The uprising has opened a new-found space for women in Lebanon’s traditionally conservative second city as they lead their own fight for change.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon- Walking to al Nour Square in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a set of colourful tents stand out with people sitting, bantering, pacing in and out of what has become the central space for protests in the Sunni-majority coastal city amid ongoing anti-corruption rallies in the country.
A huge abandoned building overlooking the square is repainted with a monumental mural of the Lebanese flag, carrying a slogan: "We are continuing until the downfall of the president and the parliament.”
Like every day, mid-afternoon protesters are starting to fill the popular square. In its bustle, a girl in a t-shirt and jeans with a keffiyeh scarf around her neck turns up at a tent and greets three revolutionary comrades. She has been advocating for women’s rights since the early rallies.
“The revolution is a female,” the 21-year-old named Natalie Rahid said, repeating a slogan that gained traction three weeks into the uprising. She is amazed by the massive role women have played in the protest movement on a national scale, including in Tripoli, despite its reputation for conservatism.
Citing some of the traditional gender stereotypes in the so-called capital of the north, she emphasised that whether in terms of work accessibility, economic opportunities, civil or human rights, widely speaking women continue to face discrimination on many levels.
Regarding employment, some of them are looked down on in their workplaces, others cannot find work, or are forced to stay home and look after the family.
This is particularly the case in underserved areas of the northern region, where opportunities in the labour market are usually scarce, with even fewer opportunities for women, and social norms much more gender-biased.
Gender discrimination with regard to the type of work, pay, terms of employment, work-life balance, career development and training affect women greatly, with unfair practices against females occurring at any stage of their employment.
“Even for the most basic jobs, women find less opportunities because the number of vacancies has gone down, and jobs are given to men more easily,” said Louana Sabbah, a young NGO worker, sitting at a cafe in a new neighbourhood of Tripoli. “It’s a manly culture.”
As for women who are employed, she continued, wage gaps hover around $200, with men earning from $700 up to $1,000 a month on average. The income inequality is more reduced for low-paid jobs.
“I used to work as an administrator for $300 a month. A man wouldn’t work for such pay since he’s deemed the breadwinner in the family, he will get paid more,” said Wisam Tayar, a feminist and human rights worker manning one of the many protest tents in al Nour Square. “It all goes back to gender roles and social construction.”
Sabbah stressed that in her hometown, it is not culturally accepted for a woman who has family responsibilities to go into a standard job and be away from home the whole day. Moreover, women tend to get married at a very young age which heavily restricts their educational and work prospects, leaving them with few rights and little, if any, economic independence.
“The only thing people here care about is not to expose women to the outside world because that will give her the chance to see for herself, know her rights, and speak up,” the young woman argued.
Lebanon’s second biggest city has been a hot spot for security instability in the past years with recurring violence between the Sunni residents of the Bab-al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood and the Alawite Muslims living in the neighbouring area of Jabal Mohsen. The city’s conflict found fertile ground in poverty and joblessness, especially among the local youth.
If Tripolitans have suffered from years of severe economic deprivation, women have borne the brunt of under-development and marginalisation in the northern city struggling with extreme poverty and unemployment rates as high as 50 percent in some neighbourhoods.
“You will find around the city women driving taxis, or female street vendors selling even small items like tissues and gums just to provide for their families,” Rahid noted. “It’s hard for men, let alone for women.”
She said that women in Tripoli, from all ages, backgrounds and classes, were “the first ones among everyone else to revolt” as they realised they had high stakes in the Lebanese revolution. They pay a double price for enduring difficult everyday situations in the conservative, impoverished town.
“Finding a new space to discuss with women, young and old, of different sects, social statuses and educational backgrounds, coming together around the same demands, was an enlightening experience,” the young activist rejoiced.
She explained that, unlike before, women now speak out and interact with each other in public places. Townsmen have been surprisingly cooperative and supportive, treating their female counterparts on an even footing and not allowing any discriminatory behaviour against them. This has helped change perceptions in the wider community, with more men gradually listening to women and encouraging them to be an active part in daily protests.
