Trespassing on the Nationality of Lebanese Women: Renewing the Guise of Male Privilege

2016-01-20    |   

Trespassing on the Nationality of Lebanese Women: Renewing the Guise of Male Privilege

When the Lebanese nationality law was issued in 1925, the dominant global trend was to associate the family with the man such that his nationality determined the family’s nationality. In most countries, a woman who married a man of another nationality would lose her original nationality and gain his. In such a system, a woman cannot pass her nationality on to her children born to an alien husband, as she lost her nationality upon marrying him. In 1960, as a result of local, international, and domestic developments in the area of women’s rights, Lebanon’s law was amended and women no longer lost their nationality upon marrying foreigners. However, the issue of women passing their nationality on to their husbands or children remained largely ignored. At that time, most Arab countries denied women this right.

Today, women in several Arab and non-Arab countries have the right to pass their nationality on to their children (and, in the majority of these countries, to their spouses), just like men. Furthermore, women have greatly strengthened their position in Lebanese society such that the ongoing discrimination against them in this regard has become more flagrant. Two campaigns helped highlight this discrimination by uniting the women and children concerned, and strengthening the spirit of solidarity between them in order to form a pressure group to lobby for the law’s amendment. Subsequently, it has become apparent that the patriarchal traditions that created this discrimination are no longer enough to legislate its continuation. The best evidence for this may be the widespread welcoming of the ruling that the Court of First Instance in Matn, headed by Judge John Qazzi, issued in 2009. This ruling gave a Lebanese woman the right to grant her underage children Lebanese nationality following the death of her alien husband.

However, it quickly became clear that support for discrimination against women in this relation to nationality is also strong and decisive in the present circumstances, among several political and sectarian forces. This support stems from the demographic consequences of abolishing the discrimination and their effects on the equilibrium between the sects. Despite the great political weight of these forces, the changes occurring are putting (and will increasingly put) these [status quo] forces on the defensive, forcing them to search for new legitimating reasons for retaining the discrimination. In other words, they must find a new guise in which to dress traditional male privilege.

It is important to link this issue with that of statelessness. In 2012 and 2013, the Frontiers Ruwad Association conducted a study of the extent and the legal and social hallmarks of the phenomenon of stateless people in Lebanon. It showed that “73% of stateless people (who are not of Palestinian origin) were born to a Lebanese mother, 18% were born to stateless mothers, and 7% were born to foreign mothers; the vast majority of whom are from Syria or from countries whose laws discriminate against women in regards to granting nationality to their children”.[1] Consequently, “recognizing the right of a Lebanese woman or a woman who is a citizen of a neighboring country to grant her nationality to her children will aid greatly in reducing this phenomenon”.[2]

Abolishing the Exclusion is not a Rights Issue but a Political Decision

Before reviewing the arguments upon which the political forces rely to preserve the exclusion, I must outline some of the measures that were taken (and that amounted to repression)[3] in the face of the aforementioned ruling, that gave a Lebanese mother the right to grant her nationality to her underage children following the death of her alien husband. The first sign of repression was the press conference that one MP held to slander the head of the chamber, who was accused of attention seeking and deviating from the legal text. In the same vein, former minister of justice Ibrahim Najjar stated that the court had forsaken the duty of reservation and encroached on the powers of the legislature. The annulment of the ruling at the appellate level was not enough; rather, the judge was also subjected to a number of career-related measures. These measures ranged from disciplinary action for a speech he gave upon receiving a human rights award, to barring him from participating in any seminar or conference, to transferring him to a judicial position (advisor to the Court of Cassation) in which his power to manage court cases and practice discretion is curtailed. The key lesson of all of this is that the ruling authorities’ are tenacious about exercising exclusive power over the criteria for obtaining Lebanese nationality, in accordance with the consensus principle and on the basis that the political nature of the nationality issue overshadows any legal dimension –such as the question of gender discrimination– that it may have. Hence, the judiciary is expected to stick to the task of applying the literal text of the law and not expand upon it.

