The Political System’s Impact on Women in Lebanon: How the Crisis Imposes a United Front
Despite the harsh and fast-evolving immediate effects of the economic crisis in Lebanon, the full scope of repercussions on the medium and long term is still unclear. The unprecedented structural crisis has the particularity of harboring several ongoing crises, the most important of which is the huge cumulative deficit in the balance of payments, referred to locally as “dollar shortage.” This shortage is not the result of unforeseen circumstances, such as – allow us to get sarcastic here – sudden heavy rains that ravaged the country’s cocoa harvest meant for export. The crisis is structural and closely tied to the economic system. It has been lurking for some time after several delay maneuvers that were only meant to kick the can further down the road, accumulating more damage. Against the backdrop of a crisis hitting society at its core, we attempt to present here the reality of women of this society by posing the following questions: What is the impact of a rentier economy on women and their work? Why are women considered among the categories most impaired by the ongoing economic crisis? How does Lebanon’s sectarian system restrict women’s role and status in society?
Society: In our vernacular literature, “society” is a term seldom used by those in charge of society, i.e. politicians and those holding on to power, whether they held public positions within state institutions or they played a role in establishing the current system. Terms used to refer to a given group of Lebanese, such as “the street,” “the milieu,” “the supporters,” are often tied to sectarian denominations and accompanied by confessional adjectives. In best case scenarios, “the people” or “the nation” appear. “Society” however remains scarcely used. Notwithstanding the variety of social and political approaches addressing the subject, the term society refers to a group of individuals sharing human ties and mutual interests and are governed by an authority that defines and regulates their behaviors. The scarce use of the term “society” by Lebanon’s political authority and its representatives is telling of a key problem. Lebanese political authority perceives groups as “confessions” and “religious kinships” while ignoring the real society, i.e. the groups of people inhabiting the same geographic space and whose realities are dictated by this same authority. It is pertinent to note here that the unity of society does not refer to unity through nationalistic, intellectual, or ideological belonging, but rather to unity through the reality imposed on all individuals. It is in this sense that the economic crisis constitutes the one reality experienced by all those living in Lebanon today. Certainly, this does not imply that its repercussions play out the same for everyone.
There exists within society numerous categories of people based on the various possibilities of selected positional criteria (age, educational level, income, etc.) and gender is but one of such criteria. Evaluating the conditions and identifying the role of a specific social category in order to protect it, requires a fully aware and committed approach to avoid slipping into sectarian-like fanatic views which classify people through aggressive factional lenses. It is thus of utmost importance that women’s issues be approached as an integral part of society where the interest of one is in the interest of all.
Given that society includes by definition the element of being governed by one authority, and that the current crisis is a direct product of the three-decade old political economic system, it is crucial to develop an in-depth understanding of authority’s impact on women if we are to identify the role women need to play today.
Type of political authority in Lebanon: Political authority, in its true meaning, is what defines society’s behaviors. Functionally, beyond ideological theories, the state is a tool to manage society and is therefore a form of authority. Upon a closer look at Lebanon’s political authority there is no doubt that the actual state is absent. Dialogue round tables, extensions of parliamentary terms, laws on regularizing construction violations of public property, and other practices, are some resonating examples of absent state institutions. Our emphasis on the de-facto authority, despite its estrangement from and contradiction of regulatory legal frameworks, is not meant to disregard or disrespect said frameworks, but rather to have an accurate inspection of reality. In Lebanon, the actual authority lies with a coalition of chiefs of religions and financiers. Economic aspects of the resulting system emerged in the mid-80s and the system itself was consecrated politically in the post-civil war agreement of Al Taef.
Legitimacy of political authority in Lebanon: Questioning legitimacy is researching the reasons why people accept being under this authority. For legitimacy, the controlling sectarian powers rely on spoils’ distribution and fearmongering. Distributing spoils through sect-based clientelism channels is in fact a squandering system requiring high levels of liquidity. Hence, the choice of a rentier economy for Lebanon is strategically serving the political system given that rentier economies create the illusion of wealth. It can therefore be said that the rentier-economy tools are simultaneously dedicated to this political logic and reinforcing it.
Having such an authority govern social relations is, in its essence, a contradiction of the principle of equality between society’s members. People are not perceived as rights-bearing individuals, nor are groups of people perceived as a society; all men and women are perceived by this authority as subjects within religious confessions. However, groups are not equally unequal, and women are among the most vulnerable categories in this context.
