Fifteen different confessions are recognized in Lebanon, each of them having its own personal status law defining all matters of personal life, including marriage. Civil marriage has been requested by social activists for years in order to get out of this complex system. This time, it has been brought back to the debate table by the new Interior Minister, Raya Haffar al-Hassan.
It is during an interview given to Euronews on February 15, 2019 that Raya Haffar al-Hassan, the newly appointed Lebanon’s Minister of Interior and Municipalities, made a point that was obviously going to be picked up by her country’s media, authorities and activists. “Of course, I would personally prefer that there be a framework for civil marriage”, she said. “We know that this has sectarian and political dimensions and I will take these into consideration, but I want to open a debate with all religious parties.” The country’s religious groups reacted with outrage, despite some prominent politicians coming out in support of her intervention. In Lebanon, there are 15 separate personal status laws that govern the country’s major sects and each has its own unique religious court.
The only current option for Lebanese people who do not want to get married religiously is to travel to Cyprus to get a civil marriage, which constitutes a big business for the small European island. Both religious and civil marriage in Cyprus are expensive. A religious wedding necessitates giving money to the religious authority in charge of the ceremony, and the cost of a civil marriage depends on how fast the process should go. Trip and hotel fees are an added cost to both options. But beyond the issue of money, the dilemma for Lebanese couples lies with the support of their family: whether or not their relatives accept their choice to marry in Cyprus.
However, civil marriage is already legal in Lebanon because of a loophole inherited from the French law, which allows people who are not affiliated with a sect to get a civil marriage. The first couples who got married in this fashion, back in 2013, hid away references to their sect from their official records and hired a lawyer to establish a marriage certificate. Among the dozens of Lebanese couples who tied the knot this way, the majority never had their certificate validated by the authorities, making their marriage unrecognized under Lebanese law and the children born from it unrecognized under any law. Therefore, they have no status.
The country’s system of personal status laws is harmful mainly to women, as a report from the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) showed in 2015. It read: “Our research […] reveals a clear pattern of women from all sects being treated worse than men when it comes to accessing divorce and primary care for their children (“custody”). Across all confessions, women faced legal and other obstacles when terminating unhappy or abusive marriages; limitations on their pecuniary rights; and the risk of losing their children if they remarry or when the so-called maternal custody period (determined by the child’s age) ends. Women were also systematically denied adequate spousal support during and after marriage—with religious courts often unfairly denying or reducing payments, including if a judge found a woman to be “recalcitrant” by leaving the marital home and refusing to cohabit with her husband or filing for severance. […] Discrimination against women results not only from laws, but also courts procedures. All of the women whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said numerous procedural obstacles, including high fees, protracted lawsuits, and lack of legal and material assistance during legal proceedings kept them from accessing religious courts and enforcing even their limited rights.”
“The idea of personal status laws was to grant autonomy to the different religious groups”, Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher for HRW, told Fanack. “But it means that Lebanese people are not treated equally in front of the law, especially women. Laws are more discriminatory towards women, which is not respecting the United Nations’ Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Our recommendation at HRW is to have a civil court in order to permit civil marriage and adopt a new set of laws to make it possible as an option.”
The declarations of Raya Haffar al-Hassan on Euronews on February 15 were followed by a small protest in front of her ministry on February 23, with activists asking for civil marriage. “I will try to open the door for serious and profound dialogue on this issue with all religious authorities and others, with the support of Prime Minister Saad Hariri,” she said. Backlash from religious authorities was also almost immediate.
Such unions “violate the provisions of Islamic law” and “contravene the provisions of the Lebanese constitution” regarding the authority of religious courts over personal status issues, Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, said the day after the interview with al-Hassan was published. “The Lebanese constitution recognizes that every sect has its own personal status laws”, the deputy head of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council said on Friday, adding: “We strongly oppose civil marriage because it violates the constitution.” One more positive note reaction came from the head of Lebanon’s Maronite church, Bechara Rai, who said he was “not against civil unions” conducted on Lebanese territory. Some ministers and MPs also supported the idea, but were not so outspoken about it.
Other previous attempts have been made by different groups in order to have civil marriage in Lebanon, such as the “Civil love” campaign in 2018, when a young Lebanese couple, Tarek Mallak and Anastacia El Hajj, exchanged vows in international waters, 22km off the Lebanese coast. The Beirut Bar Association (BBA) has presented a draft of the new law on civil marriage in Lebanon, introducing two options: religious marriage and civil marriage, as well as requiring equality between men and women. Many protests asking for similar rights have occurred almost every year since 2009.
But Hassan’s interview doesn’t mean civil marriage in Lebanon will become an immediate reality, as religious authorities have a lot of power and influence in the country. “The State and the religious authorities are intertwined, it’s impossible to go against them for now”, Majzoub told Fanack. “But it puts the question back in the public arena, and once more politicians, especially women, speak about that, there will be more possibility to create a momentum. It will become mainstream in the media and conversations, which will facilitate the decision later on.”
Despite not being quite ready for civil marriage yet, Lebanon is on its slow way of reaching out towards this goal for a more equal and fair society.