Christian Member of Parliament Nayla Moawad: "Lebanese women can participate in political life"

Posted in Broader Middle East , Other | 01-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Mrs. Nayla Moawad, since 14 years member of the Parliament and President of the Committee for Woman's Rights, from the…
Mrs. Nayla Moawad, since 14 years member of the Parliament and President of the Committee for Woman's Rights, from the Lebanese Christian opposition.
The following is an interview by Manuela Paraipan for WSN with the well-known Lebanese Christian opposition member, Mrs. Nayla Moawad. Nayla Moawad was appointed a Member of Parliament in 1991, was elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1996 and 2000. She is a member of the Parliamentary Committee for Budget and Finance, a member of the Parliamentary Committee for Education and President of the Parliamentary Committee for Women's Rights.

WSN: How did you start your career in politics?

Nayla Moawad: In post-war Lebanon, I was the first woman to enter into politics, but I did so under tragic circumstances. As you know, my husband, Rene Moawad, was assassinated just days after he was elected President of Lebanon and I felt that it was my duty to continue what my husband started. I compare it to a soldier carrying a torch who then passes it on to the next soldier. I have taken the soldier's role after the tragic death of my husband.

In a country such as Lebanon, my entering politics in the 1990s was not common. I can even say that it was courageous. I came from an area where there were many clashes between the various political clans. It was the Corsica of Lebanon, and I believe that it is a challenge for me to continue what my husband had started.

WSN: What actions have you taken over the years to encourage other Lebanese women to participate in politics?

Nayla Moawad: My presence in Parliament has already paved the way for other women to follow my example. For the past 28 years, the Lebanese never saw a woman in parliament or in politics. Thus, my presence became very important. A political career for a woman was no longer just reserved for me. In addition, I was fortunate because in some ways it was easy for me, because my colleagues were friends of my husband who elected him President. Then, in 1991 women joined forces to support me, and I have received the greatest number of votes in Northern Lebanon.

Two other political posts are now held by women: The first one is held by Bahia Hariri, and the other one changes at every election. It was important for Lebanese women to have representatives at such a high level in the political system. Lebanese women can participate in political life when we have a achieved a democratic practice of politics. This is the basis for women's participation. Over the years, I have tried to introduce better legislation for women and I have succeeded from time to time. For example, it has not yet been implemented but I have asked for a law regarding compulsory education for girls as well as boys. Often girls are not sent to school. Some people think: Why send girls to get an education if they will marry afterwards or be servants in their husband's home, or in others' houses? This is a deeply flawed manner of thinking. Also, labor legislation did not include servants who work in people's houses or children who work in agriculture in rural areas of Lebanon. It is common in rural Lebanon for children to help their parents. Regarding child labor, I have introduced a law that seeks to raise the age of working children from 8 years to 14 years.

Much of the work I've done has been achieved through my foundation (Rene Moawad Foundation). We have various programs that reach out to women to help improve their status, without saying it directly. In Lebanon, you cannot be and you do not want to be provocative when discussing women's rights; therefore, I have used the foundation's programs to bring this topic into the public arena.

Also, I am really proud of a law we have made regarding women from civil service cooperatives. Women could not pass social welfare benefits on to their husbands or children without a formal inquiry. On the other hand, if a man were to marry a very rich woman, no one would ask why he still receives social welfare benefits. A Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese man also could not pass her social benefits to her family -- children or husband -- without the law I have pushed through the Parliament.

Furthermore, we have given women the right to travel without the authorization of their husbands, to open a business without written approval of their husbands and a woman now has the right to have her own passport separate from her children's and/or husband's. All these rights offer women more independence to act and participate freely.

While there are still many things we must accomplish, we have already achieved important aims without being provocative. What helped a lot was the fact that worldwide the 1990s' was the decade of the woman, and this trend has influenced the Arab world in general and Lebanon in particular. Women here need to be more self-confident, know what their place should be in society and struggle to achieve it.

WSN: Is there a difference between Christian and Muslim women when it comes to their eagerness to participate in public life, in the civil society?

Nayla Moawad: Not really, because even in Islamic areas we have had women involved in public life, for example the sister of Musa al-Sadr and Bahia Hariri as well as others. We have women from both sides that are active in NGOs as well as in the Council of Women in Lebanon. The presidency of the Council of Women alternates being held by either a Muslim woman or a Christian woman.

WSN: You have a lot of experience being in the opposition. Please, comment on your activities.

Nayla Moawad: In 1994, I was in the opposition, and that is maybe the main difference between me and other members of the current opposition. As a member of the opposition, one is more outspoken and more direct. First of all, in the year 2000 we started an informal group of the opposition, which became formal in April 2001. We were asking for the implementation of the Taef Accord, meaning the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence from Lebanon. We had our first formal meeting at a time when it was merely a dream to ask for the withdrawal because 9/11 had not occurred yet and the international community was, I can say, protecting Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

If, at first many gazed upon us as if we were weird, afterwards they understood that we have the support of the public. This was particularly the case in the summer of 2001when we achieved something that no one would have thought possible: The reconciliation of the Maronites and the Druze in the mountains, when Jumblatt and Patriarch Sfeir met. The response of the military intelligence regime was to beat young students who were at a sit-in, as if there was a totalitarian regime.

