Gender and security in Lebanon: Issues and challenges

With the security situation in Lebanon changing by the day, an inquiry into people’s security perceptions and needs, as well as the security sector’s capacity to respond to them, opens up possibilities to both better understand local dynamics and identify possibilities for engagement.

International Alert, together with the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, has been leading this analysis with an EU-funded project called ‘Promoting People-centred Security Sector Reform’. Based on this and further research we have identified numerous interesting findings from a gender perspective, which I will briefly outline here, in anticipation of our publication of a background paper on the topic later this year.

Security sector reform (SSR) and gender – why and how?

SSR has two main objectives. First, ensuring that security sector institutions (SSIs) are effective, affordable and efficient. And second, that they are under democratic and civilian control. Since the mid-2000s, gender has been increasingly regarded as a key component of SSR. Taking into account gender dynamics in SSR processes enhances local ownership, effective service delivery as well as oversight and accountability – issues that a large majority of Lebanese wanted to see improved in their SSIs.

A key challenge of incorporating gender dynamics into SSR processes has been that of going beyond merely increasing the number of women in SSIs and instead focusing on gender identities and how these impact security needs, security provision and both the internal workings and public perceptions of these institutions. However, gender identities should not be considered in isolation to other identity markers, such as geographical location, urban/rural residence, social class, and confessional and political affiliation, all of which play an important role in Lebanese society.        

Gendered perceptions of SSIs

The majority (75%) of both Lebanese men and women said that, in theory, they would tell SSIs if they were attacked, physically harmed or the victim of a crime, exhibiting a desire to make use of state services. In practice, however, only 47% of women and 38% of men resorted to SSIs. For those Lebanese who did not end up resorting to SSIs, 24% of women resorted to their families while 22% of men resorted to political parties, thus exposing a gendered divide of public/private spheres. Moreover, a significant number of men did not resort to any one and did not seek help, highlighting a certain expectation of men to be self-sufficient and not actively seek support.

Both women and men raised issues of partiality, partisan influence and perceived corruption as major concerns undermining trust in SSIs, and especially the police, known as the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The concept of needing ‘a connection’, or wasta, which can support them if they get into trouble with the ISF and other SSIs is internalised by most Lebanese. Moreover, seemingly mundane characteristics such as uniforms and gear affect both working conditions and public perceptions. The more military than civilian appearance of the ISF projects an image of a force that is more concerned with ‘hard’ rather than human security.

Gender within SSIs

Gender dynamics play a critical role in defining how SSIs act as institutions and how they react to security-relevant situations. In fact, certain forms of femininities and masculinities are reinforced within the institutional cultures of SSIs. Security, especially combat or direct engagements, is perceived as a ‘masculine’ sphere of work and SSIs assume that women are not able to perform the same duties due to gender norms and physiological capabilities. Women in SSIs thus tend to be grouped in office jobs such as reception and administrative roles.

Recent initiatives to take in more women included an expectation that trust levels in SSIs would rise. A recent study conducted by NICO on ISF trust levels shows that the Lebanese population does perceive female officers as less likely to take bribes, more likely to treat people with respect and to apply the law equally to all citizens. However, these beliefs contrast sharply with Lebanese perceptions of women’s capabilities: only 13% believe that women can do the same tasks as men, while over 50% think they can best handle administrative tasks. In fact, the first two women to join the ISF did so in 2001 ‘by mistake’, when a recruiting advertisement failed to specify that it was intended for male applicants only, revealing the extent to which it was considered inconceivable for women to join SSIs and specifically the ISF.

The gendered institutional culture of SSIs as well as the high number of men can present challenges for women working in the sector. A lack of facilities for female staff at local police stations, such as separate bathrooms or sleeping quarters, could present a disincentive for potential female recruits. Similarly, the hierarchical structure of SSIs and a pervasive ‘masculine’ culture present challenges for those who, due to their physical abilities or sexual identity, do not fit into the dominant institutional culture. The documented ill-treatment of individuals in some police stations, including instances of sexual abuse, attests to the prevalence of harmful gender dynamics within the working environment of SSIs.

What next?

Gender is an important factor in assessing security perceptions, security provision and SSR more broadly but, as our research shows, it needs to be seen in context with a range of other factors.

The full findings of our research will be published later in the year. We hope they will play a role in helping to raise awareness of and spur debate on the importance of considering gender in SSR in Lebanon and in the MENA region more broadly.

You can find out more about our work on gender and peacebuilding here.