Housing as a Feminist Cause
Stories from the Housing Monitor
by Rana Hassan and Jana haidar
If the COVID pandemic has shown us anything over the past year, it is that crises, no matter how global they may be, are not experienced equally by everyone. In times of multiscalar crises of the magnitude currently being experienced in Lebanon, the absence of public policies centered around social justice has made access to basic human rights a privilege for many.
When it comes to housing rights, women in most countries and societies but particularly in the global south, have more difficulty than men accessing adequate housing and are thus disproportionately affected in times of crises. This has been long established by both feminist theorists1 as well as international organizations tackling housing and poverty. The underlying reasons for gender discrimination in housing are diverse, but are mostly a result of a direct interconnection between the patriarchal system, capitalist and neoliberal policies, and discriminatory laws and norms. This discrimination, not exclusively based on gender, is an intersection of different layers of disenfranchisement in which factors such as class, race, nationality, and gender and sexual identity all play a role in creating a harsher reality for women. Even when tools and laws seem gender-neutral, the privilege-blind policies often fall short of rectifying long-standing statuses of inequality and systematic discrimination.2
In Lebanon, the absence of a state vision for equitable housing provision paralleled with decades-long neoliberal policies leaving the housing market completely unregulated, exacerbates the precariousness of the already marginalized and vulnerable, both at the legal and societal level. As is the case of wars, the financial crisis and the pandemic add to this vulnerability; they magnify existing inequalities while limiting the potential of mobilization and informal social support networks within a system designed to favor capital accumulation through real estate investments over residents' rights of secure and sustainable housing.
In this article, we use real life stories of housing threats and evictions that were reported to the Housing Monitor hotline3 and that are illustrative of how the different layers of vulnerabilities imposed upon women come together to serve their disenfranchisement at the level of housing rights, which migrant women, refugees, single mothers, widowed or divorced women, women who suffer from gender based violence, trans women and other women from the LGBTQ community, suffer from more acutely.
It is approximated that less than 20% of the adult Lebanese female population has secure land tenure rights4; that is that they have legally recognized documentation of their tenure and true agency over it.5 The number becomes significantly lower once you factor in women of the refugee and migrant populations. Instead, women’s access to housing in our context often takes place through their relationship to a man; a father or a husband usually, hence, their tenure is secure as long as these relationships are maintained. But when these relationships become inconvenient or, as in many cases, abusive, these women will find themselves facing potential homelessness should they decide to end those relationships, and Samia’s story is one of those.
Samia contacted the Housing Monitor requesting help in finding cheap accommodation that will enable her to leave the house of an abusive ex-husband. The husband being given custody of their two young children after divorce as per local religious personal status laws, Samia continued living under his roof to be able to care for the children herself. Neighbors are very well familiar with the violence that Samia is subject to and that escalated with the lockdown and economic crisis, and sometimes offered her temporary stays to escape it. But the lack of availability of affordable decent housing which one can access independently with her limited resources, is often an important factor that forces women like Samia to succumb to living in households in which they are abused, as homelessness will produce harsher repercussions.
Regardless of the nature of the relationship through which women access housing, the fact that the agency and decision-making power over their tenure, whether rental or ownership, often rests solely in the hands of the male counterpart means that these women will have to bear all resulting consequences of the male’s decisions and actions, and just like in every crisis, those consequences too will not be experienced equally between both partners. So despite the fact that in many cases these women are excluded from negotiations with the landlord and from processes of sales and deed registrations, they are the ones whose lives are affected the most by the consequences of eviction.
Hanan is one example. She lives in an apartment with her daughters, in a building the ownership of which is a shared inheritance between her husband and his family. She is the sole provider and caretaker of her family, following the incarceration of her husband . Hanan reached out to the Housing Monitor after learning of the intention of the building heirs to sell it. In the absence of her husband whose shares have been seized by the bank, Hanan and her daughters will have no say in the sale agreement and will be forced to evict their apartment, while any compensation for the husband’s shares will be seized by the bank.
