The Women of Thawra: Feminism and the Lebanese Revolution

Lebanon's revolutionary turmoil has opened up national possibilities beyond sectarianism. The fight for women's freedom is central to building trans-sectarian unity and a new beginning for Lebanon.

A popular icon came to the fore just days into the ongoing Lebanese revolution. Malak Alawiye was caught on video kicking an armed guard who threatened to shoot protesters surrounding a government minister’s convoy. Malak’s bold act quickly went viral, becoming a meme and a source for activist art. She later celebrated her wedding among the protesters at the site of the kick, a nod to the festive atmosphere of the early days of civil unrest. The striking image represents the fight that the Lebanese people, and particularly Lebanese women, are waging to overhaul the corrupt political system that has ignored its citizens’ welfare for too long.

The protests began in October 2019 as a people’s revolt against rampant corruption and greed by the political class. It was also a response to  a rapidly escalating economic crisis. Lebanese of all religious and socio-economic backgrounds have taken to the streets in droves to demand the resignation of all government officials and the formation of a non-sectarian political system. The rallying chant was clear: “All of them means all of them.” Even more striking has been the immense role women have played in organizing and participating in the protests. Long treated as second-class citizens, women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations against the government, and in the process have brought attention to their own plight in the patriarchal society that has prevented gender equality in all aspects of life.

Compared to some other Arab countries, Lebanon has seen some progress in addressing and progressing women’s rights. However, gender inequality is still rampant and major changes in the state and society are needed to ensure women are afforded the same rights and privileges as men. A continued push towards building a stronger feminist movement is necessary to see this come to fruition. The emergence of civil unrest in Lebanon has provided women and their allies the ideal opportunity to shed light on the injustices they face in the country. Women should continue to incorporate feminist issues into the larger discussions around anti-government change and should emphasize that building a powerful working-class movement must include the advancement of women’s rights.

A Sectarian Balance?

Lebanon gained independence in 1943 after 23 years of French colonial rule. The history of colonialist manipulation of the country’s sectarian divisions long predates independence. It stretches back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, as well as French attempts to counter calls for national sovereignty in the years after World War I. The current arrangements which divide Lebanese citizens into 18 state-recognized religious sects are based on the 1943 National Pact, a compromise between Christian and Muslim elites, and the Taif Agreement of 1989, which brought an end to the ruinous 15-year civil war. The system was hailed for disbanding sectarian militias, but the patronage system it created has engendered sectarian loyalties that further divide the population along confessional lines.

This system has also created a barrier to the advancement of women’s rights. The lack of a unified legal system has meant gender affairs have been relegated to each sectarian group, creating unequal treatment of women based on their religious identity. Although there have been distinct waves of feminist movements in Lebanon, progress has been stymied by the patriarchal system that still severely discriminates against women in education, the workplace, and in society. Differential treatment based on religious affiliation has also been a roadblock to the formation of a united feminist movement. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the gap between men and women across education, health, politics, and economy, has ranked Lebanon 145 out of 153 in measuring gender equality in the country. Only three percent of the elected parliament are women. Personal status laws under recognized religious authorities are the baseline for a legal system and have further exacerbated gender inequality. Divorce and child custody cases overwhelmingly favor men and the varying laws based on religious sects create gender disparity. Laws that address domestic violence, sexual assault, and harassment also represent areas where victims rarely see justice.

One of the most visible issues around women’s social circumstances in the country is a law that prohibits Lebanese women from passing on their nationality to their spouses and children. The most common argument made in favor of this discriminatory law is that granting citizenship to “mixed” families would unsettle the delicate sectarian balance. This raises discriminatory hurdles to legal residency and barriers to accessing work, education, and services in the country. The law, only slightly modified since its adoption in the 1920s, has been at the core of the conversation around how the country’s patriarchal structure controls and severely limits the rights of Lebanese women. The latest proposed amendment to the law would provide nationality rights to Lebanese women and their children, but would still exclude women who are married to Palestinian refugees, who represent a significant demographic of the population residing in Lebanon. Overall, women have been more than short served within the legal system.

