BEIRUT: Jean Ogasapian, the caretaker minister of state for women’s affairs, thinks it was a plus for a man to head his office.
While many people in Lebanon initially responded to his appointment with a mixture of anger and mockery, he said most women’s groups he has worked with have “found that the presence of a man is positive, because one of the obstacles stopping us from reaching complete equality is the lack of men playing a role in this fight.”
In a recent, wide-ranging interview with The Daily Star, Ogasapian said he had promoted women’s rights to new heights but that he is not a feminist.
“Rather than being a feminist, [I identify] more as a humanist, because I believe in complete equality between people and a potential and capacity that has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. Life is not black and white to me.”
“I became convinced that women’s issues are not tied to women only. They are a social question for everyone,” he said.
But, he added, in the next government the ministry would be “headed by a woman,” though he declined to say who.
Ogasapian admits he had been unaware of many of the issues women face when he took the job, but he looks back at the experience as “one of the most important in my life.”
“I got to know Lebanese society and the realities of what women are capable of, and I believe in what I am doing,” he said. “We gave a civilized image to Lebanon.
“If anyone tried to do something to this ministry today ... what image of this country would you be giving the world?”
THE UNDP ‘MINISTRY’
Like all the other state “ministries,” the body Ogasapian heads is more an office than an actual ministry literally, as it comprises just a few rooms in a building, and also in the sense that it does not have most of the same powers.
Ogasapian even said that the office, which was created in 2016, had to be “smuggled” by him into existence, as he knew many ministers would treat it with indifference or opposition.
“For it to gain confidence, I had to smuggle this ministry through.
“I knew that you can’t easily create a ministry, so we made it tied to a UNDP program: We made a working plan, went to Cabinet with it, I put a 40-50 page file on the table and it passed just like that,” he said, laughing.
Tying it to the United Nations’ development wing had been a good thing, he added, because of their high standards. “Within three months, we had a great website, a team of people to negotiate with the World Bank and some loans and grants we needed for projects,” he said.
ACHIEVEMENTS: LAWS AND ADVOCACY
When reflecting on his achievements as minister, Ogasapian touted his work in establishing the office using a small budget by swiftly “placing a strategy, a road map, staffing it and at the same time gaining the confidence of the international community.”
He said his work’s success was reflected in a number of projects funded by the U.N., the European Union and the World Bank.
But, he clarified, “We didn’t start from zero,” thanks to the hard work of civil society groups and women’s organizations.
“We arrived to find a full basket of proposals and laws and projects, and archives of the issues and the crimes happening,” he said. “This was all civil society.”
According to Ogasapian, the main achievement during his tenure has been building “momentum” on women’s issues. “This is the issue of the hour, and you can feel in the last year and a half that it became more popular and visible.”
He made it a main axis of all conversations, he said, by having his representatives join steering committees at many ministries, and by introducing the idea of a “gender impact assessment” for any project or law.
He said he had participated in the repeal of Law 522, known as the “Marry Your Rapist Law,” which exonerated a rapist who married his or her victim, and had proposed a raft of proposals to Cabinet three of which have been endorsed including a law criminalizing the harassment of women.
There were also some important things to come down the line: “In the pipeline, we have a study on the effect of the economy on violence against women, and the formation of an observatory for women’s affairs, which is already funded,” he said.
ARE RELIGION, CULTURE LIMITING WOMEN’S RIGHTS?
In Lebanon, Ogasapian said, religion was not “delaying” the achievement of equality between men and women, but it has set criteria that favor men, which requires a long-term shift in culture to be remedied.
Currently, civil marriage does not exist in Lebanon, and so personal status issues such as marriage, divorce and child custody are administered by more than a dozen religious regimes, depending on an individual’s religious sect.
Ogasapian said that this system “favors men in some issues,” and that he supported civil marriage.
But, he added, “I don’t see the role of religious authorities being canceled soon - I don’t think the situation allows for that.”
“How do I convince a man that he can’t just decide he’s divorced, and then be divorced instantly? Or that a kid who’s 2 years old should remain with the mother, because he may still be [breastfeeding]? You need many steps.”
“We are in a transition period. You can’t change the principles of social life from one day to the next.
“The first step is for religious authorities to set standards enshrining the rights of women.”
As an example, he said that because the minimum age for marriage in Lebanon is the prerogative of respective religious regimes, passing legislation codifying that minimum age “would be difficult via Parliament.”
Ogasapian also noted that the refugee influx resulting from the war in neighboring Syria had resulted in an increase in child marriage and violence against women, partially due to the traditions among some of those entering.
But when asked whether or not his office had supported Syrian women, Ogasapian replied that it had not.
“I’m not saying it’s not our role, but we didn’t have budget provisions to do that kind of action,” the caretaker minister claimed.
WHO DOES BEST ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS?
While Ogasapian declined to say which party had the best record on women’s rights issues, he said that his party, the Future Movement, “is one of the parties that promotes the issue we have three of the six female MPs [in Parliament]” Bahia Hariri, Rola Tabsh Jaroudi and Dima Jamali.
He claimed that all parties and sects supported a prominent role for women in society, but said that some “do not see a role for women in the places of political decision.”
This includes Hezbollah, which announced just that in the lead-up to the May elections.
Could the ministry be headed by a member of Hezbollah? According to Ogasapian: “My daughter sometimes tells me, ‘If someone asks me a question, I don’t want to answer, I behave as if I didn’t hear it.’”