Opposing Naturalization [of Palestinians]

The first guise used to dress-up male privilege is the rejection of naturalization found in the Constitution’s Preamble. The argument is that abolishing the discrimination will lead to the naturalization of people born to Lebanese mothers and Palestinian husbands, and hence be used as a cover for (and a ploy to achieve) naturalization. The aim of linking the maintaining of discrimination in this area with the rejection of naturalization is to give the former constitutional force that matches the [constitutional] force of the principle of equality between Lebanese citizens. This proposition was included in the draft bill that former minister of interior Ziyad Baroud submitted to the Council of Ministers in May 2009. In this draft, Baroud left the Council of Ministers a choice between two courses: on one hand, it could recognize a mother’s right to give her children her nationality without discrimination, thus upholding the principle of equality between citizens; on the other hand, it could recognize this right but exclude women married to men who lack the nationality of a recognized state, thus upholding another constitutional principle –the rejection of naturalization– and preventing its circumvention.[4]

In reality, this exclusion does not withstand any serious analysis, especially when the subject is approached from the angle of stateless persons. The outcome of the exclusion is futile: people who acquired a foreign nationality from their fathers gain another nationality from their mothers, while people who did not acquire any nationality from their fathers are prevented from acquiring nationality from their mothers. In other words, those who already have are given more and those who do not have are prevented from gaining anything. Of course, such a course clashes not only with the overall international legal system, which gives naturalization priority to stateless people, but also with the nNationality Law of 1925, which enables a person born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and a stateless father to acquire nationality pursuant to jus soli.

The second drawback of this exclusion is that it implicitly enshrines male privilege. Applying the prohibition of naturalization to a person born to a Lebanese mother and Palestinian husband means ascribing him or her, in advance, to the father without any consideration for the mother’s nationality. In essence this conflicts with the move towards abolishing discrimination as any person born to parents of two different nationalities should be eligible to acquire both nationalities together. From this perspective, a person born to a Lebanese parent and a Palestinian parent should be simultaneously considered both Lebanese and Palestinian, which totally contradicts the notion that the ban on naturalization applies to them. To say otherwise only reflects a disconnect between the simultaneous recognition and denial of the maternal right, a disconnect indicative of a degree of blindness perhaps caused by the scarecrow of naturalizing [Palestinians] and the fears it incites.

On March 21, 2012, while the Lebanese people were divided over which of the two aforementioned options they supported, the Council of Ministers established a ministerial committee to study the possibility of amending the nationality law from the political and social angles. Based on the report that this committee issued on December 14, 2012, it is evident that the committee’s principal concern was measuring the effects of abolishing the discrimination on not only the naturalization of Palestinians, but, first and foremost, the demographic equilibrium between the sects. The committee concluded that, in light of the increase in its population, Lebanon is not ready for any amendment in this regard, regardless of whether the amendment includes an exception. Hence, it proposed that Lebanon merely grant some privileges to people born to Lebanese mothers. By accepting this committee’s recommendations in their entirety in its January 17, 2013, session, the Council of Ministers returned the issue of women’s right to pass on their nationality to square one.[5] Subsequently, it appeared as though the principal goal of establishing this committee and then invoking the Palestinian scarecrow was to contain the feminist movement occurring in this regard, particularly after the Matn court ruling was issued; so that when containment succeeds, it enables the complete rejection of the demand under the guise of promises to grant privileges. Thus far no practical step has been taken to implement these promises.

