Hopes fade for couple as Lebanon’s new interior minister goes silent on civil marriage
Despite earlier saying she supported civil marriage, Raya Hassan’s ministry is blocking the first civil union under her mandate
A newly-wed Lebanese couple says that Interior Minister Raya Hassan is blocking the civil registration of their marriage, despite saying five months ago that she supported such unions.
Non-religious marriages have a controversial history in the deeply religious country.
“What’s the advantage of having a woman interior minister if she does not apply the laws, especially those that protect the rights of women?” asked Marie-Joe Abi Nassif, 30, as she sat in a restaurant in Beirut. Three weeks ago, the lawyer and her husband Abdallah Salam tried to carry out the final step to register their marriage contract at the interior ministry. The procedure normally takes 24 hours.
While the ministry has not officially refused to perform the procedure, it is yet to do so and has given no reason for the delay.
Ms Hassan’s office has not responded to questions.
“She pretends we don’t exist and is evading her responsibilities,” said Mr Salam, also a lawyer. In the absence of the ministry's registration, the couple's marriage remains valid but they could face difficulty registering the births of any children.
Despite being legal, civil marriage in Lebanon is still taboo and has been met with strong resistance from religious authorities who control unions through the 15 different personal status laws that govern each official sect.
In 2009, a lawyer discovered a loophole in a 1936 law signed by the French High Commissioner of the Levant that states civil law is applied to Lebanese citizens who are not members of a religious community.
The procedure was made legal in 2013 by the Lebanese High Council of Judges, which sits at the Justice Ministry. This paved the way for 13 couples to wed in a civil union with the support of then-interior minister Marwan Charbel.
Civil marriages are particularly popular for couples from different religious backgrounds because it does not require one person to convert to their partner’s religion.
But in order to register a civil marriage, the couple must first ask for their religion to be removed from the civil registry. This is a controversial step in a country where religion traditionally plays an important role in defining identity.
Lebanon’s many sects all receive a share of power, which is supposedly proportional to their number – though there has been no official census in the country since 1932.
While the sectarian quotas are supposed to be abolished for most civil service and public jobs, it is still widely applied.
The social backlash against renouncing one's sect can be violent. The first couple to wed in a civil union in Lebanon, Nidal Darwishe and Kholoud Sukkarieh, said they received death threats.
Following their wedding, Mrs Sukkarieh’s house was vandalised and she was fired from her job, according to Mr Darwishe, who said he thinks religious authorities fear losing influence.
The couple have left Lebanon and are seeking asylum in Sweden.
Such couples have also been accused of being atheists, but Mr Salam and Mrs Abi Nassif argue their motive is misunderstood. “I was born in a religious family and remain a believer, but I refuse to tell the state my religion because I do not want my relationship with the state to be channelled through a sectarian law,” Mrs Abi Nassif said.
Caving to pressure from religious authorities, Mr Charbel’s successor, Nohad Machnouk, refused to continue registering civil unions.
But activists hoped that Ms Hassan, who became the first Arab woman to hold the role in late January, would revive the practice after telling Euronews that she would “personally prefer that there be a framework for civil marriage”. She said that despite being aware of the sectarian tensions it causes, she wanted “to open a debate with all religious parties".
Religious groups were quick to denounce her comments. Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, Dar Al Fatwa, published a statement expressing its “absolute rejection” of the idea, and the Catholic Church’s spokesman said that civil marriage is “wrong”.
Mrs Hassan has not publicly mentioned the topic since.
A Lebanese politician, who wished to remain anonymous, said he believed that Ms Hassan was worried signing off civil marriages could weaken her Future Movement party, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Religious groups could call on people to vote against the party at the next elections if she registered civil marriages.
But activists say that by ignoring the issue, she continues to enforce a status quo that is unfavourable for women.
There have been several reports from rights groups in recent years detailing how each law negatively impacts women.
“In case of a dispute in the couple, religious tribunals are often biased in favour of the man,” said Mr Salam. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report found that “across all confessions, women faced legal and other obstacles when terminating unhappy or abusive marriages, limitations on their pecuniary rights, and the risk of losing their children.”
Mr Salam said the couple are ready to bring their case to administrative or civil courts in Lebanon and they will appeal to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion.
Couples who do not want to face a lengthy legal battle have the possibility of getting married abroad.
Thousands of Lebanese fly overseas – Cyprus is a popular destination due to its proximity – every year to tie the knot, and their non-religious marriage contract is registered and recognised in Lebanon with no hurdles.
This would have been an easy option for Mrs Abi Nassif and Mr Abdallah, who live in New York, but temporarily relocated to Beirut for their marriage. However, the couple wanted to take a stand.
Fighting back is important for them, she said, “to help build a country where our rights as citizens are respected and enforced, and where we are not reduced to subjects of confessional denominations”.
Updated: July 24, 2019 07:06 PM