The face of women's issues in Lebanon is changing. Young intellectuals in thick Ray-Ban glasses and oversized sweaters, elegant ladies clutching designer purses, Sri-Lankan housekeepers, government representatives as well as foreign exchange students, all came out in force last week to the Metropolis Cinema Sofil, waiting in anticipation for documentaries outlining women's rights in Lebanon to be unveiled.
The issue of women's rights has been a rising theme within the human rights domain in recent years, with the trend once again broadcast at the Human Rights Film Festival which took place over four days and featured over 30 movies, pertaining to the rights of the underprivileged: women, migrant workers, detained persons and refugees.
While women earned their own, separate category, they also crucially figured prominently in the other groups of marginalized people and were a dominant theme throughout.
Organized by the European Union, KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation), the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, Permanent Peace Movement and Italian Solidarity in the World, the festival also featured theatrical performances and group discussions.
“The promotion of human rights should not be limited solely to the conferences and reports,” said Angelina Eichhorst, EU ambassador to Lebanon.
Refreshingly, for an event one would more readily associate with violations such as torture, nearly half of the movies shown focused on the issue of women's rights in Lebanon where much remains to be done despite some recent improvements.
“The rights of women within the realm of basic human rights, such as the right to vote or freedom of expression, are the goals and achievements of the past century,” said Fahima Charafeddine, president of the National Committee for the Follow-up on Women's Issues. “Nowadays the image of women needs to be changed in society's perceptions.”
The opening movie, “My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family,” by the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, reflected upon the issue of the nationality law in Lebanon, which does not allow mothers to pass on citizenship to their children.
The United Nations Development Program estimates around 77,400 people in Lebanon have been negatively affected by the law.
Yet the discriminatory legislation, was upheld by the Justice Ministry last year, although activists have vowed not to give up on the cause.
“We are going to relaunch the countrywide media campaign this year,” Charafeddine told The Daily Star.
Another key aspect of women's rights involves the fight against domestic violence, which is still condoned by numerous legal loopholes. This topic was lucidly tackled in the movie by Farah Sami Fayed, “About Latifeh and Others.”
The movie tells the stories of two victims of domestic abuse, Latifeh Kassir and Amina Beydoun, who were killed by their husbands.
The struggles of other women that battled with the legal system for years, trying to regain their rights, win back property or custody over their children, were also featured, in “Survivor” a film by KAFA and “For You” by Multimedia Virtual Space for Human Rights.
Although Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1996, the existing legal arrangements do not sufficiently ensure women's well-being.
This discrimination affects not only Lebanese women, but also female migrant workers, who constitute the vast majority of the 200,000-strong migrant domestic help workforce in the country.
The group “Live Lactic Culture – Laban” performed a three-person theatrical piece on various forms of domestic abuse, a common experience for foreign workers.
According to Ray Jureidini, a professor at the Lebanese American University, surveys conducted between 2005 and 2006 covering over 600 domestic workers lay out their problems in stark relief.
Surveys revealed that around 65 percent of workers were expected to work 11 or more hours per day.
Some 60 percent reported experiencing various forms of verbal abuse, while 14 percent were considered victims of physical abuse. One third of the workers interviewed were not allowed to leave the house and 99 percent had their passport confiscated.
Because of these human rights violations, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines – once the main source of domestic workers – have blacklisted Lebanon, banning their nationals from working in the country's domestic services sector.
“However, because a demand is still here, the new markets, such as Nepal, Madagascar and Bangladesh, are nowadays being used,' said Nadim Houry, director of the Human Rights Watch in Lebanon.
Abusive behavior toward domestic workers is largely thought to stem from the sponsorship system of foreign labor as well as the disruption in family dynamics that the addition of a new member can cause, Jureidini added.
Domestic workers are now becoming more active in the fight for their rights, Houri noted.
“Workers are starting to organize and this is what was needed … They are the new frontline.”