A seductive woman looks out from the billboards that line Beirut's highways proclaiming, "Be Beautiful and Vote," one political party's appeal to women in this beauty-obsessed nation's upcoming parliamentary elections.
Women's rights activists have fumed that the ad is demeaning. An opposing party has put up billboards with a more feminist message, "Be Equal and Vote," though featuring, of course, an equally sexy model. A lingerie brand jumped in with its own mock election ad: a woman in silky underwear urging, "Vote for me."
Lebanon's election campaign is full of women — except where it counts. Only a handful of women are among the more than 580 candidates vying for parliament's 128 seats, and after Sunday's voting, the number of women in parliament is likely to drop to four, down from the current six.
Lebanon may look like one of the most liberal countries in the deeply conservative Middle East but patriarchal attitudes still reign, women activists say. Women's poor showing also reflects a wider problem: although Lebanon has the trappings of a modern democracy, its politics are dominated by former warlords and family dynasties. Often only each clan's appointed heirs — usually men — stand a real chance of getting elected.'
And most women in politics have their posts because they are the wives, daughters or sisters of assassinated figures from those same dynasties. Two of the six women now in parliament are not running for re-election, letting their sons and family heirs take their seats. A third is also dropping out.
The remaining three women lawmakers, all from political families, are likely to get re-elected. A fourth woman is also considered a probable win: another legacy figure, journalist Nayla Tueni, who is seeking the seat of her father, Gibran, killed in 2005 by a car bombing.
"The majority of women started their political life after a tragic incident — the murder of a husband, father or brother. This is our situation and we do not deny it," the 26-year-old Tueni told The Associated Press.
"But this does not mean that they are not up to the responsibility," she said. Some feel the feudal-style politics are keeping Lebanon from ever advancing. "This is a regression not just in the woman's role but a regression of Lebanese political life in general," said Hayat Erslan, who heads the Committee to Energize Women's Role in National Decision Making.
Some of the prominent families in politics, like the Gemayels and Jumblatts, have been around for decades and many of them led militias during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
In Sunday's election, a wave of young scions of the big families are running on the legacy of assassinated or deceased family members, making them favorites to win.
Besides Tueni, they include Nadim Gemayel, 27, son of Bashir Gemayel, a president-elect killed in 1982; Sami Gemayel, 29, brother of Pierre Gemayel, an industry minister gunned down in 2006; and Michel Mouawad, the 36-year-old son of Rene Mouawad, a president who was assassinated in 1989.
The head of one of the main coalitions contesting the election, the pro-Western March 14 Movement, is Saad Hariri, who is seeking re-election after inheriting the political mantle of his slain father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, four years ago.
Rafik Hariri's sister, Bahiya, is one of the three women parliament members expected to keep their seats in Sunday's election. She's also the only woman in the current Cabinet.
Magda Breidi, a candidate running for a seat in eastern Lebanon's predominantly Christian city of Zahle, doesn't belong to a major family and doesn't have the backing of the major parties. So she admits she stands little chance, but wants to prove that women can be politically active.
"Today we see that women are totally absent from politics ... it's still a highly patriarchal society," Breidi told the AP. "While other Arab countries are advancing, it seems we are going backward," she said, citing the example of Kuwait, where female parliament members were elected for the first time this year — four of them — despite objections of Muslim fundamentalist politicians.
Erslan and other women's rights activists are lobbying for a quota system in Lebanon to ensure fair representation of women. Women's presence in Arab parliaments is generally low, though there have been improvements. Tunisia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria are at the top end, with 28 percent to 10 percent of their current lawmakers women.
Egypt has only nine women among its lower house's 454 members — but it is considering a law setting a quota of 11 percent women. In Jordan, six of the 110 seats are reserved for women, and in 2007 a woman won a seventh, the first female win of a seat contested by men.
Lebanon's proportion puts it closer on the scale to most conservative Arab Gulf nations where no women are lawmakers and where women's rights are more restricted. Women in Lebanon enjoy wide social freedoms, dressing freely, enjoying equal education with men and holding prominent business positions. Yet they still feel discriminated against in some areas. For instance, women cannot pass their citizenship on to their children or foreign husbands. Activists also complain Lebanese laws do not offer women protection against domestic violence and abuse.
The "Be Beautiful and Vote" ad was put up by the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Christian politician Michel Aoun. Ironically, given the ad's sexy model, the FPM is allied with the deeply conservative Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement — a sign of how different the two groups' constituencies are and how Lebanese elections stress political alliances more than ideology.
The ads infuriated many women's rights activists.
One group, the "Feminist Collective," countered with a Web campaign, photo-shopping the ad with a new slogan for women: "Be Intelligent and Vote Blank: No one cares about your rights."