BEIRUT: “I have been through so many confrontations in my life, on different levels. Because of those experiences, I don’t get intimidated easily, especially not by the idea of entering a male-dominated space,” Joumana Haddad said, speaking about her candidacy in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “Being part of the political scene is our right and responsibility as Lebanese women.”
The 46-year-old Beirut native – writer, activist and self-professed troublemaker – boasts a long list of accomplishments made in the course of a diverse career. In 2008, Haddad founded the Arabic quarterly magazine “Jasad” (“Body”). The controversial publication addressed women’s issues from various angles and opened a space for candid conversations about the female body.
Haddad has criticized the Lebanese state from her many posts in the academic and literary worlds, but she said she feels it is now time to step down from the ivory tower and pursue change from within.
“About three years ago, one of my sons left for London. When he made his decision to leave, he asked me, ‘Why would I stay in Lebanon?’ His remark forced me to relive all my own disappointments and struggles that I faced [here],” she told The Daily Star in a recent interview.
“But if you want to make a change, your credibility requires that you stay and fight from within the country. This is much more efficient and brave than criticizing and pointing your finger while living a comfortable life outside.”
Out of Lebanon’s 128 seats in Parliament, only four are held by women – three of whom hail from political dynasties. Haddad, whose family has no history in politics, is steadfast in her mission both as a female candidate and as an independent.
“Independent doesn’t mean being alone. It means preserving your freedom of thought while cooperating and working with others,” she said. “I will not be joining any party. This is not something that I am inclined to do. We need more independent voices in Lebanese political life. Hopefully at a later stage there will be a convincing coalition of all the independent groups and individuals.”
Success in Lebanese elections largely depends on a candidate’s affiliation with one of the six relevant political parties, many of which originated as militias during the Civil War. In the current Parliament, there are only 11 independent MPs.
Haddad showed no sign of apprehension over her chances. Her undeterred optimism and polished presentation give no intimation of the countless threats of rape, death and – in one instance – acid attack that she has received throughout a career of fearless feminism and outspoken criticism of the state.
Faced with the irony of the situation – that she may join hands with those who have disapproved of her work and values – the candidate shrugged. A space to debate such differences in opinion is necessary for Lebanon’s future, she said.
“I have convictions that I believe many Lebanese have. On the other side, it’s totally normal to have people [who] think otherwise,” she said. “Lebanese society is diverse. People have different opinions and they’re fervent about them. At the same time, we all deserve the right to exist and to be represented.
“I believe that if we start to accept our differences and see them as a source of enrichment rather than conflict and division, we would all gain and contribute in making this country the Lebanon that we want and deserve.”
Haddad considers her campaign unorthodox for countless reasons. Nontraditional strategies are crucial to secure votes, she said.
She names “unmotivated voters” as one demographic bloc she is intent on targeting.
“I know that a lot of Lebanese do not vote, and I’m counting on them as much as I’m counting on women and youth. I’m counting on those who are not voting because they feel that their voices won’t matter, because they do,” she said. “Voting is not a choice, it’s a duty. You should, you must, vote. You must participate because this is how to start change.”
The elections, originally scheduled for May and now delayed until beyond June due to political deadlock on the nature of the electoral law, will be the first in eight years. For many young adults, it will be their first opportunity to vote. For Haddad, these first-time voters are another crucial demographic.
“Lebanese people are ready for change right now. There is a feeling of being fed up with the state of things. Many young people are going through this loss of purpose and feel like there is no horizon for them in the country,” she said. “This is a new war that I’m trying to win.”
Haddad is in the midst of finalizing a seven-point program of priorities, which will include “practical,” “specific” tasks. Half of the projects are developmental, while the others focus on legal reform.
But the candidate is also casting an eye to broader issues.
“We need to retrain our conscience to become better citizens, better human beings. Corruption is not just about what’s happening in the Parliament or government. It’s about how we look at life, how we treat each other.”
Working on a civil law for personal affairs would be a top priority, were Haddad to become an MP. This would diminish the influence of religion “so people feel a real sense of citizenship and united rather than being just a member of their sect.”
Haddad made it clear she understood the challenges in creating lasting change, but was undaunted.
“I don’t believe in overnight change. It’s a buildup; we will need a lot of time but we need to start somewhere, rather than wait for change. Change does not ‘happen.’ It is made.”