The ‘struggle goes on’ for Lebanese women’s rights pioneer
Beirut - Activism and engagement have no age limit, especially when people are fighting for their rights. This motto has kept Linda Matar, a pioneer of Lebanese women’s rights, going for 62 years.
At 90, the grey-haired woman with three children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren still champions gender equality for Lebanese and Arab women. “A lot of progress in women’s rights and emancipation has been made but not all rights have been achieved towards equality with men,” Matar insists.
“Struggle continues. We still have a lot to do.”
Matar was 28 when she took the issue of women’s rights upon herself and started lobbying to amend laws that discriminate against women. The driving force behind her activism has always been an inherent part of her but an incident in 1952 was a trigger.
It was Election Day and Matar was at home on her balcony, watching men streaming towards a nearby polling station. “A big car pulled over next to my building to give my neighbour a ride to the station. He was a mentally and physically impaired young man,” Matar recalled in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“He was given a paper to drop in the ballot box. It was a kind of vote-rigging that simply infuriated me. Although I was fully normal and had all my mental and physical capacities, I could not vote because I am a female.”
It was a matter of weeks after that incident that Matar joined the ranks of Lebanese suffragettes. As a member of the Lebanese League for Women’s Rights, which she later presided over for 30 years, Matar promoted a petition that called for women’s right to vote and run for public office.
Women’s suffrage was obtained later in 1952 and fully enacted the following year, making Lebanese women among the first in the Arab world to win that right.
It was an uneasy struggle to raise awareness among women themselves at the time, Matar recalled. “One lady told me once ‘Why do I need voting rights? I have jewellery, this is my car key and the maids are at home. What do we need more?’ That made me even more determined to fight for our rights,” she said.
Although women have fared reasonably since then, a core objective is yet to be attained — rectifying the woefully low percentage of women in parliament.
“We want women to participate effectively in public life, notably in the legislation and enactment of laws. If certain discriminatory laws still exist nowadays, it is because women are not engaged properly,” said Matar, who ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1996 and 2000.
“Women should constitute at least 30% of members of parliament and not only a cosmetic representation of one or two,” she said, arguing that a female quota in parliament is necessary “until the culture of women’s participation in public affairs becomes inherent in the society, including among women themselves”.
She maintained that women make better legislators than men, saying: “They basically fight for their nation, their society, their family and their children more than they seek personal gains (like men do).”
Women have been largely excluded from active participation in Lebanon’s political life. Lebanon is last in the Middle East in terms of parliamentary representation by women. Just four women currently sit in 128-member parliament and only one cabinet minister is a woman.
Matar had to leave school when she was 12 years old to work in a silk factory, an experience that opened her eyes to the injustices of Lebanese society, especially towards female workers.
“Women have gone a long way since that time,” she said. “They have asserted themselves and their role as an effective member of the society. They have become more aware and involved in public and national matters, and achieved strides in education, cultural, social and economic fields, but not all rights are acquired.”
Discriminatory provisions remain in the nationality law and penal code and sectarian control over personal status law — reinforced by patriarchal social norms — generally puts women at a disadvantage. Lebanon’s many women’s rights organisations have lobbied vigorously for legislative improvements and the government has taken steps to upgrade women’s legal status but major reforms have failed to win parliamentary approval.
Lebanon has 15 personal status laws for its recognised religions but no civil code covering issues such as divorce, property rights or care of children. These laws are administered by autonomous religious courts with little government oversight and often issue rulings that violate women’s rights.
Also, under the nationality law, Lebanese women are not entitled to pass their nationality to their foreign spouses and their children as men are.
Decorated by two presidents of the republic and voted as one of the 100 Women Who are Moving the World by the French magazine Marie Claire, Matar says women still have to fight to become equal citizens.
“Struggle should continue in order to achieve equality,” she said, vowing to keep up activism “as long as I can physically but the most important thing is that I keep all my mental faculties”.