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Lebanese protest in front of Parliament for civil marriages

19 Mar

Activists dressed in wedding outfits react as they take part in "Chaml" (union) campaign that is trying to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon during a gathering in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, March 18, 2010. In the Middle East, civil marriage doesn't exist and no religious authority will perform an interfaith wedding. But Lebanon recognizes civil marriages as long as they're performed abroad, and the closest venue abroad is Cyprus, 150 miles from Lebanon. The banners in Arabic read:"A wedding with a stay of execution." (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Demonstration organized to mark day of ‘freedom of choice’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, March 19, 2010

BEIRUT: Bassam Jalgha, 23, has decided he doesn’t want a religious marriage. There’s only one problem: civil marriages are not performed in Lebanon.

Jalgha was one of around 200 people who marched on the Lebanese Parliament Thursday to demand politicians amend the law to allow people the option of marrying outside religious establishments.

The demonstration was organized by the Non-Violent Non-Sectarian Youth Lebanese Citizens association (CHAML) to mark the day of “freedom of choice,” which the Lebanese National Campaign for Personal Status designated years ago as March 18.

Wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, the protesters marched across Downtown Beirut to outside Parliament, ululating and chanting their demands. “It makes no sense [not to have the option of civil marriage], especially if they want us to live together and survive together as one population inside one country,” Jalgha said. “They should allow people from different religions who love each other to get married in their own country.”

The Lebanese state recognizes 18 different religious groups, which preside over personal status matters like marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. Marriages across the sectarian divide are allowed, provided one of the partners converts to the other’s religion, and are registered in the husband’s jurisdiction of birth.

Although Lebanese cannot have a civil marriage at home, the Lebanese state will recognize civil ceremonies performed abroad, so long as the marriage is registered at the Lebanese Embassy or consulate in the country where it took place.

In nearby pluralistic countries like Israel, Jordan and Syria, civil marriages are also not an option. As a result, numerous travel agencies in the region advertise one or two-day civil marriage packages in countries like Cyprus or Turkey.

But these trips are prohibitively expensive for many of those wanting a civil union. In addition, “this forces couples to get married alone, without their friends or families,” said Diana Assaf, a volunteer with CHAML. She said it made little sense for Lebanon not to allow civil marriages when they recognized those performed abroad. “We’re just asking for the simple right [for the Lebanese people] to get married in their country.”

 

The protest also fell on the anniversary of a bill by former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi in 1998, which almost succeeded in introducing the option of civil marriage. The bill gained approval from Cabinet members but was vetoed by the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He possessed both Saudi and Lebanese passports, and was said to have heeded the rulings of Saudi clerics who said granting civil marriage rights contravened Islamic Sharia law.

A number of Lebanese politicians still back civil marriages, though. MP Ghassan Mokheiber, who works closely with civil society, was outside Parliament to lend his support to the protesters. He told The Daily Star civil marriage should be one of the “basic rights” enjoyed by the Lebanese people. “There has been a lot of talk about de-confessionalizing Lebanon,” he said. “This could be one of the tools to bringing people closer together.”

 He noted that protesters were not looking to abolish religious marriages or confessional laws. “It is an optional law that would not deny faith nor good morals nor religious weddings. It is simply an alternative that now the Lebanese have to find in other countries,” he said. “It’s time that we recognize our own marriages in Lebanon.”

Although the option of civil marriage doesn’t seem like it will be granted anytime soon, the movement for greater civil freedoms is picking up momentum.

In February 2009, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud issued a circular granting Lebanese citizens the right to remove their religion from their Civil Registry Records. Baroud said the initiative was in line with the Lebanese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Lebanon helped author, and several other international human-rights treaties signed by Beirut.

An online petition and Facebook group demanding civil marriage are also gaining more and more supporters. In addition, CHAML will soon present a draft law to parliamentarians granting the option of civil marriages, Assaf said.

But until that option comes to pass in Lebanon, those wishing to marry outside of a religious institution will still be forced to travel abroad to do so.

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Podcasts tell humanizing stories from the Arab world

26 Feb

Beirut-based NGO hopes to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of region
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 26, 2010

BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.

Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”

To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.

One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.

“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”

Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.

Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”

In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”

With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.

Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.

To download a podcast or submit a story, visit http://www.storiesofourcity.wordpress.com

Search for Common Ground in Lebanon

1 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: Religious pluralism is a defining feature of Lebanon: so much so it is enshrined in the country’s political system, designed to give political representation to all communities. But with Lebanon’s  population divided across 18 recognized sects, the country’s politics and society have historically been wrought with bitter ideological differences. 

These differences are often perpetuated by the prejudices parents pass on, intentionally or not, to their children. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Le­banon’s youngsters at times find themselves reinforcing the country’s religious, socio-economic and political disputes with peers at school. 

Aware of the need to reach out to youth, as well as the underfunding of teacher-training programs in Lebanon, one of the biggest conflict-resolution organizations in the world has instigated a national program to train teachers on ways to communicate, promote respect for diversity and mediate disputes. 

The idea of peace education is not new, but in Lebanon it has yet to become common practice in schools or universities. 

“The best way for us to really be effective [in creating a tolerant society] is to begin with children and youth … the future of tomorrow,” said Sarah Shouman, director of Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) Lebanon office. 

