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Interview with Rasha Wazneh - Lebanon

Updated: Jan 6




Rasha Wazneh. Communication and Campaigning Senior Coordinator. The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering- RDFL 


Gender Equality Statistics (Lebanon)

In Lebanon, 6% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 11.7 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 as of 2019, down from 13.3 per 1,000 in 2018. As of February 2021, only 4.7% of seats in parliament were held by women. In Lebanon about 29% of women aged 15 and older are in the labor force compared to 72% for men.

Unemployment rate. Age 15+:  Female (14.4%), Male (10%)Literacy rate: Female (95.1%), Male (93.3%) 



This interview was organized and conducted by Kate Bednarz, Kelsey Miguel, and Sutton Smith. Madison Brown, Hailey Williams, Annabelle Crouch, Sutton Smith, Gracie Reinhardt, Catherine Piskurich, Valentina Rydstrom, Jonathan Carney, Liliana Matte, Jack Libby, and Sammy Weldon contributed with their insightful questions. All of them were members of the John V. Roach Honors College and attended the "Cultural Contact Zones: Asia" class, which was offered by the John V. Roach Honors College in the Fall 2023 semester.


 

Interview with Rasha Wazneh (20 September 2023)


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What are the most common stereotypes about women in your country? How are women portrayed in the media in Lebanon?


Rasha Wazneh:

One prevalent stereotype about women in Lebanon is that their main role is domestic. This belief suggests that women should focus on household chores and child-rearing rather than pursuing careers or participating in activities outside the home. Another stereotype perceives women as emotional and irrational, implying that they are more likely to base decisions on emotions rather than logic.

In media, women in Lebanon are frequently depicted in traditional gender roles, reinforcing these stereotypes. They are often shown as passive, submissive, and reliant on men. Their appearance is typically emphasized, with a focus on beauty and fashion. This portrayal can lead to the objectification of women and uphold unrealistic beauty standards. However, it's important to recognize the ongoing efforts to challenge these stereotypes and promote more diverse representations of women in the Lebanese media.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Are there differences in how various generations accept gender equality? Are attitudes accepting gender equality more common in cities than in rural areas?


Rasha Wazneh:

Yes, you certainly can. You can discuss the modest progress in gender equality among the new generation in Lebanon, attributed to greater accessibility to education. This is largely due to the influence of social media platforms, which have increased awareness about gender equality, women's rights, and stereotypes. So, we can indeed acknowledge this progress, credited not only to access to social and global media, but also to the expanding opportunities for education both through social media and in Lebanese universities and colleges.


Madison Brown:

What economic transformations has Lebanon experienced in recent years, and how have these changes influenced gender-based violence and the exploitation of women in Lebanon?


Rasha Wazneh:

Economic changes alone do not directly incite gender-based violence or women's exploitation. However, they can intensify existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Adverse economic conditions may force women into precarious work, or low wages. High unemployment rates and scarce job opportunities due to economic instability disproportionately affect women.

Moreover, reduced resources and budget cuts have restricted access to essential services for women who are victims of violence or exploitation. Economic changes have also fostered a pervasive sense of insecurity and instability, potentially leading to increased violence against women and normalizing such behavior due to the breakdown of social norms and institutions.

The recent economic crisis in Lebanon has had a significant impact on women's rights in the country. Despite Lebanon's traditionally progressive stance on women's rights compared to other regional countries, the economic crisis has exacerbated existing challenges and introduced new ones, resulting in setbacks for women's rights. The crisis has led to reduced services for survivors of violence against women, lower employment rates, and other issues. Therefore, addressing these challenges calls for prioritizing short-term relief measures and long-term structural changes.


Hailey Williams:

How has the sociopolitical environment in Lebanon impacted the conditions for women? Have specific circumstances helped to unify or fragment the women’s rights movement?


Rasha Wazneh:

The sociopolitical environment in Lebanon greatly influences women's conditions in the country. Lebanon's complex and diverse society, marked by political instability, sectarian tensions, and external influences, impacts women's rights.

