The Harrowing State of Women’s Rights in Lebanon

The problems facing women in Lebanon today have been further complicated by the financial, economic, and social crises that have been affecting the country since 2019. It is therefore not surprising that women were on the frontlines of the so-called Tishreen (October) Revolution in 2019, because their rights were central to these protests. The uprising aimed to overthrow the sectarian regime and the warlords who have been in power since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990. These warlords implemented a postwar regime that keeps women beholden to sectarian courts. Indeed, while in the past couple of decades other Arab countries have adopted and implemented new progressive laws both socially (for example, as in Morocco’s moudawana) and politically (such as explicit or implicit gender quotas in lower chambers or parliaments), Lebanon remains mired in antiquated laws. These were inherited from the Ottoman era, or from the French Mandate that governed the country from the end of the World War I to independence in 1943.

Women in Lebanon are not a monolithic group. An intersectional approach including markers such as class, education level, sect, and racial or national origin should be adopted to describe the plight of women in Lebanon. This analysis therefore speaks of three categories of women in the country: Lebanese women, migrant women mainly from Asia who come to work as domestics, and refugee women (mainly Palestinians and Syrians).

An intersectional approach including not only markers such as class, education level, and sect but also those of racial or national origin should be adopted to describe the plight of women in Lebanon.

There are four issues that affect Lebanese women: the existence of a religious personal code, a gendered nationality law, domestic violence, and child marriage, with the latter two being manifestations of gender-based violence (GBV). The four issues addressed in this brief affect all female Lebanese nationals, but not necessarily the two other categories of women.

Religious Personal Status Laws

Lebanon has 15 religion-based personal status laws. There is no civil code covering personal status issues such as divorce, inheritance, or custody of children. The religious courts preside over cases of personal status, which typically results in the repeated violation of women’s rights, especially as patriarchal interpretation of the laws favor men, and religious men are often susceptible to corruption or influence. Religious authorities have kept personal status laws under their control and have obstructed attempts to create a civil personal code or the implementation of civil marriage. Attempts to replace these laws—including a bid by former President Elias Hrawi in 1998 to legalize civil marriage have been stymied because of backlash from religious leaders.

The sextarian system operates to categorize the Lebanese population on the basis of its sect and sex.

The country’s 15 different personal status laws differentiate between the rights, duties, and privileges of men and women. The result is that every Lebanese citizen is funneled through the bureaucracy into one of 30 existing citizenships that are determined by one’s paternally inherited sect and assigned sex. For example, the rights and privileges of Maronite men vary drastically from those of Maronite women or the members of any other sect. Lebanese American scholar Maya Mikdashi has defined this form of citizenship as “sextarian” to reference how “sex, sexuality and sect structure legal bureaucratic systems, as well as how citizenship and statecraft are performed at the mutually constitutive intersections and suffusions between sex and sect.” The sextarian system operates to categorize the Lebanese population based on sect and sex while promoting a heteronormative and endogamous understanding of Lebanese citizenship. It is therefore not surprising that men are privileged when it comes to passing on their citizenship. In contrast, several other Arab countries such as Egypt, and francophone North African countries (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) allow women to pass on their citizenship.

The Nationality Law

Because of Law 15 of January 1925, which was issued by the French High Commissioner during the mandate, Lebanese women still cannot pass their nationality to their children or to their non-Lebanese husbands, unlike Lebanese men, who can do both. This deprives children of citizenship and increases the risk of statelessness. The Lebanese government has failed to address this issue, citing the threat of the naturalization and resettlement of Palestinian and Syrian refugees as a reason not to change this law. The fear is that the naturalization of Palestinians and Syrians will alter the demographic balance in Lebanon in favor of Sunni Muslims. The only exception to this law is granted to unmarried mothers, as this group can pass on their nationality to their child after one year if the child is still without citizenship.

Because of societal pressure, Lebanese politicians have in recent years tried to find a solution for this issue, and several bills have been proposed. These fall into two distinct approaches: one that unconditionally grants the children of Lebanese women who are married to foreigners Lebanese nationality, and another that includes a series of restrictions and exclusions. Two bills proposing to unreservedly grant Lebanese nationality to descendants of Lebanese women were submitted by parliamentarians in July 2018 and May 2019. The 2019 bill, submitted by MP Rola Tabsh, proposed full equality between men and women. A week later, Claudine Aoun, the daughter of then President Michel Aoun and the president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, also presented to then Prime Minister Saad Hariri a bill that countered MP Tabsh’s unrestricted bill. It proposed a tiered system with different categories of children based on their age. It granted Lebanese nationality to minors under 18, while adult children of Lebanese women would only be granted permanent residency, giving them civil, economic, and social rights, but not political rights. These people could apply for citizenship after a five-year period, but were not guaranteed to receive it. This compromise was a pragmatic move but was constitutionally dubious.

With the ongoing crises in Lebanon, the issue of citizenship for the children of Lebanese women is not likely to be addressed soon.

