Lebanese Law and Women’s rights- I
The issue of Lebanese law and women often comes up in American courts in matters involving Lebanese American litigants. A review of material published by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering* and Human Rights Watch** helps shed light on important questions. Below are commonly asked questions and their answers.
1. Is Lebanon a Muslim country? Lebanon is a Muslim- majority- country. About 30% Shia, 30% Sunni and 30% Christian and 10% other minorities such as the Druze. Demographically, Lebanon is a Muslim country. The Christians dispute these numbers arguing that counting all the Lebanese in the diaspora makes Lebanon a Christian- majority country. But fact is, as to those Lebanese living in Lebanon that have Lebanon as the place of their habitual residence, the majority are Muslims.
2. Is Lebanon then just like Saudi Arabia or Jordan as to its being a Muslim country? Lebanon is a Republic. It is not an Islamic republic. In many countries in the world, the state has an official religion. Lebanon has no official religion-it is secular in that important sense. Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution*** reads: “There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantees [sic], under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantees [sic] that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected.” The provision about respecting all creeds and their personal status and religious interests has produced the complexity that characterizes Lebanon as to the various communities and the law.
3. How does Lebanon respect these religious interests of the recognized communities? Lebanon has 15 recognized confessional groups that are allowed to run their personal status matters such as family law matters- marriage, divorce, custody, support, etc. They have their own courts and their own judges. They have the authority of the law to make important decisions that affect the lives of the Lebanese from birth to death. The state uses its force to execute the decisions of the religious courts.
4. How does that work? Does it work? It depends on whom you ask. The system has a number of stakeholders with divergent interests. Obviously the clergy like it and want it. They consider the legal authority they have a precious and fundamental right that cannot be alienated. On the other hand, the secular, the leftists, human rights activists and others consider the confessional personal status system a problem since they discriminate against women and for other reasons.
5. Why is the confessional system that is as old as Lebanon seen as problematic? It is seen as preventing the emergence of a unified Lebanese populace. They consider these religious courts as islands of law keeping people separate and apart preventing the emergence of a Lebanese identity and consciousness. The state does not provide civil marriage in Lebanon- even atheists who want to marry in Lebanon have to have the clergy officiate their marriage. The religious courts have jurisdiction over all family law matters. Islamic courts also have jurisdiction over inheritance matters. Couples from different confessional minorities have to choose either the bride’s or the groom’s religious authorities to officiate the marriage. Then that court will have jurisdiction on all matters arising from that marriage. So if a Maronite wants to marry a Sunni it is either the Maronite Church or the Sunni religious court that marries them. But if they leave the country and marry civilly, the state recognizes the marriage just as it recognizes any marriage that takes place in Lebanon. Quite a few Lebanese travel to Cyprus, which is a less than an hour flight from Beirut, to get married civilly. The general principle is that a marriage valid where it was held is valid everywhere else. Accordingly, their marriage is valid in Lebanon.
6. If a couple marries civilly in Cyprus or in another country, and they decide to end the marriage, do they have to go to the confessional courts? No. They go to Lebanese civil court. And the principles of Conflict of Law require that the Lebanese court apply the law of the jurisdiction where the valid marriage was held.
7. Are women disadvantaged in confessional courts? Yes, they are. There is no equality of the sexes in religious law, across the board. There are Lebanese women who are pushing a reform agenda as to the treatment of women under Lebanese law. Simply put, women are not equal to men under the personal status laws of the confessional groups and this causes injustice to the women. This inequality is not limited to religious law, it also extends to secular law in matters such as domestic violence, spousal rape, the nationality law and adultery law.
8. What is the Lebanese women’s argument for challenging the legal status quo? The Lebanese Constitution itself, Article 7 and Article 8. Article 7 promises equality to all Lebanese. Article 7 reads: “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civil and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction.” The Lebanese, women and men, are largely equal before civil courts. But not before the confessional courts, Christian or Islamic. Also, the state engages in a number of practices that the women’s rights activists consider state violence against women.
9. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all men have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, does Lebanon promise the same? The activists lobbying for change of the status quo make arguments based on Article 8 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 8 reads: “Individual liberty is guaranteed and protected by law. No one may be arrested, imprisoned, or kept in custody except according to the provisions of the law. No offense may be established or penalty imposed except by law.” The women argue that Lebanese law that takes away their liberties violates Article 8 of the Constitution.