BEIRUT: Despite a record number of women running in Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in nine years, one political party has decided not to put forth a single female candidate. Of the 587 candidates vying for a seat in Parliament, 86 are women. The ratio is a considerable step up from the 2009 elections, which saw a total of 12 women in the running.
Only a minority of female candidates are running with established groups, but Hezbollah is the sole conventional party to not field any women. For supporters, the lack of female representation did not come as a surprise when candidacies were announced, as the decision to run a male-exclusive roster was announced by Hezbollah earlier in winter.
During a televised interview with Al-Mayadeen in January, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said that the party would not be introducing any female candidates in the race, citing the complicated social lives of MPs and corruption in the government as reasons why women were not best placed to join the legislature as it stands.
Lawmakers are not judged by “political or legal competence” but by their proficiency in giving condolences and favors, Nasrallah said. After criticizing MPs’ productivity, calling the role social rather than legislative, the party chief added, “We as Hezbollah do not have women for this job.”
Shortly after this statement was made, Dr. Rima Fakhri, a member of Hezbollah’s political council, reinforced Nasrallah’s words. “We believe it is the duty of women to participate in political life and decision-making, but we refrain from her participation in parliamentary elections as this will be at the expense of her family,” the former president of Hezbollah’s Beirut women’s association said during a United Nations conference on women’s representation in the elections.
“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,” Fakhri said.
“She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”
Among the main established parties represented at the conference, Hezbollah was the only one not to express enthusiasm about increased female political representation.
The Daily Star spoke with several young women who are supporters of Hezbollah about their opinions on the party’s decision. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Twenty-year-old Nour Assaf is not a Hezbollah member but a strong supporter of the resistance nonetheless. Currently an undergraduate student at the University of Saint-Joseph, she studies political science.
“It’s not the way the media portrays [it],” Assaf began, sharing her view on female roles in Hezbollah.
“Women are present within the party. Yes, it’s true they do not participate in the legislative sphere, but there are so many levels in which they’re engaged as members, not just as supporters.”
For Assaf, Nasrallah’s words were not a reflection of his thoughts about women, but rather his opinion on governmental incompetence.
“I respect Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s views. Lebanon’s politics cannot be compared to European countries. It’s not like he doesn’t want women to enter the legislative sphere at all – just not in its current situation.”
As a politically engaged woman, Assaf spoke about her aspirations to see female representation in her political party of choice. But she considered Hezbollah’s decision to distance women from legislative roles for the time being to be not worthy of extended critique.
Dima Fakih, a 27-year-old Lebanese woman living abroad, considers herself to be a supporter of the party. While her social views and lifestyle are distinct from those of traditional Hezbollah followers, Fakih supports the party for its regional role and anti-Zionist stance.
“I used to work in Parliament and would watch how the MPs interacted during the open sessions. It was then that I really noticed how Hezbollah MPs, in particular, were the least corrupt. They actually were there to work as legislators,” she said.
Based on this experience, Fakih did not interpret Nasrallah’s comments as shocking or pejorative to women.
“Actually, I didn’t really see what he said in the interview as a negative thing,” she said.
“He talks about the proficiency of women in all fields and he spoke of [Minister of State for Administrative Development] Inaya Ezzeddine as a role model to all women.” Ezzeddine is a member of the Hezbollah-allied Amal Movement.
Drawing upon cultural barriers, Fakih also commented on the social aspects of any MP’s job. “MPs are always socializing in their work. Many of them go to each other’s houses for late night dinners and sometimes they sleep over. At the end of the day, Lebanon is a conservative society. And followers of Hezbollah, in particular, are conservative,” she said, pointing out that this would be seen as inappropriate behavior for many women.
Her only bone to pick was that Nasrallah had not offered a solution to this central problem.
“What bothers me is that he didn’t propose a thing to change the system,” she added.
Mona Ayoub, 20, expressed internal conflict she had felt over the party’s decision, her own ideologies and her family roots. While born and raised in Beirut, Ayoub’s family is from the southern Lebanese Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil.
Speaking passionately about her indignation with Hezbollah’s decision, she also remarked on the guilt she felt over this.
Without Nasrallah, she said, she would have been robbed of the ability to visit her hometown.
“I’m a feminist and I have no problem saying that. So when I [watched the interview], I was furious and so angry. It was extremely disappointing, but strangely I still look up to [Nasrallah], almost as if he is a father figure.”
Ayoub spoke about the close trust and bond she had formed with the political leader based on family opinions and televised interviews. While she described him as “eloquent” and “wise,” the American University of Beirut student also noted her conflicting opinions. Socially, she said, she leaned toward the left. A champion of civil marriages, LGBTQ rights, anti-sectarianism, Ayoub does not fit the mold of the “traditional” Hezbollah follower.
“In my mind, I would call myself a supporter but I guess on paper I would not. This dichotomy of feeling, like I need to owe him something, is something I’ve struggled with my whole life, but I enjoy this struggle ... It’s a part of who I am.”