Roses and Rights - GulfToday

Roses and Rights

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lebanese-women

Although more free than their Arab sisters, Lebanese women have every reason to protest as they bear the brunt of economic hardship and deprivation.

Women have been in the vanguard of Lebanon’s protests and have formed human barricades against violent opponents of anti-government demonstrations, fearing clashes and the transformation of peaceful rallies into riots. They have flooded squares and streets of the country’s main cities and towns. Both women and men have carried babies and gripped tight the hands of small children to keep them close. Families have been united in the fight for their future in a country which is haemorrhaging its young or imprisoning them in low level, poorly paid jobs, forcing both men and women to live with their parents and postpone both careers and marriage.

Over the past 30 years the government has failed to provide 24 hours of power and potable water; people have come to depend on costly private operators to supply deficits. Whether in the streets or on the sidelines of the protests, all Lebanese protest corruption, multiple taxes, lack of public education and health services and rising costs of living.

Protesting women have come from all sectors of society: chic grand dames from the aristocracy and upper middle class, girls in shorts and mini-t-shirts, conservative women in headscarves and enveloping black cloaks. They are young, middle aged and elderly. They have walked briskly or strolled through throngs looking for friends and relatives. They have been pushed in wheel chairs and have limped on canes. Women have danced to loud popular music broadcast by lorries with audio equipment. Women have brandished posters bearing the slogans of the revolution and shouted its demands through megaphones.

Professional women with jobs have rubbed shoulders with students facing emigration because they cannot find employment once they graduate. Homemakers have made common cause with female professors and teachers. There have been women on both sides of the barricades: demonstrators who fill the streets and erect barricades on key roads and policewomen who have tried to remove them. Women have handed out white roses to soldiers manning checkpoints and barricades at the edges of squares claimed by revolutionaries. Women and men have shared the task of clearing up rubbish left behind by daily protests. Girls and boys armed with Lebanese flags have ridden mopeds around Beirut proclaiming revolution. Women and men have given free food to protesters who have camped out in Beirut’s central squares and at roadblocks.

Women asked by Gulf Today why they have protested replied, “For my children. They will have no future in this country if there is no change.” A young woman banker, who was told by her boss not to protest, said the same thing and revealed that she knows of the vast sums corrupt politicians have in their accounts.

A young woman became a protest icon on Oct.17 when she kicked a threatening gun-wielding bodyguard of a minister whose car had been halted at a roadblock. Women have sought to enforce nonviolence and prevent the destruction of public and private property. Women protesters have been free from male harassment as they were in 2011 during the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Of course, reactionary men sitting in cafes or at home in front of their television screens have criticised women for assuming leading roles in the protests. In their view, women belong at home, cooking, cleaning, minding many children.

Women have been prominent not only in Beirut but also in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city which is regarded an extremist Sunni hub, and conservative Sidon and Tyre. The citizens of long neglected and impoverished Tripoli have treated the uprising as a party, with discos and festivities involving all communities. The once-thriving port has been overtaken by Beirut’s upgraded harbour and has lost much of its business due to the demise of Lebanon’s transit trade through war-torn Syria to Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf. In Tripoli, a city of 700,000, and the region, poverty rate has risen to 57 per cent.

Both women and men from villages and smaller towns have taken back roads to dodge protesters’ road blocks to travel to population centres to join mass protests which have exerted more pressure on the politicians than demonstrations in their home areas. Women and men have flown home from Dubai and Paris to join the protests. Women helped organise a Lebanese solidarity rally in the French capital.

Women and men living abroad have flown back to countries of exile carrying Lebanese flags fresh from the protests and chant, “Killo ya’neh killo,” all must go, while taking their seats on flights. Millions of Lebanese are infected with the spirit of the “WhatsApp Revolution,” triggered by a US 20 cent (Dhs0.73) a day tax on calls via messaging services. On Sunday Oct.20, the fourth day of the demonstrations, half of Lebanon’s six million citizens took part in country-wide protests.

Although more free than their Arab sisters, Lebanese women have every reason to protest. They bear the brunt of economic hardship and deprivation. They have to tease out slender resources to house, feed and clothe their families while their men struggle to find work or bring home salaries which do not cover rising expenses. Women also suffer familial, social and cultural repression, violence and abuse. They are second class citizens. Their children cannot claim Lebanese nationality; children inherit citizenship through their fathers. Only 17 women have been elected to parliament although women have had the vote since the mid-20th century. During the 2018 election, six women won seats in the 128 member assembly, two of them related to powerful politicians.

Lebanon’s protesting women and men are standing against a political order dominated by four men: President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. These men and their colleagues continue to stick together knowing full well that if they fail to do so they could fall together. Protesters have rejected Hariri’s reform plan providing for cuts in salaries of ministers and deputies, a $3.5 billion (Dhs12.9b) contribution to state coffers from banks and anti-corruption measures. Hariri has promised no new taxes. During wrangling over the 2020 budget in recent months, his cabinet has repeatedly turned down the package, although it might have staved off protests and convinced foreign donors to deliver $11b (Dhs40b) in grants and soft loans meant to help Lebanon escape from its economic crisis. His revival of the plan is far too little, far too late.