To get back to my own activity, I was the first member of parliament to oppose Syrian interference in Lebanon. In 1989, I organized a large commemoration for the assassination of my husband and I was the first one to attack the Syrians in an official way. At the commemoration service, a minister representing President Assad was in attendance, but I openly said that Syria's presence in Lebanon was getting stronger day by day and that certain persons were taking advantage of this presence in order to gain more money, to oppress their own fellow citizens, and so on and so forth.

In 2000, we drafted a charter of basic principles to reunite all Lebanese. We called for a clear stance against the Syrians, a clear stance regarding the Palestinians and we declared Hezbollah to be a resistance, not a terrorist group.

After one year, we became really popular in the country and I have become a target because of my political position. For 6 months in the North, in Tripoli and in all mosques all over Lebanon, pro-Syrian sheikhs (here related to the religious leaders) attacked me every Friday. This was very dangerous. I could have actually been killed and some would have seen this as being almost legal, because the Syrians dictated this. Then, they began with the personal attacks and finally their tactic was to let me know through various people that I should not go here or there. No matter what their intimidation tactics were, I did not compromise my principles.

In the end, I was fed up with this situation and I told one of the Lebanese officers working for the Syrians that I had had enough and I would continue to express my views. So, I have told him that when the budget is voted on in parliament and all of the mass media are present, I will talk openly about Syrian dominance in Lebanon. People have a right to know this.

When Prime Minister Karami invited me to be a minister in his cabinet, I refused, because I did not believe that this cabinet was being formed in Lebanon's best interest. It was not a cabinet of national unity, but one of national confrontation, and I refused to be part of it.

WSN: Where is the opposition heading?

Nayla Moawad: We demand to know the truth about Hariri's assassination, and we are asking for the resignation of the Lebanese chiefs of secret services, because we see them as the Syrian hand in Lebanon. We also want free elections, with international observers and of course we demand full Syrian withdrawal before the elections.

The elections are the first step toward a new Lebanon. The 1.5 million people who were in the streets supporting us (the opposition) gave us a mandate to respect. We want a sovereign, free and independent Lebanon, a country of unity which is reconciled with modernity. We are the only Arab country that has a tradition of democracy. At the end of the 19th Century, the Arab renaissance began in Lebanon.

WSN: Will we see a united opposition in the future, as well?

Nayla Moawad: From the days when we started with just a small group, many said that we would not remain united, and look how we have turned out. We would be really stupid not to stay together. We are targets -- politically, or even as individuals. Our unity is a life insurance. If we do not stay united, we would also lose the trust of the Lebanese people. However, we must organize ourselves better to enable us to work as a team.

We have a good governance project and vision for a democratic Lebanon.

WSN: How do you see the present status quo in Lebanon?

Nayla Moawad: In Lebanon, there is dramatic and endemic corruption. The justice system is used as an extension of the military and secret service. I used to say that corruption in Lebanon is a culture. We will need a lot of time to repair all the problems that exist with legislation, in the civil society and the security forces. The Syrians managed to damage our society in a very serious way. What the international community and the others are seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is very big. In order to succeed, we will need a lot of teamwork and vision. The so-called silent majority in Lebanon is now expressing its opinion and it is a guarantee for our governance and for our unity. This is an historic moment, because we finally have a civil society. We are now under their microscope: Either we deliver, or we will be taken off.

WSN: Is Lebanon in danger of exchanging one master for another one -- namely, exchanging Syria for the US, or France or even with a UN mandate here?

Nayla Moawad: We should not forget that if the international community had not closed its eyes to what Syria was doing in Lebanon, we would not be here today.

We did not ask for UN Resolution 1559, but now it is here and we have to take it into consideration. When we started as the opposition, neither the Americans nor the French gave us their support. Help from the international community to put an end to Lebanon being subcontracted out to the Syrians was long overdue. They did it in the first place, now they have to break it. The Taef accord was completed under the Arab umbrella. Also I do not think that the US and France or the UN for that matter seek to remain in Lebanon.

After my husband was assassinated, the US and France left us with the Syrians. However, now they are reshaping their policy. Until now, they thought that all these corrupt regimes in the Arab world were the key to stability in the region, but the reality is just the opposite. The Americans finally realized this after 9/11, the Madrid bombings and other terrorist attacks that have taken place throughout the world. We, as Lebanese, aspire to become a role model for other Arab countries. As the Pope said: "Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message."

WSN: Will you run for election?

Nayla Moawad: Of course. No doubt about it. When I announced my candidacy for the presidency last year, I said two things: Lebanon cannot be from Syria, but Lebanon cannot be ruled against Syria. We need a "made in Lebanon" president, and we need a real partnership with Syria.

WSN: Then I wish you the best of luck and I appreciate your insight on the issue of women in politics and the opposition's next steps.