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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 13 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Women’s Lib in Lebanon: Trying to Balance both Family and Career

By Birgit Kaspar

"Simply a bit too much": Najlaa Jaber earns less than her male colleagues and does not enjoy their tax benefits

A fresh breeze blows through Najlaa Jaber's large garden in Maifadoun in southern Lebanon. From inside the house, one can even hear the goats bleating. When the 49-year-old inspector with the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture and mother of two sons returns home after an hour-and-a-half bus ride from her job in Beirut, she is glad to take care of the goats. She finds it relaxing.

The woman with wild, black curly hair is a bundle of energy. She was born in the rural south of Lebanon, characterized by its religious Shiite traditions. Despite her conservative upbringing, she chose to follow a professional career. "It is something different than just a full-time job. Sometimes you can't make any allowances for your family or personal preferences. You have to set priorities," explains Najlaa.

Few women in management positions

To put your family in second place, however, is not acceptable for a woman and mother, particularly in Lebanon. It would mean that she has to ignore what other people say. Despite its modern facade, Lebanon is a very conservative society.

Najlaa is lucky, though. Her husband Ali and her two sons support her working. Only 27 percent of those employed in Lebanon are women. She earns less than her male colleagues and does not enjoy their tax benefits. Very few women work in management positions, as these are predominately held by men. It also has to do with the fact that women require a lot of time for their families, explains Nadya Khalife, who is responsible for women's rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. This is the case, whether they work or not.

"Women in Lebanon have no intention of fighting for their rights," says Nadya Khalife

"Women are discriminated against in the workplace. At the same time, they are supposed to be full-time mothers, take care of the large family, and do their job. This is simply a bit too much," complains Nadya Khalife.

Najlaa also finds it tiring. But, at the same time, she feels energized from her work, when things go well. But mhave got it easier, she says. When they come home from work, they don't have to deal with the housework or take care of the children. "All this is a strain on my energy," says Najlaa.

Few feminists to be found

Women in Lebanon appear to be open and modern. Many wear western-style clothes, some even more provocatively than Europeans. Yet, they are far from enjoying equal rights. It makes no difference whether they are Christians or Muslims.

They are especially at a disadvantage with respect to their civil rights – Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children or their foreign spouses. They also hold the shorter straw when it comes to marriage, divorce, custody rights, and family law. This is because jurisdiction over these areas is controlled by the respective Christian, Muslim, and Druze religious courts. In terms of political participation, things appear similarly bleak. There are only four women currently sitting in parliament and the 30-member cabinet has only two women members.

Nadya Khalife criticizes that there exists no truly grassroots movement for women's rights in Lebanon. There are a couple of organisations. "But when you speak with normal women on the street, you won't find any real feminists. They have no intention of fighting for their rights," explains Nadya Khalife.

Icon of the women's movement

One exception is the 84-year-old Linda Mattar, who today is still the President of the League for Women's Rights. The delicate, but determined grey-haired icon of the Lebanese women's movement can point to one great victory in the many years of her struggle. Since 1953, women are allowed to vote and stand for election in Lebanon. Otherwise, it has been a rather difficult struggle.

Linda Mattar, President of the League for Women's Rights: "Many women don't even know what rights they could have"

"Many women here have everything they want and don't care at all about politics," she says. "Others don't have anything and don't even know what rights they could have." But she will continue as long as she remains healthy and clear-headed.

Najlaa, by contrast, is concerned only with her personal struggle. The energetic woman with a successful career and family provides an example to other women in Lebanon considering following the same path. For the most part, this has earned her a great deal of respect. Yet, Lebanese society is very schizophrenic.

"There are many taboos and you are never truly free. That is, unless you make yourself free. And you can't care what other people think or how they treat you," she says. This requires a great deal of strength. A strength that Najlaa Jaber possesses.

Source: © Deutsche Welle/ 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/