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Mona Chemali Khalaf
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


Assessing women's status is not an easy proposition in a complex country like Lebanon. It is

  • • at the crossroad of various civilizations and cultures that enriched it, but were also a source of internal upheaval;
  • • close to a democracy, and yet a country where political power is often inherited;
  • • the only Arab country where Islam is not the religion of the state and yet one where the various religious sects have their own personal status laws.

In this intricate setup, the Lebanese woman has tried to carve a place for herself in the public sphere. On the political scene, more than one outstanding woman emerged as far back as the sixteenth century. Among the most prominent ones, one could mention Princess Nasab of Tanukh, Princess Hubus Arslan, and Naifeh Jumblatt (El-Khatib, 1998). These women and a few others belonged to the privileged families who ruled the country at the time. It is only with “Al-Nahdah,” a period of enlightenment that began in Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century, and with the support women received from enlightened men pioneers, like Butrus al-Bustānī, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, and Qāsim Amīn, that their status started improving.

The Lebanese women's movement emerged in this conducive atmosphere. It started toward the end of the nineteenth century, when prominent Lebanese women moved with their families to Egypt, running away from Ottoman oppression. There they started voicing their demands for women's rights to education and work, through articles they published in magazines they owned. Freedom of choice regarding veiling was also at the forefront of their requests.

The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a significant upsurge in women's activities through philanthropic institutions and participation in political life. Women fought hard for their civil and political rights and played a very active role in securing Lebanon's independence. Among them were Ibtihaj Kaddoura, Laure Tabet, Najla Saab, Anna Tabet, and Nazek Beyhum.

Following the liberation of their country from the French Mandate in 1943 and the end of the sectarian discord that had split the women's movement, the Lebanese Women's Council was established in 1953. That same year Lebanese women were granted their full political rights. This was not, however, translated into women's political participation. Between 1953 and 1975, nine women ran for parliamentary seats, but only one of them, Myrna Boustani, was elected—in 1963, to complete her father's term after his tragic death, because he had no male heir.

No major change was witnessed during the fifteen years of civil strife (1975–1990). Women did not, however, remain inactive. Although few of them were fighters, they joined political parties and militias. Women's associations focused their interests on relief work, relegating for later any steps to secure their rights.

It took almost thirty years to have another woman join the Parliament, with Nayla Mouawad—the widow of the assassinated President René Mouawad—being appointed in 1991. It is significant that when she ran for election a year later in 1992, she secured the highest number of electoral votes countrywide. The legislative elections that followed marked each time the election of a minimum of three and a maximum of six women. In almost all cases, the successful women candidates were relatives of prominent male politicians belonging to feudal political families.

At the governmental level, the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW) was established in 1998, to develop strategies for women's empowerment and implement the Beijing Platform for Action and the CEDAW resolutions ratified by Lebanon in 1997.

At the executive level, in 2004, two women (Wafa Dika Hamzah and Leila el-Solh Hamadeh) were appointed ministers for the first time. This new trend was not, however, followed systematically and the new Council of Ministers formed in 2011 did not include any woman minister. The situation is not any better at the local council's level where women represent less than 3 percent.

Obviously, the Lebanese woman has not succeeded in securing her share on the political scene. Among the reasons one could mention are the prevailing patriarchal system, the hegemony of the feudal families over political life, the sectarian distribution of political representation, and the reluctance of most religious denominations to be represented by a woman. More specifically, one could note women's absence from decision-making positions in political parties and their limited financial means in comparison to their male competitors (Helou, 1998).

A close look at the economic sector reflects the same situation. Although legally women have the right to own and administer property and to use their incomes and assets at their discretion, the centrality of the family along with the prevailing patriarchal system and the ensuing distribution of gender roles within the household prevent them from doing so.

It should be noted, though, that the number of enterprises owned by women—although not always managed by them—has increased, as well as the proportion of women in the labor force. This increase could be attributed to the high level of education of Lebanese women who represent more than half of university graduates and to the harsh economic conditions due to civil strife.

Lebanese women have not, however, succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling and few of them have reached decision-making positions, whether in the public or private sector. The female labor force participation remains low also. Although no accurate reliable figure related to the latter is available, it stood at 27 percent in 2007 according to the World Bank (2009).

In addition, working women suffer from wage discrimination. The ratio of estimated female to male earned income is 0.31, according to the 2004 national household survey (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2006). Furthermore, the National Social Security Fund Law discriminates against women with regard to social and health benefits.

