Advocating and making women's rights in Lebanon – NGO activism, political economy, legal pluralism and human rights translation in Beirut

Contemporary Lebanon, burdened with a past of civil war and foreign occupation as well as forced migration due to long-standing military conflicts in the region, largely depends on foreign financial support to maintain its public and economic infrastructure. Emerging regional security concerns, not least the ongoing Syrian civil war exacerbates the Lebanese state's crisis of political power. Currently, forced migrants represent approximately 25% of the Lebanese total population.

Lebanon's pluralistic jurisdiction is a product of legal systems overlapping. Histories of colonialism and imperialism created several rule systems and normative orders. Religious beliefs and norms thereby determined these legal frameworks reciprocally. Civil law and religious personal status laws compose the contemporary Lebanese jurisdiction. 18 officially recognized religious groups, known as sects, govern family matters.

In recent decades, the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on the generic term of human rights has increased exponentially around the globe and in the global south in particular. Legal discourses and rights claims have become more and more significant in the fields of international development and international relations, when social groups were meant to be empowered by group rights claims in order to be treated equally within existing dominant social formations. NGOs have become leading actors in state governance, the rule of law establishment and political dynamics ruling. NGOs thereby represent central actors in transnational legal processes, translating and seeking to implement human rights into specific local contexts.

With both the rising number of NGOs and their intensified global and transnational interconnectedness, the very nature of these organizational structures and obligations has been modified. Legal reforms or policy changes could exemplify their involvement in public order transformations and social change. At these scopes, NGOs' participative and mediating role with their advocacy and lobbying work is perceptible and shows their relevance in scrutinizing and challenging state policies and agencies.

Besides institutional rearrangements, content matters: target groups, strategic objectives and motives have also been diversely transformed throughout the past years. Particularly, women’s empowerment and advancement have progressively brought to the fore of human rights advocacy while at the same time women's rights are constituted in those fora. As a result, transnational networks of women's rights lobbyist have been established.

Against this backdrop, the following overall research questions of my dissertation emerge:

How are translation processes and acts of women's rights (dis-)mantled by NGOs? How is religious pluralism reshaped either by law reforms fostering women's rights or NGOs as actors?

How do NGOs mediate and translate global notions of women's human rights (and discourses) in given local circumstances and into the legal framework?

How do normative, economic, moral ideologies and/of development (aid engagement) sway politics of policy or norms translation?

In light of these questions, I investigate in my current research project the various roles NGOs take advocating women's human rights at transnational, national or local scale in Lebanon. The interplay and configurations of NGOs' positions and settings between zooming into a local contexts and zooming out to broader ones, constitute one of the main topic of my research. Emphasizing the NGO perspective, I further research women's rights translation and procedures and take a closer look to their traveling models in Lebanon. In peculiar, my interests lie in the rights-based campaigns of local NGOs, trying to foster women's rights by reforming the law or policy change.

I have conducted participant observation with international and Lebanese NGOs in order to understand the NGO culture of documentation, bureaucratization and knowledge production during my fieldwork. This included a four-month internship in a Lebanese NGO promoting gender justice and women's empowerment, as well as a brief consultancy on gender projects for an international agency. I attended conferences, committee board meetings, court hearings, activist actions and protests as well as the examination of reports, evaluation procedures, protocols and in-house research papers.

The research project promotes an in-depth ethnographic analysis of institutional organization and makes a theoretical contribution to contemporary questions of expertise, knowledge, advocacy and institutional (political) activism in the field of NGOs and human rights. Furthermore it reflects and questions concepts and perspectives of humanitarianism, morality, normative orders and rule systems.

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