Women's Movements in Lebanon

Women’s mobilisation in Lebanon dates back to the 1920s, as the Women’s Union was established for women in Lebanon and Syria, focusing on cultural and social issues. After Lebanon’s independence in 1943, four waves of feminism can be distinguished, all of which differ in demands, actors, political discourses, and temporality, in their common struggle for women’s rights.

Between 1940 and 1960, the first generation of feminists mainly consisted of a group of elite men and women, concerned with charitable activism, which partly included educating women to improve their role as mothers. Making education accessible for women led to the emergence of women’s organisations in “various forms: religious, national cultural, familial and those who formed as a branch of men associations.”

Shortly after, the fight for political rights started, as the first electoral law explicitly deprived women of these rights, leading to the first demonstrations and organised collective action. As such, in 1951, the unions of feminist organisations were established, although segregated by sectarian lines: the predominantly Christian Jam’iyat al-tadamon al-Nisa’i (Women Solidarity Association) and the Ittihad al-Nisa’i al-Loubnani (The Lebanese Union of Women), a collective of Muslim women organisations and those who formed the branches of Arab nationalist and leftist political parties.

In 1952, the Lebanese Council of Women was established; an umbrella organisation of 170 – mainly confessional and sectarian NGOs. Although their aim was “to lead and give direction to the Lebanese feminist movement,” their main achievements were providing social services for women.

Thus, the agenda – that did not only lack a strong feminist standpoint, but also did not radically break with paternalistic traditions – was described to fit the sectarian system and seemed to focus on upper economic and social classes. As such, the first generation of women’s activist mainly demanded the right to vote, education and representation, fueled by the increase in number of female journalists, and mainly consisted of charitable organisations. Moreover, feminist movements at the time tended to mix national identity and independence with female identity.

The second feminist wave started in 1967, following the Arab defeat in the Israeli-Egyptian war. The disappointment caused by this, triggered a process of critically considering nationalist ideologies, eventually facilitating the rise of leftist feminism. Women’s organisations mainly focused on humanitarian work, and were encouraged by Fouad Chehab’s reformist policies. Yet, although women’s organisations split off on an organisational level from political parties, they were often still aligned with their ideology. For example al-tajammou al-Nisa’i al-dimocrati al-lubnani (Lebanese Democratic Gathering of Women - LDGW) was affiliated with Munazamat al-‘amal al-shuyu’i (the organisation of Communist Action - OCA) and al-Ittihad al-Nisa’i al-taqaddumi (the Progressive Women’s Union) connected to the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

In addition, the leftist and elitist League of Lebanese Women’s Rights was legally recognised in 1970, although it has been advocating since 1947 for women’s rights in (rural places of) Lebanon, mainly focusing on lobbying for women’s rights in parliament, promoting women’s participation in politics, and enhancing the debate between different social groups. Political tension shaped this wave of feminism, as the focus of activism shifted from women’s rights to relieving consequences of tensions and acts of violence during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Women’s organisations soon became more involved in organising charitable activities, focusing on refugees and war victims in particular.

In the years that followed, collaboratives enhancing the debate about women’s rights were rising. That is, in 1975 the World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City, encouraging the debate on equality between Third World feminists and their Western colleagues. In 1985, the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace was held in Nairobi. The conference brought representatives of different governments, as well as 15,000 representatives of NGOs together, leading the United Nations to describe this event as “the birth of global feminism,” and founded the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

On June 27, 1990, feminist Laure Moghaizel together with a delegation from the Human Rights Association, initiated the introduction of a clause in the Lebanese constitution, highlighting Lebanon’s commitment to the International Declaration of Human Rights, that until today is still useful for contemporary activists.

In sum, the second generation of feminists fought for expanded political rights, notably suffrage. At the same time, women’s organisations failed to translate values they defended into their own discourse, which was still structured conform a sectarian system. In addition, female identity still strongly interwoven with national identity, and characterised by the absence of influence on decision-making processes.

It was only in 1995, after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, that triggered the emergence of the third wave of feminism. During this wave, legal and perceptual gender mainstreaming were mainly demanded for. New terms, such as “gender based violence”, “full citizenship” and “positive discrimination” were introduced, and the inclusion of women’s rights into human rights was strongly advocated for. This eventually led to Lebanon signing CEDAW, binding the country to the Conference’s directives that were not (yet) recognised by Lebanese laws.

