The Arab region is a diverse collection of 22 Arabic-speaking countries, with some of the world’s poorest social indicators, multiple crises, and perpetual economic and social insecurity. The humanitarian crises and ongoing violence in Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and most recently, the economic collapse in Lebanon, have all contributed to these regional insecurities.
This region ranks the lowest in the world in terms of women’s rights, with frequent backlashes against women’s fundamental freedoms. There are inequalities in every aspect of women’s lives – in education, healthcare, leadership, and so on. In the working world, Arab women are an underutilized economic force, with the lowest female employment rate in the world. When employed, women are more often relegated to traditionally feminized work, in addition to their disproportionate share of unpaid care.
There’s a lot of work to do for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the region.
It was for this reason that I moved to Lebanon and joined the Arab Institute for Women as executive director in 2015, building on two decades of experience working on women’s rights around the world in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere. The Institute sits under the Lebanese American University (LAU), established by American Presbyterian missionaries in 1935 as the American School for Girls — the first of its kind in the Ottoman Empire. This in itself is revolutionary. Decades later, the university established the Arab Institute for Women to pay tribute to its rich history and to honor its legacy of education for women and girls. It was the first such Institute in the Arab region, and one of the first globally. That, too, is revolutionary.
Moving to Lebanon was a logical next step after joining the Institute. I’m half Lebanese, and what’s more, my late grandmother graduated from the university where I chose to work. My family legacy was strong, and I was committed to making this Institute the best of its kind in the region and a key player on the global stage.
The Institute itself is regional, covering the 22 Arab states. But it is based in Lebanon, and so much of our work is centered in the country and within our own university. After joining the Institute in 2015, I began by orienting it more strongly towards its feminist intent — focusing on advancing women’s rights and gender equality through research, education, development programs, and outreach at the national, regional, and international levels. In short, working at the intersection of academia and activism to ensure that our efforts are practical, meaningful, and impactful. In addition to our strong outward focus, we also recognized our sense of responsibility to the university community of which we are a part, and the role we could play in enhancing a university culture committed to women’s rights and gender equality.
As part of this commitment, we took the initiative to advocate for full gender equality across the university community. Gender equality was already embedded at the university — on paper. What could we do to bring this to life? We noticed a need for practical application across the university on all things diversity, equity, inclusion — and other key terms that are very much a part of the modern rights lexicon.
In university settings, DE&I is often connected with Title IX, a part of American civil rights law which prohibits discrimination based on gender in educational programs or activities. Title IX supports a working and learning environment where people can achieve their full potential by spreading awareness about benefits of equity, diversity, and inclusion. A U.S. registered and accredited university, LAU was bound by Title IX, which requires that educational institutions receiving U.S. government funds be Title IX compliant. The Institute began advocating for this once I joined in 2015. It was a core part of our plan, and the necessary ingredients were already in place. At the Institute, we wanted to ensure that this would result in equal access to opportunities, resources, support, and power for women and men to shape society and their own lives.
In creating this plan, we recognized that women and men do not comprise two homogenous groups in the Arab world, and certainly not in Lebanon. Sect, socio-economic status, level of education, nationality, and other factors contribute to differences both within and between the categories of women and men. Sexual orientation, age, and functional ability are other power structures that need to be considered in order to fully understand how gender intersects with other power markers relevant to the Lebanese context.
We began doing the work – putting out publications, training students, working with key stakeholders, and hosting conferences and events. We spent many years training the Lebanese police in understanding women’s rights and equality, and ending violence against women. We hosted a series of conferences and events on advancing the women’s, peace, and security agendas in the region, plus more. And my experience working to end sexual violence in humanitarian settings worldwide also helped position us to do this work better.
We made the case that gender equality is a critical prerequisite for every institution — particularly for our university as we were advocating to position ourselves as a center for gender excellence and a pioneer for gender equality in the Arab region. Our Gender Equality Plan is a long-term process and commitment, rather than a single goal. This effort is an ongoing part of the university’s commitment to gender equality and as such must continue to change and evolve.
Our greatest success, after two years of advocacy, has been in securing a Title IX office and a senior director for this position. LAU’s Title IX Office provides information, confidential discussion, and training/awareness materials for the LAU community as well as receives complaints and conducts investigations into allegations of discrimination and harassment. From raising awareness of the benefits of gender equality through mandatory anti-discrimination and harassment trainings to regularizing review of policies and procedures through a gender lens and attempting to better address gender- and sex-based discrimination and harassment when it occurs, LAU’s Title IX Office seeks to normalize a focus on gender. By having the Title IX director report directly to the president, it is hoped that gender has a “seat at the table” and thus, can work to ensure gender is included in a wide range of discussions about the university’s mission, functions, operations, and challenges.
But how do we continue to change and evolve in a climate as challenging as modern-day Lebanon?
Lebanon ranks 132 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, meaning that Lebanon is vastly unequal in terms of women’s presence in political and economic life, among other indicators — a gap that will take at least 150 years to close.
In Lebanon today, women are disproportionately affected by the multiple crises facing the country — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the economic crisis to massive civil unrest. Meanwhile, the weight of these insecurities falls on women who continue to bear the burden of care. Lebanon has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world. As the economic situation deteriorates, unemployment rates soar, access to basic necessities become more expensive and scarcer, and more women are relegated to the informal economy, without regulation or protection, or forced to resort to risky measures to ensure their survival.
All this before the latest series of tragedies — an explosion on August 4, 2020 that destroyed a huge part of the city, and then an economic crisis that places Lebanon as one of the most desperate countries in the world. The situation has spiraled out of control.
Today, close to 80% of the population is in poverty. Food prices have increased by 557%. National debt is exorbitant. The currency has lost 90% of its value. The banking system has collapsed. Fuel shortages are creating tensions, resulting in violence and deaths. Hospitals are paralyzed. Medicines have run out. And any Lebanese able to leave the country is doing so with a one-way ticket.
The explosion and the devastating economic crisis that followed together have magnified pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, making life much worse for Lebanese women. Today, both Lebanon and the Arab region are at a crossroads, making it harder to implement any policies.
So again, what can be done for women in a climate as challenging as this? How might we advance our cause in a context like that? We are doing everything we can, which includes advocating for flexible time and creative remote work options as well as more support to women in the workplace, starting with our own university but scaling to the country. Helping women work remotely in this volatile climate and allowing them flexible schedules that make work as comfortable as possible is important not only for women in the Lebanon workplace, but important for our economy as well. Through our policy recommendations built from our research, we push for reform. One such example is our effort to improve parental leave policies in Lebanon via the amendment of the Lebanese labor law, advocating to bring this law in line with global family-friendly workplace policies such as paternity leave, flexible hours, and other measures that promote balance between personal and professional lives. It’s important, especially in this environment, that women feel they have the ability to work while also being a parent, and modern parental-leave policies and schedules can aid that.
We are doing our part to advocate for women’s rights in the country, in the region, and within the university itself — changing the way we think about women’s work, so we can build a foundation where real equity and inclusion can flourish.
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