Lebanese Student: We Want to Make History

2020-01-20    |   

Lebanese Student: We Want to Make History

“The age in which we accept any threat or intimidation has ended, and we have the right to build our lives… Why are they confronting us with all this menacing and threatening?” In this way, Yousef, a 20-year-old student at the Lebanese University, expressed his anger at a viral audio recording of the principal of a nuns’ school in Abra as she threatened any students who intended to participate in the popular movements.

Despite the threats, the recent student movement constituted the greatest sight of the revolution. The students roamed the streets and reclaimed their role in the squares in a manner not seen since the student uprisings in the 1970s. They reclaimed a pivotal political role that they had been forcibly kept from. They challenged not only the political, security, and party authorities but also the school administrations that caution and threaten them. Like the other revolutionary men and women, the students came from very diverse backgrounds. They are students of universities, primary schools, and secondary schools (and even kindergartens!), some private and some public. They come from the city and the regions. They are from girls’ schools, boys’ schools, and mixed schools. They come from schools with reasonable fees and from the most expensive schools in Lebanon.

They expressed their slogans in words and in actions, with the most stirring slogan so far being “I’m not going to study history; I’m going out to write it”. Hence, their participation was not “apolitical” or purely “juvenile-social”, as some like to portray it. To the contrary, they made highly political demands, such as abolishing political sectarianism and establishing a civil state, social justice, strengthening public schools and improving education in the national university, free education, strengthening women’s role in political life, and women’s right to pass their citizenship on to their children. They actually illustrated the range of their politics, for in the time of revolution, political actions transcend the public sphere to dismantle social legacies that no longer represent their generation. This we saw, for example, when the students of the public girls’ high school in Kobayat came out and headed to their peers in the town’s public boys’ high school to bring them out too.

Since its inception, the revolution has seen children reclaim their public spaces. These same children had been denied the street, and malls had become their only safe “public” space. The revolution returned them to their city’s neighborhoods: they play, dance, shout, and impose themselves onto the revolution. The tents in Azarieh host discussions and activities for them.

In light of the revolution, there is no longer any doubt that students cannot be excluded from politics. While the law separates them into minors and adults, the two groups suffer the same political exclusion. The adult students (18-21 years old) are excluded from the right to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and most have no right to join associations or parties. The minors, on the other hand, are excluded not only from these rights (there is an intellectual current that deems children also have the right to choose their representatives, but we will not delve into that discussion at this stage) but also from involvement in decision-making, from having their opinion heard, and from their right to access the information necessary to form an opinion on public affairs.

Children’s Right to Participate is Absent from Public Policies

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child constituted a qualitative leap as it enshrined children’s position as rights-bearers and not just recipients of services and care. This convention differed in spirit from its predecessors as, based on recognition of children’s identity and capabilities, it adopted an important set of complementary rights that had been considered a prerogative of adults. Most prominently, the convention enshrined children’s freedom of expression and to voice an opinion on matters that directly affect their social, religious, cultural, or political life and their right to have their opinion heard and taken into account (Article 12), in addition to the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly (Article 15), the right to access, receive, and impart information (Article 13 and Article 17), and freedom of thought and religion (Article 14). Furthermore, the convention stipulated that children’s education must be directed toward developing their personality; respecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the principles enshrined in the UN Charter; and preparing them for a responsible life in a free society in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, and equality of sexes (Article 29).

In the same context, the Committee on the Rights of the Child affirmed, in General Comment no. 12 (2009) on the child’s right to be heard,[1] the need to support children and encourage them to form their own child-led organizations and initiatives. It stressed children’s ability to contribute their perspectives on, for example, the design of schools, playgrounds, parks, leisure facilities, public libraries, health facilities, and local transportation systems. It also indicated that children’s opinions should be explicitly included in community development plans, and it welcomed a number of initiatives that strengthen children’s participation rights, especially local youth parliaments, municipal children’s councils, and ad hoc consultations where children can express their opinions in decision-making processes.

Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 with no reservations. This was reflected positively in the domestic legal system of children’s rights, particularly in the adoption of the Law on Protecting Juveniles Who Break the Law or Are at-Risk (Law no. 422 of 2002). However, this development did not translate into a radical change whereby children are perceived as rights-holders. Nor did it reduce their exclusion in the public sphere.

This exclusion takes several forms. Besides the absence of any legal infrastructure ensuring children’s participation in making the decisions that pertain to them, there is a social system that is based on paternalism and manifests itself in two manners. The first is overprotection of the child, whereby the child is seen as a “peace-bearer” who should not be brought into the “dirty” world of politics and have their innocence spoiled. Perhaps Lebanese politics, in the party and sectarian sense, provides fertile ground for this approach. The second is the underestimation of children’s ability to form political views and the perception that they inherently “do not understand” politics.

