*first published November 2013
With the spotlight focused on the nervous containment of the Syrian conflict, news of Lebanon’s first and second cases of civil marriages — in April and September 2013, respectively — went largely unreported by the international media despite being the first of their kind in the Arab world.1 In a country, and region, increasingly steeped in sectarian divides, the victory of civil personal status laws and civil marriage represents a rare triumph of citizenship over confession, secularism over sect.
Most groundbreaking is the recently granted ability of Lebanese citizens to strike out any reference to their religious affiliation from official documents, previously a legal requirement for obtaining a civil marriage. Instead of shunning couples choosing to forego religious nuptials, their insistence on defining their relationship to the state as citizens first and foremost — and not members of a sect — should be welcomed as a promising step toward inclusive, pluralistic and rights-based social change.
Third Time Lucky
For Lebanon, this debate is anything but new; civil society activists have been mobilizing for civil marriage and personal status laws since the early 1950s. Twice before in recent history, the civil marriage file found its way into the hands of parliamentarians. In 1971, a draft “unified personal status law” failed to obtain the parliamentary seal of approval because its authors, the Democratic Party, refused to change the wording of the law from “unified” to “optional.” In 1998, an optional civil marriage bill pushed by Maronite President Elias Hrawi succeeded in receiving the majority of cabinet votes (and approval from the Shiite speaker of parliament) only to be shelved by late Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — under pressure from conservative Saudi allies and Sunnis at home — before it ever reached parliament.
The backlash from Muslim and Christian religious institutions, resistant to any attempt at stripping them from their power in society, was immediate and severe.2 Lebanon’s foremost Sunni cleric Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani staunchly opposed the initiative, mass sit-ins took place outside the mufti’s headquarters in Beirut, and the mufti of North Lebanon, Taha Sabonji, declared that civil marriage “contradicts all the teachings of Islam and destroys the foundations of Arab society.”3 Such statements reflect the social dimension of the civil marriage debate — interpreted by many drawn from diverse faith backgrounds not only as a threat to centuries-old religious edicts, but also as a symbol of moral degradation at the societal level.
The trans-sectarian opposition to the law was reflected in the united front presented by religious leaders on all sides of the Lebanese confessional spectrum. In a rare show of interfaith political solidarity, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic church — the largest in Lebanon — made abundantly clear his disapproval for the bill based on church teachings, threatening to withhold sacraments from any constituents married in a civil ceremony and stressing the need for “solidarity with Lebanon’s Muslim community”4 in opposing civil marriage.
The 1998 civil marriage debate thus birthed unlikely alliances and schisms. The Maronite president boycotted Patriarch-led Easter services and failed to wish Sunni Muslims a blessed Eid al-Adha in silent protest.5 Despite deep-seated animosities, Hezbollah and President Hariri (in cooperation with the Maronite Church) formed an anti-civil marriage coalition. When 30,000 Syrian troops occupied Lebanon, it is important to note that then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad — determined to present his regime as a staunchly secular one and whose implicit consent was required for any Lebanese political breakthroughs — initially approved the draft bill. The case was eventually cast aside and did not re-emerge until the revival of the personal status law debate in 2009.
A Polity Divided
Fifteen years later, the ratification of the first civil marriage on Lebanese soil triggered parallel incendiary exchanges between the president and prime minister, religious authorities and secularists. Propelled by former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud’s 2009 ruling that Lebanese citizens would have the option of removing references to their religious affiliation from their identity cards, and on the heels of the 2011 Laique Pride protests against sectarianism, Nidal Darwish and Kholoud Sukkariyeh (a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim) were married by a public notary in a modest civil ceremony on the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Both legally struck their sect from their sejjel an-nufoos, or family register, to be wed as a civil couple under a 1936 French mandate-era legal clause that allows for civil unions between citizens not classified under any of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized sects.
Predictably, the case was as polarizing as it was pioneering. On Jan. 22, 2013, then Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a conservative Sunni, declared in a formal meeting of the Council of Ministers that he would not allow any talk of civil marriage, even if optional, during his tenure. A day later, Mufti Qabbani issued a fatwa denouncing the legalization of civil marriage, even branding its supporters apostates ineligible for Muslim burial rites. These statements were explicitly opposed by 42 percent of Lebanese, according to a recent poll, and MP Saad Hariri, who broke with his late father’s stance in 1998 and affirmed his support for civil marriage in a televised February 2013 interview, potentially rooted in his resentment of the pro-Assad mufti.6 The Higher Shia Council soon followed suit, albeit to a lesser degree.7 The consistent Muslim institutional resistance to civil marriage, and the potential lessening of their social role through secularization, can be traced to 1939, when their protest led to the revocation of the famous 1936 law for Muslim sects.
