On the surface, the question “What is a Citizen?” seems easy to answer. A citizen is a person who is endowed with legal rights by, and duties to, the country of which one is a citizen. Thus, a U.S. citizen is someone who is allowed to vote in U.S. state and federal elections, to serve in the U.S. armed forces, to pass that citizenship on to their spouse and/or children, is entitled to state and federal social services, and who must file state and federal taxes. Similarly, in Lebanon, a citizen must also pay taxes, is also allowed to vote, to run for public office, to serve in the armed forces, and is entitled to Lebanese social services. However, even more than being a legal relationship between a person, other people, and a particular legal regime, the condition of possibility for citizenship is the non-citizen. “We” are Lebanese citizens because others are not, because “we” have passports, because “we” can travel and work anywhere in this country without receiving special permission, and because “we” are not immigrants, migrant laborers, or foreign tourists. A Lebanese citizen is someone who is not a Palestinian, Iraqi, Kurdish, or Sudanese refugee, for example. The entire legal and ideological edifice of citizenship is erected upon this act of exclusion between individuals and populations. Thus, a U.S. citizen is someone who is not an illegal Mexican immigrant, is not an Iraqi refugee, and is not a person living in the United States on a tourist or work or business visa which must be periodically renewed and subject to revoking.
Of course, not all citizenships are equal. On my U.S. passport, or “multipass” as my friends call it, I can – for the most part – travel the world freely and not have to worry about visas. I can choose to fly to Paris or to Cairo or to Bahrain and leave on the same day. On my Lebanese passport, I have to apply for a visa to all of these countries, and I may or may not receive it. This hierarchy of nationalities also permeates one’s sense of security and vulnerability. In 2006, the U.S. Embassy called my nuclear family and pleaded with us to “safely” leave our families and loved ones, who “only” have a Lebanese passport, behind and exposed to the Israeli war machine. Of course, we already know that being a citizen of the “First World” effectively means that your life is weighted differently than that of a Third World citizen. We need only flip through mainstream media coverage of occupied Iraq and Palestine, or terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Norway to see evidence of this. But there there are also institutionalized inequalities and exclusions between citizens of the same country. In fact, there is no universal subject that is the “citizen.” A citizen is always marked. There is a plurality of legal subject positions that citizens of one state are differentially produced through. Not all citizens are constituted as equal before the law, and not all citizens have the same rights and duties. For example, in the contemporary United States, gay citizens cannot give U.S. citizenship to their spouses or benefit from the myriad federal social services and tax benefits that married heterosexuals can benefit from. They are U.S. citizens, but they are constituted as less [legally] equal than their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, these legal exclusions are what constitute the difference between heterosexual and homosexual citizenship in the United States today. Increasingly, as the debate over federally recognized same sex marriage heats up, the fact that a citizen can legally marry and others cannot is becoming a constitutive aspect of heterosexual citizenship.
In Lebanon, the legal discriminations between citizens are much more extreme. It has become common knowledge that in Lebanon citizens are legally differentiated according to sect and that, for example, a Maronite cannot become Prime Minister, a Shi’ite cannot become President of the Republic, and a Sunni cannot be Head of the Army. It is also well known that a Greek Orthodox, Druze, or a member of one of the other eleven officially recognized Lebanese sects has no chance of occupying any of the top posts within the Lebanese “troika” system. Still, despite the fact that on the surface, Lebanese citizenship seems to be differentiated along the axis of sect, I would suggest that in fact the most stubborn legal discrimination in Lebanon is between male and female citizens. Why am I insisting on the phrase “legal discrimination” as opposed to simply “discrimination?” Because there is a difference between the ways that law operates, as opposed to other technologies of power (such as class and race and gender privilege). For example, a gay U.S. citizen can saturate himself in the most gay-friendly social, economic, and political environment imaginable, but even that privileged, rich, white, and attractive gay man cannot give U.S .citizenship to his foreign boyfriend, a right that straight Americans from all classes, races, and political groups take for granted. Similarly, a Lebanese woman can insist on having only feminist friends, only spending money at feminist businesses, and only voting for feminist candidates, but even this woman, who could be rich, successful, and powerful, cannot prosecute her husband for raping her. This is because, according to the civil law that criminalizes rape in Lebanon, marital rape is legally unintelligible and thus, un-prosecutable. Such legal discriminations are immovable except through (other) acts of law.
