Beirut, Lebanon – Nadine Itani, a 38-year-old aviation executive, said she knew early on that she wanted to help bring change in her country.
In 2013, she founded the first women’s aviation forum in Lebanon to encourage female participation in the “very male-dominated world” of air travel.
Years before, she had already turned down a lucrative job abroad – a decision she described as a “turning point”.
“I decided to stay to build a better country for my boys to grow up in,” Itani, a mother of two, said. “[And] today, we have an opportunity in Lebanon.”
For Itani, a young woman who is not “represented politically”, that opportunity refers to Lebanon‘s new electoral law that has enabled tens of women to step forward and run as candidates in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6 – the first after almost a decade of turbulent politics.
Owing to this new legislation, which introduced a female quota, a “record” number of 86 women are competing for the country’s 128 legislative seats.
“The problems faced by Lebanese women reflect the issues in Lebanon as a whole,” Itani told Al Jazeera.
Citing the issue of those married to foreign men not being able to pass their nationality to their children or spouses, she stressed the “need” for laws that would “elevate” the status of women in society.
Itani, who is running as part of the We are Beirut list, belongs to one of largest families in the Lebanese capital.
Her decision to run for parliament, Itani says, was at odds with the stereotypical Beirut-born, male candidates – and this angered some members of her extended family in the lead-up to the vote.
“I faced age and gender discrimination,” says Itani. “Many were unable to accept that a female like myself could run outside the traditional sectarian and partisan framework,” she added.
“They demanded I revoke my candidacy, expecting me to let the elder man win, out of what they describe as ‘respect’.”
In Lebanon’s political system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.
The country’s divided parliament has been traditionally dominated by six parties, and according to activists, the fragile balance has allowed a number of people in positions of power to entrench themselves, due to their close ties to large, well-established families.
Currently, there are four women occupying parliamentary seats – all descendants of long-serving male politicians, including Bahia Hariri, the aunt of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“Existing women MPs are here because of their familial ties, not because they are activists,” Lisa Hamdan, who is also running for parliament, told Al Jazeera.
“As an activist, I am offering a collaboration, between my colleagues and I. We have everything, a solution to all of the country’s problems. The problem has always been about implementation,” adds the 63-year-old, a rights campaigner who was also the communications officer for late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
“People do want to see new blood.”
Most of Lebanon’s political forces were in agreement on the need to reform the previous law – a majoritarian voting system which critics said allowed traditional parties to maintain a monopoly over governance – but disagreed over what system should replace it and how to conduct the elections.
The new law introduced proportional representation, but added complex elements to the voting process. The candidates are spread across 77 lists, with voters first selecting their preferred candidate list, and then their favourite contender from within that list.
The legislation was ratified by Lebanon’s parliament in June last year after a long period of wrangling and political instability.
At the time, civil society campaigners said the law fell short of expectations and still benefited well-established powers rather than more independent parties and individuals – a sentiment still echoed today by experts.
“The upcoming elections will not introduce a dramatic change to the prevailing power balance in the country,” Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“It (the law) also does not do enough about curbing the role money can play in the elections, especially in terms of vote buying.”
According to Hamdan, Lebanon’s “secular” constitution has been “wrongly implemented”, leading to several corruption scandals over the years and deepening the country’s sectarian divide.
“There is sectarianism in Lebanon because our constitution has been distorted by politicians,” Hamdan says.
If you have a strong state, strong institutions and an independent judiciary … sectarianism can be defeated,” she adds.
The mother of four said she spent years working with civil society groups and NGOs, including think-tanks, refugee agencies and development programmes, before realising she needed to form change from “within”.
Similarly, candidate Nadine Moussa, a lawyer who has been a “civil society volunteer” and women’s rights advocate for more than 15 years, said activism alone could not effect change.
“I fought for many of people’s rights over the years; it’s important but fighting is not enough when you want tangible results,” Moussa told Al Jazeera.
“In order to change, you have to start changing from within the institutions in place … As civil society advocates, the most we can do is present legislation to parliament, but then they tuck away and nothing happens beyond that,” she says.
In 2012, Moussa decided to launch a grassroots, youth-led secular campaign called “Take Back Parliament” to support first-time, independent candidates in advance of scheduled parliamentary elections the following year.
But parliament then extended their term, annulling Moussa’s candidacy, as well as that of that of more than 45 new candidates.
“I was certainly crushed,” says Moussa, a mother of two. “But I didn’t lose hope.”
A year later, at the height of Lebanon’s political crisis, Moussa became the first women to run as an independent candidate for president. However, Lebanon would not get a president leading the country’s fragile parliament before 2016.
“What pushed me was the will to keep my cause alive, to enable people and let my ideas become the norm,” says Moussa, whose priorities among the Kuluna Watani list include reforming Lebanon’s personal status laws and decentralising public funds.
“I also wanted to break the political monopoly dominated by men,” she says.
“Most people who usually run don’t even have an agenda or programme – they run based on their tribe or sect,” she adds, referring to Lebanon’s 18 religious sects dominating the small country’s diverse communities.
For Moussa, the upcoming elections are a “pivotal moment” for Lebanon.
“We either go back to the same old system that has been hell, or we advance towards a new path that is far from corruption and everything else,” she says.
Though many hailed the law as a golden opportunity for activists and women to run against “typical Lebanese politicians”, experts were quick to play down suggestions that the increase in the number of female candidates was an accomplishment – if anything, it lags behind, they say.
“The spike in the number of women running for the general election is not sudden, because Lebanon hasn’t had an election in about 10 years – so we missed a round of elections,” Carmen Geha, an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“If you look at the position of these women on the electoral lists, they are often on lists where there are no competitive seats – they are either on minority seats or on seats that will not be affected by the preferential vote,” she explains.
Compared with other countries in the region, Lebanon ranks as one of the lowest in terms of female representation in parliament – just above Oman, Kuwait and Yemen.
According to Geha, more than 150 NGOs in Lebanon worked over the past few years to mobilise women to run in the elections, but still more needed to be done.
“What’s happening in Lebanon isn’t a single occurrence, this is the era of the #MeToo campaign … it is also the era of proportional representation,” she notes.
While women have spent the last 10 years lobbying, advocating and expanding their networks, they have just started to “scratch the surface”, says Geha.
“Men are still the ones forming the lists; men are the ones heading the lists; men are the ones negotiating the status of women on the lists.
“The sectarian system presents much more difficult issues centred around patriarchy and women’s access to decision-making compared to other countries,” she adds.
According to Geha, the issue of women’s effective participation in the country’s politics needs to be at the heart of the political debate.
“We need to explore the root causes as to why women don’t have a chance in front of the male leader,” she explained.
“Let’s not forget that 40 percent of the lists are still all-male lists … The reason as to why we don’t have all-women lists is because their message hasn’t been politicised much.”