Lebanon: Marginalizing the Role of Women in History and Education

Nourhan Sharaf Eddine
Lebanese Journalist

The reasons for the marginalization of women are many, including the curriculum for Lebanon’s history books, which was introduced in the 1960s and has not been updated since. Nayla Hamadeh, Ex-President of the Lebanese Association for History (LAH), speaks up.

In a social experiment on the role of women in the Lebanese Civil War, participants were asked about the things they remembered. The replies were: men with guns, men shooting, men making peace.

The answers seemed in line with how the history of the Civil War, and Lebanese history in general, have been written, as historians tend to tell facts and narratives from a male angle. Especially in war, the role of women is reduced to something like the increase in the number of widows.

When looking at gender, a rediscovery of history becomes possible and even necessary. One person’s memory is opened to the memory of the other, so the other does not remain alien, ambiguous, or unknown. This is especially important when it comes to women’s voices and stories, which are often ignored.

“The reasons for the marginalization of women are many, which includes the old curriculum for Lebanon’s history books, which was introduced in the 1960s,” said Nayla Hamadeh, education activist and President of the Lebanese Association for History (LAH).

Lebanon does not have one history book that is taught everywhere, but many, depending on a school’s sectarian viewpoint. The same is true for the national education book, which teaches the student things like how to be a good citizen.

“The Taif Agreement calls for the unification of the country’s educational and history books in order to restore cohesion among the Lebanese people, but the unification of history disregards the unification of the curriculum,” said Hamadeh. As a result, whether schools depend on one history book or several books issued by different publishing houses, the same patriarchal curriculum is taught favoring the male point of view while shedding light on political or military history and neglecting stories of successful women who fought battles outside politics.

“We again saw the patriarchal approach in the formation of national committees in the post-war phase,” she continued. “All of them were composed of five or six people appointed by the government to present a draft of the unified history book. Except for one advisor, all of them were men.”

The state achieves its goal of marginalizing history and urging society to marginalize it too: to reproduce the patriarchal system by dictating this version of marginalized history, well before the student learnt critical thinking to be immune from what he or she is being dictated.

Hamadeh believes that limiting the writing of the curriculum to a handful of men, not familiar with gender equality, who resort to historical sources that mostly stem from men, harms the general objective of the curriculum, as it neglects women and the female perspective.

The first committee was formed in the late 1990s, yet could not agree on the content of the unified history book and failed to submit a draft, which was to be approved by the Council of Ministers. Curricula were issued for all subjects, except history. The 2010 committee did submit a draft to renew the history curriculum, but it faced political opposition and the proposal was rejected. There have been no attempts since.

“Having one book fails again, when it is renewed, revised or summarized using the same methodologies and approaches without thinking outside the box,” said Hamadeh. “Because the new textbook will reflect the male’s traditional view about women and their roles, if they are mentioned at all. Or the book inserta women’s rights within the general frame of human rights, so they dissolve, and the importance of the narrative gets lost in a much wider social historical narrative.”

But the marginalization of women goes beyond the history book. It concerns all educational books and as such reflects the educational philosophy of the country as a whole. For example, the civics book for the first secondary grade contains 232 pictures, yet only ten of them concern women and women’s issues. Furthermore, students rarely learn about women’s achievements in the field of science or philosophy. Nor do they see them in leadership positions.

Rather, the Lebanese curriculum outlines a role for women that is limited to cooking and taking care of the children. These roles are no less important than others in society. But they predetermine the choices of a new generation through framing. The image also confirms stereotypes held by the opposite sex. However, it should be noted that the history curriculum has always played a special role.

“It was traditionally taught to create a national identity and collective memory,” said Hamadeh. “But it has developed into a specific field of knowledge with its own strategies, concepts, and goals, which includes creating a critical thinking individual capable of making decisions and playing an active role in society.”

“Teaching students to memorize the story of just one person renders the subject void of meaning thus creating students who lack the intellectual skills needed for analysis and the advancement of society,” she continued. “It also creates a worthless collective identity, as schools resort to teaching history from their own perspective, position and interest. Here lies the importance of studying the oral history of women. Because the concept of history transcends current events to express a society’s vision of a historical era once lived.”

According to Hamadeh, “oral history always interconnects with academic work and other sources, forming an inclusive and comprehensive history that incorporates everyone’s narrative and allows readers to learn about certain values belonging ​​to a certain group in a certain era.” The equation becomes clear little by little. The curriculum expresses the state’s policy to create a weak female gender that unless it is broken we would stand unable to be able rewrite history. The dilemma is that rewriting is impossible without retelling, which shows the need for the use of oral history, which only emerged in the 1950s.

Rewriting history based on oral analysis is an attempt to bridge the gap between the narrowness of the existing historical perspective and the vast memories of all those who lived, say, the Lebanese Cicil War. Thus the historian can write a more complete or at least fairer account of the past that conveys the suffering of the peripheries as well as the suffering of the center, and narrates the roles of the secondary characters as well as the heroes, the armed as well as the defenseless.

To be fair gender only gained importance a few years ago. Therefore, it would be unfair to blame historians for failing to do something decades ago based on a viewpoint that is prevalent today. Yet it does show a loophole in how to teach, rather indoctrinate, history.

“History must be taught with the next generation in mind,” said Hamadeh. “To ensure the next generation is equipped with a ‘renewed mind’ so that they can reach the labor market after completing secondary education with a modern perspective. The problem lies in the fact that we see history as an entry into the past, rather than as an entry into the future.”

With this in mind, we understand the goal of successive governments to marginalize history. The governments formed committees, and these committees cancelled some lessons as the sole means to renew the curriculum. But they ignored developing the capabilities of history teachers. They also set the grades for history, in high school, to be maximum 40/100 in the literary department, compared to 30/100 in the scientific departments.

So history was placed within a literary framework and viewed as a mere story by the curriculum makers instead of being taught as the discipline it is. Not to mention the governments’ lack of a clear intention to renew the curriculum and make it interactive. All of the reasons mentioned above show how history is approached as a secondary subject. “Easy marks” for high school students, unable to improve their mental perceptions and teach them things that may benefit them in their daily lives.

Thus, the state achieves its goal of marginalizing history and urging society to marginalize it too: to reproduce the patriarchal system by dictating this version of marginalized history, well before the student learnt critical thinking to be immune from what he or she is being dictated.

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