Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Lebanon

  • Author: Dr. Zeina Zaatari
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 4,200,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $4,360
Economy: Mixed statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 80 out of 177
Polity: Presidential-parliamentary (military and partly foreign-occupied)
Literacy: Male 92.4% / Female 81.0%
Percent Women Economically Active: 30.3%
Date of Women's Suffrage: 1952
Women's Fertility Rate: 2.4
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 88% / Rural 12%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 2.8
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 2.9
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 2.8
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 2.9
Social and Cultural Rights: 2.9

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


Lebanon was established as a French mandate in 1920 and gained its independence in 1943. A long series of conflicts began in 1975, with a civil war that continued erratically until after the 1989 Taif Peace Accord. In 1976, the president of the republic invited Syrian forces to enter Lebanon as a peacekeeping mission to help expedite an end to the civil war, and Syria has since retained a military presence. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982. After partial withdrawal in 1985, Israel continued to occupy a portion of South Lebanon, "the Occupied Strip," until the resistance movement forced its evacuation in May of 2000. Syria redeployed and withdrew some of its troops from Lebanon in 2004.

Lebanon is a parliamentary republic in which the president, who is chief of state, governs the country's affairs, along with the prime minister, who acts as head of the government, and an executive cabinet. A unicameral National Assembly of 128 deputies is elected every four years by the people. The president is formally elected by the parliament every six years; the current incumbent, Emile Lahud, has been in office since November 24, 1998.

The French mandate government (the French High Commission) officially recognized 17 religious sects in 1936. Today, Lebanon has 18 officially recognized religious sects and 15 personal status codes and court systems that officiate over personal and family matters. Lebanon's political structure is sectarian, or consociational, in which particular quotas of religious sects inform the divisions of power. This practice was solidified in the constitutional amendments of the Taif Accord in 1990. Each of the 18 officially recognized religious sects is represented in parliament and in the ministries. By custom, the president of the republic is Maronite Christian, the prime minister is Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the house is a Muslim Shi'a. The division of power and the quota system are supposedly in accordance with a census conducted by France in 1932, which resulted in special rights for the Maronites, who were allied with France. The current political structure is not capable of adapting to changes in demographic or power relationships.

The population of Lebanon is estimated to be 4.2 million but many argue that the numbers are much higher. Lebanon's population includes a significant number of Palestinian refugees, as well as Armenians and minority Kurds. While most Kurds and Armenians have been granted Lebanese citizenship, the majority of Palestinians maintain refugee status.

Most of the country's infrastructure was destroyed during Lebanon's many wars; a reconstruction/rehabilitation project has been under way since the end of the civil war. However, 15 years of efforts to rebuild and recreate Lebanon's early days as a tourism and commercial hub, led by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, have resulted in a $40 billion foreign debt. Lebanon has a GDP of 19 billion and ranks 80 out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index. Increasing gaps between a rich minority and an increasingly poor majority have diminished the middle class and perpetuated the migration of young adults seeking employment. In 1999, an estimated 28 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, with an overall unemployment rate of 20 to 25 percent.

While Lebanon's constitution guarantees equality to all citizens, the country's laws are multifaceted and tend to discriminate against women in practice. General patriarchal attitudes in Lebanese society also make it difficult for women to obtain upper-level positions in the public and private sectors and challenge women's efforts to advance their overall status. Nevertheless, women are active in most – including the economic, political, and social – aspects of Lebanese life. Women's associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocate for the greater participation of women in the government and society, as well as lobby for increased human rights and nondiscriminatory laws and protections. NGOs also work to hold the government accountable to its obligations under CEDAW and other international treaties to which it is a signatory. While the president and prime minister attend many women's conferences, their commitments to women have yet to evolve into material changes or actual implementation. The government has not made noticeable, practical efforts to assist rural women who suffer disproportionately from poverty and have little awareness of their rights due to a high rate of illiteracy.


Article 7 of Lebanon's constitution asserts, "All Lebanese are equal under the law, enjoying equally civil and political rights, and performing duties and public responsibility without any discrimination among them." While the spirit of Lebanon's constitution guarantees women's equality before the law, no article or clause explicitly prohibits gender discrimination. As a result, many laws adopted under the constitution fail to ensure protections against gender discrimination, and women are denied equal rights. For example, earlier governments restricted women's political rights until women successfully organized and petitioned for equality – resulting in the decree of December 1952. The Women's Political Rights Agreement now ensures that, "women have the right to vote in all elections and under conditions that equate them to men without any discrimination." Lebanon's labor laws are an exception, in that they clearly indicate that discrimination based on gender is unacceptable and punishable by law.

Citizenship Law No. 15 and the Nationality Law govern Lebanese citizenship. The first article of the citizenship law states that citizenship is inherited through the father or acquired by birth on Lebanese territory. Citizenship laws prioritize patrilineal decent, and a Lebanese woman who marries a foreign national cannot pass her citizenship on to her husband or the children of this union. A Lebanese man, on the other hand, can pass his nationality on to his foreign wife and children. A naturalized wife retains the right to pass Lebanese citizenship on to her children only in the event of the death of her husband or if the child's father is unknown or does not possess a nationality. This limit on transference of citizenship affects the children's rights to work, own property, and access governmental resources. Such limitations can be detrimental to a woman's well being, especially in cases of divorce or widowhood.