Not one of Lebanon’s 18 religious establishments took a favorable position toward the proposal, though some religious figures did so on an individual basis. This resistance on the part of the country’s most prominent religious institutions can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that civil marriage would easily deprive these groups of one of their most significant sources of revenue — it costs an average of $2,500 to rent a church, and $200 for a Muslim ceremony.8 Undeterred, Darwish and Sukkariyeh pushed forward with their paperwork, supported by a handful of civil rights activists, determined to pressure the government to enforce their constitutionally enshrined rights.
A prime minister-president showdown was soon underway. President Michel Sleiman took to Twitter to advocate legalizing civil marriage contracts as a “step forward to abolish sectarianism and enhance coexistence,” while the prime minister tweeted back that a revival of the civil marriage debate would be “futile” considering the country’s more pressing political concerns.9 That the Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel finally approved the couple’s marriage a few weeks after Mikati’s resignation should therefore come as no surprise. With the legality of the couple’s case clear, and in spite of numerous delays, Charbel eventually registered the marriage.
Why it Worked
The long battle for secular personal status and civil marriage laws in Lebanon belies that, astonishingly, the existing legal, judicial and constitutional framework allowed for civil unions all along. Sure enough, on April 3, 2013, the Ministry of Justice announced that nothing in the Lebanese law prevented the registration of Darwish and Sukkariyeh’s marriage. However, this contradicted earlier claims by the Interior Ministry (responsible for the registration of marriages) that there is no civil personal status law in Lebanon.
The question of what entity, or law, would determine the couple’s affairs, usually within the mandate of religious authorities, thus arose. Interior Minister Charbel argued that Lebanon needed its own civil marriage law before the state could register such civil unions, and one that should “deeply tackle the rights of the couple … and deal with divorce, inheritance and other issues” before being approved by parliament.10
Ultimately, the Ministry of Justice ruled that the couple’s family affairs would be governed by the civil code of any country they chose — invoking the same article that allows Lebanese couples civilly wedded in Cyprus to invoke Cypriot civil law. Around 100 foreign legal codes are applied in Lebanon today, but as of yet, there is no civil personal status code tailored to Lebanese citizens. The French-era decree LR 60 stipulates that each sect is subject to the religious code of its community. By extension, a civil personal status code applies to those unregistered with any religious community, such as citizens who opt for removing their sectarian identification.
Until this year, civil marriages abroad could be registered in Lebanon but couples did not have the same right to non-religious nuptials in their own country, reflecting the inefficiency and hypocrisy of an outmoded system that loses millions of dollars a year because of couples forced to travel abroad to be civilly wed. These couples say “I do” in a foreign language, often on limited budgets, outside their homeland, without most of their family and friends present. However, the existence of LR 60 at least granted Lebanon a legal one-up on other Arab legal codes with regards to civil marriage, save, perhaps, for Tunisia. In Egypt, for instance, a couple obtaining a civil marriage abroad is still under the jurisdiction of Egyptian law. Neighboring countries are thus likely charged with the more arduous task of amending, rather than invoking, existing laws to catch up to Lebanon.
Why it Matters
By removing religion as the intermediary between the citizen and the state, Lebanon has accomplished what no other Arab country has — laying the foundation for a civil, secular state neutral to the sectarian affiliations of its people. The ratification of secular personal status laws clearly benefits mixed faith couples. Remnants of the Ottoman and French colonial legacy, and under pressure from the Lebanese themselves at the time, religiously based personal status laws prohibited Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites from bequeathing possessions or property to children of different faiths.11
Until now, many mixed couples could not get married on Lebanese soil without one spouse converting to the other’s sect. The inherent equality embedded in civil marriage thus allows interfaith (especially Muslim-Christian) couples to retain their integrity by relieving the pressure to convert. Atheists and those who do not belong to one of the country’s recognized religious communities (like Buddhists, Bahais, or unregistered Protestant groups) can likewise now marry in their home country without the oversight of a religious authority.
Importantly, removing reference to sect from state records, and consequently obtaining a civil marriage, still carries a weighty social stigma. Many associate the “secularization” of one’s relationship to the state and basis for their marriage with atheism or a lack of religiosity. Several motivations, from women’s rights in inheritance to financial considerations, make civil marriage an attractive option for same-faith couples.12 Religiously mediated marriages can be especially problematic for Maronite Catholics wishing to divorce (expressly forbidden by the church), Sunni widows who would otherwise only have claim to half their husband’s estate, and Muslim or Christian couples whose respective communal clerics often demand a sum for officiating ceremonies, frequently in addition to a percentage of the bridal dowry.
