By: Amanda Siddharta
The school bell rang at a school in the village of Ras El-Matn, tucked within the mountains in central Lebanon. Rouba Makarem, a French teacher, had prepared some materials for her students for the day: a small project that can teach them about gender equality.
Despite Lebanon’s current fuel shortage and electricity cuts, the school has been open since September and can still operate normally on most days.
Rouba is committed to teaching all her students, ranging from age 5 to 12, to believe in equality and justice. The 38-year-old is not only a French teacher, she is also an activist and a member of the Union for Progressive Women, a local NGO that works on women’s rights.
From April to September 2021, Rouba joined a series of training events hosted by DRI Lebanon on how to better empower women and the role they can play in Lebanon’s municipalities.
“As an activist, I’ve always been interested in learning more to help me promote women’s role in society. And as a teacher, I believe proper education is the main driver of change,” she said.
The training programme was created to cover a broad range of topics related to gender equality and women’s participation in politics. Gulnar Wakim, a gender expert who worked closely with DRI Lebanon to design the training, said that it was not meant to be a one-time workshop that covers one topic.
“Instead, we surveyed the women, asking them their level of knowledge on gender and municipalities and what they needed from the training. We also held the events online so those who could not travel to Beirut could participate,” she explained.
Because the training did not happen only once, Gulnar saw a progression in the exchanges among participants. One of the first topics addressed was on gender and feminism, before delving deeper into the role of women in politics.
According to Gulnar, most women in Lebanon have the misconception that feminists are only radicals. “It’s an elitist term that belongs to artists and intellectuals. Participants are not able to identify with it,” she said.
At the beginning of the training, Gulnar asked the participants if they are feminists and none of them dared to raise their hands. But as they started to understand the concept better as promoting the equality between men and women, more and more of the women started to identify as feminists.
Participants learned about why women are marginalised during the first session. After that, the training moved on to cover more technical information on the laws and practices within Lebanese municipalities.
“They were unaware that as elected representatives working in the municipality they can stop the budget if they see something wrong with it. Many of those who never considered to run for elections are interested now,” said Gulnar.
Gaelle Youssef, Project Coordinator for DRI Lebanon, highlighted that it is important to continue to encourage women to take leadership positions, especially within Lebanese politics.
“The mass protests in 2019 had an impact on Lebanese democracy, and women and youths were the key players during the demonstrations,” she said. However, women are still underrepresented in the political system because of a patriarchal culture. Only 5.4% of municipal council members are women, while women made up only 21% of municipal employees.
Christiane Chidiac, an accountant who works for the Ashqout municipality, has always felt the pressure of being a woman in a government office. “Politics in Lebanon don’t approve of women. We are always excluded from it,” she complained.
But for Christiane, learning about law and gender equality during the training made her realise that she has the right to participate and give her opinion in the municipal office. She now helps other women in her area to be more independent by passing on the knowledge that she has gained on political and economic empowerment.
“It’s common around here for women to be trapped in their houses. I don’t want that, I want to give them a voice so they can participate in the municipality or do any kind of work they wish,” she said.
Gaelle asserted that the goal of the training is to increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making positions at the local level by providing them with the skills to run for office in the 2022 municipal elections and to continue pushing for gender equality.
The training is still ongoing and participants like Rouba and Christiane are now exploring their options to run for election in their respective areas next year.
“We are still facing discrimination because of outdated traditions that limit the roles of women. But we have a responsibility to contribute by spreading societal awareness of the need to involve women in public life based on equality and social justice,” said Rouba.