Written by Mira Bouchmouny
As a young citizen participating for the first time in the Lebanese parliamentary elections, I was able to see first hand through the members of my family/electoral, how familial power structures, intersecting with gender and class, affected voting behaviour in Lebanon. This experience was further expanded through initial conversations with members of my family and on talking to friends and acquaintances in Beirut, who come from both safe electorates,1 and the seats in Chouf/Aley where new, independent candidates and lists had a higher chance of obtaining seats. However, through further conversations and interviews I came to see more complexity than the clientelism narrative we generally fall back on, when talking about politics in Lebanon, mainly elections. It is not simply families acting in the best interest of the patriarch,2 nor is it the patriarch taking the decision for how the whole family will vote, but this narrative largely informs how we3 tend to speak about elections and how political parties count votes within their constituency.4 When digging deeper these perceptions are challenged. This article seeks to highlight to what extent tribal/familial power structures influence voting behaviour of women, youth and men, while exploring women’s actual voting behaviour verses perceptions on how they vote; this article does not aim to disprove existing understandings of electoral behaviours but to offer observations of complexities and nuances in said behaviors, through shedding light on additional personal narratives around the Lebanese elections.
One-on-one interviews were conducted with nine people, including seven youth under 30 (4 female, 3 male), of which four were first time voters, and three had voted in the previous municipality elections. The remaining two were women over 30, who were not first time voters. People interviewed were selected at random, and interviewed after the parliamentary elections in 2018.
Women and youth vote with their husbands/patriarch, and when they do not it is assumed that they did. Keli azouwe'ik w Lebsi azouw' el Nass.5
A.G.6 convinced her mother and brother to vote with7 her for one of the independent lists, after her mother claimed she would follow her husband and not vote, and her brother’s return ticket from Qatar was paid for by one of the major political parties. Her father in protest to the ruling parties refused to vote as he was convinced that had he went to the polling station they would assume both he and his family voted for Jumblat, even if they didn’t and even if they were vocal about who they voted for.8
B.H.9 did not want to vote in the municipal elections due to a personal dispute with the Mukhtar10. After a failed attempt to convince her husband for them both not to vote, she was forced to go to the polling station with him. She felt a loss of political autonomy as she was pressured to vote and knew even if she put a blank ballot or voted for someone else she would still be counted as having voted with her husband for the Mukhtar. This was in contrast however, for the parliamentary elections as not only did they both agree on who they would vote for, they showed allegiance by placing a large picture of Tony Frangieh11 on their house, and she was a mandoube12 at the polling station. The general discourse was that she voted with her husband rather than it being seen as her own choice, and based on her own political views and as a push for her children’s future economic interests, the latter being the reason mentioned by both her and her husband.
Similar to the above two examples we see the same occurrence with youth votes whereby families are more concerned with the image of voting as a bloc than the actual reality. After arguments with the family around the election and who he should vote for, T.S.13 decided to go to the polling station with his family, but placed a white ballot.14 His family knew, but their priority was for him to attend with them so that it could appear as though he voted for the same party.
Women’s individual economic interests separate from their/a patriarch, can have greater pressure on their voting behavior, than patriarchal familial/tribal ties.
C.J.15 was conflicted between voting for her employment benefactor verses for her cousin during the elections. In this situation we see a female voter having the same predicament as the traditional male patriarch, who has to decide who to vote for based on direct clientelism services and their economic livelihood, in comparison to who they are more politically aligned with and, in this case, wanting to support a family member. We see the question of family alliance in a different aspect, as voters who wish to support their family’s candidacy.
Most interviewees had a strong belief that who they voted for would be known, through marking of lists based on families, and deducing who in the family steered away from what the patriarch claimed they would vote for. This counting of votes based on family, meant people also feared repercussions on the family at large for example C.J. also worried that her sister would lose her job should she not vote for the candidate her employer supports.16 When votes are seen as part of an exchange for services, vote counting becomes a larger concern for citizens.
Women’s voting behavior and reasoning tends to be dismissed as solely inline with their patriarch’s views.
D.K.17 initially claimed his sisters voted with their husbands, but on further discussion it was discovered that they both were initially aligned to the same candidate, as both his sisters, worked on this particular candidate’s first election campaign, prior to being married. This example is one of many that begs the question of how many women’s voices are dismissed or seen as passive, because both her and her partner are politically aligned, for either the same or different reasons, which can be common given people tend to marry people who share similar views and interests. As was also seen above with B.H., and P.M.18 who appears to have voted with her family for the same candidate whom she placed as her sawt el tifdeleh,19 however her analysis was based on the candidates political agenda. After further discussion, it appeared that the list itself was in line with her political values, but the preference vote was not and likely based on her family’s preference, in an attempt to strategically vote for the person more likely to win, who would potentially carry the agenda of the list as whole. When we dig further the nuances show women’s voting based on personal values and politics.
Libnaniya w ma titkallimoush fil siyasa? (Lebanese [woman] and you don’t discuss politics?) 20
Furthermore women discuss politics amongst themselves and are influenced by each other and at times to support each other.
