Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 14

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."

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"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.

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