In the midst of the Lebanese civil war, a Christian priest, the anecdote goes, reached out to the President urging him to pass a civil status code to remove the identity causing people to kill each other. This tellingly locates the peculiar environment in which the idea of civil status laws evolves in Lebanon: an ancient discussion tinged with sectarianism that isolates Lebanon from a regional debate, more inclined to situate the issue pertaining to personal status laws within an egalitarian agenda, as tends to be the case in countries like Morocco where economic and social changes have encouraged the development of reforms prompted by feminist movements1.
Civil marriage also is a divisive issue in other countries, as in Israel, or in countries like Egypt where laws on personal status are promulgated by a unified central state – indicating that resistances to change might not exclusively rest on forces or sectarian arrangements typical to Lebanon as is often presented2. Did a perceived “exceptionalism” of the Lebanese system develop so that the sectarian hold over public affairs hijacked the debate on civil marriage away from other actors likely to frame the discussion away from sectarian preoccupations?
In an attempt to single out what characterized Lebanese stalemates in reforming the law, we are interested in understanding how and why the issue of civil marriage in Lebanon was historically commonly taken back to a sectarian context, shaping persistent rationale around the law that have endured in remarkably similar forms until this day.
Continuity in The Post-Independence Era
Many attempts at reform mentioned previously share a certain modernist discourse that increasingly links together national stability, unity, to secularism, civil laws and civil marriage. Despite the sectarian opposition mentioned, they were met with enthusiasm by a part of the population, notables, modernists, liberals, and lawyers3. After a halt in the pre-second world war period, efforts for reforms for national civil status law would resume shortly after independence, in the aftermath of national upheavals and the weakening of the Mandate power.
These projects were embedded into a common vision that saw the fragmented laws on personal status and its legal implications as negatively impacting the state’s jurisdiction and its sovereignty. Reform was meant to contain religious and political interferences, including transnational influences. By referring to foreign laws, whether through religious interferences (Papal encyclae, Fatwas indirectly recognized as binding), or by the direct implementation of foreign laws in cases of civil marriage carried abroad (most controversial cases on divorce for marriages carried in Cyprus for which Cypriote law applies), the Lebanese state is de facto ruled by foreign laws4. In addition to unifying the laws for all citizens, reforming towards civil marriage would be one step towards the application of constitutional provision that grants all legal jurisdiction to the Parliament (Article 16).
Following the end of the war, attempts at reform received a new understanding as calls for civil marriage were vested with a specific meaning, that of reunification. As established by the Taef agreement that was to put an official end to the war in 1990, reconciliation and secularization were tied together as a stated national goal incorporated within the Constitution. Within that context, civil society movements developed and gathered around the claim for “civil marriage not civil war”.
The Failure of the Hrawi Project in Face of Religious Opposition
The most serious national discussion on reform, remembered as the Hrawi project, was justified as part of constitutional provisions introduced by the Taef agreement to end sectarianism. In November 1996, President Elias Hrawi introduced a new bill, ambitious in its scope: an optional code on civil personal status, that is the option for citizens not to be affiliated with a specific sect, while proposing a set of laws regarding different areas of personal status, including a provision on civil marriage that would govern “non-sectarian citizens”. Although only an option and partial in its scope, the civil code would have paved the way for more equality in treatment between genders and sects, and was defended as such by its proponents (banning of polygamy, divorce by mutual consent, intermarriage etc.).
The fact that the bill was announced on Lebanon’s Independence Day is indicative of a political will to situate the reform within a context of national reconciliation and an understanding of the need to gradually overcome sectarianism. As encouraged to do saw by the Taef agreement, the state was to be given heightened importance as a unifying force, being understood that the rapid collapse of the state in the aftermath of the first events of the war only further accelerated paralysis and bugging down into the war. The official announcement was showing dedication to the national cause, also bespoke by its ambition reflected by the large scope of the legal blueprint. In justifying the legitimacy of the law, Hrawi also mentioned that 22% of marriages were being carried abroad, a number whose consequences in terms of laws to be applied were a breach of the state’s sovereignty. In addition, the internationalization of the year-long controversy on the bill, with Saudi Arabia issuing official statement and Hafez el-Assad stepping in in support and then against the bill5, shows another dimension of how the project in itself was a matter of national sovereignty.
Despite the approval in March 1998 of the highest executive body, the Council of Minister, Prime Minister Hariri refused to sign it. Following a strong national debate on attempts at westernization and a unanimous rejection by religious authorities, the bill was blocked and further withdrawn. Intimidations went through threat to the resurgence of violence as President Hrawi was accused of reviving sectarian conflict.
Religious condemnations included issuing threats of excommunication and that children of civil marriage would be deemed illegitimate, accusations of apostasy, calling for jihad against the proposal, and condemning it as a Western, Zionist and masonic plan. At a time were Lebanon was still military occupied by Syrian forces, a part of the Lebanese human rights movement also accused the bill of being a Syrian plan to divide the country6.