E.L.21 was convinced to vote in the parliamentary elections by a female friend, took counsel from her older sister on which candidate to put down as sawt el tifdeleh and voted for a female candidate from an independent list. In this election, there was no pressure from her father on how to vote, however during the municipal elections, in her words, as a favour she voted with her father’s prefered candidate who was a friend of the family’s. This example shows political discussions among women themselves separate from the men in their lives, as well as displaying increased family benefit during municipal elections than the parliamentary, which could be another reason why families increase pressure on each other during municipal elections.22
Couples do not agree on everything, and who to vote for is just one of the examples.
R.A.23 claimed as early as he could remember: his mother and two older brothers were with the Lebanese Forces (LF),24 and his father was with Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).25 There were always jokes on each side of the family about why the other didn’t change their views to match their spouse’s and thus achieve family political unity. The question was always put to both of them not only his mother, and when put to his father they would also mention it would be supporting his wife and sons, given the two elder son’s supported the LF. Generally, it is his mother who tries to convince him who to vote for, and this year, his father and other extended family members who generally vote for the FPM, voted for the independent list: Kollouna Watani, similar to himself.26 This was after conversations within family on who would benefit the country, and not from a clientelistic basis. Here we see examples of families discussing politics and influencing each others’ votes, through political conversations, and not through the exertion of patriarchal powers.
Families do not merely vote as blocs with the patriarch deciding and exerting pressure or force on members to vote a certain way despite voter predictions being counted along family lines. This is but an easy conclusion to make, when one fails to dig deeper and explore how women and youth voted and why. Because it is taken for granted that women vote with their patriarch, we fail to see incidences when they vote for their own individual economic interests, when they vote for the same candidate for their own political reasons, as well as the alternate narratives that demonstrate families and friends discussing politics and influencing each other through ideas on who to vote for, while allowing each individual to perform their own political autonomy in the process. As long as we see women as voting extensions of their family regardless of how they actually vote, their voting power will be dismissed and their demands will not be taken seriously.
Mira Bouchmouny is a socialist feminist living in Beirut Lebanon who studied International Relations and Gender Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She grew up in a Lebanese village in Australia, before moving permanently to the actual country six years ago. She is was one of the founders of the Socialist Feminist Committee, and is a part of Space 27, both of which are members of the Feminist Bloc. She has written for Al Manshour on the role of trade unions in addressing the demands of women workers, and for Sawt al Niswa on the experiences of organising the International Women’s Day March in Lebanon. When she is not organising her main goals are to become famous on instagram, an unrealistic goal given her minimal online presence.
1 Electorates considered winning seats for known established political parties, where it is especially difficult for newcomers and independent to win seats.
2 And by extension themselves when economically dependent on the patriarch.
3 We is used to denote the: general population, academics, journalists, politicians, etc.
4 For example, an older man from the electorate of Keserwan was able to meet with high profile religious and political leaders on claiming he had a very large family, i.e. the backing of [x] number of people. A story that came up in one of the interviews.
5 A popular Lebanese proverb which translates to “eat as you please and dress as it pleases society.”
6 Female 23, Chouf Aley, lives independently in Beirut.
7 Hereinafter voted with, will be used to denote voted for the same party, list, or candidate. This is a direct translation from Lebanese Arabic to mean the same thing.
8 Which they were, however the brother could only be vocal after the fact, given he had received a return ticket to Lebanon for the sole purpose to vote for the PSP.
9 Female mid/late 30s, Zgharta, lives in the electorate.
10 The head of local government of a town or village.
11 Tony Frangieh is the current leader of Marada, the main political party in the Zgharta district. Tony is the son of Sleiman Frangieh, who ruled the party before him.
12 Election monitor generally for the party one supports, as each party places monitors at the polling stations.
13 Male 24, Batroun, lives independently in Beirut.
14 Seen as a protest vote.
15 Female early/mid 30s, Zgharta, lives and works in the electorate.
16 She and her sister are employed by the same employer.
17 Male 30, Batroun, lives independently in Beirut and sometimes abroad.
18 Female 25, Keserwan, lives independently in Beirut.
19 Translates to mean preference vote.
20 Quote taken from Masrahiyat “Sayf 840”Translated as Summer of 840, is a play about the Lebanese revolution against the Ottomans. In they play an Egyptian character is shocked and questions when a female Lebanese character claims she does not discuss politics.
21 Female 27, Bikfaya, Metn, lives in electorate with her family.
22 This comes as no surprise given provision of direct services is more common on the local level, and for citizens who live in the electorates they vote in.
23 Male 23, Batroun, lives independently in Beirut.
24 Political party currently headed by Samir Geagea.
25 Political party previously headed by the current President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun.
26 The FNP is currently in power with their leader Michel Aoun the president of Lebanon, similarly in elections across the globe, we generally see the ruling party losing votes in the election while they are in office, especially when they fail to achieve what they set out to, leading to voter disillusionment.