A New Feminist Wave in Lebanon or the Path to Democratization

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh

The study of Feminist/Women’s movements not only contributes to our understanding of women’s experiences of political and social change, but also helps to bridge the gaps between local activism and feminist theory. Feminist claims and organizations in Lebanon and most Western Asian countries are not new, and credit for the growth of new Feminisms must go to its pioneers, the women who first came to see their inferior status in society and to understand that such inferiority was not a divinely ordained fate that they were obliged to accept.

I have recently published a book in Arabic on women’s status, experiences and situations in Ancient Western Asia (‘Womanhood in Western Asia, A Journey to the Past’, Beirut, Dar el Machreq, 2013), proving the long-existence of Patriarchal systems and mentality, but also, gender equality ‘spaces’ within ancient cultures and religions. Still, feminisms as social-political movements arose at the end of the nineteenth century, coinciding with that of the reformist movement. What those pioneering women achieved was not negligible, even if they focused on charitable work – except for Egypt with its Women’s Educational Society founded in 1881, and the Instructive Women’s Union in 1910, raising public awareness of women’s rights as a key objective. A second wave could be identified during the 1940s, a period marked by the resistance of Arab societies under imperialism, with most of the claims focusing on issues such as polygamy and women’s right to education. In Lebanon, the Lebanese Women’s Council came into being in 1943 and the Committee of Lebanese Women’s Rights in 1947.

Following the end of the Second World War, women’s associations were created by communist parties throughout the Arab world – such as the Association of Lebanese Women in 1947-, socialist parties and conservative parties, but they came close to forgetting their founding objectives when they considered women’s issues should be subordinated to national liberation. After Independence, Arab societies witnessed a proliferation of civil associations in general and of women’s associations in particular, all springing up to champion women’s causes – basically education, political rights and deconstruction of traditional roles. The second half of the 1970s witnessed the first steps towards the founding of women’s organizations independent of official political organizations, but the war in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s stopped the proliferation of local initiatives.

Following the Taif agreement in 1989, and especially during the 1990s, a progressive consciousness was reinforced locally, inspired by United Nations’ conferences such as the Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995. A common vision was then shared: democracy, development, human rights (including women’s rights) and peace are inseparable. As the gap between the ruling regime under the Syrian authorities and parts of society widened, many civil associations and non-governmental organizations were founded. This ‘explosion’ gave the impression that the Lebanese society was on the move or seeking to improve its conditions, and it proved to be effective on many levels such as the 2005 uprising against the Syrian Occupation. Still, the new consciousness and the rise of civil society did not help Lebanese women obtain most of their rights and equality in political and economic life, nor the full approval of international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to many experts, this paradox can be explained by attributing it to the pressure exerted by international organizations – women’s representation arose as a concession on the part of many Arab countries. The latter accepted the formal incorporation of women into few cultural/social/political projects on condition that they remain a mute, motionless presence (http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/contents/2005/ch5-e.pdf, p.139).

The latest revolutions in the Arab World gave women a chance to raise their voices, thus in Egypt, Tunisia (and even Lebanon), women were revolutionized, calling for gender equality and the end of gender-based violence and discrimination. Though many commentators have warned that the Arab Spring is turning into a Winter, the situation is more complex. With the war in Syria and its direct impact on Lebanon’s political and economic crisis, the continuous upheavals in Egypt, and the dust settling in other countries, there are both challenges and opportunities to expand the roles women play in shaping the forces that affect their lives – and to assess these roles. True that Middle Eastern countries ranked disappointingly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, true that there is a high risk during transition processes that political factions compete to outbid each other’s conservatism thus undermining women’s rights in the process… However, the outlook for women remains uncertain, with much to gain or to lose. And yet, despite the complexity, my research covering civil movements in Lebanon – based on content analysis and participant observation since 2001, and especially online activism since 2005/2006 -, has uncovered an explosion of new activism of women.

Indeed, women of diverse generations, socio-economic classes, sexual identities, political and religious/sectarian/non-religious/non-sectarian affiliations, many of whom had never previously taken part in politics, have sought with courage and creativity to change their society for the better. Women working individually or in groups are increasingly raising their voices, forging new roles, gaining in influence and proving that struggling for women’s rights is not an ‘illegitimate foreign imposition’ but a local contextualized diversity of visions and practices. We are witnessing a new phase of women’s mobilization in Lebanon, comprised of Kafa, Nasawiya, Abaad, Women in Front, Lebanese Women’s Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship, True Lebanese Feminist, Red Lips High Heels, and so many other online/ offline Feminist/Women’s Movements and organizations.

