Lebanese women look for greater role in parliament elections

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A man walks by a billboard encouraging more women candidates in upcoming parliament elections reading in Arabic “Half the society, half the parliament,” in downtown Beirut, Lebanon during a conference on women participation in politics. (AP)
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Victoria El-Khoury Zwein, a potential woman candidate in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at Kempinski Summerland Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
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Rima Fakhry, a politician with the Lebanese powerful Hezbollah group, speaks during a conference on women participation in politics, at Kempinski Summerland Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
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State Minister of Women’s Affairs, Jean Oghassabian, speaks during a conference on women participation in politics, at Kempinski Summerland Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Updated 21 January 2018

Lebanese women look for greater role in parliament elections

BEIRUT: Lebanon is campaigning to get at least five times more women elected to parliament this spring in its first vote in nearly 10 years, the country’s first women’s affairs minister says.
It is a daunting task for a Middle Eastern country that may otherwise look like one of the most liberal in the region.
Despite a relatively free press, diverse religious groups and women in prominent positions in the business world and the media, Lebanon ranks surprisingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have failed to act on a movement to institute a quota for women in parliament.
“Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Oghassabian told The Associated Press. “The main obstacles are mentality, a philosophy of life, and this needs time,” he said.
There are only four women in the outgoing parliament elected in 2009, a flimsy 3 percent of its 128 lawmakers. It was a drop from 2005, when six women were elected. Since 2004, there have been one or at most two posts for women in government.
Compared to other countries in the region, Lebanon ranks as one of the lowest in terms of female representation in parliament, with only Oman, Kuwait and Yemen having fewer. Oman and Kuwait have one and two women representatives respectively. War-torn Yemen has none and is currently without a functioning parliament.
Even in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, the monarch appointed 30 women to the consultative Shoura Council, giving them nearly 20 percent of the seats.
“In politics, there seems to be some kind of invisible barrier for women to really break through,” Christina Lassen, European Union Ambassador to Lebanon, told The Associated Press at a conference held last week to promote women’s representation.
Three months before the vote, the Women’s Affairs Ministry in collaboration with the United Nations and the EU launched a campaign to boost women’s numbers in the elections, with the slogan: “Half the society, half the parliament.”
Billboards went up in several Beirut districts. Programs on local TV stations about women in politics are airing weekly and local groups say they are training women candidates on public speaking.
Oghassabian said last year’s decision to appoint a man to the newly created portfolio was meant to send a message that it is also “a man’s duty” to fight for women’s rights.
Holding parliamentary elections in Lebanon is a feat in itself. Scheduled for May, these are the first elections in the country since 2009. Previous votes were delayed amid instability and haggling over a new election law.
Seats in the Lebanese parliament are allotted according to sects, with each community distributing them according to region and strongholds. In this complex confessional-based political system, adding a women’s quota was too complicated for some to contemplate, said Nora Mourad, a gender researcher with the United Nations Development Program.
Last year, the politicians refused to even discuss a female quota in the new law. Members of the powerful Shiite group, Hezbollah, walked out of the room before the discussion began.
“We are against a quota. We are against imposing conditions from the outside on our policies and roles and work,” said Rima Fakhry, a politician from the conservative Shiite group. “The women movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions. For them it is in parliament. We differ with those movements.”
Although Fakhry herself is a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, she told the audience at the conference that her group doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker as befitting for a woman in Lebanon. Her group won’t nominate women to run for office.
“For us, the woman is a woman. She must work to realize the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference is in the details,” she said. “She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”
Even though the country’s civil war ended 28 years ago, its politics are still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties, and elections are often settled behind closed doors.
Most women in politics have their posts because they are related to influential male politicians. Of the four women currently in parliament, one is the aunt of the current prime minister, another is the wife of a party leader, and the other two are the daughters of an assassinated media figure and a former minister.
Still, Oghassabian said he expects at least 20 women to make it into parliament, and dozens more to run.
The new law introduced a complicated proportional representation system that would preserve the sectarian nature of the parliament. But some argue it will offer women and independents a better chance.
Local groups, along with the UN and EU, are encouraging political parties to have a voluntary quota for women on their lists. Women’s groups are contemplating all-women lists as well as a campaign of “no-woman, no-vote” to pressure political parties to include women on their lists.
In Wednesday’s conference, representatives from the political parties said internal deliberations are ongoing. One senior member of the Future party said he will recommend 20 percent women’s representation. Another, from the Progressive Socialist Party, said it has commissioned a review of internal literature to ensure women’s issues and requests are reflected.
Victoria El-Khoury Zwein, a potential candidate with a new party called Seven, said she’s skeptical that veteran parties would give women a winning chance. But she said with proportional representation, she’s optimistic she needs fewer votes to make it.
“There must be 15 percent of the population who want a new political class,” she said. “It is not an easy battle. But we can (do it).”

