Female ministers ‘crack’ male political world in Lebanon

Raya Haffar Hassan cracked Lebanon’s male-dominated political world when she was appointed finance minister, one of the first woman to land such a top job. Activists say the appointment of Hassan and State Minister Mona Ofeish in the new 30-member national unity government unveiled on November 9 is a welcome step, but remains a mere “crack in the political glass ceiling.”

The US-educated Hassan, who has an MBA from George Washington University, was selected by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while Ofeish, an attorney and civil society activist, was named by President Michel Sleiman.

“The glass ceiling? I guess you could say it’s cracked,” said Aman Kabbara Shaarani, who heads the Lebanese Council of Women, an umbrella group of several organizations.

“Prime Minister Saad Hariri took a good step by appointing two women to his Cabinet, but this is far from enough,” she told AFP.

Lebanon prides itself as a pioneer of women’s liberation in the Arab world but it still lags behind some of its more conservative neighbors and only four women have seats in the 128-strong Parliament.

In government, female representation fares poorly as well.

The first woman to be appointed to a government was the daughter of Lebanon’s first Prime Minister Riad Solh, Leila Solh Hamadeh, who served as the industry minister from 2004 to 2005.

“We would have hoped women to get at least 30 percent representation in government, especially since women accounted for 53 percent of all ballots cast in our elections last June,” Shaarani said.

“Unfortunately in this country, qualified women do not reach high-level posts because political shares are divided among men and along sectarian lines,” she added.

“But our two new female ministers are highly qualified, so it’s a step forward in terms of quality at least.”

Hassan is no newcomer to the world of finance. She has contributed to the establishment of assistance programs in Lebanon set up by the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank.

Since 2003, the 42-year-old mother has worked with three former prime ministers on financial policies and says she is ready, and capable, of tackling challenges that lay ahead.

“It’s a very challenging opportunity, and I understand that very well,” Hassan told AFP. “But I think being a woman, we have the ability to withstand a lot of pressure.

“I intend to use diplomatic demeanor and calm to argue my points within the Cabinet and namely when it comes to setting the national budget,” Hassan said.

The task will be tough: although Lebanon has largely ducked the global economic crisis, the national debt is expected to top $50 billion this year alone.

Most of the debt was incurred during the massive reconstruction after Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War led by Saad Hariri’s father Rafik Hariri, a five-time prime minister who was assassinated in 2005.

Hassan also enters a national debate on whether to privatize the country’s extortionate telecoms sector and the money-draining electricity sector, the government’s third-largest expenditure after debt servicing and salaries.

Her detractors deride her as a muse of the Hariri era, and the pro-opposition daily Al-Akhbar has dubbed her the “golden child of Hariri’s financial policy.”

The US- and Saudi-backed Saad Hariri announced the new Cabinet line-up after nearly five months of tough negotiations with his rivals in the Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbullah-led opposition.

Hariri got the lions’s share, with 15 ministries given to his alliance, while the opposition is represented by 10 ministers.

President Michel Sleiman, who plays the role of arbiter, has since appointed the remaining five ministers.



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