Ziad Naboulsi
Last updated: 28 January, 2013

“Civil marriage is more than just the will of two people to get legally wed. In Lebanon it is the feeling of citizenship”

Ever heard of a “Civil Marriage” package? Starting at only $1900, travel agencies in Beirut offer a special deal that gets you to Cyprus, Greece or Paris in two days and back to … get married! While it may seem weird for many people, in Lebanon this is the talk of the town.

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The Lebanese law still refers all matters related to civil status, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, to the religious courts belonging to each sect. This consequently means that inter-sectarian marriages are forbidden by law, because the religious laws do not approve of it. However, civil marriage is recognized by the Lebanese law if it was registered outside Lebanon. As ironic this may be, it is also disturbing because it represents the Lebanese’s incapability of freely deciding who they want to spend their lives with.

A quick history
The Lebanese (so called) civil status laws date back to even before Lebanon as a state was established. It is as old as the Ottoman Empire. At that time, it was agreed that every sect has the exclusive right to manage the civil status of its followers, as a part of a settlement that the “Empire” did back then to ensure the loyalty of the people. Then came France, the colonizer that took control of Lebanon after World War One, and gave the latter a flag, a president and a constitution inspired from the Third Republic Constitution of France. The problem is that France willingly neglected civil status laws as a part of the same agreement that the Ottoman Empire did with religious leaders to ensure their loyalty. The Lebanese state still uses the same pre-modern laws to govern the civil status of its citizens.

The civil marriage has been a subject for debate and activism in Lebanon. Efforts of civil society organizations led then President Elias Hurawi, in 1998, to pass to the cabinet a law that allowed optional civil marriage in Lebanon. It was approved by the cabinet and sent to parliament, but ultimately failed to secure the necessary votes from the parliamentarians due to intense pressure exerted by the religious leaders.

What happened this year?
This year, civil marriage returned as a hot topic after two brave couples decided to challenge the political and social taboos and got married for the first time without resorting to religious courts in Lebanon. Kholoud Sukkariyyeh and Nidal Darwich shocked the Lebanese government because they did not violate any law, but in a cunning and well researched act got married under the “1936 decree” which legalized civil marriage if and only if the couple removed the sect clause in their personal register. This dropped out religious institutions from the equation of marriage and left the civil government responsible for registering any marriage of that kind.

This procedure however is bound by the signature of the Minister of Interior, and in a place like Lebanon, means that it is subject to political debate and religious influences. The President of the Lebanese Republic Michel Suleiman, called on legalizing the process of civil marriage, while the Prime Minister Najib Mikati seemed less enthusiastic about the matter and dismissed the topic entirely as a “useless debate in these circumstances”. The decision to register the marriage is therefore still pending the approval of the Lebanese political and religious actors, which will never come.

Civil marriage in Lebanon put into context
The Lebanese confessional political system ensures that the different religious sects are represented in public matters. This system safeguarded the incorporation of sects proportionally in governmental institutions, especially senior positions, which enhanced the feeling that the state is nothing but a mere share of the spoils between the governing elite. The President by law and practice should be a Christian Maronite, the Speaker of the Parliament should be a Muslim Shiite, and the Prime Minister a Muslim Sunni. This monopolized any relation with the government and restricted it to pass laws only through sectarian and religious community/political leaders.

If a Lebanese wants to get appointed at any public service job, he/she has to communicate with the respective sectarian leader to ensure what is widely known as “wasta” (support) from him, or else it does not matter what his/her qualifications are, he won’t get the job. This monopolization extends to religious institutions, where all matters related to personal status are solely dealt with through the channels of the religious courts.

Why is civil marriage such a huge taboo in Lebanon? The answer is deeply entrenched in Lebanese demographics, collective history, and socio-politics. The last population census done in Lebanon dates back to 1932, and the sects today still refuse to organize another census because they are afraid that numbers might give the impression that they became a minority or a majority and therefore demand more or less political representation and economic benefits.

Therefore what keeps the political system relatively inactive, in terms of modernizing legislations, is the fear from the other. Moreover, Lebanon’s mosaic society is composed of different sects and ethnicities that share a bloody history with each other. Sectarian killings in the civil war still mark a scar that the Lebanese can’t forget.

However, the most important reason that civil marriage is a taboo in Lebanon is because of the patriarchal, regressive and dominative mentality of the Lebanese religious institutions backed up by their representatives in the government. Religious leaders are holding on tightly to the privileges granted to them by the Ottomans and simply won’t let them go without a fight.

Why is civil marriage so important in Lebanon? 
Because it gives the Lebanese hope for a better life.

Civil marriage is more than just the will of two people to get legally wed. In Lebanon it is the feeling of citizenship that is slowly and painfully being molded by the people themselves despite everything that is standing in their way and hindering their march to progress. The Lebanese want to have the choice to belong to their religious institutions, but also want to have the choice to not belong to them, and not let them control every aspect of their lives.  

Although the state institutions were built after the civil war, the feeling of national unity and the sense of a national identity never existed. Maybe, just maybe, civil marriage will pave the way for that, by promoting inter-sectarian love, rather than hate, and help in break the stereotypes between people that prevent them from walking to the “other side” and seeing in each other’s eyes.

Even if the marriage of Khouloud and Nidal wasn’t recognized by the Lebanese state, it signifies a very important turning point in the civil rights struggle in Lebanon. It shows that the Lebanese citizens are slowly trying to take control of their lives again and find a place for themselves, after it was stolen, dominated and controlled by bourgeois political leaders, ruthless warlords and dark aged religious figures. It is not going to be an easy process, but with brave people like this couple, they will get there.

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