Lebanon's judicial system is made up of four courts of cassation, a Constitutional Council that rules on the constitutionality of laws, and the Supreme Council. Most women have equal access to all levels of the courts and are entitled to equal representation. However, due to the country's consecutive wars and the dominance of family structures, women's overall access to the judicial system is occasionally restricted. Women's access to justice can be limited by a variety of factors, including socioeconomic status, education, patronage ties, nationality, age, or gender.

A woman's testimony in civil court is generally considered equal to that of a man's; this is not the case in the Sunni and Shi'a religious courts, where the testimony of two women is required to match the value of one man's testimony. While women have the right to bring lawsuits in both the civil and religious courts, women are prohibited from serving as lawyers and judges within the religious court system.

Women and men are treated equally in most sections of the Lebanese criminal and penal codes, with the exception of laws that address adultery, violence against women in the name of "honor," abortion, rape, and prostitution. Articles 487 to 489 criminalize adultery but discriminate between men and women in terms of the conditions of the crime, proof, and sentencing. A woman can be found guilty of adultery if the act takes place inside or outside her home, whereas the man will only be punished for adulterous acts that take place inside his home or when his adulterous relationship is public knowledge. While a man's sentence ranges from one month to a year, a woman's sentence for adultery is three months to two years' incarceration. A woman is required to have the testimony of witnesses to prove her innocence, whereas a man can be proven innocent based on lack of material evidence, such as incriminating letters or documents. In general, however, few adultery cases are actually handled in the courts. Lebanese law is different from public sentiment; adultery is seen as a moral crime, not a legal crime punishable in a court of law. Adultery may lead to divorce, family quarrels, and disagreements, and in a few cases, the murder of the woman in the name of family "honor."

Law No. 562 allows for a man to receive a lighter sentence in the event that he surprises his wife, sister, or any female relative in the act of adultery or unlawful copulation (mostly sex without marriage) and proceeds to (or attempts to) kill or injure one or both of the participants without prior intent. Before the amendments of March 20, 1999 – largely due to the advocacy efforts of women's and human rights groups – this law had allowed for lighter sentencing for any man who committed a crime of "honor" against a woman. While the amended law no longer allows for premeditation and now requires the element of surprise and emotion, the law remains discriminatory against women. The current wording of the law still enables lawyers to manipulate the defense, does not equally guarantee similar rights for women who commit the same crime, promotes violence against women, and contradicts both the Lebanese constitution and CEDAW.

Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on April 21, 1997, with reservations on Articles 9 (2), 16 (1) (c) (d) (f) and (g) and 29 (2). Article 9 of CEDAW addresses equal rights for men and women with respect to citizenship and nationality, and Article 16 commits the state to eliminate discrimination against women in matters of the family and marriage.

A large number of women's groups are active in Lebanon. While a few are government-associated entities, the majority of women's groups are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that operate nationally and regionally within the country. The National Committee on Lebanese Women (NCLW) is a national organization, under the control of the government, which was created by a governmental decree on December 12, 1996, to further implement the Beijing Platform for Action. This entity consists of a board of directors appointed by the cabinet, with the president directly appointed by the president of Lebanon. Since its inception, the position of committee president has been occupied by the country's first lady, while the wife of the head of parliament has held the position of committee vice president. The NCLW has no legislative or executive powers, however, and much of its work is restricted to conferences and presenting recommendations to government officials. The Women's Affairs Bureau, an office in the Department of Family Affairs that is housed in the Ministry of Social Affairs, is the only other governmental entity that addresses women's issues.

As a result of the country's history of conflict and wars, many women's NGOs have prioritized their missions toward the economic and social needs of women in rural areas and women with little access to resources. These organizations work toward achieving women's rights on the ground. A large number of women's organizations also focus on lobbying and aim to research and publish their findings on women to influence policy makers and the judicial system. The Lebanese Women's Council (LWC), established in the 1950s, serves as an umbrella entity for more than 140 organizations. Other organizations work to monitor Lebanese women's status, such as the NGO Committee for the Follow-up to Beijing, the League for Lebanese Women's Rights, and the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World. These organizations have helped to raise gender awareness through conferences, media campaigns, and articles in national newspapers. Several Palestinian women's groups operate outside and within refugee camps; they focus their work largely on eradicating poverty, raising awareness, and vocational training of women and men.

The Lebanese government generally supports women's entities. Organizations are licensed with relative ease, and government officials attend and participate in their conferences. The Ministry of Social Services works rather closely with some of the organizations, specifically those groups involved with day care or elementary schools. Nevertheless, while the government does not obstruct the work of women's groups, it does not provide any initiatives, funding, resources, or material encouragement. Reports of the Ministry of Treasury indicate that spending on entities that could positively impact women's lives is minimal. While women's organizations operating in Beirut are usually well connected with other UN entities and to international sources of funding, those working in rural areas increasingly face problems securing funds for their projects.


  1. The government should amend the constitution to include a clause that ensures gender equality in all rights and obligations under the constitution.
  2. The government should repeal all discriminatory clauses within the criminal and penal code, particularly laws dealing with adultery and crimes against women in the name of "honor," to ensure women's equal treatment before the law.
  3. The government should amend citizenship and naturalization laws to enable children of any Lebanese man or woman to receive their right to citizenship.
  4. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally.


The Lebanese constitution guarantees the freedom of creed to all its citizens. Article 9 of the Lebanese constitution (1926) states, "There shall be absolute freedom of conviction. While acknowledging the Most High, the State respects all creeds and religions. It guarantees and protects the free exercise of all forms of worship, on condition that public order is not interfered with. It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the entire population are respected."

All Lebanese citizens are assigned to the religious sect of their father upon birth, which they can change at a later age if they so wish. While groups are permitted to practice religions other than the 18 officially recognized religions, they must officially be in accordance with the rules of one of the 15 personal status codes in order to engage in such procedures as marriage, divorce, inheritance, or burial. Therefore, individuals and religious groups may face restrictions on their right to practice their religion freely; religious groups who believe in equal status between men and women, for example, may be forced to conform to a court's gender-discriminatory laws. Civil marriage is not allowed in Lebanon. However, Lebanon does recognize civil marriages that have taken place outside the country; in the case of disputes relating to such marriages, the laws of the particular country in which the ceremony took place will be applied to resolve the marriage, divorce, and/or custody details.

Women's freedom of movement is not legally restricted in Lebanon but may be restricted in practice. While married women are not legally required to obtain their husband's permission in order to get a passport or travel abroad, a husband or father can petition immigration authorities, airport officials, or court officials to stop his wife or daughter from leaving the country. Social customs and cultural traditions also affect women's freedom to travel outside the country or to fill employment positions that require late hours or living away from their families. A woman's family will often collectively make the decisions regarding her movement. Age and socioeconomic background are additional factors that may contribute to a woman's degree of personal freedom and autonomy. There are no legal avenues for men or women to file complaints against restrictive family decisions regarding their movement.

It is difficult to assess or generalize women's treatment under Lebanon's personal status codes, with 15 separate codes and court systems officiating over personal and family matters. Personal status codes in Lebanon preside over marriage, divorce, guardianship, child custody, adoption, and inheritance. However, Lebanon's religious courts lack executive powers to implement their decisions, and inefficient police may not always enforce court decisions favorable to women.

Gender differentiation, and in some cases gender discrimination, can be found in most, if not all of the personal status codes that govern Lebanese lives. Some personal status codes consider the testimony of one man to be equal to that of two women. Muslim inheritance laws in Lebanon also discriminate on the basis of gender, providing two shares to the male heir and one share to the female heir. Men and women also receive differential treatment in the courts in matters of marriage. The accepted, or minimum age of marriage varies, but all courts agree that this age should be different for males and females. In the Druze personal status codes, the minimum age for marriage is 18 for males and 17 for females (with the absolute minimum of 16 for males and 15 for females accepted only by an official statement from the court). In the Eastern Catholic personal status codes, Law 75 indicates that the minimum age for marriage is 16 for males and 14 for females. The minimum marriage age for Shi'a is puberty, or with judicial permission, 15 for girls and 9 for boys.

All personal status codes in Lebanon require the consent of both parties in marriage, even in cases in which a guardian has been appointed. While it is not customary, a woman and a man can marry without a guardian, as long as they are of maturity (18 years or older). The religious judge is required to hear verbal consent from both parties and receive the signature of the couple, along with their guardians and witnesses. Couples can agree to place conditions into the marriage contract within the Muslim courts, which may include agreements on monetary compensation, a wife's right to work outside the home, divorce, and custody rights. Legally, the husband has no right to forbid his wife from working; however, some Christian courts in Lebanon hold that the man must approve his wife's decision to work.

Some of the laws in Lebanon's Personal Status Codes actually work to a woman's advantage. Lebanon's Personal Status laws that are applied in Muslim courts clearly state that a woman's property and earnings are her own and she is not required to spend them on the household or the family. As the husband is perceived to be the breadwinner of the family, his inability or refusal to financially provide for his family is grounds for divorce. Lebanon's personal status laws that are applied in Christian courts indicate that it is the mother's duty to nurse her child. For instance, the Armenian Orthodox court indicates, "a mother has the obligation to nurse her child from the moment of his birth and up to two years." Muslim courts in Lebanon, on the other hand, recognize that this is a privilege, and a mother is entitled to compensation or pay for these services from the father.

Men and women are also treated differently under the various personal status codes in matters of divorce. Many of the Christian courts do not allow divorce, while those that do, permit it only under specified conditions. These conditions usually require proof of adultery or abuse. The Greek Orthodox personal status code, for example, declares that divorce will be granted only under conditions in which the husband can prove in court that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, that she destroyed a pregnancy willfully (either by contraceptive methods or through actual abortion), disobeyed him and left the house to visit associates without his knowledge, or refused to live in her husband's home. A woman married under Muslim laws in Lebanon faces hardships and years of litigation if she seeks a divorce against her husband's wishes. On the other hand, under the same laws, a Muslim man can divorce his wife easily, verbally, and without needing to provide any reasons.

For the most part, kinship, family, and religion tend to play a greater role in governing the lives and affairs of Lebanon's residents than the country's laws and courts. Many individuals are not aware of the laws that govern their unions or individual rights. It is only in such cases as a troublesome marriage or a death without a will in a conflict-ridden family that people are faced with dilemmas that require the intervention of the law. Families will often attempt to resolve disputes through kin networks, informal channels, and mediators before taking the issue to a court of law. It is even general practice within Sunni and Shi'a religious courts for the judge to mandate a period of mediation, requiring the litigants to try, through relatives and friends, to resolve a conflict or reach an acceptable compromise. Only after all these procedures are exhausted will a religious judge issue a sentence. This process of justice sometimes benefits women who may receive help from their relatives, but it can also be a disadvantage if a woman's conflict stems from her family or if she is unable to seek outside help as a result of her family's constraints.

