By Rania Maktabi
26 February 2016
All photos by author
In a symbolic move in December 2011, Lebanese women donated blood and insisted that it be analyzed to prove that it is as Lebanese as the blood of male citizens.
During the first year of the Arab Uprisings, Lebanese women married to noncitizens reiterated claims they have been raising since the turn of the millennium for the right to give their nationality to their children. The Lebanese nationality law, formed under French mandate rule in 1925, states that nationality is conferred through paternal jus sanguinis – i.e. through the blood of Lebanese males. According to article one, “[e]very person born to a Lebanese father is Lebanese”.
Through mobilization and articulation of interests, women in Lebanon found common ground on the issue of pushing for reform in patriarchal nationality laws during the 2011 Uprisings. They expressed what feminist political scientist Jill Vickers see as shared understandings of ‘women’s interests’ which would otherwise not be asserted by elite men making decisions.
“My husband and my children shall not remain strangers to my country”. Poster showing stickers that carry the name of the nationality campaign “Mu nationality is a right to me and my family”, issued by the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CRTD-A) , the main driving force behind the women’s nationality movement in Lebanon. Demonstration during the Arab Spring, March 2011.
Elite men making decisions, indeed…
The sectarian political system in Lebanon has time and again proven to be immune for repeated societal pressures to infer change to nationality laws.
Around ten law proposals have been raised to amend the 1925 Lebanese nationality law in the period between 1960 and 2015: five law proposals were raised before 2005 – i.e. a period stretching over 45 years –, and five law proposals were raised between 2005 – 2015, i.e. over the past decade.
In other words, societal pressures to address the gaps created by the old nationality law have been more frequent in the past decade. Demands to amend the current nationality law cover three main target groups that are sought included in the Lebanese citizenry: first, those excluded from the enumeration process carried out in the 1932 census and their offspring who are stateless or undocumented long-term residents who do not belong to other states (known as qayd-addars and maktumin); secondly, descendants of Lebanese emigrants who live permanently outside Lebanon; and thirdly – since 1992 – claims for equalizing women’s and men’s rights within the nationality law.
A Lebanese association called the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CRTD-A) has since 2001 been a driving force for amending patriarchal nationality laws in the Middle East and North Africa region where 14 of the 22 members of the Arab League share stipulations that bar female citizens from conferring their nationality to their children.
Leader of the association Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CRTD-A), Lina Abou Habib, at her office in Beirut, February 2011.
During the first year of the Arab Uprising, the women’s nationality movement succeeded in convincing then Prime Minister Najib Miqati of the need to establish a governmental Committee that would address the issue of reforms in nationality law. PM Miqati responded that this committee was his “gift on mother’s day”. On 21 March the governmental commission was indeed established and included seven ministers: Depute Prime Minister Samir Moqbel, Justice Minister Shakib Qurtbawi, Minister of Interior Marwan Sharbel, Minister of Foreign Affairs Adnan Mansour, Minister of Information Walid al-Da’uq, Minister of Labor Salim Juraisati, and Minister of social Affairs Wael Abou Fa’our. This was the first official joint commission that gathered ministers and representatives of women’s groups with particular focus on the status and position of women’s nationality rights.
So far, so good.
Politicians exercising tokenism?
During 2012, the committee met four times, and representatives of the women’s nationality
movement were invited to attend one meeting on 3 December 2012. Six of the seven ministers attended along with director of CRTD-A Lina Abou Habib, lawyer and leader of the Lebanese Working Women League, president of the Association for Democratic Lebanese Women Joumana Merhi, and coordinator of the nationality campaign Lama Naja.
Despite these pressures to articulate the issue of women’s nationality rights, the antagonistic political position of the government towards the demands of the women’s nationality movement was made clear by January 2013. A memorandum issued by the governmental committee was leaked and showed that six out of the seven ministers had signed a document declaring that they had unanimously rejected the principle of equality between men and women in nationality rights on the grounds that equality is problematic with regards to “the national higher interest” (al-maslaha al-wataniyya al’ulya), and the sectarian balance.
The CRTD-A organized a demonstration immediately on 17 January, and gathered activists for a public debate on the issue a week later on 23 January 2013. Protestors slammed the leaked ministerial report which advised against equal citizenship rights for women. In its defence, the committee pointed out that the state had improved residency rights of the children and husband of Lebanese women married to noncitizens by changing residency rules in April 2010, and waving administrative fees which were previously paid by the families of Lebanese women because they perceived and registered as “foreign”.
In short, an amendment of patriarchal rules within nationality law was bypassed by emphasizing incremental administrative changes that favoured the families of Lebanese women over other residents.
The poster reads: “Mothers want a non-sectarian political order for their children”. Beirut, March 2011.
Politicians strike back: Bolstering the patrilineal principle in 2015
Although the 2011 Uprisings have been a formidable driving force for mobilizing Lebanese women, oppositional forces towards reforms in nationality laws have also mobilized. Opposition towards these pressures came in two forms: on one track by means of tokenism, i.e. by paying lip service to political claims that impinge on female civil rights as was done by the establishment of the governmental committee in 2012. On another track, by pressuring for a law that bolsters further the principle of paternal descent.
In November 2015, a nationality law was passed that aims at easing conditions for including the offspring of Lebanese emigrants whose ancestors migrated from Lebanon between 1880 and 1920 as Lebanese citizens. Lebanese political figures and groups who oppose reforms in the nationality law, in particular Christian groups such as the Maronite League, have thus responded to the women’s nationality campaign by raising counter-proposals. Through the “emigrant” law of November 2015, they demonstrate a political show of force in exhibiting remorse towards domestic pressures raised by Lebanese women.
What is ‘success’?
Sociologist Benita Roth points out that ‘what is success’ needs to be tempered when it comes to feminist activism, particularly when women enter explicitly hostile social organizations. She refers to Mary F. Katzenstein who has studied how women who engage in the army or the Catholic Church seek to challenge and oppose practices that explicitly downplays and marginalizes their endeavor to raise women-specific interests, such as demands for bridging the gap between the opportunities and privileges that come with being born as male.
The Lebanese women’s movement did not succeed in pushing for changing patriarchal nationality laws after they renewed their pressures for reform in 2011. Ironically, the failure of the campaign can also be read as a success story in exposing how the political and judicial system in Lebanon are characterized less by religious sectarianism than by operating as a patriarchal oligarchy.
The show of force by the all-male ministers was not one of sectarian religious divisions. On the contrary, what was exhibited over the period of four years of pressures and counter-pressures for addressing the issue of maternal jus sanguinis in the Lebanese nationality law was the opposite: the overlapping of politico-ideological perceptions that Lebanon is a state that valorizes the blood of its sons more than the blood of its daughters. Ministers belonging to different religious sects agreed to disregard, and thereby maintain the privileges of males in conferring membership in the Lebanese state.