The majority of Lebanese citizens cannot grant citizenship to their spouses or children. This majority of citizens is diverse in terms of sect, income bracket, race, sexual orientation, religious belonging, and political affiliations. Despite all this diversity, they have one thing in common; the classification of their genitalia by the Lebanese state as “female.” Thus a Lebanese woman (or, to be more technically correct, a Lebanese citizen with a vagina) could, theoretically and legally, become the Prime Minister of Lebanon. But under the current legal system, Prime Minister Layla (let’s continue, for another sentence, to live in this fantasy Lebanon where a woman could become the leader of this country even though it is legally possible) would have to be married to a Lebanese man in order to have Lebanese children. Thus even a woman who occupies and operates the most political, social, and economic positions of privilege cannot practice a right that every Lebanese citizen with a penis takes for granted. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule. For example, Saudi prince al-Walid bin Talal has Lebanese citizenship through his mother, Mona el-Solh, who is the daughter of one of Lebanon’s founders and its first Prime Minister, Riad eh-Solh. Riad el-Solh had the misfortune of having only five daughters, and his daughters were granted the exceptional right to pass on Lebanese citizenship to their children. Yet even in this example, the exception granted to Riad el-Solh’s daughters stems from his role as both “patriarch” and midwife of Lebanon as a whole. This week in Beirut, a protest was organized demanding the amendment to the Nationality law to allow women to grant citizenship to their spouses and children. About 200 people marched from the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior to the foot of a statue of Riad el-Solh which faces the Parliament building. The irony of protestors demanding the rights of citizenship for all Lebanese women while standing under a statue of a man who had a role in drafting (or at the least, not amending) the current sexist and discriminatory nationality law yet whose daughters are considered an exception to it seemed to have been lost on all those present.
A few weeks ago, I was at a nail salon getting a gendered tune-up. As I was being tweezed, plucked, painted and otherwise maintained, I was having a conversation about feminism with the woman who owns the business and her co-workers/employees. It so happened that on that day a group had called for all women to walk stop working and/or driving for ten minutes in order to protest the fact that the newly minted 30 member Lebanese cabinet did not contain any female ministers. Notably, the protest was not against the fact that no female or male minister who is active in the cause for gender equality has been appointed to the Lebanese cabinet in recent history. I was asking the women around me if they were going to stop their jobs (and if the owner was going to close down) for ten minutes at the allotted time. One of the women, who was completing an immaculate pedicure on my toes, told me, in all seriousness, that this kind of protest is only directed towards women who are employed in places “that matter”, such as banks, schools, law offices, or places of business. Who would care if we stopped working for ten minutes, she asked? Plus, her co-worker added, not everyone has the ability to risk their jobs by stopping for ten minutes. I asked them what part of the Lebanese feminist agenda they most identified with, and without pause they mentioned the need to amend the nationality law. I asked them why they chose this issue, rather than the question of domestic violence or marital rape (draft laws on both issues have also recently been presented to Parliament, spurring public debate) and the owner of the shop said that it was because this issue affects all women without exception. The woman who had just finished my pedicure added that the fact that Lebanese women are barred from passing on citizenship was a violation of their karama, or dignity
The right to give citizenship to your spouse and children is no small thing. It means that if you marry a non-Lebanese man and live in Lebanon, your life is a bureaucratic and financial nightmare of residency and work permits. Practically, it means that the children of Lebanese women must have a visa to enter and/or reside in Lebanon, and a permit in order to work in Lebanon legally. Of course, if this hypothetical woman were married to a Lebanese man who was the biological father of these hypothetical children, this set of complications would magically disappear. On this level, it is more difficult for a Lebanese woman to marry a foreigner than it is for a Lebanese man. This added difficulty is coercive; Lebanese law actively discourages Lebanese women from marrying foreigners. In particular, the fear that allowing Lebanese women to grant citizenship is a back door to the naturalization of Palestinian refugees is often cited in public discourse around the nationality law today. But the same concern is never issued over the fact that Lebanese men have been marrying Palestinian refugees, and granting them citizenship, for generations. The contradiction over the “fear” of Lebanese women naturalizing their Palestinian husband and the nonchalance which the reality of Lebanese men naturalizing their Palestinian wives is met with speaks volumes as to the naturalization of legally gendered power relations in contemporary Lebanon. The fact that over half of the Lebanese population cannot transfer citizenship to their spouses and/or children is also an ideological statement. Female citizens, to put it simply, are conditionally incorporated into the state; they inherit citizenship from their father but cannot transfer this inheritance on to their children. They do not reproduce the state through producing citizens, but they do reproduce the gendered exclusion upon which current Lebanese nationality law is predicated. They are “female citizens” and they are constituted as such through legal acts of exclusion and institutionalized difference. They are the condition of possibility for “male citizens” and vice versa.