision-making process following the unofficial agreements and meetings between men.
Countless Lebanese and Jordanian women who have attempted to participate in politics and public administration have been met with resistance for challenging the norm. Their experiences provide an example of the unsupportive environment facing women who seek to exercise their political rights, from running for leadership positions to supporting candidates. Global research by the Inter Parliamentary Union13 suggests that over 65 percent of women in Parliaments around the world have received sexist insults and 44 percent have been threatened with murder, rape, assault, and abduction.
More close to home, Amnesty International reported14 on the repeated rapes and gender-based violence in Egypt’s Tahrir Square aimed at discouraging women from engaging with politics and participating in demonstrations. In 2011, seventeen female protestors were forced to undergo “virginity testing” by army personnel. In 2012, violators cut up a woman’s trousers and skin with blades. In 2013, several sexual assaults in Tahrir Square were reported by Egyptian women and foreign journalists. The lack of documentation and research on gendered political violence in the region, and its dissuading effect on women in politics, prevents public opinion from even beginning to arrive to the necessary awareness that helps fight the phenomenon.
Laudy Issa is a multimedia journalist who graduated from the American University of Beirut as a double major in Psychology/Media and Communication. Currently freelancing as a writer and social media manager for multiple organizations, she is also one of the editors behind the independent news platform, Beirut Today. Interested in shedding light on arts and culture in Lebanon, she initiated a series of in-depth features with local musicians and is a photographer you might catch tripping over wires in local theaters or gigs.
Shara Jazzar is a copywriter and translator based in Amman and fluent in Arabic, English, French and Spanish, Shara holds a B.A in Political Sociology and two Master Degrees - one in Intercultural Mediation and another in Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations.
At the beginning of her career, Shara has worked as a journalist and researcher, and later joined UNHCR in Lebanon as a Resettlement Assistant. Since 2011, she has been mainly working as a freelancer. At the moment, Shara is a Communication Consultant for the Women Empowered for Leadership program at Hivos in Jordan.
1 LiBaladi is an independent political group that ran for the 2018 Parliamentary elections with a volunteer-led campaign. Their campaign focused on “breaking the monopoly of the ruling political class that is based on clientelism and the confessional quotas of constitutional institutions,” according to their official website: https://libaladi.com
2 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
3 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
4 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
5 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
6 Electoral coalition made of 66 independent candidates which ran for the 2018 Lebanese Parliamentary elections.
7 Women’s Political Participation: Exclusion and Reproduction of Social Roles Case Studies from Lebanon https://civilsociety-centre.org/sites/default/files/resources/ls-womenleadership-casestudy-en.pdf
8 Women’s Political Participation: Exclusion and Reproduction of Social Roles Case Studies from Lebanon https://civilsociety-centre.org/sites/default/files/resources/ls-womenleadership-casestudy-en.pdf
9 In the episode of Belmoubashar by OTV, the episode was uploaded in full on 1 October 2018 (in Arabic) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dksVB7xrgg0
10 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
11 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
12 Interview conducted by Shara Jazzar in November 2018.
13 Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians https://www.ipu.org/file/2425/download?token=0H5YdXVB
14 Egypt: Gender based violence against women around Tahrir Square https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/mde120092013en.pdf