Civil Marriage in Limbo

In Lebanon, the recurring debate around civil marriage highlights the sectarian-patriarchal grip on personal status affairs and the state itself.

Khouloud Sukkarieh and her husband Nidal Darwiche pose for a photo in Beirut April 26, 2013. Darwiche and Sukkarieh are the first Lebanese to have a civil marriage in Lebanon. Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS

Every wedding season, hundreds of secular or inter-faith Lebanese couples flock to Cyprus to be joined in civil unions, making use of competitive packages furnishing everything from the bridal bouquet to witnesses. Unlike Lebanon, Cyprus, among other destinations, allows marriage adjudicated by the secular state rather than religious authorities. Thanks to a decree from the time of the French mandate, these unions are recognized in Lebanon subjecting the couples to the civil laws regarding marriage and divorce from the countries where they married. The ever-growing number of Lebanese marrying in Cyprus alone (recent records show that in 2014, 560 Lebanese couples were married there)—and the recurring call for introducing civil personal status laws underscores the deep-rooted conflict in Lebanese society between sectarianism and secularism.

Recently the timid call for optional civil marriage unleashed uncivil retorts from religious clerics, or patriarchs, as well as political leaders who draw legitimacy from these “spiritual families.”

Shortly after grabbing headlines for her appointment as the first female Arab Minister of Interior, Raya al-Hassan was in the headlines again for a different reason. In an interview with Euronews, Al-Hassan responded to a question about civil marriage in Lebanon. In a conciliatory fashion she said she wanted to initiate a conversation about this contentious matter with religious figures and other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly this was met with instant and categorical rejections by religious authorities.

Although Lebanon is the only nation in the region without an official religion, it is indeed the “sectarian state par excellence” as famed journalist David Hirst put it. Article 9 of the sometimes-contradictory constitution grants absolute freedom of conscience, guaranteeing personal status and religious interests of all 18 recognized religious communities to which a Lebanese citizen can belong. Drawing on the Ottoman millet system, the Lebanese state has thus given religious sects prerogatives over personal status affairs including marriage, divorce, inheritance and the like.

Thus, even modest proposals for optional civil marriage have been repeatedly met with a wave of vitriol by Muslim and Christian clerics alike. In addition to spiritual justifications, a 2013 study points to more mundane and material motives, which help clarify the shrill rejections. The study carried out by economist Jad Chaaban estimates that religious institutions earn around $9 million a year from religious marriages in addition to further funding from the prime minister’s budget. He concludes that contracting civil marriage on Lebanese soil may indeed harm the six thousand staff members working in religious courts, but it would benefit 80,000 Lebanese men and women who marry every year.

Since the inception of Lebanon, there have been a number of protests for civil marriage with placards often reading “civil marriage not civil war.” There have also been fruitless attempts to legislate for civil personal status laws or even optional civil marriage. In 1951 the Order of Lawyers, a professional association, observed a six month strike in objection to a law granting Christian courts the same prerogatives enjoyed by the Muslim Courts. Draft laws were futilely proposed again in 1960 and 1975 by secular legislators.

The most serious attempt at achieving civil marriage, however, came in 1998 when then-President Elias Hrawi pushed forth a draft proposal for optional civil marriage drawing on the call to deconfessionalize—that is secularize, or de-emphasize the import of religious sects in the governance of Lebanon.

Deconfessionalization is  enshrined in the Taif Accord which helped bring the 15-year Lebanese Civil War to a close. Hrawi’s proposal got the majority vote in the Council of Ministers after the Speaker of parliament Nabih Berri instructed his ministers in 1998 to vote for the proposal. However, under intense pressure from religious leaders, former-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri torpedoed the effort, lamenting that it was “not the time.” In the latest round of discussion on civil marriage in 2019, the same speaker Berri would state that now also “is not the time.” In May 2019, civil marriage was again proposed during the lengthy government debates on the budget as an additional source of revenue that would help decrease the ballooning deficit but was again rejected by ministers of the following parties: Speaker Berri’s Amal movement, the Hariri Future party, and Hezbollah.  Ultimately, expecting the system to curb political sectarianism—from which politicians themselves have benefited greatly and from which they draw their legitimacy—is a pipe dream.

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough on the civil marriage front came when an inter-confessional couple Nidal Darwiche and Khouloud Sukkarieh were joined in a civil marriage on Lebanese soil with the support of lawyer Talal Husseini. In marrying, Darwiche and Sukkarieh exploited a memo circulated by former Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud in 2008 that allowed Lebanese citizens to expunge reference to their religious affiliation on government records.

This memo, together with the French mandate Decree 60 L.R of 1936, allows people not belonging to one of the 18 religious communities recognized in Lebanon, to resort to civil law. After much delay, Marwan Charbel, minister of interior in 2013, registered the marriage of Sukkarieh and Darwiche. However, Charbel’s successor Nouhad Machnouk refrained from registering subsequent marriages, leaving dozens of unions in legal limbo and infamously reminding betrothed from different sects of the proximity of Cyprus.

Sukkarieh’s and Darwiche’s 2013 civil marriage was also met by a “frenzied fatwa” in which the disgraced former Grand Mufti Muhammad Rashid Qabbani—who faced serious corruption allegations—warned legislators and ministers that they would be considered “apostates of Islam” if they supported the legalization of such unions. At the time, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri rejected the Mufti’s edict and (unlike his father) expressed support for optional civil marriage—just not for his family. The former Maronite Patriarch Butrus Sfeir had threatened to excommunicate couples who chose this form of union, regarding their offspring as illegitimate. The current Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Ra’i was more circuitous in his response, claiming the church’s support for mandatory rather than optional civil marriage—knowing full well that such a bill would never pass.

This latest row over civil marriage was cut short due in part to the by-election in the conservative northern city of Tripoli. The elections, held in early April, were contested by the Future Movement to which Minister al-Hassan belongs, making discussing this political hot-potato a risky venture.

Nevertheless, calls for civil personal status laws or at least civil marriage on Lebanese soil will not subside as this is ultimately a battle about basic rights and freedoms—as prominent lawyer and activist Nizar Saghiyyeh has argued.  

Indeed, Raya al-Hassan was asked in an interview in April if she would dare broach the topic again. While she evasively spoke of other priorities, al-Hassan concluded defiantly that she remains of the same opinion and will bring the issue of civil marriage to the fore once again in public debate. While debate is important, reaching consensus on this topic in the hyper-pluralistic “consociational democracy” that is Lebanon seems far-fetched. It is for this reason that rather than simply instigate debate, it would be preferable if al-Hassan would practice her prerogative and simply register civil unions concluded in Lebanon, as per the law. While recognizing these unions will not necessarily deliver national unity, it would, at a minimum, grant secular citizens some respite from the stifling sectarian-patriarchal control and deliver these couples from legal limbo—the limbo of patriarchs.

Sarah El-Richani is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications at The American University in Cairo. Her work has appeared with BBC Media Action, MICT Berlin and the London-based Article 19, among others. Her monograph, Lebanon: Anatomy of a Media System in Perpetual Crisis was published in 2016. On Twitter: @srichani.

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