Lebanon: Protesters Take Aim at Family Law System

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the third and latest major demonstration in Lebanon, protesters of the sectarian or "confessional" system took special aim at religious family laws that prevent civil marriages and discriminate against women in various ways.

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--The demonstrations held here on March 20 marked the third time in four weeks that protesters gathered to demand an end to the "confessional" or sectarian system that divides Lebanon's government and society along religious lines.

But this time the focus of protesters' anger broadened to include the country's system of family laws that are governed by religious authorities and often discriminate against women.

Signs echoing ongoing protests across the Middle East, including "Game Over," mixed in the streets with new ones such as "Civil Marriage Not Civil War."

"We have a saying in Arabic that if you do something three times, the third time confirms it," Sara Abughazal, editor of the Beirut-based Sawt al-Niswa (Voice of Women) online newsletter, told Women's eNews.

"Sunday was really good," said Abughazal, who is also a member of Lebanon's Nasawiya, a feminist collective that supported the rally and has also planned a discussion on women in the anti-sectarian campaign for tomorrow. "We are able to say that there is a popular interest in secularism. It's not just the intellectuals. We're getting the attention of random people from everywhere."

At this most recent demonstration, Lebanese citizens once again joined in the thousands to demand the overthrow of "the sectarian regime," a slogan modified from Egyptian protesters' demands for the overall overthrow of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

All three protests have focused on bringing an end to sectarianism--a system that has been with this small Mediterranean republic since its independence in 1943--which critics say enflames the tensions among Lebanon's religious communities by pitting them against one another in the division of power.

The demonstrations follow a large anti-sectarian protest held in the capital last year and are occurring ahead of a major April 2 follow-up march that is expected to benefit from the region's current revolutionary energy.

Power Divided Among 18 Religions

Unlike many Arab states, which have been ruled by the same man--or dynastic father-son combination--for decades, Lebanon is not under the control of an authoritarian ruler. Instead it has a sectarian dictatorship that divides power among 18 official religions and limits individual access to the state.

The president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the house a Shiite Muslim and all other cabinet and parliamentary posts are filled according to religious quotas.

Under the confessional system, a citizen must choose a sect before attaining citizenship rights.

All family laws--marriage, birth, death, inheritance--are controlled by religious authorities.

Since current family laws are under the jurisdiction of religious courts, civil marriage, for instance, does not exist in Lebanon.

Most religious laws grant fathers child custody and children are automatically registered in their father's village. Shiite courts allow parents to leave property to daughters alone, while Sunni courts demand that at least some of assets go to the nearest male relative. In some sects, men who harm female relatives can still receive a lesser penalty if they did so citing protection of "family honor," while rape within marriage is also not recognized as a crime.

The march ended in front of the Interior Ministry, with several nongovernmental groups joining. One group there was the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action, which leads the campaign to overturn the Lebanese government's law restricting Lebanese women from passing citizenship to their foreign husbands and children.

"The strong current confessional political polarization impedes all attempts to pursue rational, cool-headed and objective discussions over the would-be rights of citizens," said Omar Traboulsi, field manager for the group.

"The Nationality Campaign called for the support of the march against sectarianism because our demands for equality between men and women in terms of the right to nationality are being frustrated by confessional considerations constantly being flagged by most of the leading political circles in Lebanon," he added.

Up to 20,000 Protestors

The group estimated that nearly 20,000 Lebanese came out to protest the status quo, a number supported by Twitter users and bloggers. The news agency Agence France-Presse reported between 6,000 and 7,000.

One of the protest's early supporters is Ali Dirany, who helped coordinate some of the rally's logistics.

"You can call me romantic but I want to marry this woman in a healthy environment where she is treated as equally as I am," Dirany said, turning towards his girlfriend, as the two sat outside a coffee shop off of one of Beirut's main streets. "Every sort of law in the civil sector is unjust towards women."

In the two decades following its 15-year civil war, Lebanon has engaged in several economic growth projects and has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. With a population of just over 4 million, it does not suffer the same scale of poverty as its larger Arab neighbors.

The current political structure pits two major camps--one supported by the West and the other backed by Syria and Iran--against each other. Current party heads agree that now is not the time to challenge the system itself.

But with presidents ousted in Tunisia and Egypt, a U.N. "no-fly zone" and military intervention in Libya, a fired cabinet in Yemen and ongoing street-protest-related violence claiming the lives of thousands across the region, every society is feeling the ground shifting.

Beirut has been called the "Paris of the Middle East" since the 1960s for many reasons, including its Mediterranean beaches and culinary pleasures, but never for its revolutionary tendencies.

With help from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, regional neighbors in upheaval and people on the street eager to claim rights as individuals, that may all change.

Many Lebanese now seem eager to make the most of the revolutionary window that has opened.

"It's Lebanon's turn," said Dirany.