AThe nti-governmental demonstrations that swept through Lebanon in recent weeks have been remarkable for their lack of leaders, but they have do not been without leadership.

On the frontlines of marches and discussion groups, sit-ins and roadblocks, women have been a key driver of the movement. In a political system where women are chronically underrepresented, they are heard in the streets.

"Women have been such an important part of this revolution," says Mariana Wehbe, a public relations consultantwho protested every day. "We have been on the front lines, we have strengthened each other and we have kept the peace."

On Wednesday night, Wehbe held a candlelight vigil in the main square of the city, attended by thousands of people. It was a poignant moment, but the role of women in these events was more than symbolic; this has radically changed their character and direction.

One of the most enduring images of the protests was taken the first night, during a fight between bodyguards of a Cabinet minister and protesters. While one of the guards wielded a rifle, a woman named Malak Alaywe gave a quick kick to the groin.

The image of a scathing woman against this portrayal of the country's corrupt and patriarchal political class instantly became a stylized meme, and quickly seemed to become an important catalyst for attracting more people to the streets.

But the biggest impact of women on demonstrations is to make them more peaceful.

The first two nights of demonstrations were marked by violent clashes between the police and protesters that continued late into the night. But on the third night, a group of women decided to form a human shield to separate the two sides.

"The goal was for women to take charge of changing protests," said Dayna Ash, an activist who was among those who objected.

"They wanted a peaceful protest. So they took the front lines to end the violence, "she says.

They called it the women's front line. The clashes ended immediately and demonstrations continued to intensify over the next few days.

The reduction in violence that followed this direct action has resulted in more people feeling comfortable enough to participate in the protests, the largest in over a decade.

"Women came to me and thought they could never speak. We built this protective tribe so they could share their ideas and discuss, "says Wehbe.

A group of women resist police attempts to suppress a sit-in blocking a road through Beirut during anti-government protests (Richard Hall / The Independent)

A week later, when police began forcibly removing the roadblocks set up by protesters around Beirut, the same thing happened again. Women's groups began to take the front line and the police backed down.

The demonstrations were different from anything that happened before in Lebanon, in any respect. Rather than targeting the government or a political leader, the protesters called the corrupt political class of the country as a whole.

They were triggered by a series of new taxes, but the roots of the movement go much further. The combination of an acute economic crisis and decades of widespread corruption has pushed the country to the brink.

Protesters have repeatedly called their demands nothing more than the realization of their basic rights as citizens. But for women in Lebanon, these rights are even fewer.

Despite some recent reforms, the country's legal system is rife with discriminatory laws against women. Lebanese mothers can not pass on their citizenship to their children. Issues such as divorce, property rights and child custody are regulated by religious law, which is highly discriminatory against women. In addition, Lebanese law does not specifically criminalize marital rape and the country enjoys one of the lowest maternity leave benefits in the world.

Parliament has only six women legislators on a 128-seat parliament, and women are underrepresented in key sectors of the labor force such as science, technology and engineering.

It is perhaps not surprising that the country is ranked 140 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2018, which measures gender parity in the economy, education, health and politics.

Women's rights in Lebanon have been treated in the same way as all the other urgent issues facing the country: piecemeal reforms have punctuated the time burden without making any significant change.

Years of unanswered grievances have given women even more reason to go out on the streets.

Thousands of women gather for a candlelight vigil at Martyrs Square, Beirut, Wednesday (Joseph Kiwan)

"I believe that women of all ages, ages and classes have come to realize that they have such an important interest in everything that's going on. They make up half of the population and are twice as oppressed, "says Ash.

Wehbe says her 15-year-old daughter also protested with her classmates.

"My daughter will not grow up in the same Lebanon where I grew up. We grew up in fear. There is nothing of that now. If we have a problem, we will scream about it. Now we have voices, "she says.

"This energy has always been there, we just found a way to release it and show who we really are."

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