If you think Lebanon is a complicated place, the state of Lebanese women's political participation should be no surprise. Lebanese women won the right to vote and to participate in national elections in 1952, 19 years before women in Switzerland. Yet, today, political participation by Lebanese women remains dismal at the national level.
In the June parliamentary elections, only 12 women ran for office and only 4 were elected out of 128 seats. Since suffrage, in fact, only 17 women have served in Lebanon's Parliament.
The reasons are complicated but male domination of the country's politics is one major reason. Another is that political parties are focused on sectarian interests, marginalizing women's voices.
Male Dominated, Family Affiliated Political Culture
Since Lebanon's independence from France in 1943, our political structure has been dominated by men. Our patriarchal political culture dominates our parliament, ministries, and municipalities.
This has continued through a system of what amounts to hereditary political positions, especially at the national level. The same family names that were powerful in the 50's and 60's still echo today.
All four women who won seats in June are affiliated with elite families and entered politics with the help of their fathers, brothers, or husbands, often due to the premature death of a male relative. While some had no prior political career, their affiliations have helped them gain exposure, and taught them skills to support them in their political careers -- a privilege that not many Lebanese women have.
Political Parties and Sectarian Interests Marginalize Women
A rather interesting aspect of Lebanese politics is the plethora of political parties vying for power and control. There are 18 political parties, though seven currently dominate.
Men control their leadership, sidelining women's voices. In fact, women's wings of political parties have effectively become non-governmental organizations, with little clout in the party structures.
To make matters more complicated, Lebanon officially recognizes 18 religious confessions of Muslim and Christian denominations. The political structure sets quotas for each sect based on a 1932 census.
The major political parties thus include Hezbollah and Amal( Shi'a); Future Movement, led by the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik el Hariri (Sunni); Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces( Maronite Christians); Progressive Socialist Party (Druze); and the Free Patriotic Movement which in theory has members from all confessions, but remains predominantly Christian.
Today, especially after the civil war from 1975 to 1990, political parties compete to preserve narrow sectarian interests, not those of a unified Lebanon. In such arigid system, women are less likely to be nominated or elected.
Beginning From the Grassroots
These circumstances have discouraged women from seeking political office. But, these obstacles will always remain if we women do not try to overcome them.
I believe we should encourage women to run for local and municipal elections. At this level, women can learn new skills and become better known in their communities. They can establish a political record to use as a platform for national elections.
At the same time, since the political parties clearly aren't going away, women should apply pressure for equality within their parties and press to become part of the decision-making process.
Women's organizations should also work to amplify women's voices in the political process. They should train women in decision-making, public speaking and campaign management and rally support around women running for office, either as independents or representing parties.
Finally, women's organizations and political parties must ensure that women have access to money to run their campaigns. A ceiling on campaign spending would help women to be able to compete.
The Struggle that Lies Ahead
For women, like me, who believe in fairness and equality, women's exclusion from the political process is a sign for civil society to step up. The parliamentary elections are over, but municipal elections are on the horizon in 2010. We must mobilize women to become politically active, to participate in the daily decisions that affect our lives.
We cannot wait for our political system to be transformed. In fact, I believe our voices are greatly needed and the changes we aim to make on the ground will become the clarion call to revolutionize our political system.
Lebanese women like other women across the globe -- in the United States and elsewhere -- battle a male-dominated culture in politics. We can be well-educated, financially independent and successful entrepreneurs, but when it comes to political affairs -- to drafting laws and policies and to making decisions about the welfare of the state and its citizens -- this becomes a man's world. It has taken decades for women in the developed world to transcend these barriers, and I don't expect the change will come overnight in Lebanon, but we must start from somewhere, and we should start now.
Nadya Khalife is a researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.