Lebanese politics has long been an exclusive club. Parliament is not transparent, with key hearings held behind closed doors. Nor is it representative of a population wildly estimated between four and six million, partly because of a history of taking in refugees, but also because sectarian tension among leaders of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognised religions and sects means there has not been an official census since 1932.
Sunnis, Shiites and Christians predominate, but none has a majority. With parliament’s seats split equally between Christians and Muslims, the fear is that updated demographic data would mean someone having to give something up.
To Laury Haytayan, a 42-year-old oil and gas expert, such imbalances are a motivation for change. By standing for election on Sunday she hopes to start to redress a historical construct that affects women most of all: of 128 MPs in the last parliament, only four were women and all were there because of their families’ political clout.
"We need to put people in parliament who are not affiliated to their fathers, sons or brothers. We want women to be MPs because they want to be, who have made it because of their talent and expertise, not because of who they are related to," Ms Haytayan told The National.
As part of a civil society list standing in Beirut, three of whom’s eight candidates are women, she aims to deal a blow to patronage and chauvinism.
“It’s a shame,” she said of the lack of women represented in Lebanon’s main political parties, which are the base of leaders such as President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The latter’s aunt, the sister of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri, is one of the four current female MPs.
Joumana Haddad, a feminist writer and author, and Paula Yacoubian, a leading television news journalist, are standing alongside Ms Haytayan. It is their first chance since 2009 to change the country’s current parliamentary make-up, following a series of political crises that meant elections planned in 2013 were postponed for a year before being abandoned altogether.
“At the end of the day they renewed their whole four-year mandate, without elections,” Ms Haytayan says. “Imagine that. Even in dictatorships, leaders would fake elections. Here, they didn’t even fake elections. How low can you go, just to be in power?”
A movement, Women in Front, grew out of that frustration, seeking a one third quota for female representation in parliament. Although a new electoral law was passed for the imminent ballot the call for a quota was blocked. Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-cum-political party which could increase its number of MPs this time around, was against it, and has no female electoral candidates at all.
Ms Haytayan, who is married with two children, is eager to establish that she and her allies are not standing only for female issues.
“I work in oil and gas. I am putting forward my expertise on that. It’s a broader national agenda based on social and economic matters,” she says. It has not come quickly or without some resistance, but women have in recent years entered the political offices of the country’s other main political parties, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kataeb.
But a reluctance among the establishment remains: of 113 women who originally submitted papers to stand for election, 103 did so as independents, of whom 84 ultimately will be on ballot papers on Sunday.
“Women are ready, but the system is not quite there yet,” says Ms Haytayan. “It’s happening, but at a slow pace. A success would be one seat from our list. Probably not me, but that’s ok. We are team players.”
The voting process will see electors tick two boxes – one for a party list, or movement, they want to support, and one more for an individual candidate from that list. To increase the chances of more women entering parliament, Ms Haytayan and her allies have been urging voters to boycott all lists that have no women at all, calling on them to then give their preferential vote to a woman.
“All the women who are standing are capable of being in parliament,” she says. Her list will be represented in nine of the 15 national districts in which voting is taking place. “There will be a lot of data for us to work with afterwards. We will see what comes out of it.”
The contradictions of Lebanon – women have had the vote since 1952 and though the country is viewed as culturally liberal many laws discriminate against them on the basis of gender – remain.
“Our women are successful in all fields, but they are not represented in parliament or government. That means they are not part of the decision making in this country which means they are not part of the future of the country, nor able to put forward their vision for the country. This is unacceptable,” says Ms Haytayan.
By standing on Sunday, she hopes more young women will be inspired to seek office next time.
As an oil and gas policy expert – she has worked at Lebanon’s Natural Resource Governance Institute since 2011 – the signing earlier this year of a first offshore exploration and production agreement with international companies there is a need for her professional skills, she argues, in the years ahead.
“This is dear to me. As is what is going on in parliament. Why should committees where laws are discussed be secret? Parliament must be open, so that we can know if our representatives are active or not.”
The introduction of a watchdog group that monitors parliament, such as Al Bawsala, introduced in Tunisia following its revolution, is badly needed in Lebanon, she says. “Just one organisation, counting who was attending and who wasn’t, made a difference. Our parliament needs an update.”