Revolution and the role of women: lessons from Lebanon


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Rebecca O’Keeffe
Rebecca O’Keeffe

Co-Author of ‘Yalla Feminists: Arab Rights and Resistance’

Photo of This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.
This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

Friends of Europe’s Iran in Focus series aims to identify new approaches to diplomatic relations with Iran by establishing an understanding of the domestic political context and recent developments in international relations that jointly underpin the country’s political decision-making.

By taking a wider perspective on security and focusing on the role of women, the state of civil society and the human rights situation in the country, the series brings a fresh and informed perspective on diplomatic engagement that empowers domestic activism.

Amplifying a varied range of voices, these think pieces examine the challenges and opportunities of civic movements and organisations in Iran. Priorities include women’s rights and political participation, freedom of speech and of the media, the humanitarian considerations of international sanctions, and the role of international actors in Iran.

Our articles and the Iran in Focus series as a whole will engage with these overlapping themes, promote new and diverse opinions, and provide a coherent and progressive reconfiguration of diplomatic relations with Iran, including concrete conclusions and recommendations, based on strategic thinking and mutual interests.

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While it is worth noting that no country has achieved gender equality, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has one of the world’s widest gender gaps and some of the worst records in terms of women’s rights. Women’s rights are the source of much pessimism and can be characterised by patchy progress and major regress. Today, we are seeing a massive backlash against women’s rights and freedoms. Unequal legislation, patriarchal values, poverty, corruption, institutional failure and political paralysis breed a toxic combination of discrimination, inequality and violence – particularly towards women and vulnerable groups. Women are subjected to violence and conflict in myriad ways and the advancement of women’s rights is either not prioritised or entirely absent from the political agenda.

Political, economic, legal and social barriers present in patriarchal societies disproportionately discriminate against women, but they also cannot be divorced from contexts of conflict, crisis and precarity that plague the region. Authoritarianism continues to pose a challenge in the region and, as people agitate for their voices to be heard, civil unrest tends to be followed by systematic state violence, harsh crackdowns and backsliding of rights. With violence, corruption and conflict being intimately connected, it therefore comes as no surprise that MENA is the least peaceful region in the world, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index.

Despite poor records and negative stories, however, there is good news. Women in the region continue to fight tirelessly for their rights, even in the face of shrinking civil society space and increasingly repressive crackdowns. Civil society organisations and women’s social movements have been a leading force in shaping advancements in women’s rights across the MENA region. Most importantly, young women are leading movements around the region and pushing for change.

Examining the fight for women’s rights in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, best practices and examples can be exported to other authoritarian contexts in the region, such as Iran.

Lebanon has one of the most active feminist movements in the Arab region

Lebanon has long suffered one catastrophe after another – some natural and some preventable. The country has been plagued by multiple multi-layered crises including severe economic collapse, rising inflation and food prices, electricity and fuel shortages, refugee crisis, breakdown and accessibility of public services, and mass emigration. REACH estimates that over 80% of the population lives in poverty while the fallout from COVID-19 saw rates of gender-based violence, child marriage and child labour dramatically increase. The explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 further compounded an already dire situation. And, to top things off, the political landscape has been characterised by inaction, negligence, sectarianism and lack of accountability, as a caretaker government and divided politicians fail to govern and navigate multiple crises effectively.

These crises are taking place within the context of enormous structural gender inequalities meaning Lebanese women have been disproportionately affected by these shocks. Indeed, the hardest hit were already marginalised in society. It is a country in which patriarchy — and by extension, discrimination — is firmly entrenched in social norms, practices and beliefs at every level. As such, it is no exaggeration to say every aspect of women’s lives is marked by discrimination and inequality. To quote Lebanese artist Zena El Khalil, “Lebanon was, and always will be schizophrenic,” which is an apt description especially in terms of women’s rights. For instance, Lebanon has 18 religious sects with 15 related personal status codes, meaning every woman is treated differently based on her religion. Gender discrimination remains rife in Lebanon’s legal framework, particularly in relation to divorce, citizenship, inheritance and child custody. Progress has been slow on legislation regarding violence against women and significant gaps remain. For instance, there is still no minimum age of marriage and no legislation prohibiting child marriage.

The ever-worsening social, economic and political landscape fuelled dissatisfaction amongst the population inside Lebanon, sparking civil unrest across the country. The garbage and waste crisis in 2015 set off demonstrations by civil society and eventually evolved to become a symbol of larger, deep-rooted frustrations, exploding again in October 2019 with widespread popular protests that comprised people from different religious and political backgrounds. Young people actively participated and civil society organisations played an important role due to their coordination, knowledge dissemination and organisational capabilities. Lebanese women, in particular, were at the forefront of the revolution.

