Despite the runways of Beirut airport being extensively rutted during the month-long August conflict with Israel, Bahia Hariri, 54, politician and sister of the late Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated as Lebanese prime minister last year, made it to Vienna's Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue to speak on women and civil society.
Hariri says that the Lebanese today face an enormous challenge in rebuilding their lives following Israel's deliberate destruction of the civilian infrastructure and the flattening of several sites of cultural and historical significance. The Israeli offensive occurred despite the April 1996 ceasefire agreement, brokered by the US and monitored by France, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Released as a public document, the understanding includes a commitment by both Israel and Lebanon to ensure that civilians would never be targeted for attack and that civilian and industrial areas would not be used as launching grounds for attacks. However, nothing in the 1996 understanding prevents any party from exercising the right of self-defence. A preliminary damage assessment team of the European Commission found that of the 1,200 civilians killed in the Israeli bombardment of August 2006, a third were children.
Lebanon's many achievements of the past 15 years were wiped out, and more than a million people were displaced. Beirut was likened to Paris until the civil war of 1975 destroyed its infrastructure and economy. The period of relative peace after 1990 enabled life to return to normal and the government repaired its banking system and services. Until the 2006 war, Lebanon's bank assets had reached US $70 billion. The fragile economy is now damaged, and the Ministry of Finance fears further economic decline in the future. All literacy and bread-earning programs for women and children started within the last decade languish after Israel's most recent punch through Lebanon's peace.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How did the recent conflict affect the lives of women in Lebanon?
A. During war, it is not just women who suffer but all society is affected. Infrastructure is destroyed, including bridges and roads. The economy is destabilized, there is disease, homes and schools disappear, and civilians die. But the worst aftermath [of the conflict] is that people in Lebanon have lost faith in human rights, international law...There is a feeling at home that nobody around the world really cares for them, or wants to protect them.
Q. It's a loss of hope...
A. As far as help and justice from the international community is concerned.
Q. In between conflicts, do Arab women try to reach out to Jewish women in an effort to bring about a more lasting peace in the region?
A. This is not the way to solve this problem. This is not the way that peace will prevail in [West Asia]. Without global peace, there will no peace around Lebanon. People everywhere should first feel happy in their homes, secure in their land, and not spend their lives planning the next conflict for grabbing more land.
Q. What role can women play in bringing about such a peace?
A. Women alone cannot play any role because women are not making decisions. It is not women who declare war. When women are asked their opinion at the highest level, then it is a different matter. No NGO, no well meaning individual, no woman can play any significant role in any peace process till they have the power to participate in the ultimate decision to resolve conflicts with war, or [with] dialogue.
Q. What is the role of the Hezbollah in Lebanon?
A. The Hezbollah is called a terrorist organization by Israel. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah is a legitimate political party, enjoying 90 per cent support of the people at the grassroots. The Hezbollah is the rightful defender of my country against Israeli occupation of our land. There is no question of disarming the Hezbollah as it performs the role of resistance to Israeli aggression under the April Understanding of 1996, allowed by law to protect Lebanese territory.
Q. What is the reason for the lack of participation of Arab women in society?
A. This is not a problem facing Arab women alone. Women around the world are struggling to fully participate in all aspects of life. Besides, men, too, need help. I believe in empowering both women and men. When men are enlightened and empowered, they will better accept the active role that women should play in society.
Q. Women in Lebanon would like 30 per cent reserve quota in Parliament. How soon might that dream be realized?
A. Personally, I am not for the quota system. Jordan and Morocco practice the quota system. Deep down in my heart, I feel that women should rise in a democratic way, they should make it to Parliament on merit. In the last election, the number of women in Parliament doubled to six from three members in the previous Parliament without any quota.
Q. You publicly refer to yourself as "the sister of the martyr", prime minister Rafiq Hariri. When will Lebanese women be known by their own names without being referred to as sister, widow or daughter of male politicians?
A. I must admit that I am very proud to be the sister of my brother, and to be the bearer of the name Hariri. As both men and women shed their ignorance, they will realize that it is only an asset to involve women as decision-makers in all aspects of life, both public and private.
Q. The world is so fixated on the veil of the Muslim woman. What does covering your head mean to you?
A. It makes me feel comfortable to dress the way I choose to. To cover my head is my choice, my right. It is my identity and part of my culture.
Q. What do you say to people who take this choice away from women and force them to cover their head?
A. This is not fair. This is not right. This is wrong. Every woman should have the choice to dress the way she feels most comfortable.