Caught in the middle: Women in Lebanon

By Ghada Khouri


From bikini-clad girls sunbathing on the beaches of Jounieh, to mothers in hijab (head cover) strolling the streets of Baalbeck, the women of Lebanon are as diverse and contradictory as the environment in which they live. This diversity mirrors the clash of cultures that is Lebanon’s distinctive characteristic as a haven for 17 different religious sects. Rather than bridging the gap between the religious and cultural differences prevailing in Lebanese society, the system of government accentuates them through a sectarian and patriarchal legal apparatus. This, in turn, makes promoting equality for women all the more difficult.

Since they obtained the right to vote in 1953, Lebanese women have made great strides in improving their status under the leadership of feminists such as the late Laure Moghayzel, a founder of leading women’s groups, including the Committee for the Political Rights of Women, the Lebanese Women’s Council, and the Lebanese Association of Women Lawyers. Moghayzel and other human rights activists formed working groups which pushed for amendments to discriminatory legal provisions. Their efforts culminated in Lebanon’s ratification in 1996 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which signaled greater awareness of women’s rights within Lebanese society. However, as is often the case with such broad international conventions, the ratification was primarily cosmetic, and legal and institutional hurdles to women’s emancipation remain in place.

Many of these obstacles are colored with a sectarian tint, which permeates most aspects of life in Lebanon in that a woman’s status is often determined by her religious affiliation.

Personal status laws are governed by religious tribunals, thus making Lebanese women unequal not only to men but also vis-a-vis each other. For instance, since 1959, non-Muslim women are entitled to the same inheritance as male heirs, while to this day, most Muslim women receive only half of that. In addition, polygamous marriages are permitted within Muslim communities while they are prohibited by Christian courts.

Such distinctions evident in personal status codes led women’s groups to call for the adoption of a civil marriage law, which was recently endorsed by Lebanese President Elias Hrawi. However, the proposal has been bitterly opposed by religious leaders of various denominations since it would divert power from the one area over which they exercise total jurisdiction and would facilitate intermarriages between people of different religious sects.

As it stands, marriage between a man and woman of different religions cannot be carried out unless one of the spouses, almost always the woman, converts. As a result, the woman may end up being rejected by her native religious community. Ironically, Lebanese law recognizes civil marriages performed outside the country. As a result, many Lebanese couples of different religions get married in civil court in neighboring Cyprus or Greece. In case of a dispute or divorce, the Lebanese courts must apply the law of the country in which the marriage took place.

"This hurts our government and our laws," said Linda Matar, President of the Council for Lebanese Women’s Organizations, a coalition of major Lebanese women’s groups. "Incorporating personal code laws into civil law is essential in order to be honest to ourselves when we speak of freedom and democracy." A truly democratic government, she argued, should not govern based on religion.

A civil marriage law would strike at the heart of the Lebanese system of government, which is confessional in that power is shared according to religious quotas. For instance, the president of the republic must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. In addition to promoting official recognition of religious intermarriages, the issue of civil marriage threatens the very fabric of Lebanon’s social and political system.

Recognizing the controversial and divisive nature of the issue, women’s groups are calling for the adoption of a civil marriage law alongside the current system governed by sectarian courts. "We don’t want to force civil marriage on anyone, but at least we want it to be available for those who choose it," Matar said. After all, civil marriage is permitted in overwhelmingly Muslim countries such as Tunisia and Turkey, as well as in Europe where the majority of the population is Christian, she argued.

Matar, who was born a Maronite, had to convert in order to marry her late husband who was Armenian Orthodox. In the eyes of the Maronite Church, she is still single. "The freedom to decide my future was unavailable," she said. "Young people of different sects today should not have to give up their religion or travel abroad to marry each other."

The civil marriage bill must be passed on by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri for approval by the Lebanese parliament before it becomes law, which he has so far refused to do. Even if the bill was introduced in parliament, women’s groups fear that it would be struck down since parliament members represent various religious sects and are influenced by clerics opposed to civil marriage.

