In a country where women occupy only three percent of parliament seats, Lebanon’s first women’s affairs minister – a man – is supporting a campaign to attract more female politicians.
The government’s decision to appoint him as women’s minister in 2016 attracted some criticism. But Jean Oghassabian said the responsibility to support gender equality is not limited to a woman.
His ministry, along with the United Nations and European Union, is behind a campaign to encourage more women to run for Lebanon’s first legislative election in nearly a decade, which is scheduled for May 6.
Since the beginning of the year, billboards and television advertisements have carried the slogan “Half the society, half the parliament”. Currently, only four women sit in the 128-seat parliament.
“The legal institution in Lebanon, mainly the parliament and the government are losing half of the human power in Lebanon,” Oghassabian told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his office in Beirut.
“So for me it is not a question of numbers, it is a question of potential, we are losing opportunities,” he said.
Women could bring a new approach to legal, social and economic issues, he added.
Oghassabian said there is a “huge responsibility and role to play for men because they are the main obstacles” to women’s participation in politics, which is often due to sexist attitudes.
Victoria El-Khoury Zwein, a potential candidate with a new party called “Sabaa”, meaning seven in Arabic, agreed that a “patriarchal society” is holding Lebanon back.
Parties have no political will to involve women, as they see them in stereotypical roles connected only to family, she said.
“I don’t know if the campaign will change the results, but I hope it changes the perception of women,” said Zwein.
She recommended that Lebanon reserve 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women.
Last year the country passed a new electoral law, but with no quota for women’s representation in parliament.
Lebanon has a complex electoral system with a parliament of 64 Christians apportioned among seven denominations, and 64 Muslims, with equal numbers of Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Other countries have incorporated women’s participation into electoral law. For example, Jordan reserves 15 seats for women in parliament.
Zwein said it is “frustrating” to see other countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia succeed in having more female participation in politics while Lebanon is behind.
“The role of women in parliament will positively affect women’s rights, but it will not be limited to just that,” she said. “All issues in the country are women’s issues.”