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Civil Marriage Debate Returns To Lebanon As Protesters Take To Streets

Resurgence of support a reaction to comments made by country’s new interior minister, who expressed willingness to recognize such unions

Dozens of Lebanese citizens protested this week near the Interior Ministry in Beirut, calling on the government to recognize civil marriage.

The demonstration occurred days after recently-appointed Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan said in an interview with Euronews that she was willing to engage in “serious and deep dialogue on this issue with all religious and other authorities and with the support of Prime Minister Saad Hariri until civil marriage is recognized.”

Hassan’s comments provoked a backlash from religious bodies, including the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, the Dar al-Fatwa, which responded by saying it rejected civil unions on grounds that they violated Islamic law and the Lebanese constitution.

Lebanon is comprised of 18 recognized religions and sects, each with courts having legal jurisdiction over personal status issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Yet the authorities recognize civil marriages registered abroad, and it is common for couples to tie the knot in nearby Cyprus.

According to Dr. Carmen Geha, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, the relationship between Lebanese citizens and the state is mitigated by these judiciaries.

“As a first step, civil marriage will undermine the power and authority the religious institutions have over the lives of citizens,” she told The Media Line. “Men, through which women are legally recognized, will lose their grip over women, and religious courts [will lose their control] over their constituency. In addition, religious courts make a lot of money from these marriages which will deter them from ceding this benefit.”

Fatima Moussawi, a Program Coordinator at the Beirut-based Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, told The Media Line that the country’s political structure “is according to sect, so it is hard to implement a reform that is secular in nature because sectarianism, from the top down, permeates through all institutions.”

A 1936 decree delineating authority to these groups states that “for those who do not belong administratively to a religious community, civil law applies to personal status matters.”

In 2009, a loophole was seemingly found when then-interior minister Ziyad Baroud allowed citizens to remove their religious affiliation from state records. By no longer belonging “administratively” to a sect, it was said, you were subject only to civil law.

This culminated in a historic decision in 2013 by Marwan Charbel, the interior minister at the time, who registered the civil marriage contract of Nidal Darwish (a Shia Muslim) and Kholoud Sukkarieh (a Sunni Muslim), making them the first couple in Lebanon and the Arab world to have a civil marriage on home soil.

However, only a handful of unions were approved in this way, as weddings are not officially registered without the signature of the interior minister. When Nouhad Machnouk took over the position in 2014, he ceased the practice, leaving some two dozen cases pending.

This places the proverbial ball back in the court of Hassan, the first woman to hold the interior portfolio in the Arab world.

“Since the interior minister is a woman, we might see a different dynamic if she has political leeway to deal with this,” Geha from the American University of Beirut said. “She has the documents of these [pending] marriages and has yet to approve them. Part of the recent protest was to say, ‘approve those and open debate.’”

Moussawi of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs added that Hassan’s political party could influence her decisions.

“It is a good first step that she spoke about it, but she comes from the Future Movement, a part of which is conservative, so it is tough to foresee the extent to which the political influence over her will go,” she said.

According to Geha, another aspect of the debate is the ramifications that civil marriage will have on gender roles in the country.

“Civil marriage can be seen as a gateway to gender equality in Lebanon,” she said, which is why she is “not optimistic” that the reform can pass.