Joumana is another example. She is a mother who was evicted along with her daughters from their (owned) apartment in Mar Mkhayel after the port explosion. Her husband, now absent, had previously sold off their apartment to a member of his family for cheap, to settle his debts. The husband then disappeared while Joumana and her daughters were allowed to remain in the apartment by the new owners. They had yet to suffer the brunt of his actions; when investment opportunities caught the interest of the new owners, the family was asked to leave the apartment to make way for better-off tenants. As they could not afford to rent another apartment in the same neighborhood where Joumana had spent 30 years of her life, they had to find an apartment at the city’s periphery, and that in its turn made transport to and from work, an inconvenience for her daughter, the sole bread earner of the family.
Property owning complexities
Although accessing loans and deed registrations can seem gender non-discriminatory processes on paper, property ownership by women remains not very common in Lebanon.
Homeownership loans favoritize families and they are most commonly registered in the husband's name (in practice), considered the primary income earner in a household and effectively has more chance to access secure and well paid jobs.
Most commonly, when women access housing through ownership, it is in the form of inherited shared ownership. However, the discriminatory laws of inheritance, marriage, and divorce which follow religious courts instead of civil ones deprive women from equal inheritance and equitable compensations during divorces.
Hence, even when women own shares in a property they live in, they might still not enjoy secure tenure as they are often “small-share owners”, and as a result have little to no decision-making power in matters of property management and sale. It is also notable that widowed women inheriting small shares from their deceased husband’s property, or divorced or unmarried women benefiting from shared inheritance housing at their family home, are often the ones with the least chances of finding housing alternatives after a property sale, as the male heirs, usually having better access to resources, would have already secured an alternative or will be receiving higher compensation for their bigger shares from the sale that enables them to secure an alternative more easily.6 The issue of securing tenure through land deeds is amplified in the case of Palestinian women who, as Palestinian refugees, are denied the right to own properties in Lebanon. That is in addition to Lebanese women who are married to Palestinian refugees; while they don’t have the right to pass their nationality to their children, they are also denied the right to pass their properties to them. Moreover, women married to non-Lebanese nationals have not been permitted access to housing loans.
Police Stations and courts as source of intimidation and fears
Furthermore, the inaccessibility to formal dispute resolution systems such as the police or law courts add a layer of vulnerability to women in certain communities rather than others. Refugees with no legal residence status, migrant women who flee the atrocious labor conditions under the Kafala system7 and illegally take part in the freelance market, as well as members of the LGBTQ community who are still subject to humiliating and dehumanizing treatment in police stations and under police custody, all face an additional layer of difficulties when it comes to legal procedures. Women from these communities would have no option to fight arbitrary practices of landlords by filing reports to the police against illegal threats or abusive practices, or by going to court to dispute illegal evictions and eviction threats, as that would put them under the risk of being detained, assaulted, or deported. Members of the above-mentioned communities, already discriminated against in job markets, are often able to access housing only through makeshift living spaces or apartments in degraded, unhealthy, or unsafe conditions, and that are put out for rent at lower-than-market prices, filling a gap created by the absence of subsidized or social housing programs.
Rania, for instance, is an undocumented Syrian refugee living in Sabra; a popular neighbourhood located at the periphery of Beirut, which hosts a large population of Palestinian and Syrian refugees, as well as migrant wokers. Soon after she and her husband relocated, Rania’s husband abandoned her to seek work outside Beirut due to the economic crisis, leaving Rania (who was pregnant then) on her own. Rania moved in and out of several apartments, always seeking housing in the same neighborhood which hosts the free health care clinic that provides her with pregnancy support and would provide her with basic healthcare for her child after giving birth. She had moved between several ramshackles, enduring abusive behaviours from landlords while trying to maintain herself through taking on jobs in informal sectors and receiving support from NGOs. Rania contacted the monitor as yet again she found herself unable to pay her rent for the past few months, and is now threatened with eviction. She had lost her only income source after being harassed and suffering a violent attack that almost caused her a miscarriage while she was working as a street vendor. While men in precarious conditions similar to Rania’s would usually resort to alternative income choices through the informal job market such as street vending, the widespread violence and harassment against women in all environments make it harder for them to sustain themselves through such jobs without taking major risks. Rania’s story is also a reminder that people who are not responsible for care work, a role most often assumed by women, have more mobility to try to search for work or move from a place to another for more affordable housing, while women with children don’t have this luxury, and are often the ones having to confront abusive practices from landlords.
