Rarely do we see the poetically evocative adjective “arabesque” outside the ballet. So being invited to “An Arabesque Event” held an irresistible charm.
As it turned out, the title was more figurative than the event figure-filled, except in a homonymic sense: the film we were shown brimmed with facts and figures, but whose effect, alas, was more alarming than charming. And yet: empowering.
The ADC [American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee] “Women’s Empowerment Forum: Arabesque Event—Screening of ‘Madame Parliamentarian’” introduced DC audiences to the documentary short by Lebanese-American filmmaker Rouane Itani, who was there to introduce the 15-minute film, which could not have been more compelling had it been feature length. The film in turn introduced the packed and attentive room at Busboys & Poets’ Mount Vernon location to the ways in which Lebanon’s women, despite being among the Arab world’s most highly educated and socially conscious, continue to be shortchanged politically.
Illustrated with incisive interviews featuring women candidates, Lebanese citizens and knowledgeable observers, and enhanced with imaginative, richly detailed CGI imagery by animator Patricia Perry-Burgess and music with an irresistible Arabic beat, including “Take Me to Beirut” and “Hubbley Bubbley” by Music and Sound Designer Mohamad, Madame Parliamentarian was well received, and filled the audience with questions for Itani. She was joined in a moderated post-screening discussion with Stephenie Foster of the Department of State, whose career focus has included human and women’s rights and civic engagement, and who recently served at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the film tells us, just 10 women have been elected to parliament, thanks largely to familial and financial connections, the amount of money needed to file for candidacy being “beyond the reach of most women.” Even the two who succeeded their deceased husbands found their seats reclaimed when their sons came of age.
Yet the women’s movement has legs in Lebanon, with 140 organizations, under an umbrella association established in 1952 and known as the Lebanese Women’s Council, that addresses welfare, religious, academic, political, feminist, and other issues. And yet: while women make up 54% of Lebanon’s population, they compose only 1.5% of its parliament.
The contradictions continue: while Lebanon ranks 123 out of 136 countries in the number of women legislators, it’s “often considered the most progressive society in the Arab world.” And perhaps in some ways it is: we see several examples of political commercials urging women to run for office. Yet those who do are likely to become victims of “religious sectarianism” and the “patriarchal” structure of Lebanese society, as well as financial pressures that push women to withdraw their candidacies. Lebanon in fact twice rejected the “woman’s quota” of at least 30% parliamentary representation adopted by most countries; it remains on hold.
At the post-screening discussion, the DC-based, American University-educated Itani explained that the documentary was filmed over the course of the 2005 and 2009 election campaigns. She had expected there to be some attitudinal shift, given the change in the air following the assassination in February 2005 of former prime minister Rafic Baha El Deen Al Hariri. While the shift was by no means seismic in impact or scope, an organization encouraging women to vote did spring up, and would become the implicit focus of her film.
Why is political representation by women, then, so important? Foster’s answer was simple and irrefutable: “Women either raise issues men don’t, or they raise them in a different way.”
Solutions? The quota system, while controversial, has been used successfully in nations as politically and culturally diverse as Norway and Mongolia. (Fascinating fact: The highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide is found in Rwanda.) And some countries must have women candidates to obtain U.N. funding, often according to a “zipper list” structure, in which every other candidate must be a woman to ensure their equal representation in government.
And then, there is the “confessional” system, said Itani in response to a question, one of the most intractable of traditional sectarian issues, which allots political representation proportionally on the basis of religious affiliation. This is a larger problem in the smaller, religiously segregated towns; in cities, said Itani, “people have a little more independence of thought, and there is less political and social pressure.”
How do you convince men to share power? For Itani, it’s a matter of self-interest. “Women are their mothers, their wives and their daughters. How could they not want them to have rights?” Itani noted that there used to be a law prohibiting women’s access to media; the law was changed. Marriage to non-Lebanese men has also helped women traverse restrictive political, religious and cultural borders.
Recalling her service in Afghanistan, Foster said it was then that she “realized the importance of education, and sharing what we have in common.” And—as Itani’s film shows—sharing what we have that’s different.
The next DC screening of Madame Parliamentarian will be on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at the National Democratic Institute –1990 M Street, NW Suite 610, in Washington DC. |https://www.madameparliamentarian.com/screenings/#.U4ZrqvldV6I.
Madame Parliamentarian website.