There should be a deep-rooted understanding that in order to deal with the situation of women today, the dynamics that led to this situation should be identified. A chronological approach is thus a necessity, both practical and effective. It allows to identify the impact of the political economic system in place since the mid-80s on women’s economic status, first, and on women’s social status, second, in order to define women’s role in changing the course of the crisis, third.
1. Women’s economic status under the rentier economy system
The Lebanese economy is built around a rentier system based on two sectors with very limited, even absent, production capacity: the banking and the construction sectors. These two sectors hold the key share of GDP (the banking sector is 4.4 times larger than the country’s economy).1
They both have the particularity of failing to inject money in the real economy as they have no contribution to new job opportunities or increasing investment projects. This contextual clue uncovers how difficult it is for the Lebanese economic system to create productive employment. As a consequence, sect-based clientelism is emphasized. Given the scarcity of jobs, chiefs of confessions resort to intensive hiring in the public sector, each hiring his supporters. This behavior might alleviate the problem of “job opportunities;” nevertheless, the domestic production problem persists. Consequently, the economy becomes reliant on import of raw materials and consumer goods, and local consumption needs become largely dependent on emigrants’ remittances. Remittances in turn consolidate the consumerism rentier logic, bringing no contribution to the development of local production sectors and job opportunities, and triggering further emigration flows.2
A rentier economy is perfectly suited for defaulting on the regulatory role of the state. By defining the economic system, states actually contribute to setting up society’s structure. But in the absence of a well-defined political economic plan, social dynamics are intentionally left to be shaped by the private sector. Contrary to what is often suggested, this does not necessarily come in line with public interest. Private sector entities might set frameworks that are ill-fitted for other existing frameworks and for social realities in general. Such multiple and inconsistent visions between different local institutions open up intrinsically rights-based sectors, such as education and health, to the competitive commodifying logic.3
Unbalanced supply and demand cause the work structure to malfunction and translate into high rates of unemployment and disguised unemployment. It affects all social categories, particularly youth and women, and results in high competition over the few available jobs. Women’s low participation in the workforce, 27% compared to 73% for men4 (despite an increase in recent years), is often explained as gender discrimination. Discrimination is present no doubt but attributing relatively low participation to the gender criterion only, is a hasty generalization which does not consider social and economic facts highlighting the many facets of inequality.
It should be noted that women’s low participation rate in the labor force is not due to a lack of qualifications and expertise. In 2012, there were 55% women enrolled in university studies versus 45% men, according to the Central Administration of Statistics. The issue, then, is not women’s competence, but rather the structure of the Lebanese labor system which indirectly hinders women’s participation.
Another aspect of this low participation has to do with the type of jobs women usually go for. In the absence of an infrastructure that supports their choice to work, women look for jobs that would not take away from the domestic role socially ascribed to them. They often choose stable jobs not requiring extra hours or travel, such as teaching or public administrations jobs. When Lebanese women chose to work, there is no escaping the constraints of the social role imposed upon them.5
The high cost of living that Lebanon has been witnessing for more than a decade, and particularly for the past 4 years, makes it difficult for cis men to provide alone for the family’s daily needs and requires that women also join gainful employment. But even this context did not facilitate women’s participation in the workforce. The extra cost a family incurs when the woman is working outweighs what was being saved when she was not working (extra costs related to looking for a job, transport, children daycare). The implicit costs related to a household’s economy, which are not calculated within the GDP, only take the real weight of cost when a woman chooses to work. In most European countries, welfare services are aimed at facilitating women’s work through the development of infrastructures supporting women’s choice to work. For instance, extending school hours for children to coincide with the mother’s working hours. Such policies of course imply that the state exists and is willing to share these costs with women. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have states which rely on women to carry such burdens, such as in Lebanon, where the structure of the economy and work sectors is completely detached from this logic. Even daycare is a commodity available only for a certain category of people and certainly not to all households.
We can therefore say that for women to attain their economic rights and increase their participation in the workforce, the fundamental requirements are, first, an economic system that generates real job opportunities, and second, infrastructures that would allow working women to generate revenues exceeding the costs incurred by choosing to work.
The value of work for women is not limited to material gains: working women also gain a different, more poised status in social relationships.6 Women unable to join the workforce and generate income will remain dependent on men, be it husbands or fathers. Such reliance, whether voluntary or forced, leads to an imbalance in social and family relationships.