This resilience of sectarian counter-arguments in the successive review of aborted reforms invites to further look into inner mechanisms and circumstances that have allowed this position on what the law ought to be to impose its normative discourse throughout the years.
The Constitution and Continuity of a National Sectarian Front
The gradual institutionalization and continuity of a national religious front, as a recurrent obstacle against reform for civil marriage, ought to be read within the historical context of transitioning between Ottoman ruling, the Mandate power and the independent state.
The progressive empowerment of communities followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which established their positions as a central component of administration, and their subsequent internal adaptation to national contexts7. What was initially meant as a set of protection for non-Muslim communities, later translated within the Lebanese context as the general rule for all communities. Religious leaders were encouraged to claim official recognition as historical communities. This was rooted in the idea that each community represents a nation in itself, endowed with its own laws ruling over its society. With Decision 60 of March 1938, eighteen communities were officially recognized and together with the Sunni adaptation to the national context (renouncing of dominant position, becoming one minority amongst a nation for all minorities), this will give reality to a certain unification of the interests and positions of the various communities in Lebanon – in stark contrast with Syria, where Sunni prevalence and non-recognition of some minorities resulted in strong divergences between sects8.
Since then, personal status laws have represented a strategic point used as a guarantee through which they were able to control human and material capital, namely their physical goods, finances, and own continuity. This translated into matrimonial, inheritance, and wakf matters, issues more largely comprised under the laws of personal status that enabled to “not exchange women” and to “control matrimonial alliances”9.
Religious opposition, initially constituted against the Mandate power, also included opposing the local government, and this even when the latter was favorable to them (as for the E.Eddé government towards Maronites). The need to organize further triggered a centralization of religious institutions around the capital (leading leaders from Tripoli to request inclusion within Beirut-based institutions).
Yet sectarian institutions, for all their legal and political arsenal, were sustained by and found an undeniable echo through their social constituency and enduring sectarian identifications35 which imply to consider the need to reform the minds before the texts (“an-nufus qabl an-nusus”), and to reflect on the sectarian grasp over educational institutions10. Despite the tangible development of civil society organizations pushing for secular reforms and individual human rights, social resistances still represent the organic reality of sectarianism11. The fact that not only individual rights but also the very existence of sects is at stake in the discussion shows the social attachment to the practical dispositions contained within the sectarian system and explains that liberal, secular values might sometimes coexist and conflict with concerns for the safety of the sect, prioritized according to the broader climate likely to trigger fears impacting on the support for reform12.
Since early decrees were imposed by the French mandate as part of a colonial strategy, up to post-independence resurgence of pro-civil marriage movements, the Hrawi project and post-civil war growth of civil society activism, successive attempts at reform were undeniably penetrated by modernist ideals.
The most recent attempts at civil marriage were in direct line with 1936 French mandate decrees perceived as “more advanced and open than the ones adopted nowadays”13. A liberal and national argument also reflected by the feminist discourse: the President of the Council for Lebanese Women, Linda Matar, talks of current practices of marriages abroad as “hurting our governments and laws”, and future reforms on laws meant to aspire to the ideals of “freedom and democracy”14.
In addition to a reflection on how to strategically overcome the dominant sectarian paradigm, one should also consider the context of action. Political elites, in their majority, displayed a double attitude regarding the move away from sectarianism, taking part in the discussion to reduce sectarianism, while maintaining inherent ties with religious leaderships. This highly fragmented support of the political class, the week presence of women and women’s agenda on to the political arena43 indicate that a revival of independent political parties, women participation, and strong political support to reforms seems necessary to renew the terms of the debate and crystalize sufficient support to counter sectarian arguments15.
- 1. SADIQI, F., ‘The Central role of the family law in the Moroccan Feminist
- 2. MAKTABI, R., ‘Female Citizenship in the Middle East: comparing family law reform in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon’ (2013) 5 Middle EastLaw and Governance
- 3. MEOUCHI (n9)
- 4. EL-SOKHN, I., ‘Les effets au Liban des jugements étrangers en matière de statut personnel’ (Master Thesis, Université Saint-Joseph 2007
- 5. ZUHUR (n3) p.185
- 6. FARHA
- 7. KANAFANI-ZAHAR
- 8. MEOUCHI
- 9. KANAFANI-ZAHAR
- 10. AL-HABBAL, J., ‘The institutional dynamics of sectarianism: education and personal status laws in Lebanon’, M.A. Thesis, Lebanese American University, 2011
- 11. FARHA (n8) p.46-47
- 12. FARHA (n8) p.50
- 13. M.P. G.Moukhaiber in ‘Civil Center for National Initiative: Civil Marriage Legal for Those with No Religious Affiliation’, Naharnet (19 January 2013)
- 14. ZUHUR (n3) p.198
- 15. HOLT, M., ‘Lebanese Shi’I Women and Islamism: A response to War’, in SHEHADEH, L., R., (ed.) Women and War in Lebanon (University Press of Florida 1999)