On 18 May, 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, despite previously winning her case in a district court in June 2009.
Women protesters took to the streets in support of Samira’s cause. Standing with multi-coloured posters in their hands, they gave interviews to the media, 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 to her husband or children, while a foreign woman marrying a Lebanese man is entitled to citizenship for herself and 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 granted citizenship.
Citizenship in Lebanon is based on ancestry, not where one is born. But this 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 enshrined in Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution.
Transmission of nationality is not a mere legal formality: it also carries social and financial consequences. Because these husbands and children are considered residents and not citizens, they must obtain residency and work permits and renew them each year. This is a costly procedure involving a tidy sum, roughly $2,000 to $3,300, massive red tape and long hours of waiting in line at the General Security office.
A number of associations have been mobilising their members to support the amendment of this legislation, including a group of fathers married to Lebanese women who founded “Fathers and Sons for Citizenship”. In addition, a campaign “My Citizenship is my Right and my Family’s Right”, implemented by a conglomeration of Lebanese non-governmental organisations, has been working since 2002 to raise public awareness of the issue and change the existing policy. And in 2008 the national Committee for the Follow up of Women's Issues (CFUWI) launched the campaign "My Nationality is the Right of my Children" with support from international agencies like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
A handful of legislators are also working to recognise the right of women to pass citizenship to their husbands and children. An emergency bill was presented for this purpose on 27 April 2009 by two members of Parliament – Bahige Tabbarah and Pierre Daccache – to the Parliamentary 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 to 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 and that transferring citizenship through the father/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, which 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 for Lebanon.
* Rita Chemaly is a social and political science researcher and author of the The Spring of Beirut and many articles. She was awarded the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press in 2007 and blogs at www.ritachemaly.wordpress.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service