In some of the cases, these movements/organizations attempt to influence the state through a two-pronged approaches, both indirectly through local empowerment programs and, indirectly, through attempts at influencing the state – refer to the demonstrations for Citizenship and street protests against Domestic Violence or the antiquated Rape Law. In other cases, the focus is on consciousness-raising and education – in other words, on changing women’s and most Lebanese mentalities through storytelling, academic literature and intellectual/training-of-the-mind-to-think initiatives. Still, despite these Lebanese movements/organizations’ different approaches and divisions on priorities and strategies (such as the 30% quota in the Parliament versus equality), they all seek to empower women in particular and marginalized human beings in general, and therefore, they contribute to enhancing democratization and help raising expectations that democracy could pursue progressive but not radical agendas – democratization does not simply refer to the process of developing liberal democratic procedures for electing political representatives, but also to direct participation in decision making at a variety of levels. Also, these movements/organizations provide proof of the existence of a vital civil society and reinforce the Toquevillean view that problems could be addressed by organized groups of citizens and not, as is the tradition in the region, only by the traditional political parties. In addition, they share the following characteristics:

1)      a common diagnosis: Lebanese women are second-class citizens, seen and treated as ‘eternal minors’ playing decorative roles; they live in a Patriarchal system where the state and large parts of society wage a war on their bodies, safety and well-being; Sexism, Misogyny and Gender-based violence should be urgently dealt with, along with other major social problems such as  racism, sectarianism, corruption, homophobia,…; women should have the right to their bodies, their sexuality, to be free to express their opinions and make their own choices; women should have equal rights of employment, equal treatment and pay; women must play an active role in the political process, assume more leadership roles and have all their citizenship rights…

2)      a common voice: refusing empty promises; refusing to postpone the battles of today to tomorrow (NO to the “halla2 mich wa2ta” excuse – wait for the right moment!); refusing to be silent.

3)       a common anxious feeling and an unusual passion to do something meaningful – in other words, people involved in these movements/organizations are politically-minded. They do things because of their belief in the ideals that define what it means to be a Lebanese, a woman, a human.

4)       a common attitude which is the grassroots – an attitude of freedom, creativity without undue concern for conventional roles of authority, and unrestrained political enthusiasm.

5)       a common resistant posture to central control – those activists/movements/organizations cannot be made subservient.

My recommendations:

If these movements/organizations do not work on building a common network/coalition, they will definitely suffer from burnout and experience a high level of disenchantment. To be successful, they need to be organized in ways that could put pressure on political parties and the executive to pass laws, and able to follow through to monitoring the effects of that legislation and ensure that the executive and the courts implemented the laws that were passed – Ivory towers will not help! They need to create a common sustainable awareness campaign and common education tools for schools and universities. They also have to reach a consensus on the issue of autonomy – lacking a tradition of local philanthropy or the support of membership dues, many organizations have become dependent on external funding, thus restricted in their initiatives. They need to build bridges with other civil societies’ actors/actresses in order to reach a consensus regarding the general social, political, economic and cultural conditions that necessarily impact women’s empowerment and human rights in general. They need to gather and share knowledge when it comes to assessing their achievements and failures, to create a new discourse to override the current paradigms – most Lebanese women are not aware of Lebanese and Arab feminisms, and many activists focus only on street struggles and dismiss the intellectual struggle or the reform of visions and mentalities! They need to be part – together, in solidarity – of consultations to set benchmarks as well as processes to monitor their implementation. They should dialogue and find a common discourse concerning the religious-secular divide on women’s rights – many secular feminists dismiss religious feminists and vice versa.

There are more and more feminist activists in Lebanon and they have already made great strides. The awakening occurred. For this reason, the idea of rallying efforts to advance women’s rights and create a ‘resistant’ culture based on gender equality and social justice, that places women’s rights benchmarks at the heart of political dialogue and settlement, appears feasible. Change may be in the offing…


Read more:

 Chaieb, Mounira. ‘The Precarious State of Women’s Rights after the Arab Spring.’Tunisia Live, July 10, 2013.  