From another angle, the education system also contributes to the exclusion of children from public affairs via pedagogical policies that marginalize any political education of children. The history textbooks still stop at independence (1943). The civic education curriculum still focuses on moral judgment and in no way strengthens their political awareness or imparts them with the skills of political work. The philosophy curricula still largely lack critical thought. Some schools are now using more participatory systems with the students, such as having class representatives, but this remains insufficient. The aforementioned system is not institutionalized, remains contingent on the staff, and is mostly restricted to the private schools.

The student movement emerged in (and perhaps as a result of) a world of adults that has grown accustomed to not listening to children, which resulted in a scarcity of opportunities for them to participate in recognized political work. The student movement flipped the equation and imposed new rules: politics is no longer a prerogative of adults, paternalism can no longer silence us, and schools must keep pace with our aspirations. The students thereby rejected the bargains their parents make under pressure from the schools. They challenged the administration of their schools and even challenged the social traditions that discriminated among them. Just like the adults, children joined in the reform effort and are now debating the topics raised[2] and turning toward the public administrations that most affect their lives, such as the Ministry of Education.

With these political actions, the students reclaimed the citizenship they had been denied. This act converges with the “citizenship from below” theory that children’s rights researcher Manfred Liebel developed in his study of the ways that citizenship is acquired.[3] According to this theory, children acquire their citizenship when they become aware that they are deprived of their rights and behave as though they are actually full citizens. In other words, they seize their right to citizenship in practice. The theory thereby indicates that constructing this citizenship could require actual resistance to the practices of adults.[4] Therefore, children who dare to follow this course are often accused of being “bad citizens”.[5] This we can see in the authority’s responses to the student movement today. In a surreal sight embodying the intersection of paternalism and authority, it disseminated rumors and silly news at times about the students being incited by the Israeli enemy and at other times about them receiving money and drugs.

Sectarianism “Extends” Childhood, Denying “Adults” the Right to Vote

There were rallies and gatherings of all parties in parking lots, in front of stores… and in public parks… Most of these participants were young and seemed to be mere teenagers, so I assumed Lebanon had a low voting age.[6]

With these words, author Jared Cohen described his visit to North Lebanon during the 2005 parliamentary elections. His assumption turned out to be incorrect.

Lebanese law adopted the voting age from French law during the mandate period. Hence, Article 21 of the 1926 Lebanese Constitution set the voting age at 21 years, as in France at the time. Today, Article 21 is still in effect even though the age has been lowered to 18 in France, on par with most countries.

Similarly, the 1909 Law on Associations, which is applied to associations and political parties alike and is, once again, inspired by a French law (the 1901 Law on Associations), only allows people aged 20 or above to join. Only youth and sports associations, i.e. scouting associations and youth and sports clubs and their unions, allow the founders to be 18 years old,[7] though establishing such associations is administratively more difficult.

Hence, the law distinguishes between legal maturity (18 years) and political maturity. It even establishes several stages of political maturity: 20 years for joining parties and associations, 21 years for voting, and 25 years for running in elections. While age-based discrimination is usually justified when it comes to children, restricting the rights of adults is more exceptional and therefore must be commensurate with the danger arising from exercising the right (for example, a curfew commensurate with a security risk). What are the exceptional circumstances that justify restricting adults’ political rights?

It is no secret that the sectarian concern is the main reason for this exclusion. Usually, the political currents contend that lowering the voting age will deepen the sectarian imbalance consisting in the excess of Muslims voters in relation to Christians. This was the reason a bill lowering the age was struck down in 2010. However, the political forces often use graver arguments as cover from the accusation of sectarianism. In 2005, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections documented the arguments used against lowering the voting age, including that people aged between 18 and 21 are less interested in political work than others, that they are incapable of making political decisions, and that they are the most weak-willed and susceptible to influence.[8]

The student movement today refutes this discourse. From one angle, it reaffirms the youth cohort’s interest in politics. This interest is not new, as evidenced by the fact that all the political parties have youth and student wings (even if they are not represented in the party leadership).[9] Statistics that Catholic Relief Services gathered in 2008 showed that 80% of youth are interested in participating and voting in parliamentary and municipal elections.[10] From another angle, the student movement debunked the argument that youth are unable to form independent political views as they (including minors) demonstrated awareness and clarity of political vision.

Note that the arguments of unawareness and inability were once used to exclude women from political life and prohibit them from voting. Hence, using the discourse based on children’s lack of “awareness” to exclude a cohort of adults (18-21) effectively leads to the infantilization of this cohort, with all the associated characterizations of ignorance, incompetence, and indiscretion[11] and misconceptions about both children and adults. Perhaps the general atmosphere that “normalizes” age-based discrimination creates a safe and conducive environment for this discourse.

The exclusion of youth from the world of politics comes from a system that constructed itself during the Civil War via militias in which children were fundamental combatants, and children still participate in armed struggle today.[12] A society that agrees to view its children as fighters and not voters or at least rights-holders is certainly a hypocritical one. Whatever the case, it is important to mention that the right to vote is not related to competence: if the voters of yesteryear had all been rational, we would not have reached our situation today.