Lebanon's legal framework, consisting of civil law, religious/personal status laws, and customary practices, plays a significant role in shaping these rights. This intricate legal system results in varying levels of discrimination against women across different sects and communities. For example, personal status laws in Lebanon, governed by religious courts, often discriminate against women in matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

However, it's crucial to acknowledge that Lebanese society is not homogeneous and attitudes towards women can vary across different regions and communities. This sociopolitical environment has had mixed effects on the women's rights movement in terms of unification or decentralization.

On one hand, Lebanon's diverse society has led to the emergence of numerous women's rights organizations and initiatives representing different sects, communities, and regions. These organizations often pursue their specific goals independently, leading to a decentralized movement.


Madison Brown:

The decision-making regarding marriage is left to the discretion of religious courts. What are the challenges associated with reaching the demographic of women who marry at an early age? How might gender-related issues change if the government regulated marriage?


Rasha Wazneh:

RDFL has been leading a campaign against child marriage in Lebanon since 2017 under the hashtag #NotBefore18 campaign. This ongoing national campaign aims to set the legal age of marriage to 18 across all Lebanese territories. As an organization, we have drafted a law and are leading advocacy campaigns to urge decision makers to pass it. The Human Rights Committee passed this law in September 2023, and it will be forwarded to the General Body of the Lebanese Parliament for voting. Additionally, RDFL formed a national coalition to protect children from child marriage, uniting 65 local and international organizations.

One of the challenges we face is child marriage, which in Lebanon, is heavily influenced by traditions and cultures that vary across communities. Additionally, the personal status law in Lebanon differs between women regarding the minimum age of marriage, depending on their religion. This is a significant problem and challenge.

Child marriage in Lebanon is a practice deeply rooted in traditions, cultures, and religion, which makes awareness a long-term effort. However, we believe that having a legal framework that sets the age of marriage to 18, in line with the international laws the Lebanese government has signed, will significantly decrease the number of child marriages in Lebanon. This is RDFL's key national campaign against child marriage in Lebanon.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

In various parts of the world, child marriage is viewed as an economic strategy. Is this the case in Lebanon?


Rasha Wazneh:

Indeed. We've observed this practice since 2019, the onset of the economic crisis in Lebanon. There has been a rise in child marriages across various regions in Lebanon, primarily due to the economic hard ship’s families are enduring. They perceive marrying off girls under the age of 18 as a way to alleviate some of their financial strain.


Annabelle Crouch:

The International Academy for Building Capacity has educated women in Lebanon about conflict resolution. What do you believe is the next crucial topic women in Lebanon should learn about to progress towards gender equality?


Rasha Wazneh:

In Lebanon, women face various challenges and inequalities in various aspects of their lives, including legal rights, social norms, and cultural practices. Despite recent progress, a notable gender gap persists and requires attention. Educating women about their rights and protections can empower them to stand up for themselves, contributing to the pursuit of gender equality.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Is gender equality promoted in Lebanese schools? If so, how is it promoted?


Rasha Wazneh:

It is the feminist movement in Lebanon that assumes this responsibility. Local organizations, funded by international ones, have been implementing new aspects of gender equality and women's rights. These efforts are promoted through organizations such as RDFL and the broad platforms of social media, enabling the message about gender equality to reach a wider audience.


Evan Evangelista:

What is your story? What are the significant events and motivations that shaped you into the influential woman you are today?


Rasha Wazneh:

I believe it's important to discuss my strong personal drive and ambition. This drive helps me overcome challenges and achieve my goals. It is fueled by my personal aspirations, a desire for self-improvement, and a wish to make a positive impact in my society, particularly in areas related to women and girls.


Sutton Smith:

Which leadership role or association membership has had the greatest impact on your life, and why?


Rasha Wazneh:

My role as a Senior Coordinator for Communication and Campaigning at RDFL is likely the most impactful. In this position, I advocate for women's rights and against child marriage in Lebanon. I play a crucial role in formulating and implementing communication strategies, campaigns, and initiatives to raise awareness about women's rights. Additionally, I am dedicated to ending child marriage in our country.