It is both illegal and socially unacceptable for women to be held in slavery or slavery-like conditions. It is, for example, very difficult for parents to marry off their daughters without their consent or to keep them hidden behind closed doors. Lebanese law protects both men and women from being detained or held against their will. Article 8 of the constitution guarantees personal freedom under the law, making it unlawful for anyone to be imprisoned or arrested except within the boundaries of the law. Article 569 of the penal code addresses the deprivation of liberty of any individual. Nevertheless, the trafficking of women does occur. Women from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines are contracted for employment as domestic workers in Lebanon. These women may be subjected to extreme working conditions or physical abuse. Women from Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria are also trafficked into the country for commercial sexual exploitation, but in smaller numbers. The Lebanese government has taken some preventive measures to combat trafficking, but it has not made sufficient efforts to prosecute traffickers or protect women victims.

Article 14 of the Lebanese constitution states that the home is a sacred space, and no one is allowed entry except through legally prescribed instruments. While this law intends to protect a family's right to privacy, its implementation can have negative repercussions for women. The general sentiment in Lebanon, which is reflected in the implementation of this law, is that the state has no right to interfere in matters of the home or in conflicts between a husband and wife; therefore, a woman is left totally unprotected by the law in her own home. This law can also affect other family members and non-family members who reside in the home, such as domestic workers. There are several concerns surrounding the freedom of mobility and travel of female foreign domestic workers. Research indicates that violations of human rights and abuses are common, yet the state has not established mechanisms to protect victims and prosecute offenders.

The penal code guards against torture and unlawful arrest and detention of all subjects of the state. Article 513 punishes employers, prison guards, and officials for crimes committed against prisoners, detainees, or any of their family members. Despite the laws, violations against both women and men in prisons and detention centers do occur. There is no evidence however, to indicate differential gender treatment between men and women regarding arrest, detention, or exile.

Domestic violence has increasingly become a topic of discussion in conferences and the media over the last eight years. Both Muslim and Christian courts in Lebanon recognize a husband's physical abuse of his wife as grounds for divorce or separation. While some still consider the topic to be taboo, spaces are continuing to open for women to discuss, organize, and seek help for domestic violence. A first-of-its-kind open forum session, the Women's Court, was held in Beirut in 1995 for women to discuss the issue of domestic violence and to give their personal testimonies as victims. The forum was organized by several local and regional women's NGOs as one of the follow-up steps to the Beijing platform. Another NGO, the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women (LCRVAW), was founded in Beirut in March 1997 to monitor violence against women, disseminate information, network with other organizations, provide free legal aid and counseling, and lobby the government. They managed to install the first domestic violence hotline, and in 1996, successfully established The Permanent Arab Court to Resist Violence Against Women, a symbolic popular court where women victims of violence could present testimonies.

The Lebanese government, on the other hand, has not taken any major or concrete steps to change the laws or policies that govern the issue of domestic violence against women, and it has failed to provide resources or funding to agencies that work to promote domestic violence awareness. According to 1997 police statistics, 1,302 incidents of violence against women were reported in the country, although the percentage of abuse cases that could be classified as domestic was not available. Reporting of domestic abuse is still relatively low. Various NGOs counsel women victims of violence and a few have set up shelters.

Lebanese laws that criminalize rape tend to be lenient toward men and do not apply to marital relationships. Marital rape is not considered a crime in Lebanon. Women's groups are actively advocating for changes to laws that provide weak sentences for perpetrators of sex crimes, such as Article 522, which declares that the state will not prosecute a rapist and will nullify his conviction if the rapist marries his victim. The sentence for rape, according to Article 503, is forced labor for at least five years or for at least seven years if the victim is under 15 years of age. Article 518 sentences a man who seduces a virgin into intercourse with the intent of marriage and then recants to six months in jail and/or a fine. Little research has been done on the prevalence of rape or marital rape in Lebanese society.


  1. The government should amend all laws that do not currently protect women from all violence, including eliminating legal provisions that allow reduced sentences for abusers who marry their victims or claim honor as justification for their crimes.
  2. The government should enact a law against domestic violence and take concrete steps to ensure implementation.
  3. The government and women's NGOs should work to create broader societal awareness about women's legal rights, including the rights of foreign domestic workers and the elimination of violence against women.


Economic conditions in Lebanon have continued to deteriorate since the end of the civil war in 1990, and high rates of migration for employment and education among Lebanon's youth have been reported. While women have full access to educational institutions under the law, as well as full rights to engage in business and own property, they continue to be poorly represented in the labor force due to social customs and gender discrimination.

Act No. 380 of 1994, provides married and single women, 18 years and older, the full capacity to engage in commerce and to own and dispose of property at will. Most of Lebanon's personal status codes allow for the wife to keep all assets acquired prior to the marriage, as well as have independent ownership and usage of her assets during the marriage. In 1959, an equal inheritance law was passed that requires all citizens, with the exception of the Muslim sects, to abide by equal inheritance provisions for males and females. The inheritance laws of the Sunni and Shi'a religious sects of Lebanon usually designate one share for daughters and two shares for sons.

