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    Lebanese Women, Unequal under the Law

    Picture: www.nadinemoawad.com

    On May 18, Samira Souedian, the Lebanese widow of an Egyptian, was refused the right to pass Lebanese citizenship to her four children by the Lebanese Court of Appeal, this despite previously winning her case in a district court in June 2009.

    Women protesters took to the streets of Beirut in support of Samira’s cause. Standing with multi-colored posters in their hands, the women gave interviews to media outlets, hoping to be heard by the country’s politicians. Although men and women in Lebanon are entitled to most of the same rights, women are still struggling to achieve full gender equality under the law. Specifically, a Lebanese woman married to a foreign man does not have the legal right to pass her nationality on to her husband or children. On the other hand, a foreign woman marrying a Lebanese man is entitled to citizenship for herself and for her children.

    Article 1 of the 1925 Nationality Law states that citizenship is granted to those born of Lebanese fathers. The text says no more. The implication is obvious: those born of Lebanese mothers are not to be granted citizenship.

    Citizenship in Lebanon is based on ancestry, not on the place where one is born. But this form of discrimination is compounded in Lebanon’s patriarchal society by the fact that citizenship is only passed down from the father. This law clearly violates the principle of equality between men and women that is enshrined in Article 7 of the Constitution.

    Transmission of nationality is not a mere legal formality; it also carries with it social and financial consequences. Because these husbands and children are considered residents of Lebanon and not citizens, they must obtain residency and work permits, which they are required to renew each year. This is a costly procedure involving a tidy sum of money, estimated roughly at $2,000 to $3,300 per person, massive red tape, and long hours spent waiting in line at the office of General Security.

    A number of associations have been mobilizing their members lately to support the amendment of this legislation – including a group of fathers who are married to Lebanese women. They have founded “Fathers and Sons for Citizenship.” In addition, a campaign titled “My Citizenship is my Right and my Family’s Right,” which has been implemented by a group of Lebanese non-governmental organizations, has been working since 2002 to raise public awareness of the issue and change the existing policy.

    In addition, in 2008 the national Committee for the Follow-up of Women’s Issues launched a campaign titled “My Nationality is the Right of my Children” with support from international agencies like the United Nations Development Program.

    A handful of Lebanese legislators are also working to recognize the right of women to pass citizenship on to their husbands and children. An emergency bill was presented for this purpose on April 27, 2009, by two members of Parliament – Bahige Tabbarah and Pierre Daccache – to Speaker Nabih Berri. In their proposal, the two legislators request that Article 1 of the 1925 Nationality Law be amended to include the following text: “Any person born of a Lebanese father or mother shall be granted Lebanese citizenship.”

    Public figures who oppose this amendment argue that they are concerned about implications for the balance of power in government, as the Lebanese political system is based on religious demographics. Others counter that demographics have already changed in the years since the last census, which took place in 1932, and that transferring citizenship through the father or husband already has the same potential to shift the balance.

    Regardless, the transmission of citizenship is a fundamental right, stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This should take precedence over other political or social considerations. By changing the law and giving women this right, the state would grant them the full extent of their rights as citizens and bring about greater gender equality in Lebanon.

    Rita CHEMALY
    The Daily Star

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