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The Changing Role of Women in Lebanon

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 and Craig Fitzpatrick were recently in Beirut, and talked with several women about their goals and the obstacles to achieving them.

When Sarah Beydoun designs one of her purses, she draws inspiration from everything she sees around her, from the traditional beading and crocheting of the Lebanese mountain people, to all kinds of flowers and even the comic strips found in newspapers. No two purses are alike -- each is a work of art.

Sarah says, "Even if you tried to make them alike, they can't be alike; it's very hard." And sometimes it's very hard for women like Sarah to start a business and become self-sufficient in a largely Muslim society.

But luckily for her, Lebanon is one of the few countries in the Middle East not ruled by Islamic law, so Christian, and even some Muslim women, have a lot more freedom here. And the business environment in Beirut is beginning to improve after a 15-year civil war left the city in ruins.

Sarah started this business almost by accident. She was working as a counselor in a women's prison, when the prison administration asked her to start a program to give the prisoners something to do. So she designed some handbags and had the women prisoners do the embroidery work.

The bags were a big hit -- so much so, that she quit her job and opened this store. Although her handbags are sold to wealthy women, she is now giving poor women a chance to earn extra money and raise their self-esteem.

"A lot of these women who finished their sentences in prison still work with me. They come to the workshop, they take their work from here and they give them to their neighbors and the family,” she said. And these women are glad to have the work, but like many women around the world who are poor and uneducated, it's hard for them to break out of their circumstances and seek a better life.

Sarah adds, "It depends on the status of the woman, on the economical status. If she comes from a poor environment, there's a lot of restrictions. Other than the poverty it's the mentality. Men don't want their women to be exposed to everybody."

That patriarchal mind-set permeated the household of Mona Khalaf, when as a young college student, she found her first job. She recalls, "One of my history professors asked me to be his research assistant, and I came home jumping for joy and here was my mother and my aunt sitting there. And, I said, 'Look I've been offered a job!' And so my aunt said, 'There's an Arabic expression: 'May God keep your father above your head.' In our family women don't work.' "

Professor Khalaf now directs the Women's Studies Program at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut. She says in the western world, women usually become financially and socially independent by getting a good education, but she says, that doesn't seem to work in the Middle East.

She's also disheartened by the current generation of Lebanese women, who she says, aren't pushing hard enough to get into leadership positions. She says this is partly due to nepotism. "The political system is based on a family kind of system. If your father was a deputy you inherited his post. If he doesn't have any son, maybe the nephew would take over. It's only in very rare cases where women replace men in positions like this," she said.

One of those rare cases is that of parliamentarian Nayla Moawad, who entered the political arena after her husband was assassinated in 1989, only 17 days after being elected president. Nayla says, "I can tell you I've received so much encouragement, from people, from the Arab world, saying that it's our dream, and it's so important for our image to have a woman as a president, and there is nowhere except in Lebanon where a woman could become a president."

That may happen someday in a country where half the college graduates are women, with high ambitions. And some women say that global economic pressures are making it harder for families to survive on just one salary alone, and that, they say, is quickly opening the way for more women to enter the workplace.