LEBANON: Women's Citizenship and Nationality Rights

LEBANON: Women's Citizenship and Nationality Rights

Megan McKee, Pitt Law '12, takes a personal perspective on citizenship and women's rights in Lebanon…

Sara Burhan Abdullah's recent JURIST Dateline article on women's rights and citizenship in Iraq reminded me of a similar predicament faced by Lebanese women. In Iraqi law, as in Lebanese law, citizenship may only be inherited through men, both in marriage and in the transference of citizenship to children. As a result, a child is considered Lebanese only if his father is Lebanese. Even if a child is born to a Lebanese mother in Lebanon, the mother cannot under any circumstances pass on her citizenship to the child. Furthermore, in the event a Lebanese woman marries a foreign man, the law requires that the woman choose between adopting the nationality of her husband and keeping her own Lebanese citizenship. A woman who chooses to take her husband's citizenship may later reclaim her Lebanese citizenship following her husband's death or the dissolution of her marriage, which is an improvement upon the prior law that automatically stripped a woman of her citizenship upon marriage to a foreigner. However, because Lebanese citizenship is paternally linked, men are never at risk of losing their citizenship, always enjoy the right of passing their citizenship onto their children, and may even pass their citizenship on to their foreign wives.

As an American woman currently in a relationship with a Lebanese man, I am thankfully not affected by this law. However, I cannot help but imagine a situation where our roles were reversed. If I were a Lebanese woman in a relationship with an American man, I would be forced to choose between my future husband's nationality and my own. Any children resulting from the marriage would inherit their father's citizenship regardless of my wishes. Ultimately, the only way a Lebanese woman can ensure her children will have Lebanese citizenship is to marry a Lebanese man.

This situation persists despite the fact that Lebanon, like Iraq, has a constitutional provision prohibiting gender-based discrimination. In fact, Article VII of the Lebanese Constitution makes all citizens equal under the law. Nevertheless, Lebanese women continue to face systematic discrimination with respect to citizenship despite such legal provisions mandating equality

The origins of this discrimination are particularly interesting. While it may be in fashion to cite "backward" cultural values or "Islamic intolerance," this issue is actually a holdover from European colonialism. Current Lebanese law can be traced back to the transplantation of French civil law in Lebanon. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement partitioned the former Ottoman Empire into separate British and French mandates, with Great Britain having the mandate over present-day Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, and France the mandate over present-day Syria and Lebanon. The French disbanded the region's existing governments, and in 1926, instituted a new Lebanese Constitution strongly modeled after the French Third Republic's civil code. Ever since, Lebanon has been governed by what is essentially the French Napoleonic Code.

Developed following the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the Napoleonic Code is commonly regarded as a symbol of progressive modernization. The Code is remarkable for abolishing privileges based on birth and establishing freedom of religion, in addition to instituting other reforms, such as the prohibition of secret and ex post facto laws. However, the transplantation of the Code in Lebanon was actually a step backward for Lebanese women.

French law placed women under the complete control of their male guardians, as was generally the case under all contemporary European law. In the French Third Republic, married French women, even those of the age of majority, were legally accorded the status of a minor. A married woman's legal status made her subordinate to her husband and made it impossible for her to enter into a contract or even defend herself in court without the presence or consent of her "guardian." French law continued to decree that men alone enjoyed the right to pass on citizenship until the late 1960s.

Despite the French-inspired Lebanese Constitution's attempt to distance Lebanon from its pre-colonial Ottoman history and place it on the "path to progress," Ottoman law was far more progressive in terms of women's rights. Under Ottoman law, an adult woman was able to enter into contracts and use the court system independent of her husband, in addition to exercising other rights that were denied to her under the new, French-inspired legal code. Women enjoyed a particularly more advantageous position in the area of citizenship rights under Ottoman law. In fact, an Ottoman law dating from the early 1800's held that a woman had the right to pass on her nationality to her children, regardless of her spouse's nationality, as long as her child was born on Ottoman soil. In effect, Ottoman law allowed citizenship to be inherited from both the mother and the father.

Clearly, the current law's origins are firmly French in nature. Despite its support in Lebanese circles, the nationality law is not so much a matter of Middle Eastern "backwardness," but rather a reminder of what was not so long ago a Western norm. The 1926 transplantation of French law in Lebanon mandated that Lebanese citizenship could only be inherited through the father and generally restricted women's personal status. However, while France, along with the majority of the West, made reforms in this area in the 1960s, Lebanon continues to enforce France's archaic laws. Many Lebanese regard the situation as both humiliating for women and for Lebanon as whole, particularly since Lebanon has long prided itself on being at the vanguard of reform in the Middle East, especially reform related to the personal status of women.

Citizenship rights have real implications for many Lebanese men, women, and children, as it is estimated that some 18,000 women married foreign men in Lebanon between 1995 and 2008. The children affected by the current law face problems inheriting estates, obtaining work, receiving health care and education, and can even be forced to leave the country upon turning 18. A draft law that would make nationality rights gender-neutral was submitted to Parliament in May 2009, but has not received much support. However, the National Commission for Lebanese Women recently marked International Women's Day by launching a new campaign to support full nationality rights for Lebanese women. It is my hope that Lebanon will soon reform its nationality law to reflect the equality that its constitution mandates, and, in doing so, allow for Lebanese women to enjoy the same citizenship rights as Lebanese men.

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