While we mourn, we must not romanticise the Beirut we lost. Lebanon before 4 August was one where inequalities were rife and insufficiently addressed.
By Rachel Dore-Weeks, UN Women’s representative in Lebanon and Lina Abirafeh, Executive Director for the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University
One month ago, on 4 August, an explosion in the port of Beirut destroyed entire neighbourhoods, killing over 180 people, injuring thousands, and displacing close to 300,000 people. As the country works to recover, those in Lebanon and outside are asking themselves if the city will indeed rise from the rubble.
For many in the west, their image of Beirut is one in the throes of civil war, the “Paris of the Middle East” razed to the ground and filled with rubble. And today, Beirut looks just like that. Again.
While we mourn for the people dead and still missing, for those injured and for the neighbourhoods that have now changed beyond recognition, we must not romanticise the Beirut we lost. Lebanon before 4 August was one where inequalities were rife and evident, and always insufficiently addressed. It was a country already debilitated by layers of disaster – economic collapse, government corruption, environmental crisis, sectarian divisions, poverty and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Adding to this are profound gender inequalities, which are too often seen as peripheral to the so-called “real issues” of economic crisis and political insecurity. Yet the depth and pervasiveness of these gender biases in Lebanon shape the country; they fuel the celebration of militarism and put women and girls at higher risk of discrimination, poverty, and violence – particularly in emergencies.
Lebanon ranks 145 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, above only Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen and Syria in the region. This means that Lebanon is vastly unequal in terms of women’s presence in political and economic life, among other indicators – a gap that will take at least 150 years to close. Beirut exemplified these inequalities; it was a city characterised by deep economic disparities, with minimal public spaces and large swathes of urban slums. All this before the latest series of tragedies.
The explosion will only magnify these pre-existing problems, making life much worse not only for Lebanese women, but also for queer women, migrant and refugee women, women living with disabilities, and many others already living on the periphery and hidden beneath layered inequalities.
Those who were reducing what they ate before, will now go hungry. Those who could hardly pay for their homes before, now will lose them. Women who were employed before will not work again, unless on the black market, with risks and without protection. Trafficking and forced sex work will increase. Violence against women will increase. Child marriage will increase – families can reduce their economic burden by “offloading” girls so there’s one less mouth to feed.
Yet Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt throughout the ages. And as it recovers this time, we have an opportunity to build a foundation that is solid and sustainable; that takes equality as its starting point. This means, building a new city with – and for – women. Beirut could be the Arab region’s first “feminist city”. This is about more than safety and public spaces; it is also about equality, dignity, and access to opportunities.
We write this from the perspective of two feminist aid workers with 37 years combined experience in 27 countries worldwide. And this is our recipe.
It begins with women at all levels of leadership and decision-making, not as an afterthought, but as a deliberate intention. This recognises the value women bring not only for themselves, but also for families, communities, and those we too often leave behind. Everywhere from the grassroots to the government, we need women. Representation matters now more than ever. If it takes positive discrimination in the form of quotas to get women in, then let’s do that with full knowledge that women are not present as tokens, but are valued and respected, and too long neglected. Their voices will make all of us stronger.
Women in power and politics will initiate long-overdue reforms. Lebanon has been weighed down by personal status codes (discriminatory laws that regulate every aspect of women’s lives such as education, work, marriage, divorce, children), freedom of movement, and access to resources – rendering women’s bodies and lives to the authority of religious leaders, all men.
There is no room for regressive legislation in the new Lebanon. Research has shown that a country’s chances of peace, prosperity, and progress are not based on the government or the economy – it is based on how a country treats its women.
Increased social investment in health and education is necessary for a robust Lebanon. As are targeted efforts to support women to enter the economy. When women are employed, families, communities, societies, and countries are better, healthier, and stronger. We know this from decades of experience. Now is the time to do it.
Lebanon is filled with private, prohibited spaces – from the government to gardens. A feminist city is built on accessibility, open spaces, public resources, and shared recognition of the value of the city as a home for all. This entails public transportation, public parks and markets, and the ability to be safe anywhere, anytime – regardless of their colour, class, nationality and sexual orientation.
Here also, representation matters. We must recognise and celebrate women’s contributions to Lebanon throughout history by honouring them with statues and memorials that represent their work and show our respect for diverse role models. This will have an incredible influence on the young population, demonstrating that this is a Lebanon by and for them, one they are happy to grow old in, rather than pressed to escape from.
One month after the explosion, individuals and communities are rebuilding for themselves. This event, like 9/11, will become a marker in time, a dividing line, distinctly separating life before the Beirut explosion and life after. We must now build a Lebanon that treats all equally; that celebrates its diversity and actively promotes equality.
To do this, let us start with women; they are demanding we do so. Women are the face – and the force – of Lebanon’s recovery and resilience. Male leadership in Lebanon has failed its population. It is finally time for Lebanon to allow women to fully rise from the ashes.