Lebanese Personal Status Laws II

Interview with Women’s Rights Activist Caroline Succar Salibi: 
Women are not treated equally in Lebanese family courts, prospects for an optional modern civil family law are dim 

Last June I telephonically interviewed Lebanese women’s rights advocate, Caroline Succar Salibi, about the treatment of Lebanese women in Family courts.  Ms Salibi has done extensive work on Lebanese women’s rights issues and is recognized as an expert in the field. Below are edited excerpts of the interview:  

-How are women treated in Lebanese family courts? Unequally. The way they are treated many times denies them their humanity. Many women who leave their husbands due to violence often say that the legal violence the system imposes on them is worse than the mental and physical violence they faced from their abusive husbands. 

-But the system allows women to have lawyers and fight for their rights? Yes. But that takes a lot of money and a lot of time. First, the case starts in the religious courts. But enforcement is a function of the civil courts. Even if a woman after a lot of money and a lot of time is able to win a judgment, let’s say for spousal support, she has to incur more legal fees in the case process in the civil court. It’s a complex and complicated process that by design or by default exhaust the women trying to get their rights through the legal system. And most importantly she is not treated as equal to the husband. The system favors the men. 

-What is at the heart of the challenge Lebanese women face in family courts? They are not considered equal. If a man decides to leave his wife she loses everything. Unless the title to property is in her name, she gets nothing. In the rest of the world marriage is considered a partnership and the woman has rights to the property accumulated during the marriage. In Lebanon a woman could be married for twenty years and help her husband accumulate wealth and when the marriage ends she walks out with nothing. That’s a grave injustice. The contributions of women to the family are not recognized.  

-What is the challenge to reforming the system? The idea of sacredness. Whenever you speak about the injustice to the women in the religious court the response is that you are attacking religion, the sacred.  The practices and procedures that deny women their basic humanity should not be treated as sacred and untouchable. Technically Lebanon is not a religious state, it is a civil state that has no religion. But it is a state that recognizes the “faith communities” and gives them a lot of authority to run their “own affairs”- mainly personal status matters. So, in effect, you a Lebanese citizen not a citizen of a modern civil state but a subject of the faith community you are born into. It does not matter whether one is religious or not. From birth to death that faith community’s clergy decide matters of the most personal nature. In a civil state the people elect legislators and these legislators make the law that applies to all the citizens. If the people are not happy with the law, they can change it. The legislators discuss the law, hear testimony from professionals and draft the best law given what society knows at one point in time. But in Lebanon that is not the case at all. The Lebanese citizen has no power to change the laws that determine the most personal matters to them. The citizen is a subject of the sect he or she, due to accident of birth, is a member of. [Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution reads: There shall be absolute freedom of conscience.  The state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees, under its protection, the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed.  It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, is respected.] 

-What is the solution? What is needed is a modern civil family law that applies to all the Lebanese.  We as women’s rights organizations have been advocating for an optional civil family law that would apply to all Lebanese equally. We want a family law that puts the best interest of the child front and center. We want modern civil courts that have judges that are trained in the law and in the sciences.  But unfortunately what is happening in our world makes this aspiration very hard to make into a reality. Instead of enlightenment and increased tolerance what we see today is more intolerance, more insularity and less trust between the different communities. Also, there is this broad power given in the Lebanese constitution to the different faith groups. It gives the different faith communities veto power over laws or practices they disfavor. The Constitution’s preamble reads: “There is no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the 'pact of communal coexistence'.” This provision has been interpreted to mean that every community has a veto power over proposed change.  

Interview appeared in the Forum and Link of 7/20/2017.


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