By Alexandra Airey
In Lebanon, if you are a woman, you cannot pass your citizenship to your husband or children. In the case of women married to foreigners, the children of this union have a very real possibility of being left stateless. Homegrown statelessness isn’t a problem unique to Lebanon, but it has especial potency because of the growing number of refugees that are present within Lebanon’s borders. While the focus may be on the stateless people that are flooding in through the Syrian border, those that are born into statelessness through the configuration of Lebanon’s citizenship law deserve some attention. Statelessness results in obstacles to education, healthcare, and employment. It means that a person cannot travel beyond the borders of the country and their ability to access financing is limited.
The United Nations has taken a strong stance on the rights of stateless persons, encouraging the integration of such people into their nations of residence as soon as possible. Article 32 of the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons dictates that contracting states:
“Shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of stateless persons. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.”
This has significant implications for a nation like Lebanon that faces numerous political, religious, and social obstacles to the integration of stateless populations within its borders. In the case of discrimination in the law towards Lebanese mothers, some of the obstacles are due to the patriarchal social environment, political power balances, and gender roles buttressed by religious doctrine.
The Nationality Code begins its definition of citizenship with the phrase:
“Every person born of a Lebanese father…”
The impact of this statement concerns both the way children are nationally designated, but also the way Lebanon thinks about parentage. The logic of Lebanese citizenship works like this: when a Lebanese man marries a non-Lebanese woman and has three children, he passes citizenship only to his wife, because his children automatically receive his nationality (and religious status). When a Lebanese woman marries a non-Lebanese man and has three children, she cannot pass citizenship to her husband or his children. Even though both sets of children are genetically “half-Lebanese,” in the case of the Lebanese husband, only one “non-Lebanese” person is added to the overall population whereas there are four “non-Lebanese” added in the case of the Lebanese wife.
The reason this equation is important is that the balance of power in Lebanon depends on the religious makeup of the population. The refugee populations, both Palestinian and Syrian, are primarily Sunni which makes retaining obstacles to their citizenship acquisition attractive to the Christian and Shia populations, and other religious minorities within Lebanon. It isn’t necessarily that the religious sects are against women’s equality, but rather that they see the political situation as too delicate to prioritize women’s rights.
We often hear about the unjust discriminatory practices of Islam towards women, but such quick judgement from a modern perspective may be ignoring religious doctrines that contextualize the treatment of women. Muhammad expressed great admiration for women, such as his first wife Khadija, respecting her as a business woman and as his partner. The Prophet famously showed honor to mothers in the Hadith literature:
“A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father” (Bukhari, Muslim).
This interpretation of the status of women in Islam appears to support a “difference feminism,” or “complementarianism,” that places women under equal responsibility towards God but places them in different roles. This understanding of equal but separate roles is also present in more traditional Christian doctrines. As a result, the political rights of women in Lebanon have historically been ignored and advocacy for them considered an attempt to integrate women into areas that are outside traditional roles. Yet as is the case whenever one seeks to implement a policy of “separate, but equal,” this leads inevitably to discriminatory laws and a hesitance, based on religious customs as well as cultural norms, to alter them.
These are but a taste of the myriad reasons women are being denied the right to pass on citizenship in Lebanon. This question of “why?” is a snapshot of the political, social and religious complexities present in both the country and the region. The concepts of statehood and citizenship are still relatively new to the Levant and are influenced by both French and Ottoman roots. The notion of citizenship itself has needed to evolve in meaning as the country passed through its own internal conflicts. Enhancing the definition to include the right of women to pass on citizenship and help prevent homegrown statelessness while promoting political equality may be a far off goal for Lebanon. While women are gaining political footholds, becoming lawyers, and entering political office, the struggle for women’s rights will still have to deal with political relegation as more immediately pressing issues dominate the Lebanese Parliament.
As Christians, we are called to help those who are in need. This may mean that we help those who are legally disadvantaged through advocacy or through providing practical help. In my own research into the plight of the stateless in Lebanon, I was surprised to find apathy and reluctance within the Christian community. The place of Christians, especially Evangelicals, in Lebanese politics is fragile and the fear of losing representation as the population shifts can cause us to shy away from doing those things we believe to be just. Lebanese Christians may need to be strategic in their thought and actions, but those that are suffering should not be neglected. Homegrown statelessness is an unacceptable problem and Christians should be the initiators of the conversations that resolve these issues, modeling the love of Christ for the disadvantaged.
Alexandra Airey is a student of Political Science and Business at Westmont College in Santa Barabra, California. Alexandra interned with IMES for two consecutive summers, in 2014 and 2015. She is a member of the Middle East Current Affairs (MECA) group and is an active promoter of interfaith discussions at Westmont.