The Buildup to Thawra 

The civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990 took a heavy toll on Lebanon. In an effort to rebuild in the aftermath of the war, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri borrowed heavily to invest in reconstruction, particularly in the old commercial district in Beirut. However, his assassination in 2005 left Lebanon with significant debt, contributing to the economic crisis experienced today. The projects spearheaded by Hariri’s investments were also criticized for catering to the elites, and failing to provide public spaces and parks for the working class. Downtown Beirut is today dominated by unaffordable boutiques and fashion houses that are inaccessible to the majority of Lebanese. Meanwhile, a worsening economic crisis, frequent electricity shutoffs, an ongoing garbage crisis and poor infrastructure have been the daily reality for working-class Lebanese. Last October wildfires that spread across the country, mostly engulfing regions in Mount Lebanon, creating further strain on those impacted by the fires. Aircraft with the ability to fight the blazes sat unused at the airport, inactive due to lack of maintenance, as the government haphazardly responded to the disaster. This level of inefficiency and unpreparedness came as no surprise to Lebanese long used to the failings of the government.

Shortly after the wildfires, the government proposed new taxes on calls made through services like WhatsApp, which many Lebanese use to avoid the high costs of local text messaging and cellular services, as well as taxes on tobacco and gasoline. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tired of seeing their tax dollars fill the pockets of politicians without any improvement to their lives, working-class people flooded the streets in the first night of civil unrest. Although the government quickly withdrew the taxes in response, the thawra  (“revolution” in Arabic) had already begun. The key demands of the thawra have been demanding accountability from corrupt politics, a dismantling of the sectarian system and a solution to the crippling economic crisis.

Women of Thawra

While the focus of the thawra has been dismantling the political system and demanding a solution to the economic crisis, women have successfully embedded women’s rights issues into the rebellion. Their multifaceted participation has marked their contribution to building a powerful and broadly-based movement in Lebanon.

Women protesters have taken on many roles since the beginning of the civil unrest. Three of the most prominent ways they have participated include providing food and donations to protesters, mobilizing women and allies in women-led protests, and using their bodies and voices to protect protesters when faced with threats of violence from the police and army.

The thawra has been more than just a protest against the government. It has served as a vehicle to bring together the Lebanese who wish to rebuild community spaces for all and not only the privileged few, so they can live a dignified life and feel pride in themselves and their country. Assembling for communal meals in public spaces has been the bedrock for uniting members of different communities. While epicenters of the revolution exist across the country, one stronghold has been Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. Named for the Lebanese martyrs executed by Ottoman rulers in the 1930s, this area divided East and West Beirut during the civil war and now is a central spot for protesters to gather. Another gathering point in downtown Beirut is the famed theatre nicknamed “the Egg” for its unique architecture and oblong shape. Left destroyed and blocked off to public use for decades, it has now become a monument for all to explore and occupy in defiance of the state. The reclaiming of public space is an inherently feminist issue. These spaces have been equally occupied by men, women and children, young and old, and no one has been prevented from gathering.

With protesters out in the streets day and night, food vendors have found an opportunity to feed the masses at the center of the protests. These vendors, particularly young men, have flocked to spaces of protest that temporarily provide them with much-needed employment for selling their goods. Women have also taken to the kitchen. Cooking and distributing meals has helped women who may be caring for families or unable to be present in the streets at all times to participate nevertheless.

The Lebanese diaspora – larger than the number of Lebanese actually residing in Lebanon and estimated to be around 15 million – has also been a major force in supporting the protests. While some Lebanese residing in neighboring Arab countries or spread across Europe have flown back to participate in the protests, others have organized demonstrations in their countries of residence. Solidarity actions spanning the globe from London to Brazil to Canada has brought additional visibility to the plight of the Lebanese and forced the international community to acknowledge the issue. Life outside their country of origin has been difficult for many, and participating in protests in their countries of residence has allowed them to reconnect with their Lebanese comrades and show solidarity.

Beyond providing food and support to protesters, women have also used the momentum of the revolution to air their own grievances with the current political system. In December, women organized a protest against sexual harassment and assault, with women and their allies marching in Beirut, calling to a widespread yet often unaddressed issue in the country. Also at the forefront of the march was the issue of passing citizenship on to spouses and children. Attended by more than 1,000 people, the march provided a space for women to share their experiences without fear of repercussions. Using the energy of the revolution and protesting during a time when the potential for positive change is possible provides women with the momentum to demand better representation and rights in the future.