In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

Raghad Hammadi, who is a member of a group of students campaigning to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, speaks with Reuters, in Mosul, Iraq on May 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)
Updated 28 May 2018

In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

  • A group of students who launched a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact.
  • Among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City

MOSUL, Iraq: A group of Iraqi university students have found a cause in the ruins of Mosul.

They are salvaging what is left of its rich heritage, clearing rubble and distributing aid in a city crying out for help after the war against Daesh.

The project began when Raghad Hammoudi and a group of students decided to launch a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, burned and bombed in the war. Its vast contents had been all but lost.

But they found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact. Over 40 hot days, with the war still raging on the other side, the students moved the books one by one using holes made by rockets to carry them to safety.

“An entire city with a glorious past and ancient history lost its heritage and culture: The tomb of the Prophet Jonah, the minaret of Al-Hadba which is older than Iraq itself. It is great that we were able to save a part of this heritage,” said Hammoudi, 25, a nursing student. 

Both the leaning minaret of Al-Hadba , part of the 12th century Grand Al-Nuri Mosque, where in 2014 Daesh’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and the ancient tomb of what is believed to be the Prophet Jonah were destroyed in the military campaign to retake the city.

Hammoudi says among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City architecture.


Revolution within

Elsewhere, volunteers cleared rubble and garbage, opened roads, drilled water wells and distributed aid.

“The situation in Mosul is so much better now and this is because of the revolution that happened within Mosul, within its young people,” she said.

After living under Daesh’s strict rule and then the war to retake the city, young women feel as though they have been liberated.

The team that set out to rescue the books was mixed, a rarity in Mosul’s society, where mingling between sexes outside the family or university was limited even before Daesh.

“An unbelievable barrier has been broken, it might be a trivial thing for the rest of the world but for Mosul it is huge,” she said.

Months after Iraq announced full control of the city, life is back in many parts. But much of the Old City, where the last and the bloodiest battles were waged, is still in complete ruin.

Diyaa Al-Taher, a resident who is helping rehabilitate homes, says most people, despite being impoverished, have returned to neighborhoods where the rubble has been cleared. However, there are entire areas that are completely deserted. Corpses fester under debris.

“Poverty can do more harm than Daesh. If the city remains like this and the poor can’t find anything to eat, they will do anything,” said Taher, 30.

Taher says his target is to rehabilitate 1,000 homes and has so far finished rehabilitating 75, relying solely on donations from locals.

Taher is regularly stopped by locals asking for help. He points to a collapsed home where an entire family was killed.

“Their belongings were taken to be sold for charity,” he said, skipping over the stream of sewage that split the road.


Miracle escape

Marwa Al-Juburi,25, a divorcee, was one of the first to volunteer as soon as she and her family escaped the fighting.

“It was a miracle that we even made it. From then on I refused to accept to stay at home anymore. I refused to be silenced and I haven’t since,” she said.

She says she had to overcome stigma both as a woman and a divorcee to carry out the work.

She runs activities for children and helps coordinate access to medical care and equipment for families. Her team organized the opening of a park previously used as a military training ground for the fighters who ruled the city for three years.

Al Juburi, who is still haunted by images of the night of their escape, says even if Mosul is rebuilt, people need help to get over the mental toll.

“In the end, the city will be rebuilt, even if it takes 1,000 years. But if the mind is destroyed, then the city will be lost with no hope of resurrection.”