I’m Lebanese. My Sons Aren’t
“Guillaume is French. I met him in 1996 when he was doing his civilian service [an alternative to military service] and studying in Lebanon. We’ve been together ever since,” said Lina. But their relationship had complications: “I was Muslim and he was Christian, so we couldn’t get married here [in Lebanon] as civil marriage doesn’t exist. So I married him in Cyprus in 2000.” The couple informed the Lebanese and French authorities in Beirut about their marriage. Lina, 40, who is an architect, was granted French citizenship a year later, but they decided to stay on in Lebanon. Guillaume, 45, an estate agent, likes it there, even if bureaucratic restrictions get them down: He has to reapply for a residence permit every year. “All these processes are hard. It makes me feel ill.”
When their first child was born in 2004, Lina discovered that “my son, who was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother, needed a residence permit as though he were a foreigner.” Lebanon refuses to let mothers pass on their nationality to their children: so do Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, Oman, Sudan and Somalia. The only exception is if the father’s identity is unknown.
Lina and Guillaume now have two boys and their older son asks: “What am I? Why don’t I have a Lebanese passport?” Lina feels it’s unfair to tell him he is Lebanese “but not as Lebanese as other people.” Guillaume feels frustrated for his sons, who are not entitled to attend state school or use the health system, and will be unable to own property, set up a business or enter certain professions. This non-status will also apply to any children his sons may have.
Zeynab in the documentary All for the Nation (Carol Mansour, 2011) does not even have identity papers. She was born and raised in Lebanon, but her Egyptian father died before he could register her in Egypt. She does not officially exist in the eyes of the Lebanese state. Zeynab’s mother had to put her children in an orphanage, since without citizenship, they had no rights, or entitlement to free education or anything else.
In the film, Adel, an Egyptian lawyer married to a Lebanese woman with whom he has two sons, tells the story of his expulsion from Lebanon. He mentions the money that Lebanon makes out of residence permit applications: Though free for Guillaume (from the EU), they were not for Adel. Residency may sometimes be refused, in which case husbands and fathers are forced to leave within days.
In the 22 member countries of the Arab League, citizenship issues include transmission through parents or marriage, naturalisation, dual nationality, changing nationality, and the rights of soil and blood. Women suffer more legal discrimination than men. Although all Arab nations ratified the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women of 1981, most excluded certain articles, notably those on policy measures, and how nationality is passed on to children.
So organisations are still campaigning for equal rights. A man can pass on his nationality to his foreign wife and children, wherever they were born. Foreign women who marry Arabs have more rights than local women who marry non-nationals, and are subject to fewer restrictions.
Adnan Khalil, born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, met his American wife Susie in 1977 at Arizona University. They married in 1989 and had a son, Adam, who got automatic Saudi citizenship, even though he was born in the United States and had never lived in Saudi Arabia. Thirty years after they met, the Khalils moved to Jeddah. Susie was entitled to apply for nationality but did not do so immediately: “The advantages it offers are things I can live without. My situation isn’t as sensitive as that of Saudi women married to non-Saudis.” She knows she is lucky, but wonders what would become of her if something happened to her husband.
After long negotiations and transnational campaigns, some legislation has changed. Because of the “My Nationality” campaign, Lebanese residence permits are now renewable every three years rather than annually, and in March 2012 the Lebanese cabinet put the nationality question on the agenda for the first time. Since 2005 and 2006 respectively, non-nationals married to Algerian and Iraqi women can acquire citizenship, as can their children. It has been possible to acquire the mother’s nationality in Morocco and Egypt since 2008, a right confirmed in the new Egyptian constitution drafted post-Morsi, which is due to be put to a referendum this month. The same has been true in Tunisia and Libya since 2010, though sometimes with conditions, such as the husband being Muslim.
Amina Lotfi, acting president of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, described the “long process that began 20 years ago,” linked to wider reforms in justice and work, but especially to the revision of the family code (moudawana). A memorandum was presented to the royal commission set up to revise the code, and from 2001 there were consultations and a large-scale campaign. Lotfi said: “Faced with conservative organisations closing ranks, our groups formed a coalition. We created an equality spring in 2002, so our spring came before the Arab one.” In 2004 there was a new family code and in 2007 the government finally revised nationality laws dating from 1958. The campaign had taken seven years.
This reform of Moroccan law changed the life of Amina, 51, a Moroccan married to a Tunisian since 2002. Their daughter, now 10, has had severe health problems since birth and has had several major operations: “We had to pay the hospital bills because she only had Tunisian nationality.” Amina worked at cleaning jobs to cover the costs, which were substantial for a poor couple on the point of splitting up. It took the court two months to deal with her case and citizenship was granted. “We’re still poor and my daughter is still ill, but at least she is also Moroccan now, so she has rights.” Women often condemn the slow speed with which the authorities process their requests, however.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Mauritania and the Comoros have all modified their legislation. Since 2011 women in a mixed marriage in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been able to pass on their nationality to their children, a first in the Gulf countries. These children must submit an application when they reach 18; the same applies in Saudi Arabia, though its system is less flexible than in the UAE. In principle, these children have the same rights from birth as other children in the UAE, but the law is not always respected. Nor are mothers always aware of the change, so the campaigning goes on.
“Problems associated with acquiring citizenship have caused the greatest mobilisations of recent years, because they affect families’ daily lives: The position of the authorities makes discrimination very tangible,” said Claire Beaugrand, a Gulf states analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The consequences of amending the legislation vary. Revising the rules governing how citizenship is passed on brings potential change in the make-up of the population. In Lebanon, where the issue is especially sensitive, worries stem from a fear of Palestinians being assimilated into the population through marriage ... especially in the Gulf, championing a restrictive form of nationality—sticking to your own kind culturally and ethnically—is a way of legitimating power. This translates into encouragement to marry fellow nationals, and that goes for men too. The threat is ultimately a political one.”
The Qur’an and other core Islamic texts are silent on citizenship: “Bringing religious precepts into it is misplaced, but it’s a very powerful inertia factor. It’s not a matter of condemning the pretext as false or incoherent so much as understanding why it strikes such a chord,” said Beaugrand. “In the Arab world, codes of personal status are religiously inspired. Questioning the system of patriarchal domination is often very hard, especially when it is male-dominated assemblies that make the laws.”
Major changes have come about because of colonisation and shifting borders, wars, then decolonisation and the fragile balance of societies in conflict over religion (Lebanon) or ethnicity (Sudan). Several countries justify their restrictive laws by arguing that offering citizenship to Palestinians would destroy Palestinians’ identity and harm their right of return and the creation of their state. But according to statistics, only 6% of Lebanese women married to foreigners have Palestinian husbands.
Will the Arab Spring have consequences for nationality? “My husband gave up a life in France for me. Granting him citizenship would be a very small thing,” said Lina. She discovered she would have to pay for her second son to have right of entry into Lebanon when she went to request his free residence permit. “My child was born here, my Lebanese blood flows in his veins, he came from my Lebanese body. Isn’t that Lebanese enough?” she asked the civil servant. “He’s a foreigner,” he replied. “He has to pay.” Warda Mohamed is a journalist. Translated by George Miller. Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique—distributed by Agence Global