“The revolution has opened a new era for Lebanese women, enabling them to raise their voices on issues they have talked about for a long time but no one has paid attention to,” Sabbah pointed out.
Laws governing marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance fall within the remit of the various sectarian courts, which are heavily discriminatory against women.
Legal protections against domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment are inadequate to non-existent. Lebanese law also does not specifically criminalise marital rape.
Lebanon’s personal status and citizenship laws allow child marriage, and make it more difficult for women to divorce. Where divorce is permitted, child custody is almost predictably granted to men. The country has one of the lowest maternity leave allowances in the world.
Lebanon currently ranks 140 out of 149 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2018 maintained by the World Economic Forum.
“We are always treated like second-class citizens. I have female relatives who were seeking divorce and were ostracised for months or years because of that,” Tayar complained. She also mentioned instances of lawyers or judges being paid not to grant divorce to wives, and courts depriving women of spousal benefits to concede divorce in exchange.
In addition, the current nationality law prevents women from passing on their citizenship to children from foreign spouses. Which, in turn, denies the basic right to ensure their children or partners have access to education, employment and healthcare, because they do not have a Lebanese citizenship.
In Tripoli, female residents have also faced issues travelling on their own, or getting their legal documents as under-age girls because they require the father’s authorisation.
Sabbah told her experience of when at the age of 12, before her parents divorced, her mother had to make a ‘money deal’ with her father in order to obtain his signature so she could have a passport. When she travelled abroad, aged 16, she had to get a legal paper with her father’s written consent beforehand.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have protested against the sectarian political system and called out the country’s corrupt ruling elite as a whole. Establishing a non-sectarian civil state could thus lead to civil laws upholding equal rights, as opposed to having religious courts that rule in a patriarchal fashion.
The demands of women’s rights activists are pushing to include a civil personal status law, equality in nationality law, reproductive rights, the end of child marriage, protection from violence and harassment, and to be represented in government.
“This revolution has changed everything. We’re now seeing women walking alone, leading or participating in marches, speaking on public stages, and calling for reforms,” said Tayar, who’s been actively involved in the protest movement from day one of Lebanon’s uprising.
Along with a friend, the women’s rights activist is running a library space inside a tent inviting people to read books, hosting awareness groups, women’s empowerment sessions, and group discussions on topics of national interest including feminism and deconstructing gender norms.
She was rather surprised by how her male counterparts have accepted that local women take a lead in the street movement since the early days, and encouraged them to be at the front of marches and take the floor.
As women have claimed their space in the public sphere, not only in functions relegated to feminist issues, activists on the ground have acknowledged their role. Whether by leading marches, organising sit-ins, chanting, discussing politics or setting up tents, among others.
“Nowadays you would see women from different parts of Tripoli -even notoriously conservative areas- gathering and talking about things that matter to them and to the revolution,” Sabbah observed, hinting at many of them with little education and no prior activism. “You would find male members of the community supporting them a lot, which we’ve never seen before.”
In early November, a women’s march took place locally and all over the country. It was a “very fresh scene” to be seen in Tripoli, the feminist recalled, with masses of women coming out on to the streets to demand the end of corruption, patriarchy, discrimination, exploitation and sexual harassment.
The civil society worker thinks the Lebanese uprising has been a “wake-up call” for women. Making up half of the country’s population, they have come to realise that they represent a key component of the society and feel empowered to take action in their own hands.
“Women are out there fighting two battles, their own battle for equality and the other for their country,” she stated.
“Seeing women in my hometown raising banners, speaking on megaphones and pressing for their rights is incredible,” Rahid uttered. “Being able to do that without being looked down on has been an achievement!”
As a feminist, Tayar said to be hopeful for change as she sees more women coming to the fore, and not only those who are involved in women’s groups or in the civil society. In her view, women are changing things starting with their own personal lives by bringing up issues in the family to then move toward social change.
“Women form the largest part of Lebanon’s social fabric. They have taken the streets because they want to be treated as equal citizens, be paid the same, exist without fear of being sexually harassed, and take their rights back," she insisted.