Women's Achievements in Lebanon

A Historical Overview of Women’s Achievements in Lebanon.

Literature describes women’s organisations as the “frontrunners of societal change”, as they further the debate surrounding women’s rights, gender equality, and the LGBTIQ community. In Lebanon, the emergence of women’s movements and organisations were on the rise after the war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and were initiated during major historical changes in the Arab World. Voting, citizenship, and working rights have witnessed developments over the past few decades, contributing to the advancement of women’s rights throughout the country.

Although gender actors (see our mapping of civil society actors working on gender issues here, as well as our interactive timeline on the history of women’s movements here) generally agree that the debate has contributed to a more comprehensive understanding of – and awareness on – women’s rights in theory, the broader application of such a discussion has still been limited in Lebanon. Gender discrimination in areas relating to custody rights, social security, nationality recognition, sexual harassment and violence is still widespread. The following timeline provides a broad overview of significant achievements for women’s rights since the 1950s and a brief discussion on specific areas that raise concern in current-day Lebanon.

Whilst women’s mobilisation movements in Lebanon date back to the 1920s – a decade which saw the establishment of the Women’s Union, which was a group focused on cultural and social issues related to women – legal changes and gender equality did not start to be enshrined until 1953. This was the year that Lebanese women were granted political rights, meaning they were given the right to vote and the right to stand for a seat in parliament. This was followed by the granting of equal inheritance rights for non-Muslims in 1959.

In 1960, amendments were made to Article 5 of decree no. 15 which was originally passed in 1925. The amendments allowed foreign women to become Lebanese citizens if they were to marry a Lebanese man, which ultimately codified citizenship rights for women. This contrasts the inability of Lebanese women to pass on their nationality through marriage, or even birth.

However, around the same time period, political involvement and rights continued to develop and it was in 1963 that women were granted the right to be elected into local councils. It wasn’t until 1974 that Lebanese women were finally granted the right to travel without their husband’s permission which was common, especially in rural regions.

Another social taboo that greatly affected women’s liberty was the issue of contraception. Contraception pills were considered illegal and would result in sanctions against women using them, and anyone prescribing, promoting, or selling contraceptive methods under anti-contraception legislation from 1920. This was not repealed until 1983, when such provisions were lifted. But until now, abortion is illegal in Lebanon.

Social benefits, especially those protected by state statutes, were more often than not only available to men. In 1987 this began to change when amendments were made to legislation surrounding the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) and women were granted equal eligibility to collect end-of-service indemnities from the NSSF. However, there are still several articles in the NSSF that do not extend to include women in benefits or protection and are, thus, still a source of workplace insecurity and inequality.

The 1990s saw more rapid development of women's movements and achievements. In 1993, women were granted the right to testify in matters relating to land registry and in the following year, married women were granted the right to practice trade without permission from their husbands. It was then, in 1994, that female diplomats were granted the ability to pursue their careers despite their marital status or being married to foreigners.

Up until 1995, women were not allowed to enter life insurance contracts and it was also forbidden that a third party enters a life insurance contract on behalf of a woman without permission from her husband. This law was amended in 1995. As of then, only judiciaries themselves were able to decide about their own insurance, restricting husbands from legal competence.

In 1997, Lebanon took a significant step forward by signing and ratifying the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which was originally adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. The treaty outlines women’s rights in social, civil, and political spheres, emphasising the right to nondiscrimination and equality. This has facilitated developments in women's rights in Lebanon and some large achievements were made in the following decade, although the Lebanese state has made reservations to the CEDAW.

First of all, the Lebanese state has made reservations regarding article 9 (2), which affirms that state parties shall grant women equal rights with men, with respect to the nationality of their children. Second, the Lebanese state objected article 16 (1) (c) (d) (f) and (g) that requires to take appropriate measures in order to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations. The objected clauses concern equal rights and responsibilities during marriage, and as parents/guardians. The last clause to which the Lebanese state has made reservations, describes equal personal rights, including the right to choose a family name, a profession, and an occupation.

Lastly, in accordance with paragraph 2 of article 29, the Lebanese state – like many other countries that signed the convention – declared to not consider itself bound by the provisions of Article 29’s paragraph 1, which states that two or more state parties can refer disputes about the interpretation and implementation of CEDAW to arbitration, and if the dispute is not settled, it can be referred to the International Court of Justice. It should be noted that the Government of Denmark and the Committee for the Follow-Up on Women’s Issues objected to the said reservations by the Lebanese state, as these raised doubts about the commitment of Lebanon to the object and essence of the Convention.