Efforts have been undertaken to correct the prevailing situation by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Working Women's League has been lobbying to remove legal discriminatory provisions related to work and to ensure the implementation of laws that assert gender equality.

Presently, civil society is also pushing very hard to amend the nationality law, which does not allow Lebanese women to pass their nationality to their foreign husbands and children. A campaign for this purpose was launched in 2002 by the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A) and is still being pursued.

Perhaps the most significant progress has been made in respect to honor crimes. Article 562 of the Penal Code had originally acquitted men who killed female relatives engaged in illegal sexual intercourse. Laure Moghaizel led lobbying against this law, resulting in a 1999 amendment assigning men reduced sentences, rather than acquittal. In 2011, the whole article was repealed from the Penal Code.

Major problems arise also from the personal status laws that regulate matters related to birth, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance by each of the eighteen religious sects recognized in Lebanon. This diversity in legislation violates the principle of equality of all citizens before the law and is incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Lebanon is committed. Several unsuccessful attempts have been undertaken since 1974 to adopt a unified civil personal status law, be it at the governmental or civil society level. The optional civil law, proposed in 1998 by President Elias Haraoui and approved by the Cabinet, was blocked by the Parliament, following the strong opposition of all religious leaders who saw it as trespassing over their prerogatives.

In 2007, “All for Civil Marriage in Lebanon,” a group of young professionals and students, launched a campaign in favor of civil marriage and by 2009 completed a new draft for an optional civil law. However, the likelihood of its adoption in the near future seems to be remote. To circumvent this situation, many Lebanese of various religious sects resort to civil marriage abroad, marriage that is legally recognized and registered in Lebanon.

Lebanese women are not only subject to discriminatory laws but suffer also from the absence of laws in certain domains, like domestic violence. Draft legislation was submitted in 2009 by KAFA, the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, and other non-governmental organizations to the Council of Ministers, but was referred to a ministerial committee for further examination. The draft law presently (2012) being discussed by a Parliamentary Commission has been rejected by Dar el-Fatwa, the highest authority of the Sunnī community, because it is in conformity with Western rather than Lebanese values and allows police intervention in family affairs. This has not stopped concerned non-governmental organizations from pursuing their efforts through the creation of 24-hour hotlines, providing free legal advice and shelter as well as launching campaigns to raise awareness about the plight of the victims.

Despite all these efforts and sporadic government interest in reform, there is still a lot to be done, if Article 7 of the Constitution, which stipulates equality in the rights and duties of all citizens, is to be implemented. It requires changing the prevailing patriarchal system and the stereotyped gender distribution of roles, in addition to reducing the hegemony of the various religious sects through the enactment of an optional civil personal status law.

Lebanese youth, both young women and men, are working relentlessly to introduce changes, calling for the implementation of existing laws that promote equality, amendment of discriminatory laws, and adoption of new laws that reinforce equality.


  • El-Khatib, H. Noushouʾ el-haraka annisa ʾiya el-lubnaniya wa ʿaliyataha ʿala el-moujtamʿ fi marahel tatwiriha [The Lebanese women's movement and its impact on society at its different stages of development]. Beirut: Dar-el-Hadassah, 1998. Find it in your Library
  • Ellis, K. C. Lebanon's Second Republic: Prospects for the Twenty-first Century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Helou, M. Deputies and candidates in the legislative elections of 1992 and 1994. Bahithat, 4, 170–202. Beirut: Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, 1998. Find it in your Library
  • Khalaf, M. Lebanon. In Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Progress amid Resistance, edited by S. Kelly and J. Breslin, pp. 249–281. New York: Freedom House, 2010.
  • Lebanese NGO Forum. “A Brief Review of the Current State of Violations of Women's Rights in Lebanon.” Retrieved from www.lnf.org.lb/windex/violation.html Find it in your Library
  • Living Conditions of Households: The National Survey of Household Living Conditions: 2004. Beirut: Lebanese Republic, Ministry of Social Affairs; Central Administration for Statistics, United Nations Development Program. Find it in your Library
  • Traboulsi, F. “An Intelligent Man's Guide to Modern Arab Feminism.” Al-Raida (centenary issue), xx, no. 100 (2003): 15–19. Find it in your Library
  • United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Lebanon National Human Development Report: Towards a Citizen's State. Beirut: UNDP, 2009. Find it in your Library
  • World Bank. (2009). Gender stats—create your own table. Retrieved from go.worldbank.org/MRER20PME0 (February 12, 2012).
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