Legislators tend to make choices favoring themselves over decisions which would ultimately reinforce national unity, said Najla Hamadeh, Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut. She decried the government’s entrusting of "pseudo-divine family laws" to religious sects — a practice which undermines the state’s role in promoting social cohesion and ensuring equal treatment for all its citizens.

While Lebanon’s sectarian system perpetuates inequalities among women belonging to different religious communities, the Lebanese social structure based on patriarchy sustains disparities between the sexes. Indeed, legal impediments to women’s advancement are compounded by a patriarchal system of family hierarchy whereby the father is the head of the household.

Suad Joseph, Director of Women’s Studies at the University of California at Davis, and founder of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, described the Lebanese state as a collection of "fragmented communities" glued together by patriarchy. Family law is in the hands of religious institutions which "directly support domestic hierarchy" in favor of the authority of males and elders, according to Joseph. Patrimoniality, which determines descent based on the father’s lineage, reinforces family hierarchy whereby women and children typically adopt the husband’s religion — which is his political identity.

Tied in with both sectarian considerations and the patriarchal fabric of Lebanese society is the issue of citizenship laws. A Lebanese woman married to a foreigner cannot transfer her nationality to her children, except when their father dies while they are still minors. Should the father pass away when they are adults, the children are considered foreigners, which creates a host of problems if they decide to live in Lebanon, including the need to obtain residency and work permits. On the other hand, men who marry foreign women automatically transfer their nationality, as well as their religious identity, to their children.

Perhaps the most flagrant discriminatory law strongly influenced by patriarchy is that pertaining to "honor" crimes, which pardons men for murdering a female relative caught in the act of adultery or premarital sex. If the murder is based on suspicion alone, mitigating circumstances apply. In addition, premarital sex is tolerated for men, while adultery is defined differently for men and women. Thus, a married man is guilty of committing adultery only if the sexual act takes place under his roof and provided that he confesses to it. If a husband admits to the act, but apologizes for it, he is usually pardoned, while the charges against a woman would not be dropped.

The punishment for an adulterer is one month to a year in jail, whereas the sentence for an adulteress is three months to two years — that is, if the woman is not killed at the hands of her male relatives, in which case her real sentence is death. Women’s groups have so far been unsuccessful in their efforts to repeal the criminal code condoning "honor" crimes due in large part to cultural mores which measure women’s sexuality by a different standard than that of men.

Improving the legal status of women in Lebanon has been a tenuous task rendered all the more difficult by the absence of women from political life. An estimated 50 percent of college graduates are women and the number of working women recently increased to make up 27 percent of the total labor force. This is a relatively high number compared to other Arab countries where the percentage of working women ranges from eight percent in Bahrain to 33 percent in Jordan.

Despite these improvements, female participation in public life remains marginal. A mere two percent of the 128 members of parliament are women and only three out of 300 municipal councils are headed by women. In the corporate world, very few working women are in decision-making positions. For instance, while 90 percent of the working force in banks are women, there are no female bank directors.

Women’s absence from the decision-making sphere is inconsistent with their advancement in education and employment — a dichotomy rooted in a strong patriarchal system which tends to discourage women from becoming active in the public domain. Women have few opportunities to break through a political system based on religious and ethnic communities controlled by clans whereby male leaders often succeed each other along hereditary lines.

"There were few [leaders] who managed to create their own power bases without the advancement of heredity," said parliamentarian Nayla Moawad. "Unfortunately, once in power, instead of opposing the system, they perpetuated it."

Lebanese feminists thus face the challenge of enlisting the support of men who hold the reigns of political power. But the struggle for women’s emancipation goes beyond that of achieving equal rights as it challenges the governmental system as a whole.

"Women’s advancement is ultimately connected to a change in the political structure from an archaic political setup to a modern state" based on secularism and democracy, said Safia Saadeh, Professor of History at the Lebanese University. Women have the potential to become major players in the growth of a viable democracy as they have a vested interest in the establishment of a secular state, she added.

Women’s groups argue that reforming the governmental system would not only ensure equality among all of Lebanon’s citizens, but also increase opportunities for women’s full participation in shaping Lebanon’s future.

Ghada Khouri is a Lebanese-born freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.



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