This feature article is a commentary on steps being taken in Lebanon to promote intersectionality in the civil society sector. The aim is to express the concerns of different groups in Lebanon based on the concepts of socio-cultural inclusivity and diversity management. It features the voices of marginalized populations, women, people with disabilities, and political activists. The author addresses political discrimination and violence in order to help in reaching a balanced, fair, and a rights-based society for all its citizens.
Rouba El Helou
What is social identity made of? What unites us as citizens? What makes us members of a certain group and not another? These questions always haunted me as an adolescent and later on as a woman growing-up in a highly sectarianized country. If you ask me now who I am, I would answer that I am a Lebanese feminist who believes in equality based on social justice, secularity, and coexistence. To tell you the truth, the current Lebanese societal frame offers an overlapping consensus of systemically corrupt regimes. It has radically suppressed change and codified and maintained a highly sexist and compartmentalized social order based on inequalities on many levels. One such example lies in the personal status laws in Lebanon that cause suffering based on gender, social class, and citizenship. This obscure set of contradictions has led to a situation where the challenge to move forward, towards a secular state with equal rights, has been effectively disrupted by an undeclared “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. By not openly discussing differences based on gender, race, religion, or social class these inequalities do not go away, they become entrenched. For society as a whole and civil society in particular to move forward we must deal with our differences openly.
Under a project co-led by ABAAD and the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), with the support of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a number of civil society organizations (CSOs) with a wide range of identity groups in Lebanon are working on bridging the gap between gender, class, disabilities, sexual orientation, citizenship, language, education, and many other factors which have traditionally divided instead of united us. As part of this coalition, a group of activists, members of organizations working on gender equality, refugee rights, LGBTQ empowerment, mainstreaming disabilities, and sustainable development in marginalized regions of the country recently met to discuss alternative ways forward. An important set of criteria were debated, leading to a wide range of opinions about the needs of the future.
With the overlay of the crises and developments that occurred in Lebanon since that time, including the October 2019 revolution, the Beirut port blast, COVID-19, and the economic collapse, the debate mirrored key areas of reform that the group had developed one year prior, in the form of the “Path Coalition: Power in Inclusion and Diversity”.
“We need justice and rights.” The COVID-19 pandemic hit Lebanon hard, but was even more difficult to cope with in those economically-disadvantaged areas where people rely on public transport to be able to gather essential supplies, food, medicine, and day-job work to provide for their families. When the central government fails to provide services, municipalities are required to step in to fill the gap and respond to the needs of communities, including people with disabilities, households where women are the sole breadwinners, refugees, etc., on whom the impact is magnified by the inability to seek or afford other solutions. Two organizations, Riders’ Rights and Darb al Wafa, are working together to understand the needs of these communities, especially from those that are the most disadvantaged (women with disabilities, youth living in poverty, etc.). The organizations have been jointly working with select municipalities on the participatory development of crisis management plans that would better service these communities in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the Beirut blast.
“We need to work with communities to reduce the stigma around discussing sexual health. This would foster access to important information.” Education around sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is considered taboo for many people. However, without the sufficient knowledge, people are unable to protect themselves adequately. The lack of education on SRHR is especially prevalent among people with intersectional identities, such as economically-disadvantaged women, refugee youth, and people with disabilities living in camps. These groups are often forgotten or not accounted for properly, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the negative impacts of SRHR due to lack of education. An intersectional coalition comprised of MENA Rosa, Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) and Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) is working together to address this problem, bringing essential knowledge and awareness-raising to young people and caregivers living inside and outside of camps.
“We need legal norms and codified rights in order to improve our situation. We also need to be thinking of how we interact with people in general and with the society, how can we intersect and merge to manage diversity within our workplace and our partners…” Another intersectional coalition formed of Justice Without Frontiers (JWF), Lebanese Down syndrome Association (LDSA), and Soins Infirmiers et Development Communautaire (SIDC) is working together with employers in Lebanon on improving accountability, with the aim of ending discriminatory practices in the workplace. As we saw during the October 2019 demonstrations, people of different backgrounds are demanding change, an end to corrupt practices—which includes discrimination—on various levels. The coalition is preparing a policy paper featuring recommended reforms to the labor law to improve the rights of many who suffer discrimination in the workplace including women, LGBTQ people, and people of non-Lebanese origin.
“We need to step away from reinforcing the notion of otherness, away from sectarian belonging, geographical location, class, gender, and taboos such as sexual orientation, different abilities, and race.” As we get closer to elections in 2022, it is hard to imagine what the political field will look like, given how mired the current situation is. This has led the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) MENA and LUPD to work on identifying barriers to political rights, and highlighting solutions that can be applied to ensure that more people are able to exercise their rights – especially those with intersectional identities, such as LGBTQ people living with disabilities. The ability to effectively influence one’s political sphere goes hand-in-hand with the ability to advocate for and secure rights in other sectors, such as education, employment, and social services.
The statements expressed during the discussion session with members of the Path Coalition, highlight the dangers of sectarianism and systemic corruption based on group identity. They also recognize that voicing concerns individually is no longer enough in Lebanon. Reform will be only possible when an intersectional coalition of human rights defenders, policymakers, and social activists join forces to rebuild the country in an inclusive way.
The activists in this dialogue were aware that an intersectional coalition is not a tool to merely comprehend what weaves the Lebanese fabric together, but also to illuminate how our diversity can ultimately unite us. Although the activists are aware that the instability in the country “makes it almost impossible for us to develop strategies and take action on our own,” said one participant, the solution can only be found if “we work together,” said another.
Such push factors can indeed help Lebanese to get out of the mess we are in, but this can only happen if there is an improvement on the level of respect for our divergent and sometimes contradictory needs and rights; “this is only possible with structural change,” another participant pointed out.
Coalition members were not naïve about the horrible situation we now find ourselves in. However, they did see hope for the future with a collective sense of responsibility. Most of them agreed that an intersectional coalition is the solution. However, they agreed that this will require us to overcome our latent “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the internal divisions in our society.
Diversity and inclusion require hard work and imagination. In the crisis situation we now face, intersectionality will help us rethink old categories and effectively speak truth to power.
Rouba El Helou is a lecturer and associate research at the Gender, Communications & Global Mobility (GCGM) studies unit in the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Notre Dame University.
Prior to drafting this commentary, El Helou facilitated a session on intersectional advocacy, which engaged activists and representatives from the following 18 organizations in actively participating and sharing their personal and professional experiences: the project co-leads, ABAAD and the Lebanese Union of People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), as well as the Arab Network for Democratic Elections (ANDE), Darb Al Wafaa, Development and Relief Association (DRA), Fe-Male, Justice without Frontiers (JWF), Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA), Learning Centre for the Deaf (LCD), Lebanese Down Syndrome Association (LDSA), Lebanese Federation of the Deaf (LFD), Markaz Adel (Justice Centre), Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO), Riders’ Rights, SIDC, the Social Workers’ Syndicate in Lebanon, and Vivre Positif. These organizations are all part of the Path Coalition: Power in Inclusion and Diversity, an inclusive collective of Lebanese CSOs, supported by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).