Education remains a very important avenue for social mobility in Lebanon and is emphasized by families across the socioeconomic, sectarian, and regional divides. Elementary education in Lebanon was made compulsory and free in 1998 under Law 34/59. In accordance with the Department of Statistics (1997), the percentage of both boys and girls enrolled in elementary and middle school is high, and there is little variation between genders. The years of war and conflict, however, have left their mark on the public educational system, which generally benefits the lower socioeconomic level of the population. Private schooling provides students with a greater competitive edge in gaining access to higher education and employment. In 2004, 81 percent of women age 15 and above were literate, compared to 92.4 percent of men in the same age category.

War and economic crises tend to increase families' needs for working hands. It is common for boys in the intermediate level of school to leave education in search of work or vocational training. Girls who stay in school tend to continue their education as an alternative to early marriage, which is common among poorer families. Palestinian refugees, especially those residing in refugee camps, generally attend United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)-funded schools, whose standards have been on the decline. The government has not taken any measures to ensure that students stay in school, and there are no specific laws that address gender discrimination within the educational system. Various women's organizations are working to improve literacy rates through adult literacy workshops and classes for females in rural areas where the need is greatest.

Women's participation in Lebanon's labor force has generally been on the rise (from 16.2 percent in 1990 to 20.3 percent in 2000). Many economists attribute the increase in women's employment to harsh economic conditions and the dire need of their families, although more single women are in the work force than married. Social customs and traditions in Lebanon seem to be more influential than economic restrictions on women's career choices. At the university level, higher rates of females enroll in what are considered to be more traditionally female fields, such as the social sciences and humanities, while men tend to enroll in more traditionally male fields, such as engineering. While the participation of women in some labor fields, like construction, is less socially acceptable, no fields at the university level or in the labor force are off limits to women. In fact, gender crossover seems to be on the rise within many professions.

On May 26, 2000, Article 26 of Lebanon's Labor Law was amended, largely due to the advocacy efforts of women's groups and unions. Article 26 now states that it is forbidden for the employer to discriminate based on gender between female and male workers in terms of type of work, salary or wage, employment, promotion, progress, professional rehabilitation and training, or dress code. While women may now sue their employers for gender discrimination, lawsuits of this type are rare. Women will often seek alternative avenues for help or justice, such as appealing to employment heads or governmental officials with whom they have connections, rather than the courts.

Lebanese labor laws provide women with a number of gender-specific protections in the workplace. Article 28 specifies that private sector employers are required to give an expectant mother seven weeks of maternity leave with full pay, and Article 38 was amended to provide women employees in the public sector with 60 days' maternity leave. It is not permissible for employers to fire a mother who is on maternity leave, and a termination of work notice cannot be rendered to a pregnant employee starting from the fifth month of her pregnancy or during her maternity leave. Female employees are entitled to equal compensation with men for termination of service. Labor laws also ensure certain family benefits for employees. Employee compensation is provided for every child, regardless of the employee's gender. However, inequalities in employment benefits do exist. Male employees are always entitled to compensation for their non-working wives, but female employees are only entitled to such compensation if their husbands are deceased or suffer from an illness that prevents them from working.

Public awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace has increased, as the topic has received more coverage in Lebanese television programs and newspapers. While there are laws to address physical violence against women outside the home, no specific laws protect women from harassment in the workplace. Women's NGOs are working to pressure the government to create these needed laws.

Lebanon has a large number of Palestinian refugees residing within its territory. The majority of refugees live in camps dispersed throughout Lebanon, with a higher concentration in the south and in the suburbs of Beirut. Lebanon's Palestinian population increasingly lives under extreme circumstances of poverty and economic duress.

Palestinian women in Lebanon are very active and have created organizations to help support their families and advocate for their rights. Some of these groups, such as the General Union of Palestinian Women, work to promote vocational training, social and medical awareness, and economic development among Palestinian refugee women. However, since the Oslo Accord, these organizations and the larger refugee population have suffered additional economic setbacks as a result of a lack of funding and support from Arab and foreign nations.

Lebanese laws that refuse citizenship, or provisional citizenship, to Palestinian refugees have served to restrict Palestinian efforts to gain employment. In addition to a lack of citizenship, Palestinian refugees face further impediments to employment, with government-imposed fees on both the institutions that attempt to hire Palestinians and the workers themselves. Workers are required to pay large fees for a work permit, as they are considered foreign subjects in Lebanon. One effect of state-imposed labor restrictions has been that Palestinian women have been pushed into the informal sector of the economy.

Several women's organizations in Lebanon actively work to promote women's labor rights. One such organization is the Association of Working Women of Lebanon and Women's Rights Committee. Their work focuses on advocacy and social awareness campaigns to ensure that Lebanon complies with its commitments to CEDAW and ILO treaties. Women participate as members of unions and labor associations but rarely fill leadership positions. While union membership laws do not discriminate against women, unions do not have initiatives to encourage women's participation in union organizing or in the labor force. Lebanon's unions also lack initiatives that call for gender-specific laws and policies to protect the rights of women workers.


  1. The government should create a monitoring body to record and research gender discrimination in the labor market.
  2. The government should enable the judiciary and executive system to prosecute those who discriminate against women in the private and public sectors.
  3. The government should address the rights of Palestinian refugees to have decent living and employment opportunities.
  4. The government should enact and implement laws to ensure that foreign women workers are not trafficked or abused.


