Women’s quota: A societal challenge
Lebanon has been able to overcome another gridlock by agreeing on a new electoral law. It comes at a crucial moment in the country’s history to set the basis for a reshuffle in the political representation scheme. This settlement has been particularly positive after worries of political stagnation and vacuum, which are the last things Lebanon needs amid the surrounding disturbances.
The early discussions around the new draft law included pledges of a quota for women in order to guarantee better representation of Lebanese women in politics. Unfortunately, the political factions could not agree on the women’s quota which has been negatively perceived by women’s rights associations. The National Commission for Lebanese Women, represented by its President Claudine Aoun Roukoz, expressed its discontent at the news the government could not adopt the quota in the electoral law. However, the commission has praised the endeavor of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is committed to setting a quota for women in the Future Movement lists, and it called upon all the political factions to follow the same path.
According to “Women’s Quota: Parliamentary Elections 2017,” the word “quota” is a Latin word meaning “share” or “portion.” It is used to secure a proportion or a specific number of seats in elected bodies such as parliaments and municipal councils to ensure women’s active enrollment in decision-making.
The “quota” that was proposed in the electoral law constitutes at least 30 percent of women’s representation in the parliamentary elections. Its roots go back to the United Nations Economic and Social Council Resolution 15/1990 that calls for a minimum of 30 percent representation of women in political life and decision-making positions. Then the “quota” system was proposed during the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The 30 percent is the minimum percentage required to reach the so-called “critical mass” that grants women an active role and impact on the decision-making process.
There are different opinions and positions on the “quota” where it is considered a temporary procedure to motivate women and empower them in being part of the political arena. According to this opinion, the “quota” is a positive discrimination that empowers the position of women in a man-dominated and unfair system of political competition. Others consider the “quota” a form of discrimination that limits women’s participation to a certain percentage and might lead to reaching non-eligible candidates to the Parliament. However, this is a temporary measure to overcome the existing obstacles that hinder women from receiving their fair share of political representation.
Historically, women in Lebanon have been leading in various sectors; however, political participation is still weak since 1963 when the first woman entered Parliament. Eligible and actual women voters in Lebanon were 50.8 percent in 2016, but they are still considered a marginalized group in political leadership and participation. This is due to many structural factors in the Lebanese society as we have negative societal attitudes that underestimate the role of women in politics. It is unjustifiable how there are women as judges, senior employees in the public sector and CEOs, but are only four out of 128 Parliament members. Since 1943, six out of 74 governments in Lebanon included women.
The political exclusion of women is no stranger to the socio-economic alienation of women in Lebanon. It is evident economically as it is politically: 78 percent of Lebanese working women are monthly employees whereas 12.2 percent only are self-employed, which is approximately half the percentage of men who are running their own businesses. On the other hand, 29.7 percent of Lebanese women who are economically active are working as unskilled labor, whereas 16.1 percent are specialized employees, and this number is more than double the percentage of specialized working men. Nonetheless, 4.9 percent of working women are in administrative leadership positions and it is half the percentage of men in the same category.
These facts show how structural the problem is and not solely limited to political alienation. Therefore, despite the legislative setback in women’s political leadership, various actions shall be taken to mitigate the repercussions of such a political reality.
Media outlets need to increase the pace allocated to women. This gives women candidates a chance to express their electoral manifesto and engage into a transparent political debate that can show the public the quality of their hopes and ambitions for their respective constituencies.
Second, civil society needs to play a strong role in building the campaign management capacities of women candidates. Training them on coalition-building, effective messaging and microtargeting is precisely needed in order to sharpen their political engagement with their target voters.
Third, the government and the international community needs to observe and ban any electoral campaigning that would include a discriminatory discourse based on gender. Women candidates should be treated equally and judged according to the quality of their programs, not their gender or religion.
The door is open for civil society and community groups to work closely on identifying the opportunities within the challenging environment. If the political players could not allow for a proper political empowerment scheme, then we shall organize and strategize to achieve it ourselves. Over and above, the various shapes of women’s alienation and exclusion appear to be structural features in the Lebanese society; thus, structural problems need paradigmatic solutions to overcome them.
Hiba Huneini is manager of the Youth and Civic Engagement Program at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.