LEBANON: Hotchpotch of religious laws restricts basic rights

Beirut, Lebanon - The demand for equal religious, gender and other treatment for all Lebanese citizens has gained pace with some saying the time has come to review laws that confer inequality, especially on women.

“As a women, I am not equal to my brother, husband or male friend," Rita Chemaly, a researcher and women’s activist in the capital Beirut, said. "My state doesn’t guarantee my rights. The constitution says that all Lebanese are equal, yet the laws do not [guarantee this]."

Lebanon has a system that allocates political power through quotas for all officially recognized religious sects. Three religions are officially recognized including the Christian faith, Islam and the Jewish faith. Within these are at least 16 sects, namely Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Druze, Ismaili, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Nestourian (Assyrian Orthodox), Caledonian, Latin, Evangelist, Coptic and Jewish confessions.

While the constitution stipulates that “all Lebanese are equal before the law and...without discrimination enjoy civil and political rights”, the country lacks a legal system that grants equal rights and obligations to all citizens. For example, personal and family matters are handled through religious laws and courts, varying from one sect to the other.

Druze, Shiite and Sunni lawmakers interpret Islamic Shariah law differently, while Christian communities apply different versions of canon law. Across the board, many laws and practices do not treat women and men equally. Parliamentary seats, too, are allocated on the basis of religion, with the highest political positions reserved for candidates from specific sects.

"How can a religious authority protect my rights? They are priests and sheikhs, not policemen,” said Chemaly. "We need an equal citizenship, and equality between men and women. Right now, we don’t have that. I’m not a full citizen in my own country.”

Demo for a secular Lebanon

The demands peaked on 20 March, when an estimated 30,000 men and women took part in a Beirut protest. This was the largest of a number of demonstrations calling for a secular Lebanon.

“I feel insulted by this," Micheline, a student told IRIN. "The idea is that I don’t have the same capacity as men. The different religious legislations discriminate against women without exception. The real problem is the religious authorities. This is where the power lies. But they’re used to having a lot of influence in society, so giving that up will not come easy.”

Observers note that personal status law differs greatly between the different religious law systems. Catholic Christian men and women are not allowed to divorce, while Greek-Orthodox, Sunni, Shia and Druze couples may. Within all sects, however, the conditions for divorce are different for women and men. Sunni and Shia men also have the legal possibility to marry up to four women. Muslim women don’t have this right.

The age for marriage also differs between the sects, although all stipulate a lower age for women than for men. For Christians, the legal age is 17 for men and 15 for women. Sunni and Druze men must be 18 and women must be 17, whereas Shiite law says men and women must have reached “maturity”. In all communities though, younger men and women might be granted legal permission to marry with their guardian’s consent.

Mixed marriages

Another law that local Lebanese are up against is one that disallows marriage between people from different confessions. Lebanon lacks common marriage legislation, so many religiously mixed couples (or those who do not want a religious ceremony) marry in other countries, especially in nearby Cyprus.

Another issue is that of inheritance where Christian men and women can inherit equally, but Sunni and Shiite brothers inherit twice as much as sisters.

“I would prefer a system where religious law doesn’t rule,” said Lina, a young Lebanese business woman. "We are many religious groups in this country, but we all belong to the same state, the same culture. We are all Lebanese. Secular legislation would make it easier to interact between the sects."

According to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Lebanese women are victims of gender discrimination and the country should “urgently adopt a unified personal status code which is in line with the Convention and would be applicable to all women in Lebanon, irrespective of their religion.”