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Lebanese Women Seek Greater Role


The United Nations Arab Development Report says a weakness in Arab society is the lack of empowerment for women. Lebanese women are actively trying to improve their situation and gain a stronger voice, both in the legislature and the workplace. Correspondent Laurie Kassman was recently in Beirut, and talked with several women about their goals and the obstacles to achieving them.

"I don't think it's not a question of how much power they have, it's also a question of how much power they would like to have, because I feel, unless women themselves are going to be pushing for their cause, nobody can do it for them," says Mona Khalaf.

She directs the Women's Studies Program at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut. She sees Lebanese women at the forefront of the regional effort to empower women. But she says there is still a long way to go.

"In Lebanon, half the university graduates are women," she adds. "Yet, we have only three women in parliament out of 128 MPs. We never had a woman minister in Lebanon, which is very strange, given the level of education and image we give to the rest of the world as the more liberated Arab women, dressing differently, going to universities, going abroad on our own."

Nayla Moawad is one of the three women in Lebanon's parliament. She entered the political arena after her husband was assassinated in 1989, only 17 days after being elected president.

"I always say I went to parliament in a black suit, because it was after my husband's assassination," she recalls. "But still, I was paving the way, being a woman, and the first woman after 28 years after the first-ever woman in parliament."

A recent United Nations Arab Development report cites the minimal role of women in Arab public life as one of three key deficits in the region, along with freedom and knowledge. The report indicates that Arab women legislators account for less than four percent of the total number of legislators, a much lower percentage than in other areas of the world.

Ms. Khalaf says a lot of the problem has to do with stereotypes. She remembers the reaction when she found her first job.

"One of my history professors asked me to be his research assistant, and I came home, and here was my mother and aunt," says Ms. Khalaf. "And, I said, 'look I've been offered a job.' And my aunt said, 'There's an Arabic expression, may God keep your father above your head.' In our family women don't work."

For some women, work outside the home may not be possible. Social worker Rahab Sadr runs the El Sadr Foundation in the southern city of Tyre to help women in southern Lebanon,inculding many who have been widowed by the civil war and cannot leave their children at home while they seek work outside. She speaks through an interpreter.

"The reason why we do this is because their husbands have become martyrs, or died due to Israeli aggression," adds. Ms. Sadr. "So, now, they have to take on the role of the father, brother or the male role of breadwinner. So, we prepare women to take on this role."

The Sadr foundation was set up in 1962, and provides schooling and job training for more than 1200 young women at the institute. Teams provide counseling for women in their homes, too.

Building self-esteem is also a motivation behind handbag designer Sarah Beydoun's Beirut retail operation. The social worker-turned-designer used to counsel ex-prostitutes and abused women. She decided to combine her skills, and train women in prison how to help her embroider elaborate bags for sale.

"So when she's [a woman] out of the prison, instead of everybody pointing at her, and she's out and no use, she started teaching other women, and started bringing back money to this village, giving them a lot of power and self-esteem," explains Ms. Beydoun. "And in front of the whole village that looked down upon her, when she brings money to the village, it's something else."

Many Lebanese women attribute their progress in part to Lebanon's more secular political system and progressive social attitudes that do not see women as tradition-bound to stay quiet and out of sight.

Also, they point out that global economic pressures make it harder for families in Lebanon and across the region to depend on one salary alone. And that, they say, is quickly opening the way for more women to enter the workplace.

Video reportage by Craig Fitzpatrick

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