However, the Committee for the Follow-Up on Women’s Issues had to conclude in 2007, in its third official shadow report, that although CEDAW was ratified with many reservations, no amendment of these reservations were made. In addition, no suggestions to lift off Lebanon’s reservations of the articles were put forward by the National Commission for Lebanese Women, a national organisation under the control of the government, which was created in 1996 to further implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Although a parliamentary commission for women was established, the forms of its actions and scope of work have not been determined. Moreover, the government has shown no national strategy to enhance women, or to eradicate violence against women, nor did it submit any programs to involve the civil society in the relevant decisions.

On May 26 2000, article 26 of Lebanon’s Labour Law was amended to state that male and female government employees are entitled to the same provisions, including benefits, services, and education grants for themselves and their family members. It also abolished the prohibition of women from partaking in night work shifts. Yet, although in theory, women may now sue their employers for gender discrimination, in reality, such lawsuits are quite rare.

Moreover, maternity leave with full pay was extended from 40 days to 60 days for women employees in the public sector (article 38) and 7 weeks for female employees working in the private sector (article 28). Importantly, employers are not permitted to fire pregnant employees starting from the fifth month of pregnancy, or during maternity leave. In the following year, in 2001, maternity and health benefits as well as family allowances were equalised between men and women.

An issue that continues to raise public concern is the “nationality law”. Under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationalities to their foreign husbands or their children.

A landmark case in June 2009 saw a Lebanese mother of three Lebanese-born children granted the right to pass on her Lebanese citizenship to her children despite their father’s Egyptian nationality. The court case lasted 15 minutes to reach a verdict. Although this court decision seemed to be a positive change for Lebanese women, the Lebanese state appealed the decision shortly after, and on May 18 2010, the appellate court overturned the decision of the trial court and dismissed the case, on the grounds of lacking jurisdiction “to decide on the constitutionality of the law or its compatibility with international constitutional norms recognised by Lebanon”. As such, Lebanese women are unable to pass on their nationality until today.

While honour crimes are reportedly rare in Lebanon with only 66 cited in the period between 1999 and 2007, it was a substantial and progressive achievement when in 2011 Lebanon abolished article 562 of the Criminal Code which had originally stated that killing a female relative or spouse to “protect family honour” was considered a mitigating factor to a crime and alleviated sentencing severity.

Another significant gender-based legislative amendment in 2011 was the promulgation of Law No. 164 – Punishment for the Crime of Trafficking in Persons. This eliminated forced labour which often targets women in Lebanon and across the world.

An achievement that affected Lebanese families, was the 2011 amendment to custody laws that raised the age of maternal custody to 12 years old in Sunni confessions. This gives mothers the right to obtain custody of their child(ren) in the case of divorce, or any other event that could potentially separate the child from either parent before that child turns 12. This has been a standard set by other confessions in Lebanon such as the Christian and Shiite communities which are upheld in their respective personal status laws, as this area of law is not part of the centralised Lebanese legal system.

As with the maternal right to custody, the issue of maternity leave has been a slow process in Lebanon. While the International Labour Organisation states that 12 weeks be the minimum length of maternity leave, Lebanon only guaranteed 7 weeks of maternity leave following the birth of a child up until 2014 when this was raised to 10 weeks. Another significant achievement in 2014 was the enactment of Law 293 – Protection of Women and Family Members from Domestic Violence. As the title of the law suggests, the legislation promotes and statutorily protects women’s safety and is a positive first step in criminalising domestic violence which affects 48% of women in Lebanon.

In short, in areas of education, domestic violence, politics and civil society, there has been many developments of women rights and freedoms over the past century in Lebanon. For example today, tertiary education enrolment rates in Lebanon are higher for women than men: 62% of women are enrolled in comparison to 54% of men.

Though Lebanon has taken essential strides towards gender equity in the past few decades, gender issues and development have been cast aside in favour of more “pressing” issues in the recent years, notably relevant to politics and conflicts.

However, there is still need for further reform. Ongoing issues include:

Civil Registry - Men are considered to be the head of the family; wives and children are registered under their family census records. In case of divorce, daughters depend on their fathers’ registry again. In addition, husbands can register their wives’ names at relevant international travel points, prohibiting them to travel without a certified permission.