In the 1990s, international organisations’ efforts brought the Lebanese government to form a partnership with women’s organisations in order to provide social welfare services and design the future of gender relations in the country. For this purpose al-hay’a al-wataniya li-shou’oun al-mar’a al-lubnaniya (National Commission for Lebanese Women, NCLW) was created, in order to outline the role of women in the Lebanese society. In addition, al-lajna al-ahlia limutaba’at qadaya almar’a National Committee for the Follow Up of Women’s Issues and the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women (LECORVAW) were established.

This encouraged feminist civil society organisations to institutionalise their practices into NGOs. Until then, it was mainly the intellectual bourgeoisie fighting for women’s rights. The “NGOisation” not only affected internal (organisational) structures of women’s organisations, but also the content of their claims: to fight for gender equity and fight stereotypes, strengthen women’s economic and political empowerment and participation in civil society, and fight gender based violence. An important characteristic of such “globalisation” is the continuous dependency on donor funding, and the concurrent shaping of agendas and priorities.

In this vein, feminism had gotten a global and multicultural character. Old, autocratic structures and alliances were falling apart, with the rising of new women’s organisations forming a bridge between the third and fourth wave of feminism in Lebanon, such as the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A). CRTD-A aims to contribute to social justice and gender equality, primarily in the Maghreb region, focusing on the social and economic development of local communities, gender and citizenship and developing women’s capacities and leadership. Another main actor is KAFA (Enough) Violence & Exploitation, seeking to mitigate “causes and effects of violence and exploitation of women and children.”

Although these organisations – supported by international organisations, international non-governmental organisations and women’s funds – are the main actors in the field of gender issues, both organisations do not consider themselves as women’s associations, nor did they join the Lebanese Council of Women.

In 2001, headed by the Women’s Democratic Gathering, the Lebanese Women’s Network was established out of thirteen feminist organisations, promoting complete gender equality.

The fourth wave of feminism can be identified in the early 2000s and highlighted sexual and bodily rights, and were in line with the same principles LGBT movements around the world were fighting for. Just like earlier generations of feminists, this generation advocated for more sexual diversity and women’s economic empowerment. In addition, they raised awareness for the legal vulnerability of victims or underrepresented groups (such as LGBTs or migrant workers), as well as environmental issues, male-centred knowledge and arts. Just like earlier generations of feminists, this generation advocated for more sexual diversity and women’s economic empowerment. Still, the fourth generation of feminists distinguishes itself by the use of internet – and more notably, social media – as a platform, connecting them internationally to other feminists.

In 2004, the Anti-War & Anti-Globalisation Movement, consisting of “social movements, organisations, political parties, networks, and coalitions from 54 countries who are struggling for global peace and justice and who are committed to equality, solidarity, and diversity” gathered in Beirut to express solidarity with the people in the region fighting for these values. Multiple women’s cooperatives attended. Helem, the first LGBTIQ organisation in the region and in Lebanon, saw the light within this period.

In 2007, Meem, a group that split off from Helem, became independent and focused on all issues that were not related to politics and religion. Feminist Collectives was established, as an electronic platform to publish politically related opinions. As a reconstruction of the Feminist Collective, Nasawiya aimed to distinguish itself from other feminist movements by emphasising self-empowerment, identity politics and mutual support. Although they were not linked to any political party or ideology, the political sphere was approached by experienced, facilitating a-posteriori politicalisation. Yet, it were political differences that led the movement to implode.In 2010, Sawt an-Niswa, was created in an attempt to create a feminist platform for knowledge production and theorisation. Lastly, in 2011, the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) was established, a grassroots movement by young activists, focusing on “documenting, investigating, exposing and fighting racism” in Lebanon and notably focusing on the dynamics between gender and racism.

As may become clear, the four waves of Lebanon’s feminism reflect that women’s rights movements are shaped by Lebanon’s history, and vary not only in demands, but also in organisational structures, political and ideological affiliation, main actors and agendas. By this, women’s landscape is polarised into “top-down corporatist forms of organising (NCLW, LCW, CFUWI) with ties to the religious and political leadership, bottom-up grassroots leftist women’s organising (LWDG, LLWR) and development-driven professional NGOs (CRTD-A, KAFA).”