Nationality rights: ignored but not forgotten

26 Nov

Omission of issue from ministerial statement does not justify neglect
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 26, 2009

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new Cabinet must not forget its duty to work toward granting Lebanese women nationality rights, despite its apparent omission of the issue in the ministerial statement, gender-equality activists said Wednesday. Over 100 people heeded the call of social justice organization Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) to demand an overhaul of the current discriminatory legislation, formulated in 1925. 

The law allows men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but forbids Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same. This injustice is further exacerbated by Lebanon’s reservation on Article 2 of paragraph 9 of the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, pertaining to nationality rights. 

“The Lebanese Constitution lets any Lebanese man who marries a foreigner automatically give her his nationality and even if she has 10 children from a previous marriage, they get the Lebanese nationality,” said one woman who wished not to be identified. “But children who are born in this country and are Lebanese citizens more than some of our politicians cannot get the nationality.” 

There are about 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese living in Lebanon and over 80,000 people affected by the current legislation, including children and spouses, according to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) “Toward Reforming the Nationality Law in Lebanon” project. 

CRTD.A launched the regional Nationality Campaign nearly a decade ago to demand reform of discriminatory nationality laws. Since then the campaign has met with considerable success, with Algeria, Morocco and Egypt changing their laws, said CRTD.A executive director Lina Abou-Habib. More recently, Bahrain adopted measures guaranteeing equality for women and Syria has enforced laws stipulating gender equality in education. “We are witnessing progress in the region. There is no excuse for Lebanon not to join in,” Abou-Habib said. Viewed as illegal aliens, those without Lebanese citizenship face myriad difficulties, including obtaining employment or affordable education and health care, are required to go for regular medical check-ups and blood tests, and face the threat of deportation every day. The difficulties faced by those without citizenship was on Wednesday apparent as audience members emotionally recounted painful experiences. 

One Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese said she feared for her children’s financial future. “Who is going to in­herit from me after I die? Neither my children nor my husband will benefit from my life’s work.” 

There are also a number of people who, because of a decades-old administrative oversight, continue to be denied their right to Lebanese citizenship. “Men and women are treated the same when it comes to injustice,” said audience member Haider Radi, struggling to hold back tears. “I was born of a Lebanese father. My father was born in Lebanon in 1920 and was registered in 1932 but he was then transferred to the foreign register in 1936. My father suffered from bad governance and now I’m suffering and my daughters are suffering.” 

Abou-Habib reiterated the Nationality Campaign would not accept reform of the nationality law that excludes Palestinians. Those against an amendment of the law have argued that the naturalization of thousands of Palestinian men and children would tip Leba­non’s delicate sectarian balance in favor of Sunni Muslims, the religion of the majority of the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees. 

But rights activists have pointed out that less than 2 percent of Lebanese women are married to Palestinians. “Any nationality law that comes with exceptions would be unconstitutional,” Abou-Habib said, referring to the Constitution’s demand for total equality between men and women. 

While nationality rights are important in their own right, Lebanon’s sexist legislation is only one manifestation of gender inequality, activists said. In a statement earlier this month, the Nationality Campaign urged ministers to include “clear statements” in the upcoming Ministerial Statement on how they intended to push forward gender equality. In particular, they de­manded clauses addressing the right for Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, the implementation of a women’s quota for municipal polls next year, and the approval of a proposed family-based violence bill. But the Cabinet has already disappointed them. Abou-Habib said Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud had told members of the Nationality Campaign last Friday that out of 30 ministers, which include two women, only he and Information Minister Tareq Mitri had called for the ministerial statement to include a clause acknowledging the need to reform the nationality law. 

Lebanese politicians’ inaction has only reasserted the determination of activists to persevere with their demands. “We’re going to go through with the na­tionality campaign and we won’t wait for any MPs to take action,” said one audience member.

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