LEBANON: Despite Breakthroughs Lebanese Women Still Face Discrimination

Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The Daily Star Lebanon
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Business has always been a boy's game; suits, cigars and power lunches, with mistresses as well as money to boot.

Over the last 60 years, however, the rules have changed, with more women joining the workforce and doing so in fields long considered the preserve of the “stronger” sex.

Even across much of the region Middle East, often one of the last places to respond to gender-inequality concerns, women are rising to be managers, professors and sometimes politicians. But the discouraging reality remains that for every woman that has fought to the top, many others have failed to fulfill their potential, deterred by enduring obstacles like social pressure, discrimination and sexism.

“Unfortunately no matter how high up you go, you have to accept some restrictions,” said Lina Hamdan a long-time press officer for former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri until his assassination in 2005 and now the communication head of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee. “I have seen that if you are a bit young or beautiful, maybe there is a pre-notion … that you have not earned your position.

“Of course, the situation [can] be frustrating … to be shut out when you feel you can contribute.”

Working regularly with the Lebanese Army, Hamdan operates in one of the more hostile environments but notes that evenhandedness has won her the ear of the country's leading military personnel on one of the most politically sensitive subjects.

“It was hard and they were all weary of me as a woman at first,” she said. “But my uncle was a general, which helped initially and after that I proved I could be trusted. I listened to all sides; made sure I did my research and earned the respect.”

A hopeful for a Shiite Beirut municipal seat in the latest polls, Hamdan, retracted her candidacy after a deal was struck to limit the field to independents.

“I wanted to run as an independent, secular female, with no past and no reputation, and I wanted to show it could be done,” said Hamdan.

“I withdrew my candidacy but when the elections came, 17 people voted for me regardless.

“I don't know who they were but I think it shows people approved of what I stood for and wanted to vote for the idea.”

Despite early academic success, Hamdan, now in her 50s, like many others of her generation, stepped back to raise a family.

“I couldn't take up my scholarship in France … but I never stopped studying,” said Hamdan a divorced mother of four. “I would work from home, and my kids and I would sit around the table, them doing their homework while I studied or did my translating work.”

Although there are no recent statistics, the available data points to women aged 25-29 occupying the majority of the female workforce in Lebanon, with the number peters out until 45 and then dropping dramatically.

According to a Lebanese American University study, conducted by the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, low wages are considered the leading cause of “work constraint” among women. This is followed by the low promotion opportunities, inadequate access to benefits, and then family pressure, with status as married women, simple gender stereotypes and non availability of day care, also following suit.

This suggests that while social pressures may not be immediately apparent, they continue to exist in the social fabric, exhibiting in less glaring, but still obstructive, ways.

“I came top of my class and got hired easily but quickly noticed that male colleagues were being promoted above me,” said Romy Saunders, a 28-year-old London-based Lebanese banker.

“No matter how hard I worked, and I worked a lot harder than most people in the office, I never felt I was being taken seriously. People would make comments about my clothes, makeup, my bras … I'm pretty sure my boss even used to talk to me more slowly,” she added.

The situation eventually became unbearable, forcing Saunders to apply for a Masters abroad.

“[After university] many of my friends left, but I didn't want to leave Lebanon. My family, my life, everything was here,” she said. “I was convinced I could make it work, but I just didn't have the patience to struggle unnecessarily, when I knew that it didn't have to be that hard.”

Now married and expecting her first child, Saunders has no plans to cut her career short.

“Many people think that work and family don't go together, but I disagree,” Saunders said. “I want my daughter to grow up seeing that I can be independent.

“Too many women, especially in Lebanon, still don't have that drive.”

Going abroad, however, is not the only solution.

Women here are striving, and managing, to overcome barriers. “Gender equality is the mantra, but unless you have family connections, or lots of money, it is extremely hard,” said Hanin Ghaddar editor of online news website Now Lebanon.

“I learned how to push from an early age and just kept on pushing,” said Ghaddar. “If something doesn't go your way you have to keep trying.”

Arranging her own scholarship as a teenager, keen to study in Beirut, Ghaddar refused to return to the south after her studies and become one of the first girls in her village to work in the capital, a decision that caused her father to bar her from visiting the family home.

“It was extremely hard,” said Ghaddar. “At the time it was unthinkable to do what I did and people called me all sorts of names.

“But if I had not had done it I wouldn't be living the life that I am now, I would be sitting at home bored out of my mind, married to my cousin.”

A stroke of genius from her mother helped placate the situation when she presented a letter to her father, signed by Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah stating that an adult woman was free to make her own choices.

“Without the support of my mother I wouldn't have had the courage to do the things I did,” said Ghaddar.

Admitting to having worked harder to get ahead than male counterparts, Ghaddar, now manages an office where gender discrimination is not allowed. “You get your job based purely on merit and accomplishments,” said Ghaddar.

Her work, alongside that of countless others, is evening out the playing field, and encouraging those that may have been scared a decade ago, to take the plunge. But progress is slow.

“Gender equality has been pushed for, for God knows how long in the U.K. and it is far from perfect,” said Saunders. “It's better, yes, but I expect to be looked at by the length of my skirt half the time.

“I know all the junior staffers are looking at my bump thinking that they may grab my job but I have worked too hard to let that happen,” she added.