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Zeina Aboul-Hosn

A visionary and her legacy of peace and equality

Date of publication: 13 April, 2015

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Video: Salimeh Dergham was Lebanon’s first woman mayor and a visionary who kept her village out of 15 years of civil war.

Saeed Albarahdi was unequivocal. "All government positions should be taken over by women," he said as we walked through the village of Bakkifa in South Lebanon, "Women want to work and do well for their community, men just want to make money."

 

Albarahdi speaks from personal experience. For 35 years he served on the municipal council with Lebanon's first woman mayor: Salimeh Dergham.

 

     She was a visionary. She brought life to the town.

- Saeed Albarahdi

Salimeh Dergham passed away last year, but she left behind a legacy of peace, prosperity and service to the community. She was the first woman in Lebanon to be elected as mayor, back in 1965. She led Bakkifa with the support and cooperation of its citizens, through 3 decades, which many remember as Bakkifa's brightest times.

 

Under her leadership, the town's roads were widened and paved, the school was built, as was the municipality headquarters itself, which was the first municipal building in Lebanon.

 

"Bakkifa was the first village in the area to have its streets lit up," says Shadi Dham, head of the Bakkifa Cultural and Social Club, "That was the work of Salimeh Dergham."

Women unite

In 1920, the Lebanese Women's Union was formed, later becoming the Lebanese Council of Women in 1952, and dedicating itself to the fight to gain the vote for Lebanese women (this eventually happened in 1953). Between 1953 and 1972, seven women ran for parliament but were never elected. There was one incident in 1960, however, when Mirna al-Boustani was elected to complete the remaining 8 months in parliament of her father Emile Boustani.

 

That has been the general trend since then: women are either given a seat to fill in for the death or absence of a male relative, or elected because of affiliations to male relatives with political careers. There have been exceptions of course: there is the much-cited example of the appointment of a female Minister of Finance by Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2010. But the bigger picture of women's participation in the arena of formal politics is bleak.

 

Lebanese women have struggled to break through into the halls of parliament and ministerial seats – only 3 percent of current parliamentary seats are occupied by women. Lebanon thus shares the same proportion of women in government as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and lags behind Kuwait and Jordan, who can boast 6.2 percent and 12 percent respectively.

 

At the level of local municipalities however, the picture is considerably brighter. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of municipal posts filled by women went up from 2 percent to 4.7 percent. And Salimeh Dergham was the first woman to walk down that path. And she did so without hailing from a family of politicians, or replacing a male relative – she was voted in by the people of her town. Yet there were also some critical conditions that paved the way.

 

"Bakkifa was always leading the way in the fight for women's rights," said Dham. "It is a very open society with a broad mind. Intermarriage is very common in Bakkifa, though it's a Druze town primarily. Here religion doesn't matter."

 

That is in no small part due to the fact that the residents of Bakkifa are members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a political party whose ideology is entirely secular, with a strong separation between religion and politics, and a determined drive to economic and social reform. This created fertile ground for an ambitious, educated, visionary woman such as Salimeh Dergham to make her dream possible.

 

"You can't disregard the role of the parents as well," said Dham. "I teach in the local school and I always encounter girls with a lot of potential, but whose parents want to bind them to social norms and won't allow them to expand and explore their options. Salimeh was lucky with the support of her parents and husband".

Not even a slap

The town's incredible history does not stop with electing a visionary female mayor in 1965 – Bakkifa is also a town that managed to stay peaceful during 15 years of civil war. Under the leadership of Salimeh Dergham, who stayed in office throughout, a civil war that ravaged towns and villages across the country never really managed to infiltrate Bakkifa.

 

"Not even a slap on the face was exchanged between the residents," said Dham, "the war never came to our town. The residents of Bakkifa decided early on that living together was more important than anything else, and we managed to keep the peace." There were certainly a number of factors at play, and the conditions which made it possible for Salimeh to take office were the same that kept the citizens above the pull of sectarian violence – yet it is a question worth considering: how much did it matter that a woman was in charge? How significant was that to keeping peace?

 

"She was a visionary," says Albaradhi, "she brought life to the town. Cultural activities, healthcare services, trade, education, everything." Empowering women was very important for her as Mayor, so she set up carpet factories where the women worked on large looms, making carpets which she would then sell all over the country and even in the Gulf.

 

Dergham also opened the region's first supermarket in Bakkifa, where local products were sold and local people could get jobs. "She was efficient, organised, focused," says Saeed, "she was very well connected and invited very important political personalities to the town - everyone came to visit her."

 

Today the carpet looms gather dust in an empty room of the same municipality building she erected, and the supermarket shelves are bare and gathering dust. Times have changed, but the legacy left behind by Salimeh Dergham has not. She shone not just as the first woman mayor, but also as a prominent politician and civil servant, regardless of gender.

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