What Comes After the Student Movement? 

The talk today about “giving” political rights to children has become meaningless. This is because they did not wait for the law to acknowledge them; rather, they rushed to the squares and imposed a new reality. This movement must now be accompanied by legal reforms that satisfy the youth’s needs.

From one angle, the “Youth Document” could be used as a starting point for reform. In April 2012, the Council of Ministers adopted the so-called “Youth Document” as part of a partnership between youth associations, the UN Youth Working Group, and the Ministry of Youth and Sport. This document defined youth as anyone between the ages of 15 and 29, enshrined their right to participate in civil work and political activity of all forms, and encouraged this participation. The document recommended, among other things, lowering the age for establishing and joining associations to 15 years, lowering the age for voting in parliamentary and municipal elections to 18, and lowering the age to run in such elections to 21. It also recommended reviving the Lebanese University’s student union and ensuring periodic elections, independent operation of the [university’s] branch councils, and state financial support for youth associations to enable them to actively participate in public life. So far, none of this document’s clauses have been implemented.

In addition the activation and adoption of the Youth Document’s clauses, the student movement should be translated into the educational curricula, both in schools and universities. This would involve instilling citizenship principles and strengthening the political education of all age groups, each in accordance with its ability. Studies have proven that children acquire much of the political language of adult life by the age of 9.[13] Children are the most affected by the policies of today, and their lives are already largely politicized.[14]

Finally, we hope that this movement will constitute a gateway into strengthening children’s rights in the private sphere and enshrining the child’s best interest as a fundamental criterion for all judicial and administrative procedures pertaining to children, especially custody and guardianship. The awareness that the students demonstrated in the public sphere must be reflected in greater understanding, comprehension, and consideration of their needs and abilities in order to launch an effort to reform the laws pertaining to them. Has the time not come to enshrine the principles of equality among children, without discrimination based on gender, sect, or nationality, in religious and civil laws alike? Have children not denounced the system of clientelism, which appears most prominently in the alternative care system? Does it make sense for the Penal Code to render children’s bodies fair game by allowing [physical] discipline? What protection do children have within the family? What protection do they have at work? What right do they have to privacy and to have a private life without anyone intruding? What right do teenagers have to intimacy without criminal punishments? What protection do girls have from forced marriage? We hope that these questions will be raised within a participative atmosphere that provides sufficient means for children’s views to be heard and considered.

In 1974, the student movement [in France] compelled President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to lower the age for voting (and maturity) from 21 to 18 years. Will we adopt the French experience this time too?

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Keywords: Lebanon, Student movement, Children’s rights,

[1] The Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General comment No. 12: The right of the child to be heard”, 51st session, 2009.

[2] See The Little Agenda’s Facebook page for videos of children discussing the Access to Information Law and the bill on the independence of the judicial authority.

[3] Liebel, M., “Citizenship from Below: Children’s Rights and Social Movements” in A. Invernizzi & J. Williams (eds) Children and Citizenship (London: SAGE), 2008, p. 32–43.

[4]. Roche, J., “Children: Rights, Participation and Citizenship” in Childhood 6(4), 1999, p. 478.

[5] Milne, B., “Do the Participation Articles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child Present US with a Recipe for Children’s Citizenship?” in B. Hungerland et al. (eds), Working to Be Someone, London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2007, p. 205–9.

Smith, N., Lister, R., Middleton, S., & Cox, L., “Young People as Real Citizens: Towards an Inclusionary Understanding of Citizenship” in Journal of Youth Studies 8(4), 2005, 425–43, p. 437.

[6] Cohen, J., Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East, 2007, New York: Penguin, NA, ch. “The Calm Before the Storm, Lebanon 2005”.

[7] Article 16 of Law no. 629 Regulating the Ministry of Youth and Sport, 20 November 2004.

[8] Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, Khafd Sinn al-Iqtira’ wa-l-Tarashshuh, 2005.

[9] Joha‎, C., Dawr Majlis al-Nuwwab fi Taf’il Musharakat al-Shabab al-Lubnaniyy fi al-Ahzab al-Siyasiyya wa-fi al-Intikhabat, Parliament-UNDP Cooperation Project, 2013.

[10] The survey also found that 47% of youth felt that their voices were not being heard and that they have no influence over current policies, though 61% felt that they would have a role in shaping their state’s future. The results of the survey were published in Save the Children, Child Rights Situation Analysis for Lebanon, 2008, p. 50.

[11] Roche,  p. 477.

[12] Macksoud, M. S., and Aber, J. L., “The War Experiences and Psychosocial Development of Children in Lebanon” in Child Development 67(1), 1996, p. 70-88.

[13] Stevens, O., Children Talking Politics: Political Learning in Childhood, Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1982, p. 148.

[14] Holzscheiter, A., “Discourses of Childhood – the ‘Communicative Ecology’ of the Child” in Children’s Rights in International Politics: The Transformative Power of Discourse, Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010, p. 105.

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