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Feb 19, 2019
The Daily Star
Hassan in hot water for civil marriage support
Ghinwa Obeid| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Interior Minister Raya El Hassan drew fierce backlash in recent days over her support for establishing civil marriage in Lebanon, reigniting a yearslong debate among those for and against having one civil code to govern personal status matters. In an interview with Euronews last week, Hassan had said, “I personally prefer if there was a framework for civil marriage, and this is something that ... I will try to open room for a serious and deep discussion on.”
“I know that this topic has a political and sectarian dimension to it, and I have to take this into consideration, but ... I will open this discussion with all religious figures.”
In Lebanon, no civil code exists to regulate personal status issues, such as marriage and divorce.
Rather, such matters are governed by 15 religious laws, overseen by associated courts depending on a person’s religious affiliation.
Many supporters of a civil personal status code have charged that the existence of so many disparate legislation in the current system is at its best complicated, and at its worst discriminatory.
For instance, many Lebanese people have traveled to Cyprus and Turkey to marry under civil laws there. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, those choosing to marry abroad do so “either because they do not want to be subject to the laws of their religion or because they are from different religious backgrounds.”
Notwithstanding the charge of discrimination against the current system, Hassan’s comments quickly drew criticism from religious figures and others in Lebanon opposed to civil marriage.
Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, said in a statement Monday that the position shared on the issue by the body and Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian has been known for years.
“Their position is the absolute rejection of civil marriage in Lebanon ... because it contradicts the provisions of Islamic law. It also contradicts the provisions of the Lebanese Constitution on the need to respect the personal status laws that each religious court follows,” the statement said.
Hassan’s comments also gained traction on social media, and the hashtag #CivilMarriage started trending on Twitter.
“Any marriage outside God’s law is forbidden and not acceptable,” a user tweeted.
“For those supporting civil marriage, convince me with the reasons that are prompting you to call for it,” another wrote.
On the other side of the spectrum, supporters of Hassan’s comments - from politicians to journalists to public figures - expressed opposition to what they said were attempts to undermine her and instill fear.
“The debate over civil marriage and personal status laws “is long overdue,” Lama Fakih, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, says.
Fakih says that Lebanese people need to demand that their politicians make their stance on the issue clear.
“We have done research on the personal status laws that show that they categorically, across the board, discriminate against women in ways that make them more vulnerable to abuse and that undermine some of their basic rights,” she told The Daily Star.
“The option of developing a personal status law that is civil and that would sit alongside the religious code would give people a chance and an opportunity to have their personal matter governed by a code that isn’t discriminatory.”
Lebanese singer Elissa, well known for vocally expressing her opinions, blasted some religious figures for what she says was their quickness to delegitimize “anyone who talks about civil marriage.”
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt joined in the support of Hassan. “Can we express our opinion on civil marriage without being [attacked]?” Joumblatt tweeted Monday morning.
“Yes, I am supporter of optional civil marriage and for a civil personal status law. Stop using religion to divide people.”
“The last thing we need is a battle on the freedom of marriage. It is enough that media freedom ... is absent,” Jad Shahrour, communications officer at the Samir Kassir Foundation, tweeted, using the hashtag #CivilMarriageIsaCivilRightforEveryCitizeninLebanon.
Some people used the debate in order to highlight another pressing issue in the country: the difficult economic situation.
“In my opinion, there are topics that are more important and should be resolved before civil marriage,” one person said.
“We no longer have unemployment? Did you resolve the electricity issue, schools and hospitalization?”
Friction over civil marriage and personal status laws is not new, having been hotly debated in the past by civil society activists in protests and marches.
For instance, in March 2015, students and activists marched to the Interior Ministry to demand that Lebanon institutes civil marriage.
The next month, Lebanese NGO Chaml gathered supporters in a protest Downtown to apply pressure for the endorsement of civil laws.
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