In Part 1 of A Legal Guide to Being a Lebanese Woman, I represented graphically a number of the laws that constitute Lebanese male and female citizens differently. I meant to show how the Lebanese legal system as a whole is built to produce categories of citizenship that are differentiated according to sex. In this post I build on this argument and question why religious personal status is often posited as the “problem” for women in countries where the secular state is just as, if not more, discriminatory. I illustrate this point with a comparison of how the Lebanese state differentiates between married and unmarried female citizens within particular laws.
Despite the vital role that religious and civil law plays in the production of “the citizen,” most academic and journalistic literature focuses on the assumed “oppressive” nature of these laws, in particular regarding “women” and again, in particular regarding “Muslim women”. Entire infrastructures of international human rights discourses have been built on the “problems” of “shariah” and “women’s rights.”[ Abu Lughod 2010] In this literature, women and men are seen as “oppressed” or “privileged” under particular personal status regimes. Rarely is it noted that in fact, the juridical bodies of “male” and “female” citizens do not exist prior to the legal recognition of sex and the gendered laws that are operationalized and performed according to that legal recognition.
Bio-Sex is one of the two essential identifications that articulate the legal practice of Lebanese citizenship (the other is maddhab). While this conferral, or “recognition” of sex most often occurs with the registering of birth and the issuing of a birth certificate, it can, as in the case of citizens who win a court case against the Lebanese government to legally change their sex, re- occur later in life. The claim that laws only regulate these categories of citizenship, rather than play an active role in producing them, serves to stabilize and naturalize the disciplinary matrix behind the production of “male” and “female” citizens. Once naturalized, citizens may turn to the state for protection from the abuses of gender-based discrimination, rather than recognizing the state as invested in producing and maintaining these categories of difference, as Wendy Brown has argued persuasively (Brown 1995). The naturalization of the phenomenon of “sexism” and “patriarchy” in Lebanon (and in the Arab world more generally) lends itself to the re-production of human rights discourses that seek to narrowly intervene in what they assume is the stable and isolated relationship between “women’s rights” and “personal status.” In fact, the gendered category of “woman” is produced in part through law after the prior categorization of one’s sex, or as an attempt to align incoherencies between “legal sex” and “social sex”, as in the case of those citizens who are able to legally change their sex in the census registry.
Lebanese male and female citizens are differentiated according to their sex in the same ways in civil law but the situation in personal status is more complex. Here, while men and women are differentiated legally, they are differentiated in each law. As such, there are fifteen articulations of sex-based differentiated citizenship operating in Lebanon. For example, a Sunni Muslim woman and a Maronite Christian woman equally cannot transfer their Lebanese citizenship to their foreign husbands or to their children, but the Sunni Muslim woman can file for divorce under Hanafi personal status, while a Maronite Christian woman cannot under canon law.
In civil (a term I use to distinguish personal status from other Lebanese laws) law, the most salient legal differentiation within the larger category of “female” is between married and single (’azba’) women. In fact, once a woman is registered as “married” her position in many civil laws, including those that regulate violence and rape, changes. When a woman is divorced her legal position in these laws and others also changes. In some cases, the legal transformations that occur when a citizen is married apply to both male and female citizens. For example, a heterosexual couple that is engaging in premarital sex is not breaking any law, although they will be breaking various social codes (see what is good sex?). If one or the other cheats on his or her partner they are also not held legally accountable. However, once this couple gets married they can both be legally held accountable by the Lebanese state if they commit adultery. Yet even in this example, the potential prison sentence for a female adulteress is higher than it would be for her husband. Here is a selection of the most dramatic differences in the legal positions occupied by married and unmarried women in Lebanon:
- Married women cannot pass on their citizenship to their spouses or children. An unmarried woman can pass on Lebanese citizenship to her child after a year has passed and if the child has no other citizenship by then.
- Unmarried women over the age of 18 can travel freely. When they get married their husbands can register their names (through the office of general security) at relevant points of international travel.
- Unmarried women are protected (to an extent, see chart in part 1) by laws that criminalize rape. Because marital rape is not recognized in Lebanon, husbands can legally rape the women they are married to.
- Married women are not fully protected under the legal articles governing violence (battery or assault), which have been at times explained by judges as not applying to married couples.
While it is important to be aware of the different laws that apply to and can be practiced by different groups of citizens, it is even more important to keep in mind that law is not the only factor at play in how, why and when citizens practice (or not) the rights and protections available to them. Just because single women can pass citizenship onto their children does not mean that Lebanese women will choose to be single parents. Just because marital rape is not recognized in Lebanon does not mean that sexually active single women are not perhaps even more vulnerable to rape, more unable to speak out, and more discriminated against within the legal system as it is practiced. In such a cases, social sanctions and norms are much more prohibitive than legal codes.
*A side note: I am becoming increasingly agitated by the sequestering of these types of studies and analysis within the category of “gender” or “women’s” or “feminist” studies. In countries where the gendered differentiation of citizens saturates the political, social, and legal fields, I believe it is incumbent on researchers to be specific as to what, and whom they are studying. Personally, I don’t study women, or women’s rights, or gender. I study citizens. It just so happens that in the country that I study a majority of citizens cannot pass on citizenship because they are women. If I just wrote vaguely about “citizenship practices in Lebanon” without specifying how citizens and their practices available to them differ according to sex, would I then be seen as a researcher on the state, on law, or on politics? And if I do not neglect it, why am I automatically referred to as a “feminist” researcher or a researcher of “women’s rights” in Lebanon? Is there always a silent male pronoun lurking in studies of citizenship in the Middle East or in other countries where the legal differentiation between sexes is dramatic? If that silent male pronoun were spoken and written, would that automatically render the majority of citizenship studies as research on gender or on men in the Middle East? Somehow I don’t think so.