Women are still “mainly construed as clichés of sexual attraction to be shown on television,” Information Minister Tarek Mitri said Thursday in his opening address at this year's New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF).
The two-day, forum in Beirut is seen by female activists as an opportunity to assess the progress made in championing women's rights, while addressing the various obstacles that continue to impede change.
“Some of the Lebanese media is dealing wrongly with the issues pertaining to women,” said Mitri. “We have noticed how the image of women continues to be soiled … with women being sacrificed to get audience levels.”
This kind of approach is hindering women's empowerment and enforcing age-old gender disparities, long-fostered by strong patriarchal structures, he said.
Now in its fourth year, the NAWF runs under the honorary leadership of former Education Minister MP Bahia Hariri.
This year's discussions focused on ways to utilize media for social change and ensure that increasing social and economic influence translated into political empowerment.
“In the accumulation of years since women first started fighting for their rights women have achieved a lot in the West and less in the Arab world, but, at least these is awareness and the work of women is beginning to bear fruit,” said forum patron first lady Wafaa Sleiman.
“Some people have begun to advance the quota system while others oppose the idea,” she said. “This is all part of healthy discussion which we need to have to see if women are ready enough on their own level to enlarge their participation.”
Despite being generally perceived as a “progressive” Arab country, Lebanon's level of female political participation is among the lowest in the Arab world, which has otherwise seen a rise in the number of representatives in part due to the increasing use of quotas.
Around 3 percent of MPs in Lebanon are female, which is roughly in line with Yemen, but significantly below Tunisia, Sudan and Iraq, which all surpass the 20 percent mark and outperform the world average of 19.1 percent.
“Many think quotas are not democratic and many women don't want to be elected just because they are women,” said the UN Economic and Social Commission on Western Asia (ESCWA) Women's Center chief Afaf Omer.
“But many others refute these arguments by saying it is not discrimination but rather that it's compensation for actual barriers that prevent women from having a fair political participation,” Omer added.
Quotas can be introduced from anywhere between 10-50 percent, with most concerned groups in Lebanon favoring the allotment of 30 percent of parliamentary seats. They are always seen as temporary measures until greater gender parity can be established.
Evidence suggests that quotas have helped women establish a foothold on politics in countries like Jordan.
But quotas in and of themselves are not the solution and must be accompanied by better education and greater female solidarity if true change is to be achieved, delegates said.
“Tradition always prevails despite attempts made by women and their many talents,” said keynote speaker Raghida Dergham, a senior diplomatic correspondent with Al-Hayat newspaper in London. “First we start by trusting ourselves and believing in yourself … then we can start influencing our brothers and sons.”
Dergham was honored at the event alongside former Industry Minister Leila Solh Hamade who in 2000 became the first female minister, and Jordanian politician Suheir al-Ali.