2. Women’s social status under the confessional system
The state’s absence in Lebanon can be examined through two main points that have a direct impact on women: the absence of a census and the issue of kinship and civil registry, on the one hand, and the absence of a civil personal status code, on the other. In both cases the state is conceding either one of its most salient tools (the census), or one of its most important roles (legislation and relationship framing).
The importance of kinship and civil registry is not limited to the Lebanese context and has much to do with how social systems are maintained. Any given society has the specificity of evolving; even if we do not consider migration and displacement, society transforms physically by virtue of life’s cycle. There are people dying and others being born continuously, and to keep this physical change in individuals from affecting the system of established social relations, the assimilation of newcomers since birth becomes a delicate matter. This highlights the saliency of kinship whereby every individual is attributed to a given group since birth. As is the case in most societies, kinship in Lebanon is traced through male lineage (patrilineality) despite the fact that childbearing is an ability of mainly women.7 It is through such regulations that new concepts become the norm for people, like the norm whereby families are formed through the male line.
Lebanon has the particularity of not conducting censuses and is currently the country with the longest period without a census (9 decades), followed by Afghanistan (4 decades). This reality is the result of a 1946 political decision8 meant to control voters through voting stations that separate them according to confession and family. Therefore, people’s voting behavior is monitored closely through “electoral keys” within each family or family branch, and any deviation from loyalty to the chief is noted. There is here a deliberate choice by the state to strengthen its ability to control political behavior while relinquishing one of its most straightforward tools for public management (knowing who resides in the country).9 And the consecration of specific forms of kinship and lineage comes in line with that choice. The difficulty to change one’s place of registration in the Civil Status Department is another issue that exemplifies this consecration of kinships (authoritarian frames of references in themselves) within a larger authoritarian frame of reference.
Where do women stand within this form of authority? Given the absence of a census based on the place of residence, along with the current civil registry system tied to kinship based on the 1932 census and the ensuing rights related practices, it is impossible to “count” a woman without linking her to a man on the basis of patrilineality – lineage through the father or the husband. Considered against this background, a woman is a forever stranger. For the initial family she is born into, she is but a temporary presence as she will later be attributed to a man. For the family she will be attributed to through marriage, she is an outsider. Consequently, all campaigns advocating for women’s right to pass on nationality to their spouses and children can be read as attempts to dismantle the established system which is a product of the interconnection and interplay between the abovementioned foundations: a fixed place of registration tied to the 1932 census based on patrilineal descent.
The state’s absence in Lebanon can also be inspected through the issue of personal status. By not enacting laws regulating personal status, legislators effectively left the matter up to the multiple religious authorities. This is direct negligence. Legislation regulates rights, and any failure to regulate rights is a failure in the function of the state. Such neglect and state absence are not random acts of chance but were purposefully utilized to strengthen the sectarian system. This topic is often approached as an injustice of the religion-based personal status laws and their religious and patriarchal substance which discriminate against women, especially as they are executed via religious courts. We emphasize that this issue is beyond whether religious laws discriminate against women or not. And in the spirit of depicting reality as is, we take a closer look at the problematic nature of said laws. Religious laws translate a given system of values which might be suitable for a given society in what is referred to as laws of the general will represented by legislators. However, the key problem is beyond the substance of such laws and has to do with their nature. Given that said laws are religion-based, their legitimacy is essentially unrelated to the general will and draws on divine will. Just by the fact that said laws do not represent the general will, there should be no room to discuss them or their substance.
Thereupon, the emphasis should be on the enactment of a civil personal status law, knowing that, in substance, a civil law might not hold the ideal solution as it might also discriminate against a given category. Civil laws as such do not guarantee ideal solutions just as they are not the secret to happiness. Life is not a straight path towards a destination point separating heaven and hell. Life is an ongoing struggle and societies are in a continuous state of transformation. The saliency of a state-enacted civil personal status code lies therefore in its ability to bring back the struggle to its natural habitat, i.e. the space that respects the dynamics of society’s evolution.
3. Women’s role in shifting the course of Lebanon’ crisis
Under the ongoing structural crisis in Lebanon, there are severe imminent threats of inaction and lack of firm willful interventions aimed at an alternative political economic system, which will have catastrophic multi-level repercussions. As long as there are no purposive political options to contain the crisis, we will be at the mercy of a fast-moving succession of events that will impose a new tragic reality. The extent of the crisis along with the social, economic, and political confusion, blur out any accurate prediction of the consequences.
