LAU ceremony pays tribute to Lebanon’s female soldiers

Women in uniform say they are ‘proud to serve’
By Dalila Mahdawi -Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The increasing numbers of women serving in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) serve as proof that Lebanese women are winning the war against gender discrimination, said a number of university and army officials on Monday. Marking International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8, some 2,000 women soldiers were honored in a ceremony organized by the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW) at the Lebanese American University.

A unit of around 30 women soldiers in military fatigues and navy blue berets marched into the university grounds in Beirut, where a number of speakers praised their role in defending their country and fighting for equality.

“March 8 is a story of ordinary women who have done extraordinary things throughout history for peace and prosperity,” said IWSAW Director Dima Dabbous-Sensenig in a speech. “Today we are participating in a most important achievement – the participation of women in the army.” History was full of women who had fought along side and often led men in battle, Dabbous-Sensenig said, citing Jean D’Arc and the less-celebrated fifth century queen Zanoubia as examples.

International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911, after German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin pitched the idea at the second International Conference of Working Women. Her idea quickly gained international popularity, and the day was granted official recognition by the United Nations in 1975. Today, International Women’s Day is a national holiday in China, Armenia, Russia and several other countries, where it is celebrated as a second Mother’s Day.

Lebanese women had proved that they were equally capable of defending their country, said Colonel Ghassan Gharzuddine on behalf of LAF Commander Jean Kahwaji. Women had made great strides in both the army and other sectors of society since the LAF opened up to women in 1991, he said. “We promise you the army will continue to protect the homeland and embrace everyone in the country.” His words were echoed in an official army video about women soldiers, which said Lebanon had “an army who believes in gender equality.”

One soldier gushed to The Daily Star about how much she loved her job. “It has only made me believe in myself more and we are proud to serve,” she said before being shooed away by her superior. The ceremony concluded with LAU and the LAF exchanging honorary plaques, after which the women soldiers marched off smiling proudly.

But while Lebanese women have undoubtedly made many strides toward gender equality, the fight is not over yet. Lebanon is theoretically a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, but has never ratified the convention, citing like many other Middle Eastern countries, reservations on Section 2, Article 9, which specifies women’s equal rights to nationality. Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men still cannot pass on their nationality to their husbands or children.

Lebanese women, who constitute 56 percent of the country’s population, also face discrimination in the workplace, stereotyping, and insufficient protection from domestic and family violence. Non-marital rape can be overlooked if the attacker marries their victim, while marital rape is not even considered a crime. Women are under-represented in government, counting for less 5 percent of politicians. More than 200,000 female migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, being excluded from the country’s labor laws, are also vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Clause 61 of the government’s August 2008 Ministerial Statement pledged to address gender discrimination by “implementing Lebanon’s commitment to international conventions” and addressing “all forms of violence against females.” Could change be in the air?

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