Opinion: Garbage, sandblasted glass and the women cleaning up political filth in Lebanon

We are obsessed with cleaning our homes in Lebanon. I think it’s intergenerational, inherited from decades of wars and conflicts, and exacerbated by the fact that our country is so dirty. We live in one of the most polluted places in the region, with almost no public services.
Not that our protests against the government’s failure to provide effective garbage collection have changed much – the garbage has been piling up ever since. Just this week, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights released a report that essentially stated that Lebanon’s current misery was preventable.
Lebanon is in the grip of one of the worst economic collapses of the century and is still reeling from the Beirut explosion in 2020, the largest non-nuclear explosion in the world. And this man-made disaster we find ourselves in, according to the UN report, has “deep roots in a venal political system plagued by conflicts of interest.”

Today, a few hours before the Lebanese legislative elections on Sunday, voters are expected to vote in misery, threats and corruption. It’s the first vote since the financial implosion and civil protests of 2019, and Beirut is exploding a year later as newcomers hope to break the long stranglehold of sectarian politicians in power.

On the eve of these elections, there are more women than ever before – a 37% increase in candidates compared to 2018. The last time Lebanon went to the polls, women’s parliamentary representation also increased – from 3% to 5%.

But while the numbers seem to be pointing in the right direction, they don’t really tell the whole story.

Yes, a record number of women are running – but the proportion of men is dismal. More women are confident enough to stand for parliamentary elections. But elsewhere, more women are also migrating. More women are unemployed. With Covid-19, domestic violence has increased and women have suffered, especially migrant domestic workers who feel in captivity protected by the kafala system.
As women, we suffer the most from a centuries-old patriarchal system. We are separated from each other because sectarian politics means that 15 different religious courts can rule over our bodies and our lives. Even before the collapse of the economy, women made up only 23% of the labor force.

The protests took place as the country was at a political crossroads. The protesters spoke out against corruption and called to account the politicians who deprived us of basic services for three decades. We demanded the right to be recognized as citizens – not subject to warlords who held us captive as women under religious laws.

The protests were also intersectional, showing solidarity with disadvantaged women and, in doing so, demanding the implementation of the Lebanese constitution that had been trampled on by warlords.

Indeed, Lebanese women have been at the forefront of all attempts to revise the policies and practices that discriminate against us.

We closed the university and joined our students – the streets became the classroom for weeks and months. Loyalists and political party thugs beat us and called us traitors, police forces fired bullets and detained many of us.

But the protests have created and revived hope. We held hands from north to south in a human chain, we cleaned the streets, we resisted oppression and we chanted for unity.
In the last elections of 2018, a woman who ran as an independent won a seat in parliament. In her short two-year term, before stepping down in protest at the Beirut explosion, Paula Yacoubian worked on more bills than most men have ever done in decades of sitting in parliament .

After the 2022 elections, we will see new women entering parliament and they too will be pioneers and leaders in legislation. But the numbers can be misleading. Looking only at the number of women makes us symbols to be celebrated. The state also has its women and they are as sectarian and patriarchal as the men.

I know this because I sat on the National Commission of Lebanese Women for a year before resigning. The Commission had no interest or ability to advocate for reforms to improve women’s lives beyond tokenism, and members had no interest whatsoever in addressing the rights of non-citizens. (Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention but has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world).

Women have been carrying the burden for too long and in solidarity with women in other parts of the Arab region. We are exhausted and things have gotten worse in many areas since we started. We cannot expect Lebanese women to break the cycles of corruption and patriarchy alone.

Women who lead civil society associations, political change, protests and campaigns for accountability must be heard.

Take, for example, prominent human rights activist Wadad Halawani, who campaigned for nearly four decades to find out what happened to her husband after he disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war (1975 to 1990). – one of approximately 17,000 people.

Successive governments after the war promised him a fact-finding mission which has not yet seen the light of day. Lebanon did not experience a truth and reconciliation process after the war.

The warlords allowed themselves amnesty and began to govern with impunity. It is a system built on the foundations of exclusion: non-citizens have no rights, LGBTQ people are criminalized, women are lower level citizens, and civil marriage is not allowed.

Now that the country is heading to the polls, the conversation about women’s rights should never be about numbers. The numbers show us the successful few and leave out the suffocating majority.

It is important that more women are officially represented. But without an inclusive and equitable political system, the potential impact stops there: the number of women who have made it, the superstar trailblazers who resist in the face of adversity, the lucky, educated and socially privileged, and those who give up so much of themselves to lead a life dedicated to changing impossible structures.

We must not celebrate those who have made it to the top without setting the course and opening the system to all women. Our approach should be to care for those who couldn’t, women who died, women who lost the roof over their heads, the gender non-conforming, the poor, the marginalized and women who have been forcibly displaced.

These women were and will remain the overwhelming majority in Lebanon, before and after this election. It is to them that we must devote our attention and focus on holding accountable the men, the warlords, who destroyed their lives.

Lebanon’s problems are serious but not unique. The inclusion of women in public life and dignified work are both prerequisites for freedom and well-being everywhere.

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