Political and civic rights in Lebanon are guaranteed by the constitution. However, violations of these rights do occur, often under the cover of new laws and decrees. A ban on public demonstrations, for example, was put in place in 1996 by the government and was aimed at weakening labor union organizing. Curtailment of freedom of speech and new restrictive media laws enacted in the 1990s led to the arrest of several journalists who had addressed taboo topics such as Syria's involvement in Lebanese domestic affairs. Syria plays a significant role in Lebanon's internal and external politics.

Lebanon's constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and expression. Article 13 states: "Freedom of speech and of writing, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits laid down by law." Women have equal rights to peaceful assembly and can freely advocate for any cause. Since 1997, the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women has organized several marches on International Women's Day. Women's groups such as the Lebanese Women's Council have also successfully organized national and regional conferences. While women have the right to assemble and to organize, the government provides little aid in terms of resources or funding for these efforts.

Lebanon's history of conflict has resulted in a political arena that is almost exclusively dominated by a small population of elite families. This political exclusivity, in combination with restrictive societal norms and beliefs concerning women's gender roles, has resulted in a low percentage of women politicians. While women have the right to vote and run for elections, a glass ceiling exists for female employment in both elective and appointive public office. To address the low rate of women's participation in politics and government, the Lebanese Women's Council (LWC) organized a conference in 1998. Along with other women's NGOs, the LWC proposed a quota system to the government to ensure women's equal representation in elections. The government has yet to follow up on this recommendation.

In the year 2000, 68 female judges served in Lebanon's judicial courts out of a total of 364, while women filled 6 of the 35 positions in the Administrative and Supreme courts. Only one female judge, in the Anglican court, served among the numerous religious courts in Lebanon, as the position of judge is primarily restricted to men in the religious circuits.

Representation of women in the ministries and parliament is low. Only 26 women competed in parliamentary elections between the years 1953 and 2000. Currently there are 3 women in parliament out of a total of 128 members, 2 female ambassadors out of 53, 3 directors-general out of 22, 2 women mayors, and 2 women ministers. Women also hold less than 1 percent of total municipal council seats. However, recent municipal elections (2004) witnessed an increase in the number of women running for office independently and on coalition lists. The Lebanese Women's Council has tried to promote and support women candidates running for election but with little success. One leading belief within Lebanese society is that politics are a dirty business, involving men fighting for power and control and thus not a very appropriate place for women.

Women are members of political parties in Lebanon but rarely achieve decision-making positions or leadership roles. Despite heavy constraints on their access to upper-level positions, however, Lebanese women have found many alternative avenues through which they have participated in building their society, impacted social change, and fulfilled their desires for activism. For example, women have ample space for participating in civil society. The plethora of women's organizations, as well as women's participation in other groups focused on such issues as the environment, development, children and the family, and poverty eradication indicate women's interests and deep commitments toward the improvement of their society. Even within conservative circles, women can easily extend their mother/nurturer role from the domain of the interior or the home to the domain of the exterior or the civil sphere.

Women generally have access to information in order to empower their lives and decisions. This access, however, may be affected by their location (rural or urban) and their socioeconomic and educational background, as well as the type of information they may need.


  1. The government should establish an independent monitoring body of experts to help formulate policies and procedures that ensure women's equitable representation in elections, political parties, and state appointments.
  2. The government should provide special funds and assistance to women politicians and women's NGOs to increase women's participation in public life.
  3. The government should support and facilitate civil society groups and the media to initiate public education campaigns that would increase social acceptance of women's involvement in politics and civil society.


Women and men have equal access to available health care in Lebanon. The country has both private and public medical institutions, with many free or low-cost clinics that are run by either private entities or by the Ministry of Social Services. Community health clinics and Family Planning Association centers are available to women in rural and urban settings. Women are not required to seek permission from their husbands for any medical procedure.

Lebanon's Family Planning Association works in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Services and has centers in various parts of the country, both rural and urban. It provides women with information on how to plan their families, as well as information on contraceptives. Several fertility studies have demonstrated that women in Lebanon are aware of various contraceptive methods, even if they do not use them. There are many social taboos surrounding the use of contraceptives for single women, as high value is placed on a woman's virginity. The prevalence of contraceptive use among married women seems to be heavily influenced by the couple's religious beliefs, level of education, and urban or rural status. Some reports indicate that single motherhood is becoming a choice on the rise in Beirut.

Abortion is generally permitted only under specific circumstances in which it is necessary to save the mother's life. According to Article 541 of the penal code, self-aborting a fetus or consensually having an abortion is considered a misdemeanor, which can carry a sentence of six months to three years' imprisonment. Performing an abortion without a woman's consent is considered a crime, and an abortion that leads to the woman's death is considered a felony. Despite the laws, an investigative report for The Daily Star claims that abortion is available on demand in an underground industry that involves an unofficial network of doctors, where women have little difficulty tapping into its resources. There are no available statistics on either the number of abortions that actually take place in Lebanon or the health risks involved for women.

Women have the right to own housing and the right to choose their place of residence. Traditionally, both male and female children live with their parents until they are married. However, with increasing numbers of students moving to Beirut to attend universities or to gain employment, the number of single males and females who rent their own housing has increased. While this pattern is gaining social acceptance, it is often easier for sons to convince their families of this housing choice than it is for daughters. Cohabitation between unmarried couples, particularly in Beirut, is another increasing trend among the younger generation; however, social acceptance is limited, and living together before marriage tends to occur only in urban areas. There are no restrictions on women's abilities to rent or buy housing in large cities. Nevertheless, some landlords choose not to rent to unmarried couples or single women.