Simply put, where one’s faith lies, or their affiliation with their community’s religious or social identity, has nothing to do with the decision to pursue a direct relationship with the state or a civil marriage. Interestingly enough, from the Muslim perspective, “Islamic” marriages are essentially civil contracts in nature, requiring only consent, a dowry, and witnesses to be valid, and can even be overseen by a civil figure. Although they include Islamic content, they differ little in form from state-officiated ceremonies — an ambiguity often cited by Muslim clergy to argue against the necessity of civil marriages.
A Bright Spot in a Bleak Landscape
The civil marriage victory — and it is a victory — is the culmination of years of grassroots associational efforts using existing institutional frameworks to power a social movement against sectarianism. With the option of classifying oneself on all official documents as a citizen, not a member of a sect, the Lebanese government and people can move toward the rarest of things in the Arab world: citizenship mediated by nationality, not religion. Although opinions on the legalization of civil marriages differ by sect (25 percent of Maronites oppose this compared with 66 percent of Sunnis), most Lebanese (58 percent) support the more salient issue of the striking out of sectarian identification.13
The advent of civil marriage in Lebanon does not undermine centuries of religious tradition, but offers complementary secular alternatives for the religious and non-religious alike. A sign of national unity at the most fundamental level, that of the family unit, the reality of mixed marriages can no longer be sidelined; 25,124 inter-sect, married couples are registered in the Beqa’a region alone, and just over half of Lebanese (51 percent) explicitly support optional civil marriage.14
As with its Western counterpart, the push for secularism in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region will be the product of a slow and bitter struggle. Another civil marriage, between a Syrian and British national, has already been registered, with dozens more on the docket pending approval. Many lament the weakness of the Lebanese state, crippled by an outdated sectarian system costing it billions of dollars a year. Simply enforcing existing laws allowing civil marriage on home turf is one of the easiest ways in which the state can exert itself, at almost no financial cost.
How a political and religious system so firmly embedded in sectarian clientalism will deal with these religiously “non-declared” citizens — and how they will be represented in a parliament with exact Muslim-Christian parity—remains to be seen. In any case, for a country (and region) seeming to be permanently teetering on the brink of sectarian conflict, civil marriage is one step farther from civil war.
Civil marriages are allowed in Tunisia under Bourguiba-era laws, however, only within Islamic frameworks (a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man, even in a civil ceremony, unless he converts to Islam).
1Civil marriages are allowed in Tunisia under Bourguiba-era laws, however, only within Islamic frameworks (a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man, even in a civil ceremony, unless he converts to Islam).
2Maurus Reinkowski and Sofia Saadeh, “A Nation Divided: Lebanese Confessionalism,” in Citizenship and Ethnic Conflict: Challenging the Nation-state, ed., Haldun Gulalp (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 107.
3Edward Alan Yeranian, “Civil ‘I do’s’ may stay a ‘don’t’ in Lebanon,” Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1998.
45Sofia Saadeh, The Quest for Citizenship in Post-Taef Lebanon (Beirut: Sade Publishers, 2007)
6“Sondage: 51% des Libanais seraient favorables au mariage civil facultatif,” L’Orient Le Jour, Feb. 1, 2013, accessed Oct. 15, 2013 http://www.lorientlejour.com/category/%C3%80+La+Une/article/798907/Sondage_%3A_51_des_Libanais_seraient_favorables_au_mariage_civil_facultatif.html
7Jean Aziz, “Lebanon’s First Civil Marriage a Sign of Change,” Al-Monitor, April 28, 2013, accessed Oct. 20, 2013,
8Jad Chaaban, “The Cost of the Sectarian System,” Presentation, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, May 7, 2013. Summary: http://racing-thoughts.com/2011/04/16/cost-of-sectarianism-in-lebanon/
9Zak Brophy, “Lebanon: Marriage Made in Civil Heaven,” Global Information Network, Feb. 9, 2013.
11“Not at Home: Lebanon’s Mixed Marriages,” The Economist, Sept. 3, 2009, accessed Oct. 20, 2013, http://www.economist.com/node/14382010/print?story_id=14382010
12Dalal Mawad, “Lebanon Civil Marriage Raises Hope for Change,” Aljazeera, May 2, 2013, accessed Oct. 20, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/04/20134309242619227.html
13Elias Muhanna and Jawad Adra, “Information International Report,” February 2010, accessed Oct. 20, 2013, http://qifanabki.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/abolishing-confessionalism-poll.pdf
13Information International, “Mixed Marriages in Lebanon: Beqa’a Mohafaza,” The Monthly, October 2013.
This article appeared in the fall/winter 2013 issue of The Islamic Monthly