In Lebanon, a Tangle of Religious Laws Govern Life and Love

The Ottoman-era personal status laws apply differently to each of 15 religion-based groups, effectively outlaw secular marriage or divorce, and codify discrimination against women

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Protesters, acting as bride and groom, take part in a Beirut demonstration to demand for the legalization of civil marriages / Reuters

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- When May Omari, now 45, tied the knot at age 23, she married a secular man in a secular marriage in New York City. As a formality, and to appease their Lebanese families, they later held a brief religious ceremony in Beirut. A Sunni Muslim mufti, or religious leader, came to her house, the couple signed a few papers, and she put them in a drawer.

After 18 years of married life and a move back to Lebanon, they decided to divorce. At that point, her religious marriage came back to haunt her. Although her husband had never shown a hint of piety in the past, she says, the prevailing interpretation of sharia family law in Lebanon granted him custody of the couple's two sons. And when he took them -- along with all the furniture -- there was nothing she could do.

"He said, 'I'm not even going to talk about the children. It shall be as written in the law.' It's funny," Omari recalled, sitting on the terrace of her Ottoman-era villa overlooking a small garden. "He became an Islamist overnight."

In Lebanon, all matters of personal status -- marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance -- are governed by religious codes, of which there are 15 recognized by the state. Each religious sect  follows a distinct set of personal state laws (several of the country's 18 sects fall under a single jurisdiction). By shunting citizens into religious communities, the personal status laws fracture the country's four-million-strong population along sectarian lines in an intimate, personal way.

It's the seedy underbelly of Lebanon's notoriously divided political system, which apportions government positions (and access to government resources) according to sectarian quotas. And while its macro effects make headlines -- political bickering that periodically escalates into violence, or deteriorates into months-long stalemates during which the country remains effectively ungoverned -- its micro effects rarely receive the same scrutiny.

The 15 different sets of religious laws converge on one issue: all of them discriminate against women in one or more fields. For example, the personal status law for Evangelical Christians sets the minimum age of marriage at 16 for males and 14 for females, as does the Armenian Orthodox Church. A Druze woman needs her male guardian's permission to marry if she is under 21. In the Sunni and Shi'a tradition, a male witness to a marriage is considered equivalent to two females. Articles in the Armenian Orthodox and Assyrian laws state, "The man is the head of the family and its representative in law." In the Sunni community, a husband's young children from a previous marriage can live with him without his wife's consent, while she must have her husband's. The list goes on.

Hoping to find a loophole in -- or an alternative interpretation of -- the law, Omari sought help from lawyers, religious leaders, and local politicians.

"I saw everybody in town," she said, "every turbaned person I could get my hands on." A moderate sheikh sympathetic to her situation told her he wished he could advocate on her behalf, but the laws were clear-cut. "He told me, 'I know you could support the kids, and you work, and I think they should be with you. But you can't get what you want. Better off to make peace with him and negotiate with him amicably.'"

For a month and a half, she didn't see her children. Eventually, she began visiting them at her mother-in-law's house, where they were staying, and then to negotiate with her former husband. Although she never got legal custody of the children, they are now living with her.

"The scary thing is, he could have kept that up for a very long time," she said.

The story of how Lebanon's law and society got this way is, like many stories here, one of outside influences and complicated political compromise. As in several other countries in the region, personal status law in Lebanon is a by-product of Ottoman and colonial history. The early Ottoman millet system gave authority over family law to four recognized religious groups: Jews, Armenians, Christian Orthodox, and the majority Sunni Muslims. By the mid-1800s, sectarianism -- defined by historian Ussama Makdisi as "the deployment of religious heritage as a primary marker of political identity" -- seeped into political consciousness, a side effect of 19th century Ottoman reforms known as the Tanzimat, which declared that all citizens were equal under the law, regardless of religion.

By 1914, competing European powers, supporting various sects in their attempts to gain footholds in the Levant, compelled the Ottomans to expand the number of recognized sects in Lebanon to 17. For some Lebanese, belonging to a sect can have tangible benefits. Like with political offices, administrative posts in institutions such as universities are allotted along sectarian lines. In a country with a notoriously weak state, resources tend to flow through faith- and clan-based channels, which are often tied to outside political and financial forces.

Then and now, Lebanese women's best chance of accessing resources -- money, influence - is through membership in a kinship group. But in exchange, what Lebanese anthropologist Suad Joseph calls the "care/control paradigm" of the kin contract required women to internalize and embrace "patriarchal moralities, structures of authority, and codes of behavior."  To make the system work for them, they had to accept the system. Today, low rates of female labor force participation (22 percent compared to men's 72 percent) and a persistent gender pay gap (men earn 34 to 50 percent more than women with comparable education levels) marriage and kinship networks still play critical roles in Lebanese women's basic well-being.

When the Lebanese constitution was written in 1926, it stated that "La liberté de conscience est absolue," and that "the state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees." In practice, the Lebanese state required every citizen to belong to a sect, regardless of her or his private beliefs.

But as prominent Lebanese lawyer Karim Kobeissi points out, to respect religion and to mandate it are two different things. Around eight years ago, he and other secular-minded Lebanese began lobbying for the right to remove one's religious affiliation from government records. In February of 2009 -- just after his daughter was born -- Kobeissi and his colleagues secured passage of a Ministry of Interior directive instructing the Department of Personal Status Records to accept any request from a Lebanese citizen to leave the religious affiliation line blank.

"This is a way of leading people into application of civil law," Kobeissi said. "If the number of people using this tool grows, it means they are choosing to be governed by civil law and not religious law."

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for

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