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A Woman Politician Seeks Her Own Way in Lebanon

Across the Arab world women are playing a more prominent role in politics. Recently Kuwait, one of the more conservative Gulf States, granted women the right to vote. Of the 32 cabinet ministers in Iraq, six are women. In Egypt, several women candidates are running for parliament.

VOA's Jeff Swicord profiles one woman who has been a member of the Lebanese parliament for five years, and takes a look at the role of women in one of the more progressive countries in the Middle East.

A religious gathering in East Beirut. As is customary the men and women sit separately. Except for Ghinwa Jalloul, one of only three women members of parliament who are running for re-election. She says, "I love my country so much and I want to serve my country, and as I said I used to be an advisor and consultant in many areas and I believe that information and communications technologies can do a lot for this country."

Traditionally women have participated in Lebanese politics through family affiliation. Candidates were the daughters or widows of former members of parliament. Others have tried to get elected independently but Ghinwa Jalloul is the only one who has succeeded.

After the Lebanese civil war, she had the dream of becoming a member of parliament and helping her country rebuild. So, with a background in information technology she made an appointment to see one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Lebanon. Describing the conversation, "It was sometime I believe in February 2000, that was the first time I met Rafik Hariri. I went to his office and I introduced myself. He asked me what I wanted? I said, 'I want to run for the parliament and I want to be on your list.' "

She later learned that Rafik Hariri, who at the time was between stints [terms of office] as prime minister, thought she was just looking for a better job. But, he asked around and found that Ghinwa was well-known and respected in Beirut.

In Lebanon candidates don't run on issues but on lists or blocs of candidates divided along sectarian lines.

Rafik Hariri then took what Ghinwa describes as a bold move and asked a woman to be on his list. Ghinwa says, "This was a big change and women and men gave me equal votes. To the contrary women were very happy. And very enthusiastic supporters for me. And also men accepted for them to be represented by a woman."

On a typical day, Ghinwa will make four or five campaign stops, like this one at an organization for the disabled. The issues for the Hariri list this election are first, winning control of parliament so that real change can be brought about, and second, to reform the public sector in the post-Syrian occupation era. "And we hope that we will be able to give people back the confidence in us in the system. I mean also for the Arab people to come back and believe that Lebanon is a second home for them. And for the Western community also to come back to us," says Ms. Jalloul.

She has championed women's participation in politics throughout the Middle East. Four years ago, she became the first women politician to visit the speaker of the Kuwaiti parliament, and she lobbied for the right of Kuwaiti women to vote.

Of the change in attitude about women she says, "Well, it took four years because the Prince of Kuwait wants that but the parliament was against it. Now lately, like a few weeks ago, they voted to allow a woman to vote in Kuwait."

The Hariri list is expected to win by a wide margin in Beirut. And Ghinwa says she expects two other women candidates will win seats in other parts of the country. That will bring the total to five women out of 129 seats in the parliament.