Personal Status Laws - Lebanon has no unified family law system. Instead, personal status laws administered by religious courts dominate this grey area that sees minimal government oversight. The religious courts of 18 recognised sects cover areas such as marriage, divorce, maternal custody, inheritance and property rights. As such, there is not one, coherent concept of the “Lebanese citizen,” rather this concept is fragmented into “Lebanese men” and “Lebanese women,” divided by sect, thus allowing for eighteen articulations of citizenship in Lebanon. Moreover, the laws are often highly discriminatory towards women, even violating human rights including one’s right to nondiscrimination, physical integrity and health. Efforts to eradicate said violations have been made through campaigns such as campaign 13/15 which was launched by The Network for the Rights of the Family in 2005 with the goal of specifically reforming custody laws in all confessions. However, despite such efforts, laws are still administered by religious courts that negate women’s rights to equality before the law, and to the equal enjoyment of all rights guaranteed under the ICCPR.

Civil Marriage - Although civil marriage, that would facilitate limiting the gender bias of personal status courts, is legitimate in Lebanon, the act of performing the civil marriage ceremony is not permitted by law. This, despite a landmark case in 2013, that was the first civil marriage undertaken in Lebanon. Yet, in 2015, the Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad al-Machnouk reversed progress made on the issue, recommending that citizens wishing to have a civil marriage do it abroad rather than in Lebanon. It is worth noting that civil marriage is accepted if undertaken outside of the Lebanese territory.

Testimony - According to Article 54 of the 1926 Lebanese Civil Code, the testimony of a female witness is only possible in case two other women are involved. As such, a woman’s testimony is considered to be worth half of a male’s testimony. This principle is applied by different sects, among which Sunni, Shia, and Druze, even though it contradicts Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution, and Articles 1,2 and 6 of the CEDAW.

Early/Child marriage - In Lebanon, there is no common minimum age for marriage of women. Religious courts govern personal status laws. For women, the minimum marriage age according to different courts ranges between 14 and 17. However, in case a woman is younger than the sect’s official marriage age, the religious court can make an exception and allow her to marry. This often depends on a guardian’s permission, and whether or not she has reached (mental and/or physical) “maturity”. In islamic sects, marriage can be consummated after a female minor has reached the age of 9 years old.

Nationality Law - Lebanese mothers still can’t pass on their nationality to their spouse or children. Surprisingly though, a foreign woman that has children from a previous marriage, but is now married to a Lebanese citizen, may obtain the nationality herself and pass it on to her children from the previous marriage, according to Article 4 of the Law. Here again, patriarchal practices coupled with confessional laws are compounded and further discriminate against women. Moreover, the threat of naturalisation and resettlement of Palestinian refugees previously, and Syrian refugees currently, is acting as a scapegoat by the government which isn’t addressing this issue in greater capacity. An exception is made for unmarried mothers who can pass on their Lebanese citizenship after a year has passed and their child has still no nationality.

Labour Law - Although the 1965 decree on the Lebanese Labour Code calls for equality for men and women who perform the same job, women still face discrimination in the field of labour. First of all, agricultural workers in corporations without any connection to trade or industry, and domestic servants – the latter traditionally hosting large numbers of female employees – are exempted from protection by the Labour Code. Second, Articles 26 to 30 of the Lebanese Labour Code specifically address the employment of women. Article 27 restricts the employment of children, adolescents, and women in, amongst others, the production of alcohol and all other alcoholic drinks, cutting up animal carcases, and work involving electric accumulators and driving engines. The same article also prohibits heavy work that involves chemical elements (for example mineral products, glass, metal, lead, asphalt, and some fertilizers), and underground work. The fact that they apply to both women and children indicates that women, although having reached adulthood, are regarded as juveniles. In addition, men are not protected equally by these articles. For example, Article 34 requires a rest-time of one hour after five hours of non-stop work for women, but after six hours for men. Moreover, article 59 allows women who have more than one year of service to leave work “because of marriage”, and allow her to benefit from her end of service indemnities. As men don’t seem to be able to leave for the same reason, this article seems to confirm a rationale encouraging women to prioritise household and family duties.

Social Security Law - Article 3 of the Labour Law and Article 46 of the Social Security Law provide welfare benefits to male workers and civil servants but do not apply to women. For example, male employees can receive compensation for non-working wives, whereas female employees can only do so in case their husbands are deceased or suffer from an illness that does not allow them to work. Regardless of the employee's gender, compensation is provided for every child. Article 10 of the benefits and services regulations at the state’s employees’ cooperative and Article 14 of the Social Security Law similarly discriminate against women with regards to their husbands in access to health care, hospitalisation, and other social benefits.

Sexual assault and harassment in work settings - There is an absence of jurisdiction explicitly addressing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, discouraging women – lebanese or non-lebanese – to enter the workforce and placing those that do in a fragile position without legal protection if they were to be sexually assaulted at work. These precarious conditions lead to notably high rates of migrant domestic workers deaths, as shown in our interactive mapping. These deaths are often suicides due to repeated abuse, but may also cover up murder by employers.

