By Rita Naoum
JBEIL, Lebanon: In her tiny apartment, the paint on the wall gradually fades away and a 12-inch television struggles to stay on.
The only bedroom is shared by her husband and herself, as well as their two children.
Mona Ene arranges the clothes scattered on the floor while mumbling that she would have never lived like this had she married a Lebanese man, instead of the one her heart chose.
Mona shares the same challenges as many Lebanese women who marry foreign men, including the inability to pass on her citizenship to her husband and children.
“A woman in Lebanon wedded to a foreigner faces discrimination twice in Lebanon: first, for being a woman and second, for falling in love with a non-Lebanese,” she says.
Mona was married in a civil ceremony in Nigeria, the homeland of her husband, Remy, and has two little boys, Alvin, 6, and Alex, 4.
As a result, Mona says the past four years have been filled with stress. After her marriage, she spent two years in Nigeria, but because of the political situation in the country, she decided to return to Lebanon with her family. Remy, however, could not get a visa.
“I had to pull many strings to build connections which, in the end, gave my husband a tourist visa for three months,” says Mona.
Mona’s husband had to travel back to Nigeria when the three-month period ended in order to be allowed to return to Lebanon. The expenses of the travel weighed heavily on the family. Eventually, Remy began leaving to Syria for 15 days to renew the visa for which Mona would pay LL100,000 every three months.
“Some might think that this amount of money isn’t too much and can be affordable. That might be true if my husband had a job,” Mona says.
Remy says that he was unable to find a job, especially because of the color of his skin.
“Despite the fact that I am a university graduate, I work as a salesman in a small shop and the money I earn barely covers our basic needs,” he adds.
Their children, Alvin and Alex, attend a public school in Jbeil, where Mona says their school fees are the same as Lebanese students because of her connections. Otherwise, she would have been obliged to pay much more.
Alvin says that he has suffered discrimination from classmates at school.
“Some of the kids at school said that they don’t want to play with me because I am black,” he says.
Mona says that all of her neighbors in Jbeil are friendly but adds that sometimes she prefers to stay in with her family, to avoid judging stares and whispers of strangers.
Mona says there has been one recent improvement. Under the initiative of caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, a regulation was created to give Lebanese women’s husbands and their children a free residency permit. However, the regulation requires that women submit proof that they own property or a rental lease.
This is just the latest in a confusing and sometimes contradictory legal arrangement for Lebanese women married to foreigners. According to the Nationality Law of 1925, for example, Lebanese women married to foreign husbands cannot pass their nationality to their children, while article seven of the Lebanese Constitution states that all Lebanese citizens should be treated equally.
Demographic concerns are one of the reasons why the government does not pass a law allowing women to pass on their citizenship.
Many Lebanese women are married to men from Syria and Palestine and some argue that granting this right to women would result in an imbalance of sectarian demographics, in favor of Sunnis. Others argue that this would be a way for Palestinian to attain Lebanese nationality. However, a report from the National Committee for the Follow-up on Women’s Issues shows that only 2 percent of Lebanese women are married to Palestinians.
Meanwhile, over 18,000 Lebanese women are married to non-Lebanese living in Lebanon with their children, most of whom are being denied health care, public education, governmental and public jobs, among other rights.
Lebanese women have formed groups that work to amend the laws, such as Jinsyati (My Nationality) and in 2006, the Center of Research and Technology Development submitted a draft law to the Parliament permitting women to pass on their nationality.
Despite these efforts, the draft continues to languish in Parliament, while Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have granted their citizens this right.
Mona wakes up her boys and, barefooted, they follow her into the living room. Alex, sitting on his mother’s lap, asks his father’s permission to go and play with the neighbor’s kids. As he finishes his sentence, he slaps his shaved head, his eyes opened widely, and apologizes while his parents began to laugh. His father does not understand Arabic.
Mona says that her biggest fear is the difficulties that her kids may face when they grow up, including finding a job and being treated with respect.
“He always mixes up between talking in Arabic with his mother and in English with his father. Sometimes I look at them and I wonder if I was too selfish for choosing my own happiness and marrying the guy I chose, at the expense of their future.”