It must be noted, however, that civil society activism has a long tradition in Lebanon, not least among Lebanese women who have been demanding change for decades. Lebanon has one of the most active feminist movements in the Arab region.

We need to question what revolution looks like and what forms it takes

The October Revolution had some successes but, despite women’s prominent and crucial role, there was not enough change in the aftermath. Although a new government was formed in January 2020, the revolutions did not achieve all they had demanded or hoped for. Several contributing factors are worth noting, especially as they can be universally applied.

Firstly, the state was able to weaken and quell protests through a range of tactics including violence and political manipulation. Secondly, external factors such as COVID-19, mass emigration, further economic downturn and the Beirut port explosion undermined any efforts made and amplified structural vulnerabilities and failures further. Recovering from trauma while simultaneously agitating for change becomes next to impossible. Thirdly, while the movements had objectives, they lacked clear long-term strategy and were largely leaderless and decentralised. Moreover, other nonviolent strategies that could have added effectiveness, such as boycotts, strikes and non-cooperation, were not seriously utilised.

Women’s representation and leadership can be transformative for social change. In fact, it is well researched that women’s participation results in a more sustainable and durable peace. Too often, however, women – and other vulnerable groups – are not prioritised or are not even on the agenda. The following recommendations (informed by extensive research conducted across the region by the author and Dr Lina AbiRafeh) can combat this and marry participation to practical strategies: strategy and organisation; networks, partnerships and collaboration; and international support.

Around the world, nonviolent civil society resistance has been used to topple autocratic regimes, end colonial rule, resist foreign powers and secure human rights. It can be an effective method for populations to achieve liberation when there is a lack of access to formal political channels or where regimes are oppressive. Yet, we need to question what revolution looks like and what forms it takes because the choice of method(s) very much impacts outcomes. So while resistance is grassroots and organic, it must at the same time also be strategic and organised. Meeting the immediate need of overcoming repression while simultaneously incorporating long-term objectives for sustainable feminist change is necessary. In this way, combining protest with non-cooperation and strategic intervention can lead to more success, as concluded by political scientist Gene Sharp. At the same time, integrating alternative methods such as art activism, for example, can bring another dimension – changing minds and norms can be just as important as changing laws.

When feminism is inclusive and representative, it can inform our understanding of vulnerabilities in the region and create more sustainable movements

To be sure, significant barriers exist but as more women enter politics and activism, others will be inspired to do so too. Greater female participation and solidarity can be aided by fostering better support networks and creating partnerships between women in politics and civil society. Additionally, facilitating pipelines for young women and other vulnerable groups to access these spaces is more important than ever. Mentorships, for example, can connect and create a community in this regard.

Partnerships between women and men are also needed to achieve an equal and just society. The patriarchy cannot be dismantled without engaging – and reforming – masculinities. Combatting traditional and rigid understandings of masculinity and gender roles can contribute to change and coalition-building among allies. Additionally, an intersectional approach to feminism that moves beyond binaries is needed. When feminism is inclusive and representative, it can inform our understanding of vulnerabilities in the region and create more sustainable movements.

Increased collaboration between civil society organisations – locally, nationally and regionally – can strengthen movements and act as a unified voice for a shared, common goal. Moreover, connecting with global groups and international agencies who support the same agenda can also be an effective strategy. Movements can inspire others and there are positive signs of collaboration and coalition-building at the national level that can be scaled. For instance, civil society efforts across several countries in the region successfully campaigned to repeal the so-called ‘marry-your-rapist’ law – a law, which still exists in certain countries, that absolves rapists of their crime if they agree to marry their victim, thereby condemning her to a life of abuse.

Extensive systemic change and structural reform are needed – but cannot happen without political will, civil society pressure and support from the international community. How the international community engages needs to be critically evaluated. How support, as well as actions taken, are prioritised should be also interrogated.

Change through institutional channels is not always accessible or effective – or enough

New relationships need to be fostered, particularly ones that centre around civil society and grassroots movements. Amplifying work that is already being done and following the voices of those on the ground is imperative.

Change through institutional channels is not always accessible or effective – or enough. Revolution and resistance create space where there is potential for social and political change. This moment – full of hope and possibility – is often limited in its transformative power, resulting in setbacks and backlash. Even in circumstances that seem hopeless, however, there is still reason to be hopeful. The strength of feminists, activists and movements, as well as gains made along the way, give hope – collective action is necessary. Even so-called failed attempts lay the groundwork for further reform and inspire future actions – collective action is contagious.

In many countries simply being a woman engaged in a public role is a radical act. Women have always been active agents of change but, unfortunately, this has not always translated into advancement. Women must continue to fight for basic rights. So, the revolution continues. By taking lessons from the advancements made by other women in the region, the revolution pushes forward.

And the revolution is female. Al thawra untha.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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