Other women-led events include candlelight vigils. One of the first vigils was a response to violence in downtown Beirut by the Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah and Amal groups, who destroyed camps and threatened protesters, as well as the shooting of a protester by a soldier in late October. In response, the feminist activists Mariana Wehbe and Sara Beydoun organized the Nour Al-Thawra (light of the revolution) in Martyr’s Square. Candles lit up the square to mourn the loss of life and pray for the protection of protesters. Providing a space for healing has further created a sense of community among protesters and strengthened a movement that holds power in the unity of its participants.

Another feminist issue that cannot be overlooked and that has gained traction in the revolution has been the discussion around LGBTQ rights in Lebanon. The majority of the population is still wary of homosexuality, and homosexuality can be punished by up to a year in prison. But discussions around anti-queer discrimination is slowly entering the mainstream. A growing pro-LGBTQ movement has been active in organizing rallies and sit-ins in defiance of the homophobic law, but the revolution provides yet another opportunity to bring this issue into the spotlight. The revolution has created a political opening to put the issue ofLGBTQ rights on the country’s political agenda.

Women have also been instrumental in de-escalating tensions and preventing violence against and among protesters. Many women, as well as men, do not want to see another devastating civil war, and since the beginning of the civil unrest they have been willing to put their differences aside to move towards a common goal: dismantling the system that has driven the country into the ground. The delicate relationships between the many groups represented in Lebanon have been and will continue to be tested as the conflict continues and evolves. Women have facilitated conversations among groups to emphasize the need for unity against the government.

On the first day of the protests, a 67-year old woman drove to parliament and faced down the army guards that were blocking the way. A video of her speaking with one of the guards went viral, as she reminded him that he too was being robbed and starved by the government, and that she and others were not going to back down. The interaction remained friendly, as the guard allowed her to kiss him on the forehead. Much of the positivity of the interaction was due to her age and gender, and the respect afforded to the elderly in Lebanon. If a young man had approached the guard in a similar act of defiance, things likely would have gone differently. The army would not hurt an elderly woman, and that allowed the plea and connection with the guard to occur.

Beyond simply engaging in conversation with adversaries, women have positioned themselves in the frontlines when faced by police or army forces. When police have threatened protesters on the streets with threats of violence, women have stepped forward, putting their bodies between law enforcement and protesters, knowing well that the men would not hurt them. This tactic has been proven successful in mitigating violence and keeping interactions relatively peaceful.

Four Months In 

The brief lull in the thawra that occurred between the end of November 2019 and the beginning of January 2020 was not long-lasting. In a renewed call to action, protesters have made it clear that the revolution is not dying down any time soon. Although the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in late October 2019, the underwhelming response from the political elite has not been enough to placate the demands for an overhaul of the system. Since the beginning of the unrest, the economic crisis has only worsened. Banks have set caps on dollar withdrawals leaving many unable to get cash out of their accounts. Growing frustration with the deepening economic crisis has recently led to protesters to vandalize and destroy banks in Beirut in anger and frustration. The “week of anger” that began in mid-January has escalated the scale of violence against protesters, as the city becomes a battleground and the risk of injury or death increases.

With the revolution entering a more confrontational phase, women’s participation in the protests will be critical. Malak Alawiye’s kick showed that women were capable of fighting back in the thawra, so it may be no surprise that women will be ready to take on this new phase of the revolution. As critical players in building and maintaining this historical movement, women will continue to ensure its survival and ensure women’s rights continue to be a part of its demands. The voices of women and LGBTQ-identified people deserve to be heard. While the Lebanese continue to struggle against the government and do what they can to end the economic crisis, tensions and violence will be inevitable. The revolutionary turmoil that Lebanon is experiencing has opened new imaginations for the nation beyond sectarian limits. A trans-sectarian unity will be key to sustaining the energy needed to continue the fight for a new beginning. The fight for women’s rights will be a key aspect of such a fight.