The Arab Institute for Women

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Gender Discrimination: Legal, Political and Economic Implications

During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence (GBV) that starts on 25 November - International Day to Eliminate Violence against Women - and ends on 10 December - International Human Rights Day – The Arab Institute for Women (AiW) held a webinar entitled “Gender Discrimination: Legal, Political and Economic Implications”. This is the second webinar tailored to the needs of our LAU Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - Tomorrow’s Leaders (TL) students, specifically the MEPI-TL Gender scholars. The webinar was part of our monthly speaking series Food 4 Thought (F4T), an informal monthly speaking series that engages LAU faculty, staff, and students in relevant gender issues – information about previous F4T events can be found here. These events connect the wider LAU community with gender scholars and experts from a variety of backgrounds – both academic and non-academic – who share their personal experiences while also providing in-depth information about the implications of gender discrimination on legal, political, and economic systems in the Arab region and beyond.

This F4T included Stephanie Chaban, the Regional Advisor of Gender Equality and Women Empowerment at UN ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia); Farah Kobeissy, an activist and regional gender advisor; Zoya Rouhanna, the co-founder and Director of KAFA; and Halime Kaakour, a professor of law in the Department of Law and Political and Administrative Sciences at the Lebanese University. The webinar was well attended; The AiW counted approximately 140 participants, the majority of whom were MEPI-TL Gender scholars.

Stephanie Chaban, Regional Advisor of Gender Equality and Women Empowerment at UN ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), provided a general introduction about the 16 Days of Activism campaign accompanied by the latest statistics and facts related to women’s rights violations globally and regionally. Starting from the premise that women’s rights should be addressed as human rights, Chaban enumerated the devastating impact of GBV on women’s lives and the lives of people around them. She also discussed the position of women in the Arab region, and highlighted the Arab countries’ poor performance on international gender rights indexes. Focusing on the labor market, Chaban noted the low representation of women in the labor force (21%) and the meager number of women entrepreneurs in the region. Chaban also discussed the impact of working and studying online as a result of government-imposed lockdowns in response to COVID-19, which is affecting women’s and girls’ access to education and work. She also talked about the annual art competition that The AiW and ESCWA hold jointly. This year’s and past winner’s submissions can be found on The AiW’s YouTube channel.

Farah Kobeissy, an activist and regional gender advisor, tackled the economic implications of gender discrimination by revisiting the history of working women. Using the example of the 1819 women textile workers – who experienced societal backlash because they were “factory women” – Kobeissy emphasized that women workers have long been struggling to improve their working conditions. Kobeissy traced these struggles to the present, highlighting the discrimination facing women in the labor market today. She noted that the labor market remains very male-dominated in the Arab region with women’s participation at only 23%, 53% of which work in the informal sector. Kobeissy also discussed the discrimination facing married women who are often rejected when applying to jobs because of the assumption that they will inevitably become pregnant and take maternity leave, which is incorrectly assumed to be a financial loss for the company. She insisted that women’s access to employment is under further threat because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that women’s jobs are often the first to be negatively affected during an economic crisis. Kobeissy concluded with a statement made earlier in the pandemic by the Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities Mohammed Fahmi, who remarked “let the women cook” in response to one journalist’s questions about the enforced Sunday lockdowns. Kobeissy related this comment to the derogatory comments and names facing those working women in 1819, who were derogatively called “factory women,” emphasizing that gender barriers continue to affect women workers.

Zoya Rouhanna, an activist, and the co-founder and director of KAFA, emphasized the legal implications of gender discrimination in Lebanon mainly in the personal status laws. In Lebanon, there are 15 different personal status laws that put women under the double discrimination of religious authorities and the government. Rouhana mentioned KAFA’s advocacy work that calls for a united Lebanese civil law, and tackles the relation between violence against women and the sectarian division of power in Lebanon.

Halime Kaakour, a professor of law in the Department of Law and Political and Administrative Sciences at the Lebanese University and a political and gender activist, tackled the political implications of gender discrimination and the importance of women’s political participation. Kaakour shared her personal experience as a political activist, and offered and facts and statistics from a study she led in collaboration with The AiW regarding women political candidates in Lebanon. She conducted interviews with 75 out of the 86 women candidates in the 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections and highlighted a few of the obstacles these women reported facing during their candidacy, such as family support, the timing of the decision to run for the election, fundraising perceptions, not having a campaign manager, and media exposure. For example, 44% of the women stated they were asked gender discriminatory, unnecessary, and very personal questions such as “being a woman do you believe you have a chance at winning?” as well as comments on their appearance. She concluded with the effects of Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWP).

The speakers concluded the Q&A section by giving eye-opening advice to make a change and achieve gender equality such as being aware of the different struggles and battles women are facing, spreading awareness, and reinforcing solidarity against any form of discrimination.