Paper Launching: “Lebanon: Understanding Anti-Feminist Backlash”
On March 14, 2023, The Arab Institute for Women (AiW) hosted a panel discussion titled “Lebanon: Understanding Anti-Feminist Backlash” which served as a launching event for the working paper “Understanding Backlash in Lebanon”, written by Ms. Nay El Rahi within the context of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) project: “Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice”.
In an opening statement, Director of The AiW, Ms. Myriam Sfeir, welcomed the attendees and the panelists, reiterated the key role of The AiW in advancing research on key topics like “backlash” and “counter backlash” dynamics in Lebanon, and briefly explained the rationale and potential research impact of the working paper itself. Then, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Dr. Jeffrey Karam, who served as the moderator of the panel, presented the main points and themes for discussion, raised few questions for reflection, and finally encouraged the attendees’ engagement.
To begin the discussion, Author of the working paper, Ms. Nay El Rahi, emphasized the research’s contribution to reimagining and redefining backlash in Lebanon – in recognition of the matrix of sociopolitical and patriarchal structures which characterize the Lebanese system of governance. As she explained, backlash in Lebanon is defined as the “the various forms of structural discrimination and exclusion that are fed, incubated and fueled by the sectarian system; and that not only fight and obstruct advocacy for rights, but more importantly, impede the possibility of progress” – in sharp contrast with the “episodic” definition of backlash in mainstream literature. According to Ms. El Rahi, this definition reconsiders the many power relations, complexities, and hierarchies in a post-colonial state like Lebanon and reinterprets the “multiple contrasts between notions of state-building, rights, and citizenship” to understand the manifestations of backlash in Lebanon. As she finally underpinned, the paper is a very first attempt to contextualize the concept of backlash and is therefore a work in progress which shall encourage continuing research and analysis.
Then, Lawyer and Researcher at the Legal Agenda, Ms. Youmna Makhlouf, focused her intervention on understanding the dynamics of backlash in terms of gender discrimination in religious personal status laws in Lebanon. As she explained, the personal status system, which offers religious institutions relative or absolute control over matters of marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance, and others, has established inequality between men and women before the law. The “preferential rights” which men enjoy, she thus argued, violates the notion of human rights and reinforces the subordinate status of women. Indeed, as Ms. Makhlouf further confirmed, the law’s myriad of complications leaves women “unequal to men” and “unprotected”, contributes to establishing systematic backlash, and incredibly hinders any possibility of change. Thus, religious personal status codes in Lebanon, she finally stated, exemplify one of the many layers of structural and persistent backlash in Lebanon.
Following Ms. Makhlouf’s intervention, Activist and Researcher, Ms. Chantal Bou Akl, presented an overview of the Lebanese political system, its key role in contributing to structural backlash, and the opportunities available to counter backlash on women’s rights. According to Ms. Bou Akl, the political system in Lebanon, which is based on sectarian power-sharing arrangements, is a source of sectarian polarization, corruption, instability, and importantly, patriarchal hegemony. Together, these factors, she confirmed, create a status quo of structural backlash. As Ms. Bou Akl argued, to challenge the political system and to counter backlash, “alternative fronts” are necessary to create new and safe avenues (e.g., alternative media platforms) which help to amplify marginalized voices, foster greater and inclusive representation of alternative political and social groups, empower grassroot movements, and hold political parties and their affiliates accountable. On a final note, she confirmed that “alternative fronts” and nontraditional pressure groups can increase the opportunities to counter backlash on women’s rights in Lebanon amidst a locked political system.
Finally, Executive Director of Seeds for Legal Initiatives, Ms. Layal Sakr, explained the intertwined role of the legal/religious personal status system, the political arrangements, and the patriarchal social norms in hampering change and perpetuating backlash on women’s rights in Lebanon. According to Ms. Sakr, the women’s movement is today in a vital battle to promote gender equality, especially that the current dynamics, which include persisting violence against women, very low political representation, employment bias, and nationality discrimination, among many others, increasingly limit women’s autonomy and access to resources. Thereby, she confirmed, although the movement, over the past few years, has achieved relative successes on many levels (e.g., law amendments and community awareness), the very nature of the Lebanese system, which is predominantly sectarian and patriarchal, continues to remain a source of violence and backlash to women’s rights. As Ms. Sakr finally noted, to effect change, the women’s rights movement in Lebanon should tirelessly continue to challenge the discriminatory structures across all realms.
The panel discussion concluded with a short Q&A session.