‘Higher Interest’ in Coexistence

In late 2012 and 2013, there was a significant turn in public discourse about the right of women to pass on their nationality. The guise for male privilege was no longer the rejection of naturalization, whose effect was limited to excluding women with Palestinian and stateless husbands. The new guise was the “dangers” that could arise from further disruption of the sectarian demographic balance. Namely, such disruption could shake the equilibrium that govern power-sharing in Lebanon and thereby disrupt civil peace. According to the ministerial committee, “reconciling the exigencies of coexistence, parity, equality, and effectiveness in parliamentary representation (which are enshrined in the Constitution) becomes more difficult and complicated when the demographic imbalance between the Christian and Muslim segments of the Lebanese people is exacerbated before the desired liberation from sectarian constraints is achieved”; therefore, deviation from the principle of gender equality is permissible.

To reinforce its position, the committee cited a previous decision issued by the Constitutional Council in 2001 after the law that prevented Palestinians from owning real estate was contested. The committee claimed that this decision “stated that the principle of equality, which has constitutional force, is invalid when there are different legal circumstances under which equality cannot rightly be put into force, or when a higher interest requires that”. Thus the committee’s members and, behind them, the government gained the power to prioritize sectarian interest over the legal interest of citizens who constitute more than half of Lebanese society. The committee concluded that, based on the foregoing, “the Lebanese state may, in light of its higher interest, decide to place the restrictions whose extent it determines on non-Lebanese persons’ acquisition of Lebanese nationality, as by doing so it is practicing a sovereign right reserved exclusively for it within Lebanese territory. This is especially true when the acquisition of nationality conflicts with the principle of rejecting naturalization (i.e. when a Lebanese woman marries a Palestinian man) or flagrantly disturbs or exacerbates the demographic equilibrium”.[6]

In reality, this argument is based on a distortion of the constitutional decision issued in 2001 and neglects the sources upon which it was based, the most important being the French Constitutional Council’s jurisprudence in this area.[7] According to this jurisprudence, there are areas in which higher interest may not be used to justify discrimination on the basis of “gender, origin, ethnicity, religion, or beliefs” because such discrimination, by nature, conflicts with the concept of public interest and, a fortiori, with higher interest.[8] “Discriminating against any citizen on these bases (as the ministerial committee did) means that groups of citizens can define higher interest as they see fit, and at the expense of other groups. By this logic, higher interest necessarily becomes synonymous with group interest.”[9]

A new development in this issue occurred after the legislature again adopted gender-based discrimination when it approved the law to restore the nationality of Lebanese origin in November 2015. As the Democratic Gathering block’s MPs contested some of the law’s clauses (e.g. the exemption of people of Lebanese origin who are citizens of countries that separated from the Ottoman Sultanate), the Constitutional Council will be called upon to review the constitutionality of the new law with regards to gender-based discrimination. Will it adopt one of the guises of male privilege described above, acquiescing to the exigencies of the political regime, or will it side with women’s rights, as well as the rights of their children and the vast majority of stateless people?

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] See: Ghida Frangieh’s, “Who Are the Stateless in Lebanon? Victims Multiply with Hereditary due to the State’s Indifference”, The Legal Agenda, issue concerning stateless people in the Arab region, December 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] On these matters, see: “What Does the Case of Samira Soueidan Teach Us?”, The Legal Agenda, supplement concerning women, March 2015.

[4] Se: Nizar Saghieh,’ “When Maternity Becomes a Mere Ploy”, al-Akhbar, July 1, 2009.

[5] Saada Allaw, “Charging the Ministerial Committee with Detailing the ‘Benefits’ for Offspring: the Council of Ministers Implicitly Approves the Shameful Recommendation to Deprive Women of Their Right to Pass on Their Nationality”, The Legal Agenda, January 18, 2013.

[6] On these matters, see Saada Allaw, “New Sadism in the Name of Higher Interest: the ‘Patriarchal State’ Definitively Buries Women’s Right to Grant Their Children Their Nationality”, The Legal Agenda, January 15, 2013.

[7] Lama Karame, “How Higher Interest Allowed the Favoring of One Half of the Population over the Other”, The Legal Agenda, March 2013.

[8] Décision n°99-412 DC, 15 Juin 1999.

[9] Karame, op. cit.


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