In the event that no alternative plan is put together (which is the case currently…), the crisis’ repercussions on the medium and long term will be disastrous. Society will witness extreme transformations in terms of reduced purchasing power and standard of living, and the gradual disappearance of the middle class. The resulting polarization in the Lebanese social structure will cause further infringement on the basic rights of already-marginalized categories: migrant workers, refugees, and women. Violence and social unrest will become the norm. Increase in poverty and illiteracy will foster radicalism, which will negatively affect women’s role and strip them of hard-won achievements. Emigration rates will soar, and Lebanon will only be inhabited by those who cannot leave. In such a scenario, society will take a highly treacherous turn, for when society is drained of its intellectual, productive, and transformative forces, change becomes impossible. It is crucial that these raw facts be discussed if we want to find ways to fight back.
Although we are facing a total collapse of the social system due to the crisis, we should not forget that times of crisis also bear opportunities. A crisis is like a violent unbearable sting that prompts into action, leaving no room for meandering about. In European languages, using the term derived from the Greek root “κρίσις,” the meaning is clearly defined: it is the act of decision-taking. The crisis therefore is not the end, as there are no ends in history’s unfoldings. It is a phase of inevitable transformations during which we will be faced with options. This situation therefore – and despite its hardship – is a valuable opportunity to reshape social relations, especially as the current scene in Lebanon has laid bare the hegemonic logic underlying the political economic system.
Our initial questions on women’s affairs in Lebanon have revealed economic and social shortcomings and uncovered the interplay between the nature of political relations and the status of women in society. Questions on women issues are essentially questions on society’s political economic structure, and they urge a rethinking of Lebanese society’s foundations. With the whole structure coming down, the battle to strengthen women’s status cannot be won if the fight is factionalized and groups are fighting each other.
What is needed at this stage to free women from their socioeconomic constraints is an alternative political economic system able to overcome all forms of hegemony in order to build a more just and coherent society. Therefore, what is required of women today, and comes in line with their own group interests, is to lobby and lead the fight for the establishment of an effective state, a civil state.
Being the instrument of management for society, the state is a dire need today as we find ourselves distributing losses in a sad but also crucial stage which calls for firm decisions. The state’s civil legitimacy, along the different historical notions and trials, has been in states requiring no medium between citizens and their rights, whereby legitimacy is simply based on the state’s ability to carry on its functions.
Consequently, given that the crisis phase and its management dictate the post-crisis phase, it is imperative that feminist efforts be included under a political project where women can contribute in shaping a new form of authority that would guarantee their rights.
- 1. Shaaban, 2015, in a lecture at the American University of Beirut
- 2. Toufic Gaspard, “A Political Economy of Lebanon, 1948–2002: The Limits of Laissez-Faire.” Leiden: Brill, 2004
- 3. The education sector exemplifies this idea. In the absence of a public plan for education and unified national standards, each educational institution defines its own educational-system standards, guided by a competitive logic in its race with other educational institutions to attract the largest number of students. Such standards are often derived from abroad and might not fit local needs. In this context, the success of these institutions in attracting and graduating students leads to the formation of an ill-suited workforce for the Lebanese context; either because the specializations are not met with appropriate local job opportunities, or because the qualifications cannot be employed in the Lebanese job market. Such a dynamic is a major contributor to high emigration and the export of Lebanese to countries where their qualifications are of value and in demand. This process, in turn, reinforces the rentier economy logic which, as mentioned above, relies on external financing through remittances to meet local needs.
- 4. The Central Administration of Statistics (CAS), 2014
- 5. This role and its evolution historically will not be discussed in this paper, but we approach it as a given fact upon which our society is built.
- 6. “Role of Economic Policies in Women’s Economic Empowerment,” Conference by Charbel Nahas at Saint Joseph University in Beirut on 22 December 2015.
- 7. It is this logic that has led many societies to adopt matrilineality, as a mother’s childbearing ability constitutes an effective guarantee to preserve kinship.
- 8. Rima Maktabi, “The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited. Who are the Lebanese?” in British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (1999), 26(2), 219-241.
- 9. “Lebanon needs a new census” in Executive Magazine (2014), “10 Ways to Save Lebanon,” Comment by Kamal Hamdan.