Sethrida Geagea, the Bcharre MP and Lebanese Forces figure, made a stylish black Chanel suit her trademark, but she is far from being just a woman in heels.
The 43-year-old politician and wife of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea is now in her second term in the Lebanese parliament. She is a vocal politician, actively participates in the political decisions of her party, and is a loud advocate for women’s rights.
Geagea talked in an online interview about her work on women’s issues in Lebanon.
– There have been a variety of campaigns by Lebanese civil society groups for women’s rights and specifically the right for Lebanese women to transmit their nationality to their husbands and children. What is your stance on this issue?
Sethrida Geagea: The fact that a Lebanese woman does not have the right to transmit her nationality to her husband and children is very unpleasant. However, we consider that there’s a sensitive issue in Lebanon today, and it is the issue of the Palestinians… What we are afraid of is that there are many Palestinian men today who would marry Lebanese women for the sole purpose of gaining the Lebanese nationality.
– Can you tell us about your efforts to amend the law on honor killing?
Geagea: Nowadays in Lebanon [if] a father doubts his daughter or a brother doubts his sister, or a husband his wife, and he kills her, under the label of honor killing, he does little time in jail and is then set free… Up to 1999, those who committed honor killings were freed in little time, maximum after a month, under the pretext that it is an honor issue… After 1999, honor killing was considered a real crime, though with no harsh punishment. My friend Elie Keyrouz and myself are trying to rally for honor killing to be considered a crime just like any other, so when a man commits an honor crime against his sister, wife or daughter, he should do time just as with any crime.
– Tell us about your lobbying for a law against domestic violence.
Geagea: Domestic violence is when women are being subjected to violence by their own husbands, fathers and family members, but in Lebanon it seems it is mainly by their own husbands. Three to four years ago, I was approached by the organization KAFA. They asked that I assist them as a member of parliament to open channels for them with the heads of parliamentary blocs to pass a draft law in cabinet and the parliament to protect women from domestic violence. I contacted [Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar], and he lobbied in the cabinet, and then the proposal was passed in the cabinet, and now we are currently in the process of issuing a draft law to be passed in parliament. The main items in this proposal are, first, to appoint an attorney general for family issues; second, to set up a family court; third, to set up a specialized section in the ISF for domestic violence; fourth, to be able to issue an order for protection with no fees (as you know most of these women don’t have money to pay fees for issuing a complaint); and fifth, to set up a fund by the state and civil society to support battered women…
What are the challenges that you have faced relating to the issues of honor killing and domestic violence, and do you feel your fellow parliamentarians agree on their importance?
Geagea: The first challenge is that our Lebanese society is male-dominated, and second, due to our current political crisis, Lebanon as a whole has set priorities far from women’s rights. The issues that are being addressed are the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the [Resistance’s] arms, the issue of the cabinet – all the issues that need urgent addressing… However, I believe that after the cabinet is formed and when the country picks up again, [we will] be able to at least address the issues we just spoke about, and we as the Lebanese Forces have taken the decision to support the two items I just mentioned above. For sure we have consent among the politicians and the different political factions about the importance of these topics, and the biggest proof is that the proposal law on domestic violence was actually passed in cabinet.
What other women’s rights issues do you feel should be addressed?
Geagea: There are two other [women’s rights] issues that we as the Lebanese Forces are trying to address. You know that adultery and extra-marital sex are considered a crime in Lebanon, however, unfortunately when a man is accused of [adultery], his punishment is much less than that of a woman. We are working on a draft law to end this discrimination… Another issue we are working on, mainly myself and my friend Elie Keyrouz, is the criminalization of rape even between husband and wife…
What does the Lebanese Forces’ Department of Women’s Affairs do?
Geagea: …This department in specific hasn’t been formed completely, just like the many other LF departments that are still in the process of being formed, but we are in the process, and we know that it will have a very positive and influential role, based on the fact that we consider women the other half of Lebanese society…
Here, I’d like to say something that I’m very proud and honored about, that during the municipal elections in 2010 in the Bcharre district… I imposed a female quota for the municipality boards. We had 10 municipalities, and we were able to have 18 women reach positions… I was seeking through this move to make our society more familiar with the presence of women in such positions, and we took the highest rank in all of Lebanon, which was 14 percent overall. It is still a low percentage, but it is the highest [percentage of women] in the Lebanese municipalities.
What are the main challenges you face as a female member of parliament?
Geagea: As a parliamentarian I believe that my main challenge is the preservation of a sovereign, free and independent Lebanon. As a female, I have another challenge, which is to see more women in decision-making positions in Lebanon, because unfortunately you feel that in certain positions women are being used as decorative objects, not actually taking part effectively or influencing decisions in policies.
What can be done to increase the number of Lebanese women in positions of power?
Geagea: First, in parliament, we should push legislation to abolish any discrimination between men and women in terms of law. Second, at home and as mothers, [women need to] stop the discrimination between men and women, and stop giving priorities to the son over the daughter in terms of education… Third, in school curriculums we see the doctor portrayed as a male, and the nurse a female, and the business person as the male and the secretary as the female, so the discrimination should stop there. Fourth… women need to play an important role in their own education, and to stop portraying themselves as mere objects or commodities…
I believe that the above need to be addressed to prepare our society, which is male-dominated in the first degree, for the presence of women as human beings who are equal to men, who are entitled to representation and who are capable of being in positions of decision making.