This can often trap women in sexually abusive environments without the protection of the law. In this vein, it would be interesting to note that while efforts of various women organisations have led to the ratification of the law on family violence (originally a domestic violence law to protect women from GBV), the law was modified by confessional and political leaders to include men and children, and to only encompass family members, constraining women to only be in conventional, religiously-structured relationships (vulnerable to boyfriends and other male figures/friends). It also saw the addition of so-called “marital rights”, making women vulnerable to marital rape. It’s important to note here that article 522 is in the process of being abolished.

Adultery - According to Articles 487 to 489 of the Lebanese Penal Code, women can be sentenced to prison for adultery both inside and outside their home. Men, However, for men, their illicit affair should be commonly known or they have to be caught in an adulterous act inside their own home. For women, the sentence varies from three months up to two years, whereas men face imprisonment between one month and one year. Moreover, men can be found innocent based on the presumtio innocentiae: the lack of material evidence. Women, however, are obliged to prove their innocence with a witness’s testimony. It must be noted that in reality, only few adultery cases are handled in the courts.

Abortion - Performing an abortion is illegal in Lebanon under Articles 539 and 540 of the Lebanese Penal Code, leading to imprisonment of up to 3 years. This sentence can be extended if the abortion was performed against a woman’s will, or if the abortion resulted in the woman's death. For women, it is forbidden to consent to undergo an abortion. The only exception is offered by Article 545, which mitigates possible imprisonment if the woman underwent abortion with the aim to “protect her honour”. However, even though there are no official numbers, abortions are performed in Lebanon in illegal and underground settings which may jeopardise women’s health.

Female Quota for Public Office - There is currently no quota set to ensure women assume public office and the proportion of women occupying parliamentary seats has remained exceptionally low, with 4 women out of 125 seat holders in parliament. Unfortunately most of these women are widows, daughters, or wives of long withstanding, male, political leaders.

Female representation in Politics - In December 2016, the Lebanese State created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs. However, given the Ministry’s rather limited budget or authority, its function is more symbolic. Ironically, the first minister of Women’s Affairs, Jean Oghassapian, is a man. Most alarmingly, gender equality in politics stands at only 0.01% and Lebanon has never had a female head of state. Moreover, “the dynamics of marginalisation [of women] within the parties were exacerbated in the context of the civil war”, eventually excluding women participating in politics from positions of power and limiting them to a purely charitable role. Although women represent 51 percent of the Lebanese population and even 54 percent of university graduates, they are scarcely represented in Parliament, which is 97% male-dominated. For this reason, Lebanese women’s organisations demand 30 percent quota in parliament seats. Until now, politics did not succeed to adopt a women’s quota. Still, although it is important to implement internal measures, including positive distinguishing in order to enhance women’s participation in decision-making- a quota in itself is not enough, as further electoral reforms are necessary, amongst which regulating campaign spending.

Female representation in Media - In addition, the Lebanese media echoes a patriarchal discourse, rather than using its position to encourage narrowing the gender gap, fighting myths and inaccurate stereotypes, and raising women’s awareness on their rights. Especially given the fact that there are no programs to eliminate discrimination in various economic and media fields, this reinforces an androcentric point of view.

As may become evident, Lebanese laws do not only protect and punish Lebanese citizens differently based on gender or sex, but also on whether they are married, or not. That is, after marriage, a woman’s position in many civil laws changes. For example, married women cannot pass the Lebanese nationality to their children, their husbands can register their names at relevant points of international travel in order to prohibit them from travelling, and they are not protected under legal articles from marital rape or domestic violence. Unmarried women, however, can pass their nationality in the exceptional case of their child having no other citizenship by the age of 1. Furthermore, unmarried women can travel freely after having reached the age of 18. It should be noted, however, that although legally it may seem more attractive to remain unmarried, social norms and pressures can be more compelling to marry.

Such issues indicate that patriarchy is still imbued in the system. Activists and scholars alike have been critical of the feminist movement in Lebanon, criticising the campaigns on their respective goals and strategies and also on the inability to mobilise effective collective actions.

In conclusion, the Lebanese state should be encouraged to take into account the issue of gender equity in all economic, social, and cultural policies and sectors. Furthermore, it should prioritise protecting women, notably vulnerable women, such as female refugees and migrant workers, from exploitation, violence, and human trafficking. Still, while there is room for improvement in terms of women’s rights, women in Lebanon enjoy a margin of freedom compared to other countries in the Middle East. Such liberties are owed to the achievements of feminists that have consistently pushed for reform.

[Article developed in partnership with the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL) - last updated April 2017]