Women actively participate in Lebanon's community life through both established organizations and informal social networking systems with family and neighbors. Women influence policy through their memberships in women's associations and civil associations, as well as through their participation in local municipal committees, religious associations, and teachers' unions. Rural women often participate in church groups and Husainiyyat as a form of community involvement. While women's abilities to influence major decisions are often restricted as a result of their gender, older women, especially those who have passed their childbearing age, can have significant power and influence in rural communities.

Women's groups have launched brief campaigns against the objectification of women in the advertising industry, but little else has been done to improve women's overall representation in Lebanon's media. Women's opportunities to fill key production and decision-making positions in the media are limited. According to the National Committee on Lebanese Women (NCLW), large numbers of females are graduating in media studies, but they comprise only 33.3 percent of those employed in the field. Mona Ziade, news editor at The Daily Star in Lebanon, has commented that women's coverage of politics and other serious issues is fairly recent and continues to raise male suspicions.

Lebanese media tend to be dominated by political analysis and game shows, with very little focus on women's issues. However, increasing numbers of local TV stations (like NTV, LBC, and Al-Manar), newspapers (like An-Nahar and As-Safir), and Arab satellite channels (including Al-Jazeera, NBN, and Al-Arabiyya) are broadcasting programs that directly address women's issues. The all-male National Council for Media was created in 1996. It does not provide any gender-specific guidelines or policies for Lebanon's media institutions.

Women disproportionately suffer from poverty in Lebanon. According to the Department of Statistics, the proportion of female-headed households in Lebanon was estimated at 12.5 percent in 1998. The number of such households is on the rise due to the large numbers of men needing to migrate for work. The poorest of the female heads of households are widows. The government does not provide any kind of financial, legal, or social help to households that have lost the male income provider due to death or desertion and has done little to help rural women meet their needs. The disparity between the working wages of men and women is significant, with the largest wage gap existing between men and women in the agricultural field; women are not often recognized as farmers or peasants but as unpaid helpers. The average income of women working in agriculture was found to be about half of the average income of a male in the same field (1998).

Women's organizations and other human rights groups are working in all parts of the country to improve women's status and to increase women's empowerment. Several changes have occurred in Lebanon's society and laws as a result of the advocacy of women's groups. Nevertheless, NGOs have the ability to organize and work freely but not always effectively. Competition for foreign funding and media attention often forces women's groups to compete rather than collaborate on projects, thus deflecting energies away from effective advocacy for women's rights.


  1. The government should take steps to ensure equal gender representation within government-run media outlets and modify media regulations to ensure women's equal participation in private media companies.
  2. The government should compile gender-disaggregated statistics on the problem of poverty and work to strengthen economic opportunities for impoverished women.
  3. The government should investigate violations of labor laws in the agriculture sector and their adverse effects on women farmers.
  4. The government should increase public spending on health and work to provide equal access to health care for all women.

AUTHOR: Dr. Zeina Zaatari is from South Lebanon. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California at Davis and was a lecturer at the University of California at Davis and at the Women's Studies Program at California State University, San Francisco. Dr. Zaatari has conducted field work in South Lebanon and is currently working on her manuscript, Women Activists of South Lebanon: Nationalism, Motherhood and Subjectivity. Dr. Zaatari works as the Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Region at the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco.


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. The beginnings of the civil war pitted a coalition of Lebanese Muslim and leftist militias aligned with Palestinian guerrilla groups against an array of Maronite-oriented, right wing militias bent on preserving Christian political privileges. In its later years the war lost much of its sectarian character, with the bloodiest outbreaks of fighting taking place mainly within the Shiite, Christian, and Palestinian communities.

2. The Taif Accord (a plan put forward by the Arab League) was signed by Lebanese parliamentarians at a meeting in the city of Taif in Saudi Arabia to put an end to the civil war, disarm militias, and create basic changes in the political structure.

3. Israel continues to occupy several villages of Lebanon (Shib'a Farms) deemed to be of strategic military significance until today.

4. 15,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon and Syria has considerable weight in Lebanese affairs.

5. Amal Abu Rafeh, Women in the Lebanese Legislation: Theory and Practice (Beirut, American University of Beirut Press, 1999), 2.

6. The Muslim sects are Sunni, Shi'a, Alawite, and Druze. (In the Lebanese confessional political system, the Druze are considered a Muslim sect.) The Christian sects include Maronites, Eastern Catholics, Anglicans, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Roman Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Protestants, Chaldeans, Assyrian Orthodox, Copts, and Baha'is.

7. The Taif Accord includes a commitment to a transition to a nonsectarian political structure within 10 years, but this path has not yet been pursued.

8. No new census has been undertaken by any of the governments ruling Lebanon. Most surveys and population counts are actually estimates.

9. According to Abu Khalil's "Lebanon One Year After the Israeli Withdrawal" (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Research and Information Project [MERIP], 2001), foreign debt had increased from $3 billion to $30 billion with Hariri's rebuilding plan. Estimates today put the figure at $40 billion.

10. Table 1, "Human development index," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 139-142. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/; "Lebanon Data Profile" (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank Group, 2003),

11. The World Factbook (Springfield, VA: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]), 2003.

12. Lebanon is a signatory to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW (1997), and two ILO Conventions (Equal Remuneration Convention No. 100, 1951, and Discrimination Convention No. 111, 1958).

13. "Official Report on Follow-up of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome of the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly (2000)" (Beirut: National Commission for Lebanese Women [NCLW], 2004).

