New film “Madame Parliamentarian” raises important questions about the political participation of women in Lebanon

(originally posted June 4, 2014)

Last week I attended the premiere screening of a new film by Lebanese documentary filmmaker Rouane Itani. Rouane is the founder of Aflama, LLC, an international video production and language services company that has created videos for a variety of clients in non-profit, corporate, educational, and broadcast organizations. “Madame Parliamentarian” is Aflama’s first independent original production.  The premiere was well-attended, and Rouane Itani herself, along with Stephanie Foster, senior policy advisor at the State Department, interacted with the audience for a panel discussion and Q&A afterwards.

I was not expecting to hear much more than I already knew: women are still poorly represented in major institutions of political power in the MENA. This is despite the fact that Turkey has had one of the two female prime ministers to date in the region: Tansu Çiller, who was in office from 1993-96 (the other was Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in office from 1969-74). Çiller was not particularly remembered for her work on women’s issues, or for being particularly supportive of promoting the rise of more women to the heights of political power, and this is one of the questions that the film, and the Q&A session afterwards explored: why do so many women who come to power fail to push the agenda forward on issues of concern to women?

Disclaimer: I know that some people consider Turkey to be a part of Europe (albeit “unofficially”, considering that it has still not been able to secure EU membership), but I beg to differ. Just travel outside of the big cities and to the eastern part of the country and you’ll see: Europe it is not! While it is arguably also not really a part of the Middle East (instead, many see it as Western Asia, or as a transcontinental state), the AKP, the ruling party since 2002, has firmly positioned itself as a major player in Middle East politics, in part by fostering business, cultural, and ties with the MENA, and in part by recalling the close connection between Turkey and the MENA throughout most of Ottoman history. So just humor me here and let’s not get into a discussion of borders and identity just yet.

The central question that the film explores, though, is why there are so few women parliamentarians in Lebanon. In fact, there have been 10 – TOTAL – women who have reached Parliament since 1943, when Lebanon won its independence from the French Mandate. This is in a country with a long history of feminism and gender activism. In fact, women’s associations first became active in modern Lebanon following the end of World War II.

So why is it that Lebanese women have been unable to penetrate the halls of Parliament in any significant numbers? Would mandated quotas make any difference in these numbers, and if so, would they attract the kind of women who could really put the women’s agenda out there as a matter of political priority? Why have the women now sitting in the Lebanese Parliament seemingly distanced themselves from the women’s movement, even as we are witnessing the growth – and increased effectiveness — of gender activism in that country?

These are just a few of the issues I will be exploring later about the film and its creator, Rouane Itani. Please visit again for my interview with Rouane and to learn more about gender and politics in Lebanon. In the meantime, you can watch a preview of the film by clicking the link below.