By Marie Dhumieres
BEIRUT: Nazha Harb is from south Lebanon, but she got married in Cyprus over the weekend. Traveling to the island to wed is not uncommon, and more than 2,000 Lebanese get married abroad every year, according to estimates by activists campaigning for a civil marriage law.
In most cases, couples who go abroad are of different religious sects, and they can’t get married in Lebanon without converting. Harb, 26, and her husband could have married in Lebanon, as they’re both Muslim, but they didn’t want to.
“We’re both non-believers … I can’t accept following the rules of a religion I don’t believe in because my country’s laws say so,” Harb says.
She adds that it was also very important for her and her husband to get married on “equal ground.”
“In religious marriage, men and women are not equal. In the case of divorce, for the [custody of] children, if anything happens, we don’t have equal rights,” she explains, adding, “I couldn’t accept a sheikh performing the ceremony. I know he would look at me like I’m inferior.”
Harb says both her and her husband’s family were quite supportive. As Nazha is the third of four daughters to opt for civil marriage, her parents have long been used to the idea. Her eldest sister married a Lebanese Christian, the second a foreigner. Her younger sister, the only one yet to be married, will have to be inventive if she wants to surprise her parents.
Even though Harb says that most people didn’t reject her decision, she acknowledged that many were dumbfounded by their choice.
“People were saying ‘Oh, but you’re from the same religion? Why the hassle then?”
“I’m not sitting in the same room with someone [who’s here] to marry me and who doesn’t see me as equal,” she reiterates.
But among her friends, Harb is no exception: “Most of my friends are planning to get a civil marriage, even if they’re from the same religion.”
At the Lebanese National Campaign for Personal Status, activist Sandy Mteirek says that although civil marriage used to be only a “need” for couples of different religions, it’s now becoming a “choice” for many. “People are more and more convinced by the idea of civil marriage, of equality between partners,” even if they’re from the same religion, she says.
Carole, who prefers not to give her last name, works for a travel agency in Beirut that offers civil marriage packages and says that, on average, the agency organizes one civil marriage a week, mostly in Cyprus.
She says the agency offers for its customers an “A to Z” package, which includes checking availability at municipalities in Cyprus, translating official documents, booking hotels and organizing the ceremony if the couple wishes. She says the agency can even provide witnesses for the wedding if needed.
Carole agrees with Mteirek that the profile of those choosing civil marriage is evolving.
“Before, it used to be only people from different religions. That’s still the majority but we’re now seeing [an increase of] people from the same religion,” she says.
Another trend, she says, is couples choosing a civil marriage when one of them has to go abroad for work, in order to accelerate the visa process for the partner.
Like Harb, Josephine Tabshe and her husband share the same religion but decided to have a civil marriage in Cyprus. Tabshe and her husband are both Christian Maronites, and they made their choice almost 20 years ago.
“I wanted to break the tradition of getting married in the church. We shouldn’t all have to get married in the church,” she says, adding she felt “no one was doing anything” so she had to “take action.”
“I thought someone had to start it. It had to start somewhere. I decided it starts with us,” she says.
But Tabshe definitely didn’t receive as much support as Harb.
“Everyone was opposed to it, my family, [my friends]; no one supported the idea,” she says, explaining that for a long time “they use to tell me ‘you’re not married, you’re living in sin.’”
She says she spent a lot of time explaining her choice to people. “We were telling them that [we made this choice] not because we don’t love God, that we didn’t abandon the church … but because the church doesn’t have anything to do with this matter.”
“I want to abide by the state law, not the church law,” she says firmly.
“Basically,” she summarizes, “I just had to do a lot of explaining. But I talk a lot so it wasn’t a problem,” she laughs.
And with time, “when people saw how successful our marriage was, more than any other couple … it was no longer living in sin, it became something beautiful.”
This was in 1992, and Tabshe admits she never would have thought at the time that 20 years later, civil marriage would still not be possible in Lebanon.
Tabshe says that through the years, she has seen the number of people choosing civil marriage over religious marriage increase, and has noted how peoples’ views on civil marriage have become more tolerant.
But, she says, “the law didn’t change, and I was expecting it would.”
In March, activists submitted a civil marriage draft law to the parliament, and for the first time in Lebanon’s history, the issue is currently being considered by lawmakers during joint-committees’ sessions.
However, activists are aware that it is a very sensitive issue and, in a country governed by a sectarian system, will face strong opposition.
For her part, Harb is not optimistic that civil marriage will soon be legal in her country.
She believes that MPs and religious clerics benefit from the status quo, and doesn’t see why they would agree to change it.
She also says that the alternative of civil marriage in Cyprus is not enough. Since she and her husband are both Muslims, she says, civil marriage abroad would be meaningless if, for example, they decided to divorce.
“Unless we divorce in Cyprus, we would fall under the [Lebanese] religious [Muslim] law,” she explains.
Setting aside her personal case, Harb says that civil marriage is gaining support and more people are choosing it.
Whether it’s religious or civil marriage, she says, “we’re just asking to have the choice.”
But Harb finds humor in the current situation. “It’s funny to see all these Lebanese crossing the sea just to get married,” she smiles.