14. Shafiq Jiha (ed.), al-dustur al-lubnany: tarikhuhu, ta'dilatuhu, nasuhu al-haliyy 1926-1991 [The Lebanese Constitution: History, Amendments and Current Text 1926-1991] (Beirut: Dar Al-ilm Lil-malaiyyn, 2000), 38.

15. Mona Qamar Murad, musharakat al-mar'a fi al-hayat al-siyassiyya fi lubnan [Women's Participation in Political Life in Lebanon] (Tunisia: Conference on Women and Politics, paper, 31 May-1 June 2001), 5.

16. Article 26 prohibits discrimination by gender under any circumstances.

17. Ghada Hamdan, al-mar'a wa al-qanun fi al-jumhuriyya al-lubnaniyya [Women and Law in the Lebanese Republic] (National Committee on Lebanese Women [NCLW], paper, in Arabic), 6, http://www.nclw.org.lb/textfile/ghadahamdan.doc.

18. Jessy Chahine, "Women Discuss Sexist Citizenship Law: Children of Non-Lebanese Fathers Do Not Have Right to Nationality," The Daily Star, 10 October 2003.

19. "Denial of Nationality: The Case of Arab Women" (Beirut: Collective for Research and Training on Development, Gender, Citizenship and Nationality Programme, Summary of Regional Research, February 2004).

20. "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant" (Beirut: Institute for Human Rights in Lebanon, Human Rights Committee, 1996), 2: "According to the legislation governing the organization of the land register, which dates back to 1922 and 1926, the two parties to a property transaction must, when they appear before the land register officer, be accompanied by two witnesses 'of the male sex' to testify to their identity before the contract is concluded. The words 'of the male sex' were deleted by Act. No. 275 of 4 November 1993. Women now have the same capacity as men to act as witnesses." This specification of a male witness previously applied only to land registers and religious courts but was sometimes incorrectly applied to other areas as well.

21. Women have the right to approach the religious courts at all times. The grounds on which anyone can bring a lawsuit are defined by the particular doctrines adopted by the 15 religious courts in Lebanon. For example, the grounds for a lawsuit vary according to the plaintiff's gender, relationship to the defendant, age, and the religious court.

22. Seeta Krichikian, "at-tamiyyz dida al-mar'a fi qanun al-'uqubat al-lubnani [Discrimination Against Women in the Criminal Law of Lebanon]," Qadaya (publication of Beirut Bar Association Human Rights College) 5 (2001): 1.

23. Article 29 (2) of CEDAW declares that Lebanon is not bound to paragraph (1), which requires that any dispute between two or more states parties concerning the interpretation or application of the convention that is not settled by negotiation shall be submitted to arbitration.

24. NCLW's Web site: www.nclw.org.lb.

25. The latter's Web site is: http://www.lau.edu.lb/centers-institutes/iwsaw.html.

26. For example, the Women's Progress Association (WPA) of Nabatiyeh in South Lebanon has raised funds to create a Dar al-Farah, a day care center, a nursery, and an elementary school, which serve low-income families. The Ministry of Social Affairs cooperates with the WPA by paying the salaries of the employees, while other expenses are covered by fundraising activities of the association.

27. Entities registered with the Ministry of the Interior as nonprofit receive a nominal contribution from the government that rarely covers even such expenses as telephone costs.

28. Spending on social affairs, education, population and social services amounted to 3 percent in 2001, 5.97 percent in 1997 and 5.95 percent in 1996 of the government's budget. See Mona Shemali Khalaf, Evaluating the Status of Lebanese Women in Light of the Beijing Platform for Action (Beirut: UNIFEM, Regional Office for the Arab World, 2002), 73.

29. Shafiq Jiha (ed.), al-dustur al-lubnany [The Lebanese Constitution] (Dar Al-ilm Lil-malaiyyn), 39.

30. When certain groups gain political power and are large enough in numbers, they can lobby to become an official sect in the country (the Copts became the 18th sect in Lebanon several years ago).

31. Cyprus is a favorite destination for many young Lebanese couples who prefer a civil marriage as a personal choice or due to the fact that they are of different religions and do not wish to convert. Once they return, their marriages are registered in the Ministry of the Interior and the laws of Cyprus take effect in terms of divorce, custody of children, and inheritance. There have been several movements calling for optional civil marriage to come into effect in Lebanon. Currently various religious groups appear to be resisting this alternative.

32. See "Women's Rights in Arabic" (Beirut: Institute for Human Rights Lebanon, Beirut Bar Association), http://www.humanrightslebanon.org/arabic/WRights.htm#Y1917. The age of maturity under Lebanese law is actually 18.

33. Law issued 24 February 1948.

34. Law issued 22 February 1949.

35. Lebanon signed on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in June 1991.

36. "Family Laws" (Bethesda, MD: Women's Learning Partnership), http://learningpartnership.org/legislation/family_law.phtml.

37. "Women's Rights in Arabic" p. 8, http://www.humanrightslebanon.org/arabic/Wrights.htm#Y1917.

38. Ibid.

39. Amal Abu Raheh, Women in the Lebanese Legislation (American University of Beirut Press), 4.

40. "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant" (Beirut: Institute for Human Rights in Lebanon, Human Rights Committee, 1996), 4.

41. "Trafficking in Persons Report, IV. Country Narratives: Near East" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 14 June 2004), http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/33195.htm.

42. For more on this particular

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