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

Currently, Lebanese who want to leave the system have nowhere to turn except Rafiq Hariri International Airport. Couples who want a civil marriage have no choice but to go abroad -- frequently to nearby Cyprus or Turkey -- for the ceremony. Kobeissi hopes that a mass exodus from religious laws could trigger enough mayhem to jolt the Lebanese parliament into action.

"If a Muslim who crossed out his religious affiliation passed away, which law would apply? Civil or religious? It is the parliament's duty to solve this issue, and pass a specific law," he said. Right now, he estimates that "hundreds" of Lebanese all around the country have declined to self-identify since the option became available, and he is optimistic that the number will grow. Although a Facebook group for civil marriage counts nearly 8,000 members, protests demanding civil marriage that materialized in Beirut in March and April have since dwindled to one guy.

But activist Lina Abou-Habib, Executive Director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, warns that civil laws do not in and of themselves guarantee women's equality. She opposed a 1998 attempt by then-President Elias Hraoui to pass a unified personal status law, she says, because the law stipulated, for example, that a woman cannot work without their husband's permission. That legislation was "put in the drawers" by Lebanon's then-Prime Minister, the late Rafiq Hariri, according to Kobeissi, where it continues to gather dust.

"For those of us who actually read it, the civil marriage bill proposed by Hraoui was worse than any religious marriage code," Abou-Habib told me. "Just because it's civil doesn't mean that the spirit is egalitarian and non-discriminator; that's a myth about civil marriage."

Lebanon's civil laws also have their share of discriminatory provisions (such as a prohibition against Lebanese women married to foreigners passing their nationality onto their children), but they are at least open to interpretation by female judges. Religious laws, by contrast, are not. The family courts are staffed exclusively by male judges.

Religion and politics are so deeply ensnarled that even religious leaders who support civil marriage are often afraid to come out in favor of it. In an interview in a quiet parish surrounded by grape vines and olive trees in the peaceful village of Kfar Haia, Monseigneur Emile Saade, leader of Maronite church for the region of Batroun, said that while his institution favors a civil marriage option, stating so publicly would provoke a backlash from some Muslims.

Speaking on behalf of Dar al-Fatwa, the seat of Sunni Islam in Lebanon, religious judge Hamam Shaar said that civil marriage is not an option for those in his flock. If someone claims to be Muslim, he said, citing several lines from the Quran, then they must submit to Muslim laws. Can people not be believers privately in their hearts, I asked, while living under civil laws?

"Shoo [what] heart?" he asked incredulously. "Do you believe in the Quran or not? If you don't accept it, then why not? If you consider it not just, you are not Muslim, because you are saying the Quran is not just."

Sonia Ibrahim Atiyah, a leading attorney and women's rights advocate, cites another reason that religious leaders are loathe to relinquish control over their communities: all of them stand to lose out on the fees they charge for performing marriage and other related services.

"They were all against the 1998 proposal," she said. "It is a financial resource for them. They don't want to lose their power."

Nadya Khalife, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted that devout women may also oppose a unified law if they identify strongly with their faith.

"Some women who are religiously conservative do not see the benefits of having a unified civil law," she said. "They put their denomination before their citizenship. This lack of citizenship is something we've been battling in Lebanon since it became independent."

But for women especially, the disadvantages of belonging to a religious community can often outweigh the benefits, explained Khalife.

"What can my religious denomination do for me when it can take my kids away, prohibit from marrying the person I want to, trap me in an abusive marriage?" she asked. "Those are not 'privileges' granted to me by my religious community."

Or as May Omari mused over a cappuccino on the terrace, waiting for her manicure to dry, "I'm sitting here and I look all free, but the laws do not reflect the way I am. They don't follow."

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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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