Eltahawy, Mona. ‘Why do they hate us ? The real war on women is in the Middle East.’ Foreign Policy, May/June 2012.

Moghadam, Valentine M. ‘Report on the International Forum: Mediterranean Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings, 21-23 June 2013’.

Join the Conversation


  1. Excellent post Dr. Chrabieh. You give us hope to continue the struggle. True we need to be TOGETHER to be able to change things at a national level.

  2. Great reading this morning 🙂 Hope hope hope! Gender equality is reachable! We just have to believe in it and work on it.

  3. Dr. Chrabieh, let me congratulate you and encourage you to keep on struggling. I am a feminist man and i am not afraid to say it out loud. I believe in gender equality and the relation of this equality to peacebuilding in Lebanon and the Arab World. As long as inequalities prevail, war will prevail.

  4. I find it hard that your call will be answered in the current postmodern/leftist third wave Buttlerian paradigm that some feminist groups live in.
    Unification and/or coordination has already been rejected by those persons under the pretext of it being non-intersectional and that these calls stem from white-chauvinist-bla bla bourgeois elite that don’t care for opressed segments like Syrians refugees and migrant workers.
    On another level, those NGOs that you mentionned all know each other and also hate and criticize each other. Coordination already failed at its minimal level.
    What can Kafa say to Nasawiya when Nasawiya rejects Kafa’s call for the domestic violence law is rejected by Nasawiya under the pretext of “engaging with a patriarchal and illegal entity which is the parliament”.
    Anyway, I know you mean well by this call but that you also forgot to address why similar past calls failed to achieve their intented target.

    1. Thank you Abdo! I agree. This is why i mentioned the ‘ivory towers’ phenomenon and the need to dialogue and share a common vision within diversity in order to obtain national positive outcomes.

  5. Abdo, i think it’s too soon to talk about the failures of this new wave. Let us wait and see. But i agree with what you said concerning the mutual ‘disqualification’

  6. Merci docteure pour ce beau texte, eclairant et un message fort. Vous luttez pour le dialogue sur tous les fronts et ce blog est une preuve de l’existence d’une plateforme liant divers feminismes libanais et arabes, des femmes et des hommes qui ecrivent, des personnes venant de milieux socio-economiques differents, et de lecrtiture en francais, arabe et anglais pour un public plus large. Bonne suite!

  7. J’adore ce blog et je trouve que vous faites du beau travail d’activisme. Quoiqu’on puisse vous critiquer, croyez en vous et foncez!

  8. I don’t think women will ever have equal rights in this part of the world, as long as conservative regimes and salafist movements exist. There must be first a change of political systems and sustainable solutions to fundamentalism and extremism. The Islam i know is one of peace and human rights.

  9. Great recommendations. But i don’t think other feminists will take it into consideration. Absorbed in their ‘egos’. Maybe young generations. Students. As for other women, a lot should be done to change their mentality. Trapped in patriarchy and they fuel it more than men.

  10. Excellent post! Keep up your good work. Eventually others will listen and rally.
    but ‘nul n’est prophete dans son pays’
    I suspect many obstacles to this kind of call.

  11. Hello Dr. I honestly do not think other feminist organizations and movements will listen to yourcall. They prefer having the funds and the awards to themselves. I have been involved for many years in several ngos and i noticed that women usually are jealous of each other and so not help each other. And if it happens you don’t share their ideas, you become paria. Bottom line, as long as you fight for dialogue, yes people will agree and maybe follow too but in this country, the majority will see peace activists as idealists, weak, etc.e

    1. Leyla, Sylvain, Sherine, i share your concerns, but I keep hope for a better future, as long as the struggle continues. But solidarity is a must in order for this struggle to be sustainable and fruitful.

  12. Love the blog! And love your work Dr. You give me hope to believe in myself and the possibility of individual and collective transformation. Will and patience, the two ingredients for a change recipe.

    1. Hello Inna, first by working on empowering yourself and women around you. Second, by working with one of the ONGs struggling for this cause. And if you like to write, you can send me a sample article to be published here – the goal of this platform is awareness and knowledge, two pillars for changing the mindset.

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