Feature photo credits: Photo Courtesy of Emma Jowdy
I was always seeking love. I followed it the way a sunflower followed the sun. When I found it, I held it tight, the way a toddler hangs to his mother’s skirt. I fought all odds for it and to live a life true to myself. My love for my partner never made me forget or lose my love for freedom and the quest for a free and just life, as a human being in general and as a woman in particular. In this context, I refused to be trapped under one of the 15 separate religion-based personal status laws available in my country, Lebanon. I chose civil marriage in Turkey, because I am deprived of the right to marry under a civil law in a country increasingly soaked in sectarian divisions, and where sectarianism always triumphs over citizenship and secularism.
Minor Civil Triumphs
I married in a humble ceremony, overflowing with simplicity and love. From the municipality building where I got married, all the way towards Galata tower where I was supposed to have lunch with my husband and some friends, I wandered in my white gown, holding a small bouquet of fresh white roses. On the way, I was showered with wishes and greetings in numerous languages from tourists coming from all over the world to visit the exquisite city of Istanbul. The chilling breeze and the sweet pouring rain added a touch of magic to the whole scenery, giving me a sense of victory. At this particular moment, I felt that I won the competition against marriage customs and defeated all the humiliation and insults coming from my decision of getting a civil marriage, although both my husband and I are born as Christians.
The fight I led with my mother when she decided to get a divorce and throw away years of domestic abuse, the endless days we spent on the streets calling for women’s protection under the law, and every women empowerment project I drafted throughout my professional career all flashed into my mind. Memories hovered in the air and everything came to me all of a sudden. Although we are engaged in an endless uphill fight defending all the rights we are deprived of, I felt victory in my own way. I won over the small battles that each one of us will experience when we decide to stand still and resist what is societally considered “abnormal” or falls under breaking the societal standards we are bound to by birth.
Back to Reality
As hard as it sounds, my brief honeymoon came to an end and it was time to come back to reality. Nonetheless, all the minor triumphs I sensed faded away once I encountered a major detail, that is, marriage registration under Lebanese law. The process goes as follows: you collect the marriage papers from the Ministry of External Affairs, then you collect some official papers from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and afterwards, you go to your husband’s hometown where the mayor (Al-Mokhtar) provides you with a family record.
Long story short, without even taking my sights into account, I was no longer a citizen of Chekka, Batroun, where I was born and where I grew up. On paper, I am registered nowadays in a completely different town that I barely know. Why? Just because I got married. I moved from being someone’s daughter to someone’s wife. I am back in the same loop of forced submission and being a second level citizen with barely any rights.
Lebanese Women & Registry Records
This is the case for thousands of married Lebanese women. Dayana Al-Baba, a senior Lebanese researcher specialized in elections who has spent her professional career fighting for equal rights with groups such as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, told Al-Rawiya: “I was a Sidon resident, born in Sidon, and specifically a voter in Sidon up till the age of 33. My main problem started when I married someone from a completely different city. Unfortunately, my registry was transferred to a completely different area without anyone asking me or taking my permission on that issue. As a result, the first major problem that occurred was during the elections. I felt that I was not concerned, although I was keen to exercise my democratic right to vote and to have a voice in the decision-making process. Yet, I was denied this right. Therefore, this is a fundamental problem that female citizens face when they get married, which is the transfer of registry.”
Al-Baba added: “Previously, I was active in my area regarding the municipal elections, yet when I was transferred to Nabatiyeh, my husband’s hometown, I was not aware of this new area’s conditions and issues and consequently, I was not interested on a personal level to be involved [in the municipal elections]. Hence, I was no longer a decision-maker, and this reflected negatively on me. Transfer of registry is an unfair act, and I am one of the people who have been subjected to this prejudice, and the most dangerous thing is that the legislators have no intention to give women this option.”
Loubna (a pseudonym), a divorced woman who works in an international non-profit organization revealed to Al-Rawiya that she feels as a second-class citizen when it comes to her rights as a woman in Lebanon. She said: “When I got married, I was moved to my husband’s hometown, and when I got divorced, I was moved back to my father’s hometown just like a commodity with no opinions or views.”
What About a National Number?
Attorney and activist Ayman Raad revealed to Al-Rawiya: “Children, whether girls or boys, take their father’s family name. When a girl marries, she is transferred to her husband’s registry, while when the boy gets married, he keeps his father’s registry number and gets his own registry. All this stems from the patriarchal system. A girl cannot have a record of her own. Also, children, in general, are not considered to be existing beings, they are either related to the family or linked to the father only, as if the mother does not exist, and therefore are not considered independent beings.”
As an approach to solve this issue, Raad believes that “all registration records must be canceled. Registration records are numbers associated with regions and sects. In this context, the sect system merges with the patriarchal system, and the two systems complement each other. Thus, the approach should be to abolish records that are nothing but a dedication to the patriarchal and the sectarian systems and replace them with national numbers. When a person is born, he/she must be given a national number and each person becomes an independent human being, which is a step towards abolishing the sectarian and patriarchal systems.”
A Long Road Ahead
Amidst the distressful events we suffered throughout the past two years, spanning from the economic crisis, the October 17 uprising, the COVID-19 crisis, to the Beirut blast, Lebanon’s progress in implementing reforms concerning women’s issues remains very slow. Nevertheless, the issue of marriage and civil registration is still as relevant, as it directly impacts a great deal of women’s civil and political rights, including the right to vote.
Needless to mention that the issue of registry is one among hundreds of discriminatory laws and codes. For instance, article 534 of the Penal Code penalizes any sexual intercourse contrary to the “order of nature.” Also, homosexuality is considered a crime and transgender women are subjected to discrimination when accessing basic services and rights, like employment, health care, and housing. Migrant domestic workers, who are predominantly women, are excluded from labor law protections. Women cannot pass their citizenship to their children and foreign spouses. Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage and marital rape remains legal. The current domestic violence law defines domestic violence narrowly and fails to protect women. All of this falls under the humanity umbrella. Consequently, these issues must always remain a priority if we are willing to move from the oppressive sectarian state to a secular state where I, as a woman, am an independent being with well-respected rights. Respect for human rights and addressing people as equals are the foundations for the state we are aiming to build.