The pilot project is currently under way at four public and three private schools across the country, where an average of 20 teachers receive practical training in “instilling a culture of listening and problem solving in schools,” Shouman added. One exercise teachers are learning to pass on is how to frame their grievances in more neutral language, as opposed to adopting accusatory stances that usually elicit confrontational responses. 

While the project comes at a time of relative calm in Leba­non, bloody clashes in May 2008, uneasy relations with Israel, and the current political deadlock over the formation of a national-unity government, mean the possibility of renewed conflict is never too far away from people’s minds.

Teachers and school administrators were initially reluctant to participate, Shouman said. “I think some schools are sick to death of people coming in and telling them they’re doing it wrong. That’s not our intention at all. We understand that there’s a lot of pressure in the education system … we’re trying to build on what is there already.” This approach seems to be working: “Every hour in this workshop has value … every action has a new goal in my life,” said one teacher who participated in the training. 

Building on the success of the pilot scheme, SFCG will embark on similar teacher training projects in 80 schools nationwide over the next two years, in partnership with Lebanon’s Education Ministry, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, and the Hariri Foundation. “We want to capitalize on the expertise already in Lebanon and also make the most of expertise around the world in peace education,” Shouman said. 

While SFCG’s Lebanon office only opened in October 2008, the organization has already made considerable strides in promoting a culture of tolerance and conflict resolution. 

 SFCG’s first project here was the much-acclaimed television series, “Kilna Bil Hayy,” English for All of Us in the Neighborhood.” The show, whose first season just wrapped up on LBC International, follows the adventures of six families from Lebanon’s biggest communities – Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis – who live in the same apartment complex. A supernatural presence, personified as Lina, teaches the children to look beyond the political, religious and socio-economic prejudices of their parents and to build friendships with their neighbors based on commonalities, respect for diversity, and trust. 

 The series was adapted for the Lebanese context after the huge success of “Nashe Maalo,” a similar SFCG television series in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding. SFCG Le­banon is now looking for funding to produce a second series. 

 The group is also organizing a traveling film festival on truth and reconciliation for October. The film festival has been running in other countries since 2001, screening films or documentaries that show the human face of war and contribute to preventing and reducing conflict. The festival will travel to 12 schools and eight universities around the country and will be followed by moderated talks.

Lebanon’s Elections

7 Jun
Sometimes things need no explanation

Sometimes things need no explanation

 

A building still bearing the scars of Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War

A building still bearing the scars of Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War

Armenian poster by the March 14 coalition

Armenian poster by the March 14 coalition

Outside a polling booth
Outside a polling booth
Two Armenian supporters of the Tashnag party, which is allied to the Hizbullah-led March 8 opposition

Two Armenian supporters of the Tashnag party, which is allied to the Hizbullah-led March 8 coalition

Riot Riot Riot

7 May

It may seem a little peverse for me to be talking about the days events in Lebanon at a time when over (at least) 15,000 people in Burma/’Myanmar’ are dead and thousands more missing after a huge cyclone, but this blog is, after all, about the Arab world and thus my world. And yet I can’t ignore the terrible catastrophe that has befallen those innocent people already suffering under a bonkers military junta and so I have to at least give my respects to the victims. The Burmese military rulers are only allowing in a pathetic trickle of aid: valuing politics and their positions more than their people’s lives. More should be done for the people- more should always be done.
So as for the Arab world: Beirut was today transformed from a hustling, bustling, car-crammed city into a virtual ghost town. There were almost no people out, no cars, very few shops open, and an unnerving quiet most alien to the capital. The General Confederation of Labour Unions (CGTL) had organized a strike, with the backing of the opposition, to demand the government increase the minimum wage from $200, which has been in effect since 1996. Of course, as is usual in Lebanon, what started as a strike over living conditions then became riots in certain areas, with teenage boys burning cars, tyres (and I think I even saw a carpet on TV), looking for fights and egging on riot police. An important call to demand the poorer sections of Lebanese society get better wages to meet increasing food and living costs therfore became a complete farce, was completely politicized and played into the hysteric scare-mongering that politicians here are so fond of.
It seems that the March 8 ‘opposition’, essentially Shiite Hizbullah and Amal, together with their Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement, have hijacked the protests and say they will continue until the government repeals a decision to shut down Hizbullah’s phone networks.That decision was triggered by  Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (the leadership of which inherited from his assassinated father), who earlier this week ‘outed’ Hizbullah’s network, which was in fact public knowledge years ago. Jumblatt also accused Hizbullah of having surveillance cameras trained on Beirut airport’s runway 17 , which alot of politicians and private planes use. The government also returned the head of the airport’s security to an army position for his links to Hizbullah. March 14, of which Jumblat is a key member, has accused the riots of being “inspired by Iran and executed by Hizbullah”. March 14 usually blame Iran and Syria for their woes and the ‘opposition’ usually blame Israel and the United States.
Jumblatt’s move is a great example of the bitter rivalry between the main political groups here, March 14 and the ‘opposition’. The tension has been brewing for months- Lebanon has been without a president since last November because agreement over the formation of a national unity government and an electoral law cannot be reached.
Alot of news agencies are saying gun shots and explosions were heard in Beirut, but I myself heard nothing out of the ordinary. There are usually alot of sounds here that one could mistake for violence, but usually turn out to be fireworks, back-firing engines, exploding gas canisters, so perhaps I just didn’t notice.
(Photo from Al Jazeera article.)