Lebanon is a country of many quick fixes, short-lived remedies that don’t get to the heart of the problem. Debates over the legalization of civil marriage and the unification of existing personal status laws have been under way for more than 50 years. Recently, President Michel Sleiman took concrete steps to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon. But after half a century of debates and proposals, the current offer on the table is undoubtedly flawed.
The latest round of the debate erupted early this year when a Lebanese couple wed in the first civil marriage to take place on Lebanese soil. The couple removed their religious affiliation from their national identity cards and wed outside of a religious institution, igniting considerable anger in religious circles.
Lebanon’s grand mufti, the pre-eminent Sunni religious leader in the country, sent a strong message to Muslim politicians maintaining that those who support the legalization of civil marriage would be considered apostates. The Council of Patriarchs and Catholic Bishops said they were in principle opposed to this type of union. But the Catholic patriarch said that the church cannot deny “unbelievers” from marrying, suggesting that a civil law for marriage was only meant for atheists or those who do not belong to one of Lebanon’s recognized sects.
The current civil marriage proposal echoes the patriarch’s faulty suggestions. In order to marry under civil law, couples will be obliged to remove their religious affiliation from their identity cards. By doing so, they will no longer be officially affiliated with any denomination in the country. So if the couple is Catholic, they will not be able to baptize their children, and if either spouse dies, they will have no burial rights. Lebanon does not have non-sectarian burial sites.
Even though civil marriages may be registered in Lebanon, the current proposal requires couples to specify a foreign country’s civil law to follow in case of divorce or custody. The Lebanese government has allowed couples to marry in Cyprus or Turkey and register their marriage in civil courts in Lebanon since the 1930s. This new provision, if passed, will finally allow civil marriages to take place on Lebanese soil, but will in no way eliminate the burdens for lawyers, who must keep track of other country’s family laws.
Marriage and other personal status matters such as divorce, custody, guardianship and inheritance are regulated under religious laws. Lebanon has 15 such codes and courts for its 18 Christian and Muslim denominations. The current proposal, pending the interior minister’s final approval, overlooks these complexities, offering no solutions. The majority of Lebanese will still follow their own religious community’s family law, and the new provision will only be applicable to those who wish to renounce their religion for the sake of marriage.
There are a few misconceptions about civil marriage among the Lebanese. Some believe that this type of union is only meant for people of different faiths who wish to marry. Civil marriage does in fact make it easier for those of different religions to wed, but there are many couples in Lebanon who share the same denomination who choose to marry in civil courts.
Others believe that those who marry outside a religious institution have repudiated their religion. In fact, this is what this new stipulation obliges couples to do in order to marry in civil court. Lebanese Christians and Muslims in the diaspora far outnumber the number of Lebanese inside the country. Lebanese living in the U.S. or Brazil, for instance, still have the right to marry in a church or a mosque, but their marriage is registered under civil laws that settle issues affecting their families. This does not make them any less Christian or any less Muslim, and the same standards should be applied to Lebanese couples here.
The right of individuals to marry outside of a religious institution is more than 50 years overdue. MPs need to do much more than offer a quick-fix solution that avoids dealing with discriminatory family laws and presses couples to choose between their religion or their future spouse.
Ultimately Lebanon is a civil state and not a confederation of religious communities as it is evidently becoming day after day. A real solution would entail a unified civil personal status law for all Lebanese regardless of their religious affiliation. Such a law would eliminate repressive provisions that mostly favor men over women, and treat women of different faiths under different standards. This attempt would also help reduce sectarianism and begin a genuine citizenship-building process that is urgently needed in a country like Lebanon.
Nadya Khalife is a women’s rights activist and researcher based in Lebanon.