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Will Civil Marriage End Lebanon’s Confessional System?

[Chart showing confessional allotment of parliamentary seats in Lebanon. Image from] [Chart showing confessional allotment of parliamentary seats in Lebanon. Image from]

In tying the matrimonial knot last week, Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish sliced through a cultural, legal, sectarian knot of Gordian proportions. The pair became the first couple in history to be wed in a civil marriage on Lebanese soil. Until last week, Lebanese citizens (or, only those who can afford it) have generally traveled to Cyprus to get hitched. The only way to do the deed inside Lebanon requires a contract issued by religious personal status authorities, with all the legal implications and bureaucratic entanglements that such a requirement presents.

The civil society group that facilitated the union—al-Markaz al-Madani li-al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya (The Civic Center for the National Initiative)—took advantage of a hitherto overlooked law from 1936 known as Decree No. 60, which was passed during the French Mandate. The law recognizes the political and administrative powers of the different confessional representatives, and stipulates that individuals are bound by the personal status laws of their sects.  

Attorney Talal al-Husseini–who is the principal architect of the civil society group’s strategy–told me last year that Decree No. 60 also states that if people do not belong to a particular sect, then they are subject to civil law, which—as it currently stands—does not exist for personal status issues in Lebanon.  “It does not mention which civil law that they are subject to, but it is clear that the current practice of disallowing civil marriage in Lebanon is a clear contravention of Decree no. 60 and the Lebanese Constitution itself,” al-Husseini said.

In 1936, of course, there were no Lebanese citizens who were not legal members of sects. This was because political representation in the Lebanese state was premised on the notion of social integration through sectarian affiliation, and yet the Decree still encountered heavy resistance from religious authorities—which, most notably, resulted in a exemption for Muslims—when it was introduced in 1936, precisely because “it provided for the enactment of a civil family law” (see George M. Dib, “Law and Population in Lebanon,” 11-12). As of a few years ago (and thanks to the dogged efforts of the same civil society group), it became possible in Lebanon to remove one’s sectarian affiliation from one’s government ID, thereby–in theory–extricating oneself from the personal status legal framework of a given confessional community. However, what this really means in practice is unclear. Since it became possible to “strike off” one’s sectarian identification (shatb al-ishara, as the process is called), the number of people who have actually done so is apparently quite small. This is not because the secularist movement does not have mainstream appeal in Lebanon, but probably because—let’s face it—who really wants to bother with a bureaucratic operation that has only symbolic value?

The civil marriage law, however, threatens to turn this symbolic operation into a highly pragmatic one. If all it takes to avoid the trip to Cyprus and have a civil marriage in Lebanon is to strike off one’s confessional identity–which does not amount to renouncing one’s sect, as activists hasten to add–then we may see more and more people doing it in the near future.  

The long-term implications of such a development could be very interesting. Lebanon’s politics are based, in a fundamental way, on the parsing of the country’s population into discrete confessional communities. What happens when we begin to see people transgress the boundaries of these communities in greater numbers? What happens if, five years from today, there are 150,000 people who do not belong–administratively speaking–to an official sect? How would such people run for political office under the current system? How would they get divorced and bequeath property to their children? Speaking of their children, what is their own administrative status? Might all of these uncertainties end up providing a disincentive to remove one’s confessional ID altogether? Stepping back, is there a case to be made for creating a “19th sect” (i.e., the secular sect) that has representation in Parliament? Alternatively, would it not make more sense to start taking seriously the long deferred problems of the confessional system altogether?

The current civil marriage debate brings all of these important questions to the fore, even if the status of Kholoud and Nidal’s marriage has been rejected by an advisory panel at the Ministry of Justice (Hay’at al-tashri’ wa-al-istisharat). Marwan Charbel, who is the interior minister–and, by the way, claims to be a supporter of enacting civil marriage in Lebanon–announced the decision, citing the fact that no Lebanese law exists to legislate this marriage as the basis of that rejection. While it may take a while to sort out the details of this particular marriage, there is no doubt that the Lebanese secularist movement has won a major, even if only symbolic, victory towards achieving its stated objectives.

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