Lebanon has appointed the Arab world’s first female interior minister in its new government, prising open a wider foothold for women in its overwhelmingly male political scene.
Raya al-Hassan is one of four women to take cabinet jobs in the new coalition, more than ever before in Lebanon and three more than in the last government, in which even the minister for women was a man.
Though Hassan has already held top jobs – including finance minister in 2009-2011 – her appointment to a portfolio managing security was hailed as a step forward for women in Lebanese politics.
“This is a point of pride for all women and all the people who believe in women’s capabilities,” Hassan said.
“There are a lot of female interior and defence ministers in the world and they have proved their efficiency. It might be a new phenomenon for Lebanon and Arab countries, but hopefully it will be repeated and not be unique,” she added.
The three other women in the 30-strong cabinet are in charge of energy, administrative development and the economic empowerment of women and young people.
Though Lebanon is widely held to be liberal by regional standards, with women playing a prominent role in public life, some of its laws continue to uphold a patriarchal social code.
Much Lebanese civil law, including personal status matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, is applied according to religious sect and in some cases treats women differently to men. Lebanon has 17 recognised Muslim and Christian sects.
“OLD MALE PATRIARCHAL MIND”
In 2017 the parliament abolished an old law that absolved rapists if they married their victims. But marital rape and child marriage are still legal.
“You can’t keep up with the international community and say you have a civilised state when all the world is working on gender equality and Lebanon is still living with the old male patriarchal mind,” said May Chidiac, the new administrative development minister.
Lebanese politics continues to revolve around men. The complex sectarian power-sharing system has helped entrench former warlords and the scions of political dynasties – all male – who dominate the government and the parliament.
“Lebanon is a male-dominated society and though women reached very important positions, when we talk about politics, especially parliament and government, their presence was modest,” said the women and youth minister Violette Safadi.
“I think we broke this barrier.”