Some of the world’s most prominent companies are led by women. These accomplished female business leaders include Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook; Indra Nooyi, CEO and chair of PepsiCo; Ginni Rometty, the chair, president, and CEO of IBM, and first woman to head the company; and Diane Von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
What is the difference between these women and business women in Lebanon? Nothing at all. In fact, as impressive and accomplished as these women are, I’d wager I could find a woman who’s as much of a whiz at diplomacy and negotiation while haggling with a store manager in Bourj Hammoud on a Tuesday as any of the more high-positioned ladies referenced above.
The dismal number of women in the upper echelons of Lebanon’s business world has nothing to do with a lack of talent, determination, ambition, or smarts, and everything to do with lack of opportunity. The sad truth is that the playing field is not level for women here. Time and time again, an up-and-coming female talent starts out at full speed, but soon afterward, her male counterparts breeze on by as she struggles to push her boulder up the mountain.
It’s all about opportunity—but opportunity is the exception for most women in Lebanon, and will remain so unless something is done to turn it into an expectation. That something is the passing of laws and regulations to make gender equality in Lebanon a reality.
You might be thinking, “Sure, why not?” But for the situation to change, people need to do more than just agree. Laws don’t just magically appear. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Without a change of mindset—without people demanding, lobbying, and even badgering those who wield the power of the legislative pen—the only thing women can look forward to is a career of swimming upstream in a raging river. That might work for salmon, but it definitely will not work for us.
Here’s another list: Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Thelma & Louise; Mayssa Karaa, a Grammy-nominated singer; Sara Ganim, CNN journalist; Donna Shalala, former US Secretary of Health and Human Services; Amal Clooney, lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers specialising in international law and human rights; and Ayah Bdeir, CEO of littleBits, a company that produces educational electronic toys. All of these women are of Lebanese origin, and all of them have achieved success in countries that gave them the tools, the inspiration, and the opportunities that so many of their counterparts living in Lebanon do not have.
We can do better as a country. We can protest, we can petition the powers that be, especially in the run-up to elections; we can put into place a system to empower women and achieve equality in the decision-making process in politics and public life; we can advocate for public awareness of violence against women and challenge the negative attitudes that perpetuate the cycle of harm; we can start it all by educating the public at large and the upcoming generations about the necessity of equality as a human right; and most importantly, we can build a strong women’s movement, which studies have consistently shown is the most effective way to achieve real change. There is so much that we can do, and more crucially, that we should do. And it starts with you and me, right now.
It is past time to unleash half (if not more) of the nation’s power. The next time a Lebanese woman decides to challenge the current, it should be because she wants to, not because she has to.
Em Khalil is Bou Khalil Supermarket’s counter brand, the voice that tackles gender-associated laws and societal stereotypes in Lebanon. For more of Em Khalil’s thoughts, follow her on Instagram: @therealemkhalil