Discrimination in access to housing
In the absence of the formal systems of protection to tenants from the aforementioned communities, they often find (informal) support through their social networks; spheres of friends, family or other community members that would sometimes intervene to mediate disputes or provide financial support or temporary accommodation. However, the harsh economic crisis and the pandemic eliminated a great deal of the potential of these support systems, as full communities now find themselves unemployed, losing income, and under threat of homelessness.
These same dynamics are seen within the alienated LGBTQ community in Lebanon. Knowing that they are vulnerable when it comes to dealing with the police, many landlords abuse and discriminate against tenants whose gender identity is not conforming to the norms.
Hala and Lamia, both transgender women, struggle to find affordable apartments in neighborhoods in which they don’t feel discriminated against for being who they are. In her first experience in renting out an apartment after starting her transitioning process, Hala -a transgender Syrian refugee woman- suffered violent abuse from her landlord because of her gender identity. The same landlord threatened to throw her out of the apartment with her belongings, and attacked her when she claimed her right over the rent paid in advance. She finally managed to flee the apartment leaving behind her belongings. Lamia, on the other hand, who has transitioned a long time ago, had lost hope in finding decent affordable housing in a place where she would be accepted for who she is. Along with her old sick parent, Lamia was evicted from a room - in very poor conditions - which they were occupying. Lamia’s fear of being evicted is not only because she would have no place to go to except the streets, but also because she fears for her life. Lamia has had an experience of being homeless in Beirut, and she knows the risks she runs, as a trans woman, if she has no roof to protect her.
Both Lamia and Hala have no access to protection from their families which have rejected them for being transgender. Although to a different extent, their experience is shared by many women who choose to defy norms enforced by the patriarchal society; women who live on their own or with partners without marriage contracts, women in lesbian relationships, divorced women, or single mothers. These women will often find themselves discriminated against when looking for apartments, and often struggle to access safe housing. In addition, they often lack the option of receiving support from their communities and families when those don’t approve of their choices.
The lack of a housing policy is in itself an attack on women and the most vulnerable populations. While housing provision is treated as a lucrative market, eviction threats are dealt with as individual personal issues, for each to manage on their own or within their family unit, making them a heavier burden on women. These stories are some of the many stories, most of them untold, since social norms and the fear of being stigmatised end up silencing women, non-citizens, and the LGBTQ community in a society that celebrates power and privilege. In this context, housing rights would only be fully guaranteed if they go hand in hand with other feminist structural changes that address gender and social justice issues, such as laws that criminalize gender based violence, women’s right to pass the citizenship, adopting civil non-discriminatory laws to manage matters of personal status and inheritence, abolishing the Kafala system, abolishing the pay gap, and criminalizing discrimination based on gender and sexual identity.
- 1. See for instance: Hayden, D. (1980). What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work. Signs, 5(3), S170–S187. or Watson, S. (1986). Women and housing or feminist housing analysis?, HousingStudies, 1:1, 1-10
- 2. “ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: Women and adequate housing”. Report by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination, Miloon Kothari, UN Economic and Social council, 2006
- 3. Housing Monitor is a community tool developed by Public Works Studio to protect and advance housing rights. It is used by residents from various marginalized social groups to report on housing vulnerabilities and eviction threats. In response, the studio provides legal and social support, mobilizes tenants around shared grievances, and identifies any trends in housing injustices, to then advocate reform.
- 4. Based on an unpublished assessment performed by Public Works on Housing, Land, and Property Rights, relying on approximations in light of the lack of statistics on the topic.
- 5. Among the several socio-cultural factors is unequal inheritance that places women in shared property ownerships where they are the smallest share-owners. It is also more common that property bought during marriage is registered solely under the husband’s name, and the inequitable divorce rulings offer no endowment or compensation to women, who are expected to return to their parents’ home after divorce.
- 6. See the story of Nadia and Hayat, based on interviews and research by Public Works Studio and RELIEF Centre https://housingmonitor.org/nadia-and-hayat/
- 7. The Kafala system is “a restrictive immigration regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices – that ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employer. Workers cannot leave or change employers without their employers’ consent, placing them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Those who leave their employers without “permission” risk losing their legal residency in the country and face detention and deportation.” From “Lebanon: Abolish the Kafala (sponsorship) System”, Human Rights Watch, 2020.