The man in charge of Lebanese women’s affairs speaks out

Sunday 29/01/2017
Lebanon’s Minister of Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian. (AFP)

Beirut - The appointment of a man to head Lebanon’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been greeted with sarcasm and criticism, but former army colonel Jean Ogasapian said women’s rights were as much a matter for men.

“Women’s issues are not a concern for women only but are a concern for the whole society. It is important to include men in achieving equal gender rights. Men should get involved in the struggle for equitable gender rights as much as women,” Ogasapian told The Arab Weekly in an interview.

Ogasapian, from Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s centre-right Future Movement party, is still new to his job. His big office was mostly empty, except for the main desk and a seating area to the side. Boxes and files were stacked in one corner under a photo of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, next to a large national flag.

Strong interest and greater focus by international organisations, including the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other donors in women’s empowerment are among key reasons for creating the new portfolio.

“The prime minister also reckoned that there should be a ministry to follow up on women’s affairs because it is a matter in which he is keen on having a positive input,” Ogasapian said.

He explained that improving women’s status in the Arab world, especially in times of conflicts and refugee crises, is a tool for fighting terrorism.

“Educating women, improving their conditions and giving them an effective role in society helps in combating poverty and ignorance and consequently in combating extremism that could eventually lead to terrorism,” he said.

Ogasapian said Lebanon needs a ministry to look after women’s issues for a transitional period, until the patriarchal mentality of the society starts to change.

“In Lebanon, women’s associations are old and have a long history in the struggle to achieve equal gender rights but we need to accomplish equality not only in the texts but also in the minds.”

Lebanon generally fares well in terms of human rights protection and women enjoy greater autonomy than in many nearby countries, but they are still woefully under-represented in politics. Notably, there are only four women serving in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament — meaning less than 4% of elected seats go to women, a low figure even in the Middle East. Only one member of the new cabinet is a woman: Inaya Ezzeddine, state minister for Administrative Development Affairs.

Sexism is entrenched in Lebanese law, although the country is becoming increasingly liberal. For instance, marriage and divorce laws in Lebanon heavily favour men.

“Today, Lebanese women have big capacities, education and skills and have succeeded in imposing themselves in the private sector and in different professions, including the judiciary, medical, business and even information technology. Their potentials are big. Nonetheless, they are not able to reach leading public and political positions,” Ogasapian noted.

“The problem is in the culture and in the patriarchal mentality of the society.”

Hariri’s government is expected to implement an electoral law before parliamentary elections scheduled for May that may include a quota for women.

“We are aiming for a 30% female quota and hope in any case to have no less than 20% of parliament seats. However, it should be a provisional measure,” Ogasapian said.

Drawing a comparison between gender equality in Lebanon and Tunisia, which enshrined women’s legal rights as early as the 1950s, Ogasapian said: “In Tunisia, the laws gave women a significant role, whereas in Lebanon and because of the social structure, women have advanced and now play an important role in society, especially at the professional level.”

Challenges awaiting Ogasapian are big and the list of issues under scrutiny is long. Feminist movements have been pressing for Lebanese women’s right to give their nationality to children with non-Lebanese fathers and for the amendment of Article 522 in the Lebanese Penal Code, which allows rapists to get away with their crime if they marry the woman they raped.

“We are seeking the complete elimination of Article 522 but women’s nationality right is a complicated issue, many women are against it because it pertains to the country’s demographic structure. Christians consider this subject an existential matter. It will create discrepancies in the confessional balance,” the minister noted.

Officials argue that such a right would allow Palestinian refugees as well as Syrians, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, to gain Lebanese nationality if they marry Lebanese women, thus upsetting the delicate sectarian balance.

“We will raise the voice and carry women’s cause at home and abroad. Political leaders are becoming more receptive to women’s issues. It is my cause now, so let’s hope for the better,” Ogasapian said.