The economic, financial, and sociopolitical situation in Lebanon collapsed six months after these bills were proposed, and they have since been tabled as seemingly more pressing issues have come to the fore. With the ongoing crises in Lebanon, the issue of citizenship for the children of Lebanese women is not likely to be addressed soon, and women and their children will remain vulnerable for the foreseeable future.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence affects all three categories of women. The Lebanese Parliament passed a domestic violence law in 2014, which includes protection measures such as restraining orders and policing and court reforms, as well as funding to enact said reforms. The law also introduced an official definition of domestic violence into the Lebanese criminal code. However, Lebanese women are still at risk of marital rape, which, because of pressure from religious authorities, is not a part of the criminal code. A spouse’s use of the threat of violence to claim their “marital right to intercourse” is a crime, but the actual physical act is not. There is also a legal loophole that allows men to divorce their spouses after abusing them to escape prosecution in civil courts.

After the financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation worsened for women in Lebanon. Like elsewhere in the world, the number of women hurt or killed by their husbands has recently increased during the covid pandemic, and cases of domestic violence against women skyrocketed during the strictest lockdown. The killing of women by domestic partners is also part of domestic violence, as both Lebanese and refugee women from Syria are often murdered by their husbands. In 2021, domestic violence doubled according to the Internal Security Forces. During the pandemic, crimes against women increased by 107 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the online feminist platform Sharika Wa Laken, and the press is rife with the stories of women killed by their husbands. The country’s deteriorating economic conditions and its complete closure during pandemic lockdown are reasons behind the growth of the phenomenon. In addition, according to a survey by local NGO Abaad that was conducted in 2021, 96 percent of violence against women in Lebanon went unreported by the women and girls who experienced it. Attention is often diverted to the living conditions in the country, to a lack of electricity, medicine shortages, and poverty.

While marital rape and domestic violence affect Lebanese and refugee women, migrant women are at risk of rape, sexual harassment, and abuse by their employers. They have no legal protections because of Lebanon’s restrictive Kafala (sponsorship) system, which has been described as modern day slavery.

Child Marriage

This issue mainly affects Lebanese and refugee girls. Lebanon currently has no national minimum age of marriage. Instead, religious courts regulate when people can marry, and the minimum age of marriage varies among sectarian groups. For the Muslim community, they range from puberty for Shia to 17 among Druze and Sunnis. Among Christian sects it is as low as 14 for Greek Catholics, Greek Armenians, and Assyrian Orthodox, and 16 for Evangelicals. Human Rights Watch found that early marriage can lead to a higher risk of marital rape, exploitation, domestic violence, and health problems. Those most at risk include Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, in addition to Lebanese girls from poor or rural areas. The prevalence of child marriage under 18 is 6 percent, and 1 percent under the age of 15. While the percentage of child brides in South Asia or Africa is higher, these numbers are still quite elevated, especially as Lebanon has pledged to eliminate child marriage by 2030, in keeping with the goal set in the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Despite the Lebanese government’s pledges, many drafts bills raising the legal age of marriage have not passed  in parliament.

Despite the Lebanese government’s pledges, many drafts of laws raising the legal age of marriage to 18 have not passed through parliament because of sectarian backlash. Indeed, a draft law was submitted to parliament and registered almost a decade ago, in September 2014, but it never went anywhere. Anecdotal evidence points to the increase in the number of child marriages in recent years because of the pandemic and due to the compounded crises facing the country since 2019. Simply put, parents cannot afford to send their girls to school or take care of them. These instances of child marriage can thus be understood as a form of survival sex in the current dismal economic situation. Parents get money as a dowry for marrying off their daughters, which helps the families weather the difficult situation they are facing.

Much Work Is Needed

The condition of women in Lebanon is quite dire because of backward-looking and patriarchal laws and religious interference in political and judicial affairs. The situation has been compounded, not only by the economic and financial crises but also by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an increase in domestic violence. The failure of the October 2019 revolution has also marginalized women’s demands for change.

Despite the grim situation, there is a silver lining: it is the existence of local actors who work to raise awareness and who lobby for change. Nongovernmental organizations such as Abaad and Kafa fight against domestic violence and child marriage, while the Jinsiyyati campaign fights for women’s right to nationality. The work of these NGOs is crucial for women and girls, and this is why the international community should work with them and other local stakeholders to encourage Lebanon to pass necessary legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, closing loopholes in the domestic violence law that often allow men to evade punishment, and abolishing the Kafala system that regulates migrant workers. Lebanon should also pass a nationality law that would allow women to pass their citizenship to children born of foreign spouses.

The Lebanese state must also pass a gender quota law in parliament so that women can be represented in politics and promote legislation that is gender sensitive. Parliament must implement a unified personal status law that is devoid of any religious intervention and include more female judges in criminal and civil courts where honor and domestic violence crimes are being judged. Importantly, politicians must stop interfering in the affairs of the courts, especially as some sectarian leaders try to protect members of their sect, even in cases of domestic violence that lead to murder.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Hiba Al Kallas