Lebanon occupies a unique position in the Arab world. Religiously diverse, its history of sectarian antagonism is kept in check by a parliamentary system that ensures Muslims and Christians exert political influence.
This tiny country on the shores of the Mediterranean also basks in a more sophisticated and continental image than its Arab neighbours. In Beirut, French and English can be heard almost as often as Arabic, with the odd local rebelling against ‘Arab’ identity altogether, and only-half-jokingly calling themselves Phoenicians, paying proud tribute to the ancient civilisation that flourished as early as 300 BC.
As I wrote earlier this year, Beirut exudes “a lust for life…that is irresistible… Living for the moment, locals rarely go out for dinner before 9pm and don’t wait for the weekend to party.”
But that exuberance belies a darker side. As well as the scars of its own civil war and the shadow of the Syrian conflict raging next door, Lebanon still suffers the legacy of a deeply patriarchal society. While on the surface, women appear to have the same liberties as men, inequality runs deep. Some of the more contentious laws mean male relatives can legally bar women from leaving the country, and, as the infamous 60 Minutes child abduction incident highlighted earlier this year, men are usually granted automatic custody of children.
As well as the scars of its own civil war and the shadow of the Syrian conflict raging next door, Lebanon still suffers the legacy of a deeply patriarchal society.
Fortunately, things are changing.
Last week, just one day after protestors from the feminist organisation ABAAD staged a protest near parliament wearing blood-stained wedding gowns, Lebanese prime minister Saad Harriri announced via Twitter that a parliamentary committee will push through a plan to abolish Article 522, a draconian law that allows rapists to avoid prosecution if he marries his victim.
"We await the completion of this civilized step in the nearest legislative session," Harirri told state-run news agency NNA.
Despite its outward appearance of secularism, Lebanon’s parliamentary system has been described by one writer as “tribal chiefs in suits.” With all citizens classified by their religion at birth, the clergy regulates education, politics, marriage, death and inheritance.
As such, politicians have been reluctant to test the power of the clergy. And so laws like Article 522 have been left largely unchallenged. To treat sexual assault not as a crime against the woman herself, but on the imaginary concept of her virtue harks back to the Middle East’s tribal origins. In a grotesque version of ‘you break it, you buy,’ survivors are pressured to marry their rapists in order to preserve a warped concept of honour.
And, as the fake blood on the wedding dresses of the activists symbolised, the violence that comes after such a marriage can be more traumatic than the initial crime that led to it.
With this law soon to be consigned to the history books, Lebanese feminist activists show no signs of stopping. ABAAD’s Saja Michael told CNN that the organisation will now focus on changing societal attitudes about rape. "It's a social issue that must be addressed. We will continue to work with parents, helping to differentiate the act of rape as a crime.”
Other feminist groups on the ground range from the outright radical, such as Nasawiya who seek to abolish all notions of gender, and who attracted the ire of right wing Christian politicians, to the less confrontational Lebanese Women’s Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship, which wants to overturn the law that denies Lebanese women the right to pass on their nationality to their children.
Such activism is not unknown to the Middle East. Before decades of wars, fundamentalism, and dictators marred the region, the period of transition from British and French colonial rule to Arab independence was a hot bed of political activity.
From Huda Sharaawi, who, freshly returned from a trip Rome for a suffragette conference, removed her face veil at a Cairo train station, to the socialist organisations, Nationalist independence movements, and women’s associations that formed and organised across the Middle East to shape the emerging Arab identity, Arabs seemed ready to leave the old ways behind.
Sadly, for women, as so often happens, their issues and demands were expected to take a back seat.
'Halla mich waata' - now is not the time. This is something Arab and other Middle Eastern women find themselves hearing even as they work with men to reform society. The Iranian women of the 1979 revolution were sold out by their Marxist male comrades as the latter conceded to the demands of Islamists, only to then find themselves exiled or executed as the revolution turned into a theocracy.
The women of Egypt’s Tahrir Square who overthrew Hosni Mubarak were almost immediately shut out of the revolution that then succumbed, first to the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually to the military. These women and others had their rights bargained away by men who failed to see that progress without women’s rights is impossible.
This makes the end of Article 522 a small step but a hopeful one. Arabs know full well that history delights in dashing their dreams but, for Lebanese women at least.
'Halla waata' - now is the time.