Hailey Williams:

What has been the most challenging aspect of advocating for women's rights in Lebanon? Have there been significant partners in your quest for gender equality?


Rasha Wazneh:

Advocating for women's rights in Lebanon presents several key challenges. One of these is the legal framework. Although Lebanon has ratified various international conventions and treaties promoting gender equality, there is still a significant gap between these international commitments and domestic legislation. Discriminatory laws and practices persist, particularly in areas like personal status laws, inheritance rights, and violence against women. Another obstacle is the lack of political will and commitment to gender equality.

Despite years of progress, women's issues often receive low priority on Lebanese political agendas. This is largely due to the social and economic crisis that has plagued the country in recent years. However, key partners have emerged in the pursuit of gender equality in Lebanon. Civil society organizations like ours, RDFL, along with women's activists and feminist movements, have been pivotal in advocating for change. They have been key in raising awareness about women's rights issues, garnering public support, and pressuring policy makers to act. For instance, RDFL's work was instrumental in compelling decision makers to pass legislation setting the minimum age for marriage.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

You mentioned the challenges of advocating for women's rights and discussing these issues with activists in Africa and Latin America. I've observed that people in these regions often reject gender equality, viewing it as a foreign concept originating from the West. Have you encountered similar resistance to gender equality in your country?


Rasha Wazneh:

Indeed, the concept you mentioned is deeply ingrained in Lebanese society. Civil society organizations like RDFL have been promoting gender equality, yet a segment of the Lebanese community remains resistant to such ideas. These attitudes relate to the concept you brought up. However, we believe that advocacy work, including activities and awareness campaigns about gender equality and women's rights, will eventually make a difference. The results may not be immediate, as change like this often takes years to materialize. Therefore, it's important to acknowledge that there are still some communities in Lebanon that do not accept these messages.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Even among women? So, do some women reject these ideas because they believe they oppose tradition?


Rasha Wazneh:

Indeed, we are a complex community where traditions, cultures, and religious policies intersect. This complexity forms a chain of interconnected elements. Some women, due to this intricate web, are not even aware of their rights. They may endure violence without realizing it or without the ability to voice their experiences. Some can't even distinguish whether certain behaviors towards them are violent or not. Therefore, I believe there is much long-term work to be done in these communities.


Gracie Reinhardt:

Based on online images, both the EuroMed Feminist Initiative and the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering seem to emphasize teamwork and group effort. How does it feel to work with individuals who share your passion?


Rasha Wazneh:

Working with individuals who share the same passion can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience. A common goal or interest creates a sense of unity and purpose that can foster collaboration and innovation. This is especially true in organizations like the Euro Med Feminist Initiative and the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, where teamwork and group effort are fundamental.


Catherine Piskurich:

Considering Lebanon's significant gender gap, how was your experience stepping outside of societal norms and pursuing your personal mission? Do you have any significant stories or advice you'd like to share about overcoming such challenges?


Rasha Wazneh:

In a society where traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained, advocating for gender equality demands courage, determination, and resilience. This path often involves confronting various forms of adversity, such as societal pressure, discrimination, and resistance to change. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals who share your passion for gender equality and engaging in constructive dialogue with those who hold differing views can be beneficial.

Moreover, seeking opportunities for open and respectful conversations about gender equality is crucial. Sharing your perspectives and listening to others' experiences and concerns can foster understanding, bridge gaps, and potentially change minds.


Sutton Smith:

Who or what inspired you to participate in numerous organizations and advocate for women's rights and empowerment?


Rasha Wazneh:

The motivation to engage in these causes often comes from a deeply ingrained belief in equality, justice, and recognition of the inherent worth and potential of every individual, regardless of their gender. As a woman, I have personally experienced various forms of gender inequality firsthand.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

How did your family and friends react when you chose to advocate for gender equality?


Rasha Wazneh:

My generation is relatively young and has shown a good level of acceptance for my work. This might not be the case with older generations, who may be more resistant to change. The discrepancy is often due to factors like social media and increased access to education. Personally, I've been fortunate to have the support of my family and friends. Many of them share my goals and work with me towards achieving them. This is a tip I always give: engage with individuals who share your passion.


Valentina Rydstrom:

What motivated you to join the Lebanese Democratic Women's Gathering?


Rasha Wazneh:

A primary motivation was to establish a platform to advocate for women's rights in my country and contribute to transforming their lives.


Sammy Weldon:

What advice would you offer to someone interested in advocating for women's rights?


Rasha Wazneh:

My recommendation is to learn about the history and current issues surrounding women's rights. Join local or national organizations that advocate for these rights, and actively participate in campaigns, protests, and initiatives that aim to promote gender equality and empower women.


Jonathan Carney:

Your organization's vision focuses on achieving gender equality. What strategies and initiatives do you think are most effective in raising awareness and promoting a cultural shift towards gender equality in Lebanese society, especially considering the deeply ingrained traditions and social norms in the region?


Rasha Wazneh:

Promoting gender equality in Lebanese society requires a multifaceted approach. This includes educational initiatives, legal reforms, engaging with religious leaders, empowering women economically, and involving men and boys. By adopting these strategies, Lebanon can strive towards building a more inclusive society.


Liliana Matte:

How does your leadership role in the Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering help address gender equality challenges in Lebanon? These challenges include low labor market participation by women and their underrepresentation in political leadership positions.


Rasha Wazneh:

As the head of the Advocacy department, my leadership contributes to addressing the issue of women's low market labor participation. We work towards creating an enabling environment for women to enter and thrive in the labor market through advocacy and lobbying efforts. This includes advocating for policies that promote equal opportunities for women in employment, such as anti-discrimination laws and maternity leave provisions. Additionally, by engaging with policymakers and raising awareness about the importance of women's economic empowerment, RDFL helps create a more inclusive labor market for women.


Valentina Rydstrom:

What specific methods has the Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering employed to promote feminism in Lebanon? Additionally, what have been their most significant successes and failures?


Rasha Wazneh:

Primarily, RDFL advocates for feminism in Lebanon through legal means. We have been actively lobbying for legislative reforms to protect women's rights and combat gender-based violence. Our campaigns have consistently pushed for the adoption of laws criminalizing domestic violence.

As previously mentioned, we are endorsing laws such as setting a minimum age for marriage, criminalizing marital rape, and advocating for the abolition of discriminatory laws related to nationality and divorce. These discriminatory laws disproportionately affect women.

RDFL also provides support services to women who have experienced violence or discrimination. This support is available 24/7 through the RDFL hotline.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola Corbacho:

What strategies and initiatives do you suggest for effectively addressing and combating gender-based violence in society?


Rasha Wazneh:

I believe that through continuous effort, vital force, and the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment, we can achieve significant results. We have made much progress over the years, and I expect more satisfactory outcomes in the future.


Liliana Matte:

Can you provide specific examples of projects by the Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering that have significantly advanced women's rights and democracy in Lebanon?


Rasha Wazneh:

RDFL has been an active advocate for legal reforms promoting women's rights and gender equality in Lebanon. We notably campaigned to abolish Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which permitted rapists to evade punishment by marrying their victims. Apart from the "Not Before 18" campaign, we've implemented numerous projects to enhance women's economic partnerships and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, we spearheaded several initiatives to inspire women to engage in politics, run for office, and take on leadership roles.


Jack Libby:

What are your hopes for the advancement of women's rights, not only in Lebanon but globally, over the next five years?


Rasha Wazneh:

Predicting the exact trajectory of women's rights over the next five years can be challenging. However, there are several areas where we can aim for further advancements, both in Lebanon and globally. A significant way to ensure progress is through legal reforms and the establishment of comprehensive gender equality laws.

It's crucial to improve access to quality education for girls and women, both in Lebanon and worldwide. Governments and organizations should strive for equal opportunities for women in the workforce. This includes addressing wage gaps, promoting entrepreneurship, and providing access to credit and resources. International collaboration and advocacy efforts are also important.


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