Last month, Salma Hayek visited Lebanon to promote the world premiere of The Prophet, the new animated film based on the poetry of Khalil Gibran. It was her first ever visit to the country. The Lebanese greeted her with open arms as a long-lost daughter. The visit culminated with the rumor that Hayek had been offered Lebanese citizenship.
The gesture is not surprising in and of itself. Lebanese citizenship is transmitted through paternal blood and Hayek’s paternal Grandfather was Lebanese. But is Hayek, who calls herself a feminist, aware that accepting the citizenship betrays Lebanese women who have been fighting in vain for decades for equal citizenship rights? Does Hayek know that Lebanese women are denied the right to pass on their citizenship to their children of non-Lebanese fathers? The actress who brought to life the passion and strength of feminist artist Frida Kahlo, who has spoken out repeatedly against gender inequality, and who has donated to shelters for victims of domestic violence, should renounce Lebanese citizenship—if only to use her position and fame to make a statement against Lebanon`s patriarchal citizenship laws.
On the surface, Lebanon seems to be a progressive country compared to some of its neighbors. However, when it comes to some critical indicators of gender equality—such as gender wage differentials or the proportion of women in political office—it ranks low compared to other countries. Perhaps Hayek does not know that Lebanon is one of a handful of countries in the Arab world that completely denies women the right to transfer citizenship to their children of non-Lebanese fathers. Presumably, this will affect her as well; she too will be unable to pass on her newly-granted Lebanese citizenship to her daughter, just because she is a woman.
For Hayek, such an honorary citizenship is little more than cosmetic; because she also holds Mexican and US nationalities, Lebanese citizenship (or the lack thereof) will not change her life or the life of her children. But for tens of thousands of Lebanese women, the inability to pass citizenship to their children has very real and lasting consequences, such as lack of access to basic public services, having to renew their children’s residency permits (known as Iqamas), and the constant fear of separation. By marrying a non-Lebanese man, Lebanese women have all citizenship-based rights—including social services, education, healthcare, and welfare services—denied to their `alien` children.
The crux of the matter rests on a contradiction between the Lebanese Constitution and the Lebanese Nationality Code. On the one hand, Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution states: “all Lebanese are equal under the law, they enjoy equality in civil and political rights and they assume duties and responsibilities without any difference between them”. On the other hand, Article 1 of the Lebanese Nationality Code states that you only class as Lebanese if you are a “person born to a Lebanese father”. Having a Lebanese mother is not good enough. This bifurcated citizenship legislation implies that Lebanese women are not full citizens in themselves, but merely vessels for their husbands` personhood. Lebanese women can only accept, and never accord citizenship. Lebanese citizenship passes from father to child without attaching to the mother.
As is the case in other countries in the region, the roots of such legislation are patriarchal. A Middle Eastern woman who marries outside her own nationality is deemed to have exchanged hands—moving from the authority of her father to that of her husband. But in the case of Lebanon, classism, racism, and sectarianism intersect with patriarchy, reminding us that gender is not the only axis of oppression that impinges on the life chances of Lebanese women and their children. Lebanese women married to US, Australian, or European men (read: White) are not as negatively affected by the unequal nationality law as compared to Lebanese women married to Syrian or Egyptian men who are in many cases low-wage migrant workers. Children of Lebanese women and Palestinian men are hit particularly hard by this patriarchal-sectarian double-whammy; with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother who cannot give them her nationality, they are forced to grow up on the margins of Lebanese society.
A common argument by parliamentarians is that the Lebanese public would oppose granting Lebanese citizenship to the children of Palestinian men, given the tensions that already exist in some areas between the Lebanese host community and the long-term Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In 2010, Sethrida Geagea, the Lebanese parliamentarian and member of the Lebanese Forces who escorted Hayek during her tour of Bcharre, Khalil Gibran`s birthplace, said the following: “What we are afraid of is that there are many Palestinian men today who would marry Lebanese women for the sole purpose of gaining the Lebanese nationality”. In short, a racist myth—that gender equality in citizenship would open the door to “hordes” of children of Palestinian men and Lebanese women to become citizens—has been used to deprive all Lebanese women of equal citizenship rights. Further, the statement promotes the sexist myth that a Lebanese woman who marries a non-Lebanese man is somehow deceived into doing it.
In reality, public perceptions in Lebanon on the issue of gender equality in citizenship are split along gender and not sectarian lines, according to a 2011 study on Lebanese attitudes toward social issues. The study, carried out by American University of Beirut researcher Sawsan Abdulrahim, showed that seventy-five percent of Lebanese men and eighty-five percent of Lebanese women supported equal citizenship rights. The findings of the study further revealed that women, regardless of their religion or sect, overwhelmingly support the statement that Lebanese women should have the right to transfer citizenship to their children, even if the father is Palestinian.
For decades, feminist activists have spearheaded campaigns to achieve gender equity with regard to Lebanese citizenship. In 2008, Lina Khatib asked: “How can a woman be a full citizen if she does not possess the same citizenship rights as men?” A year later, a UNDP report by Dr Fahima Charaffedine outlined the “Predicament of Lebanese Women Married to Non-Lebanese”, and added much-needed data to strengthen the argument. Her research revealed that, between 1995 and 2008, the number of people adversely affected by these citizenship laws (including the children of Lebanese women denied citizenship rights) numbered over 77,000—about 2% of the population.
In 2010, Al Raida, a journal on women`s issues in the Arab world, ran a special issue on “Citizenship and Gender in the Middle East,” containing many valuable interventions from feminist scholars from the region. It included a leader article by Suad Joseph, the best-known theorist writing on this topic, which unpicked patriarchy from patrilineality, particularly as this is relevant to Lebanon. In it, Joseph states, “Through the codification of patrilineality, the state has consolidated a kin-based patriarchy bolstered through a male-privileged form of unilineal descent.” Such man-made laws dialectically influence social norms—but can be reversed through continued feminist activism.
But Lebanese women have been let down by their own politicians on this issue for years. Take Lebanese Foreign Minister and member of the Free Patriotic movement, Gebran Bassil, for instance. At the same time that he has been touring Latin America encouraging male children and grandchildren of Lebanese emigrants to reclaim their citizenship, Bassil seems to be ignoring those who have been campaigning for years for women to have full citizenship rights. Last month, he proposed an amendment to the nationality law, which would extend citizenship rights to male children of Lebanese emigrants but not to women who live in Lebanon. This proposal was rightly rejected a by a grassroots campaign, who called it both “discriminatory and sectarian.” We can draw an ugly conclusion from this double standard: in Lebanon, only men can be full citizens.
There is every reason to believe that Hayek sympathizes with people struggling with issues of citizenship and racial discrimination. She has discussed the discrimination she faced as a Mexican in Hollywood, and has spoken in support of undocumented immigrants employed in the US. In fact, she herself entered the US as an illegal immigrant, but—unlike most Latina migrant workers—she then managed to gain US citizenship, thanks to her family`s wealth and privilege. So, it is unfortunate that Salma Hayek, an internationally-renowned, self-proclaimed feminist, seems to have accepted Lebanese citizenship when she could have taken the opportunity to express solidarity with Lebanese women.
If Salma Hayek really wanted to stand up for women, how can she accept Lebanese citizenship knowing that even she, with all the power and money she possesses, will be unable to pass it on to her daughter? If she believes that rights and citizenship are for men only, then she should go ahead and accept Lebanese nationality. But if she really is the feminist she claims to be, then she should openly refuse to accept Lebanese citizenship, if only to publicly embarrass the Lebanese state to the point of granting women what they have always deserved: their full citizenship rights.