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

We are obsessed with cleaning our homes in Lebanon. I think it is inter-generational, inherited from decades of war and conflict, and exacerbated by the fact that our country is so dirty. We live in one of the most polluted places in the region, with virtually zero public services.
Not that our protests against the government’s failure to effectively provide garbage collection changed much — trash has been piling up ever since. Just this week the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published a report essentially stating that Lebanon’s current misery was avoidable.
Lebanon is in the grip of one of the worst economic collapses of the century and is still reeling from the 2020 Beirut explosion, the world’s largest non-nuclear blast. And this man-made disaster we find ourselves in, said the UN report, has “deep roots in a venal political system plagued with conflicts of interest.”

Now, just hours ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary election on Sunday, voters are expected to cast a ballot amidst misery, threats and corruption. It’s the first vote since the financial implosion and civil protests of 2019, and Beirut blast a year later, with newcomers hoping to break the long stranglehold of ruling sectarian politicians.

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

But though the numbers appear to be headed in the right direction, they don’t really tell the full story.

Yes, a record number of women are running — but the proportion to men is dismal. More women are confident enough to run for parliament. But elsewhere, more women are also migrating. More women are unemployed. With Covid-19, domestic violence increased and women suffered, especially migrant domestic workers who feel under captivity protected by the kafala system.
As women, we suffer the most from a century-old patriarchal system. We are segregated from each other because sectarian politics means that 15 different religious courts get to rule over our bodies and lives. Even before the economy crashed, women were a mere 23% of the labor force.

The protests came as the country stood at a political crossroads. Demonstrators railed against corruption and demanded accountability from politicians who had deprived us of basic services for three decades. We called for the right to be recognized as citizens — not subjects to warlords who kept us captive as women under religious laws.

The protests were also intersectional, showing solidarity with underprivileged women, and in doing so demanded the implementation of Lebanon’s constitution that had been trampled on by the warlords.

Indeed, Lebanese women have been at the forefront of every attempt to overhaul the policies and practices that discriminate against us.

We shut down the university and joined our students — the streets became the classroom for weeks and months. Loyalists and thugs of political parties beat us up and called us traitors, police forces shot bullets and detained many of us.

But the protests 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 election in 2018, one woman who ran as an independent won a seat in parliament. In her short tenure of two years, before she resigned in protest against the Beirut explosion, Paula Yacoubian worked on more draft laws than most men ever did in decades of sitting in parliament.

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

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I know this because I served on the National Commission for Lebanese Women for a year before I resigned. The Commission had no interest or capacity to advocate for reforms to improve women’s lives beyond tokenism, and the members were utterly uninterested in addressing the rights of non-nationals. (Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention yet has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide).

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

The 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 has campaigned for almost four decades to find out what happened to her husband after he disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war war (1975 to 1990) — one of an estimated 17,000.

The successive governments after the war promised her a fact-finding mission that is yet to see the light of day. Lebanon did not undergo a truth and reconciliation process after the war.

The warlords granted themselves amnesty and proceeded to govern through impunity. This is a system built on exclusionary grounds: non-nationals have no rights, LGBTQ people are criminalized, women are sub-level citizens and civil marriage is not allowed.

Now as the country goes to the ballot box, the conversation on women’s rights should never be about numbers. Numbers show us the few who succeeded and leave out the majority who are suffocating.

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

We must not celebrate the ones who made it to the top without fixing the way up and making the system open to all women. Our approach should be to care for the ones who couldn’t make it, the women who died, the women who lost the roof over their heads, the non-gender conforming, the poor, the marginalized, and the women who were forcefully displaced.

These women were and will remain the crushing majority in Lebanon, before and after this election. To them we must dedicate our attention and focus on bringing accountability to the men, the warlords, who destroyed their lives.

Lebanon’s problems are severe but not unique. Womens’ inclusion in public life and dignified work are both prerequisites of freedom and wellbeing everywhere.

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