Cherchez la Femme: Who is She in Lebanon

Who is She in Lebanon, an online database with profiles of notable contemporary Lebanese women, was launched by IWSAW (the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World) on the 2nd of March. The project, which was created in partnership with KVINFO, aims to provide an easily accessible database of prominent Lebanese woman, documenting their achievements in a variety of fields, as well as providing information and contact details to promote their knowledge and experience.

Image from the Who is She website.
Image from the Who is She website.

The project has its background in KVINFO, a self-governing institution under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture in Denmark, which created a database of Danish women in the 1990s. The expert database was launched in 1995, and has been accessible online since 1997. Elisabeth Moller Jensen, the director at KVINFO, describes it as an important tool that can have a direct impact on the place of women in society. As she points out, it is important to keep in mind that despite the fact that ”Denmark has one of the world’s longest-established women’s movements….when we look at the number of women in top management and the amount of influence held by Danish women, there is still a long way to go. Not least in the academic world and on the boards of private companies, women are conspicuous in their absence.” A database that provides the names and contact details of qualified women could go some way towards strengthening women’s influence in these fields.

The idea of an Arab version of the expert database first came up in 2005, with KVINFO’s first partner organization in the Middle East, the Jordanian National Commission for Women. Five years later, Who is She in Lebanon is the first local version of the database, which is in the process of being set up in Jordan and Egypt.

The database aims to include female Lebanese opinion leaders, researchers, journalists, artists and other experts within a wide range of fields. For Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, the director of IWSAW, “these women, who have worked silently and patiently most of the time, deserve to be honored by having their biographies and achievements recorded.”

The 78 names included in the Who is She in Lebanon database so far range from figures like former First Lady Andrée Emile Lahoud to actress and talk show host Julia Kassar, artist Nada Sehnaoui, and journalist Raghida Dergham among a host of writers, designers, directors, managers and lawyers. The question, which appears to be reflected in the list compiled to date, is how representative this database is, and how far it succeeds in its goal of promoting the achievements of Lebanese women. The danger is that if the threshold on inclusion in the database is set too high, Who is She in Lebanon could go from being a tool of empowerment to looking more like something akin to an exclusive club. At the moment, the database includes a few women (mostly involved in NGO work) who come from less privileged backgrounds, comparatively speaking. The vast majority, however, are upper or upper middle class.

Of course, there are organizations that seek to help underprivileged women featured in the database. One particularly innovative company is Sarah’s Bag, created by Sarah Beydoun. In founding Sarah’s Bag, Beydoun “combine[d] her interest in bettering underprivileged women’s lives with her love for fashion,” setting up her company “as part of a rehabilitation program, where women…learn valuable skills in return for a reliable income” and also get to know they are “invigorating contemporary fashion.”

At the moment Who is She in Lebanon looks to me like the equivalent of Sarah’s Bag. Admirable, and chock-full of good will, but the end product, even with the best of intentions, is somewhat cliquish. It remains to be seen whether the creators will make some effort to seek out or perhaps even encourage entrepreneurs from less privileged backgrounds. Who is She in Lebanon will have to tread a fine line between being as comprehensive and representative as possible, and on the other hand, being selective enough to ensure the database reflects appropriately high levels of achievement.

The organizers behind the project are aware of the difficulties. For Dabbous-Sensenig, the database “expresses our determination to acknowledge first and foremost what has already been done by contemporary women in Lebanon so that it becomes clearer to us what remains to be done, by Lebanese men and women jointly.” Complacency has no place here. The areas of expertise section alone, where the numbers are significantly higher in Education, Children, and Philanthropy than in Business or Feminism, suggest some of the challenges ahead.

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