Optional civil marriage would serve Lebanon’s fragile democracy
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Is Lebanon ready to introduce civil marriage legislation? Not soon. But talk about responding to youth aspirations, political reform and voice of civil society is pure rhetoric as long as civil marriage is not allowed on Lebanese soil.
Lebanese couples seeking secular marriage will have to travel to nearby Cyprus or beyond to tie the knot. To be registered in Lebanon, a civil marriage has to take place abroad and the married couple is then subject to the personal statues of the host country. However, civil marriage for a Lebanese Muslim has to be a mixed marriage to a non-Muslim.
Corresponding to Lebanon’s widely rich sectarian demography, there are eighteen religious authorities officiating marriages in Lebanon, with each authority dealing separately with laws of marriage, divorce, child custody, adoption, inheritance, death and burial. Not all eighteen sects are different on every aspect of the law. For example, inheritance law for all non-Muslim groups is secular and uniform.
Divorce, in particular, gives Christian and Muslim clerics a strong hand in settling marital conflict. In some cases clerics assigned to divorce management make a “business” out of their supposedly pastoral assignment. With divorce rates swelling over the past few decades regulating divorce has become an “industry.”
Civil marriage is a lively subject of debate in Beirut and beyond, throughout the region. Preliminary research indicates that the Lebanese are willing to consider civil marriage; a strong indicator of motivation for secular marriage is religious affiliation, not religiosity. According to one study, the Catholics of Lebanon have a better opinion of civil marriage; presumably because divorce in the Catholic Church is not an option. In contrast, the Druze community, a Muslim sect which allows no-fault divorce, do not demand civil marriage with passion. Other factors such as education, standard of living and gender are perhaps better predictors of desire for civil marriage.
The new Lebanese cabinet is proud to have four female ministers who come to positions of power with new ideas. Last month Interior Minister Raya Al Hasan, in a published interview, surprised many by expressing her sympathy to civil marriage. The media interpreted the minister’s favorable opinion on civil marriage as a new opening for reviving the debate on this issue.
Al Hasan’s candid remarks on civil marriage are brave: a minister charged with internal security raised a provocative issue on her first day in office. Gender is a factor here: Raya is a woman challenging a patriarchal social order. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni himself, is supportive of Al Hasan’s progressive idea on marriage law, but he will not spend political capital on this matter. In 1998 the president of the republic tried to introduce civil marriage and failed.
Soon after the minister’s liberal comments on civil marriage and Hariri’s reported support of it, Dar al Fatwa (the highest Sunni authority) issued a “categorical rejection” of civil marriage as it “violates the provisions of Islamic law.” The highest Shiite authority also opposed the idea by asserting that civil marriage is a “violation of the constitution.”
Is such strong resistance by the religious hierarchies scripturally based? Not really. Islamic family law varies significantly from one Islamic state to another; family and marriage laws in North Africa, particularly in Tunis and Morocco, are closer to universal personal statues than they are to comparable laws in the Arab Gulf.
The idea of banning civil marriage is not in the Quran. In Islam, marriage is civil by definition; the presence of a cleric to officiate weddings is an administrative Ottoman practice of old colonial times.
On the whole, church authorities in the Mideast are also in opposition to civil marriage. In the past the church led opposition to civil marriage in Lebanon. But change is slowly taking place. Today, the head of the Maronite (Catholic) church is willing accept civil marriage, but only if it is made mandatory
Allowing civil marriage on Lebanese soil would have significant political and social implications. For many Christians, civil marriage challenges the belief that it is a sacred act, a sacrament. And for many in the Sunni community a civil marriage implies equality of sons and daughters in inheritance; a change in Sunni inheritance law might be welcomed by some and feared by others.
Narrowly applied, acceptance of civil marriage would require a total reconfiguration of sectarian laws, not only of marriage, but also personal statutes of divorce, inheritance, burial and adoption. However, if civil marriage takes place domestically as a secular alternative, not as a substitute to religious matrimony, there would be no need to change the entire scheme of personal laws. If civil marriage law is allowed internally, emerging legislative change in family laws would apply only to future civil marriages. A new set of personal statutes would have to be written for families who chose the secular-only track.
Optional civil marriage offers advantages. The new law would facilitate mixed marriages. It would provide wider freedom of choice of future life partners, a choice based on values rather than religious affiliation. Under the current system it is the institution which is the anchor of decision-making in marriage, divorce and other important personal matters. Optional civil marriage transfers the focus of decision making from the institution to the individual. In a visit to Albania in the 1990’s a feminist writer informed me that the popularity of mixed marriages is a factor in the stability of her country.
If allowed, civil marriage would temper the sectarian climate of the country. Lebanon’s politicians and clerical leaders have become too acclimated to sectarianism. Through sect-based family law the church and the mosque maintain power and privilege. The entire political system is anchored on a sectarian framework.
Making it easy for Christians and Muslims to intermarry would enhance social integration, a necessary condition for rebuilding a nation on secular and democratic grounds. This is especially true if civil marriage becomes mandatory.
Given the current instability in Lebanon, the opportunity to advance a campaign for civil marriage is limited. But as long as Lebanon allows free public debate, the hope for localized civil marriage remains alive. In civil marriage there is a multiplier effect, an invisible hand impacting social change.