“Discrimination, injustice, and prejudice…”
With these three words Karima Chebbo, who runs the legal unit of the My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family campaign, describes the situation of Lebanese mothers married to foreigners being denied the right to pass on their nationality to their families.
Chebbo sees clear discrimination against women in Lebanon when compared to men, who can pass on their nationality to their wives and children, adding that dismissing Lebanese women’s rights in this regard, in effect, is denying her full rights of citizenship.
From a legal standpoint, Chebbo points out that the Lebanese constitution stipulates that all citizens, male and female, are equal before the law in terms of their rights and duties. She acknowledges that the reality is very different and that the country’s laws contain aspects that are unfair and inequitable.
Nor does Lebanese law meet the requirements of international treaties which require all citizens to be granted equal rights, even though Lebanon is a signatory of these documents.
To counter this, the Nationality Campaign makes legal demands based on specific criteria, which are met with what Chebbo terms “weak arguments” for why the law cannot be amended.
Reasons offered tend to revolve around “preserving of the demographic equilibrium” says Chebbo, or otherwise issues such as “the right of return” and the consequent “non-nationalization” policy towards Palestinians.
On this point, Chebbo states that legal rights are not subordinate to questions of gender or religion, nor to sectarian considerations or political interests, emphasizing that the campaign’s demands are not politically motivated, but rather treat the issue from the perspective of Lebanese women and their rights, regardless of the husband’s nationality.
“If you debate them with the same logic they use, the conversation immediately turns to the issue of non-nationalization, but then you can turn the question back on them: How come a Lebanese husband can grant nationality to a Palestinian woman?”
The post-Mandate Nationality Law
Chebbo speaks about the obstacles confronting slogans about a progressive and open-minded Lebanon, claims that are in danger of being no more than empty words when the basis of the issue is still determined by the 1925 Nationality Law drawn up after the end of the French Mandate.
The first article of this law states that an individual is considered Lebanese if born of a Lebanese father. There is a current battle to introduce an amendment to this clause and to read, if born of a Lebanese father or Lebanese mother.
The fifth article stipulates that foreign women who marry Lebanese men become Lebanese one year after the wedding.
It is because of the above that the Nationality campaign is working to introduce an amendment that secures the right of Lebanese woman to pass their nationality to their foreign husbands and children.
Chebbo says that the amendments being called for by their campaign must be formulated in such a way as to guarantee gender equality.
Since it was promulgated, there has been only one amendment to this law. In 1936, changes were passed to the article that stipulated stripping Lebanese women of their Lebanese nationality when they married foreign men and requiring them to assume the husband’s nationality, after which this clause became invalid.
Reality and challenges
The problem is not just with nationality, Chebbo explains, but also with the knock-on effects this issue has, and the difficult and troublesome situations which the whole family suffers as a consequence.
Dedicated work has produced results, with procedural emendations made to the conditions of residency which apply to foreign husbands and their children in Lebanon, and removing the ban on travelling outside the country.
In 2010, some eight years after the campaign was launched, emendations were promulgated creating a “courtesy residency”, which was a free, renewable residency visa for the families of Lebanese women. But given the hardships faced by the foreign children of Lebanese woman, who are denied access to certain kinds of employment and are ineligible for union membership, their work is not yet done.
In schools, for instance, priority over spaces has always been given to Lebanese students, but last year the campaign managed to obtain an exception for children with Lebanese mothers.
Chebbo concludes by pointing out that corporate and political life in Lebanon is dominated by patriarchal mind-sets.
Lebanese parliamentarian Samir Jisr describes this issue as “a complex problem” which in his view is one of many such problems facing Lebanon.
Jisr stresses his support for the cause on the grounds that being able to pass on nationality is a woman’s right, even as life in Lebanon and the sectarian situation hamper any legal progress on the issue. He also points out the problem of some individuals giving public support to the right of Lebanese mothers being able to pass on their nationality, while behind the scenes actually working to oppose it.
Jisr explains that this phenomenon is the result of “sectarian calculations”: in other words, people count up the number of women in a given community and then make their analysis on sectarian grounds.
Confirming the truth of the slogan, “nationality is the way you think” Jisr points out that states grant nationality to individuals who have been resident there for a certain period of time because then they have acquired local attitudes and the ability to acclimatize.
In conclusion, he points out that it needs to be asked why, if a Lebanese father can pass on his nationality, a mother is prevented from doing so?
The law as pretext
In his reading of the issue, Lebanese lawyer Ali Debes confirms that there is no article in Lebanese law that overtly states the Lebanese mother may pass her nationality on to her children.
He explains that opponents of granting women this right take this absence as a pretext for their arguments, on the grounds that no clause addresses the issue.
Parliament is the body that issues legislation, and if a draft law on this issue could be ratified it would therefore come into effect. But, Debes says, parliament is hindered from taking this step by political circumstances and the balance of power in the chamber.
He adds that sectarian groups prioritise their interests over the law, and while no one is openly against giving Lebanese mothers the right to pass on their nationality, there are those working in secret to prevent it coming into law. Debes states that there is no parliamentary bloc or group of individual parliamentarians with the courage to declare their opposition to or outright rejection of the issue.
As for public opinion, Debes again makes reference to the influence of sectarian affiliation, and that the country as a whole is ruled by a sectarian system.
The nationality campaign was launched in Lebanon in 2002 from where it spread to other Arab countries where it made considerable strides.
In Egypt, mothers were granted the right to pass on their nationalities to their families in 2004, followed by Algeria in 2005, and Morocco in 2007.
In Tunisia, which is often regarded as the pioneer in this field, the same rights were granted as early as 1936, which were subsequently amended themselves.
In Lebanon, the campaign has worked to change the public discourse on women married to foreign men, whereas once it was regarded with tabloid sentimentality and poor women who could be pitied, it is now addressed in terms of legal rights.
“It is not a case of begging for kindness, but of a legal right. And we shall take it by force…” This, according to women involved in the issue, is how Lebanese woman married to foreigners have begun to speak.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger