Lebanon, frequently called “the Paris of the Middle East,” is well known by the international community as a beacon of freedom in a region where women’s rights can often be limited. The party scenes in the neighborhoods of its capital Beirut, like Hamra and Gemmayze, rival those in Europe, while in the more chic areas of Beirut Downtown and Ashrafieh, women can be seen strolling through the Parisian-style streets in expensive clothes that would not be out of place in the West. But behind the glamorous visages of the ideal Lebanese woman and the modern skyscrapers, women still lack the most basic right to pass their Lebanese citizenship onto their own children, or their foreign spouses.
“Our children understand the restrictions, and when they get married, we will be careful to choose the ‘right’ person,” Youssef tells The Majalla.
A lack of citizenship has interminable consequences that severely affect social rights for all those involved. The offspring of a Lebanese woman who is married to a non-Lebanese man cannot be considered Lebanese citizens. Even if they have been born and raised in the country. These children are Al-Maktum Qaid or “Stateless.” The stateless in Lebanon also consist of Palestinian refugees or descendants of Palestinians who rejected Lebanese citizenship in order to steer clear of military service when the country was under the French mandate in 1932. Unofficial estimates speak of 35,000 women married to foreigners, and a number of stateless that exceeds 100,000 out of a population of almost four million.
The stateless have no passports, do not have access to public health care and cannot attend public schools. They are also unable to own private property. Even marriage and travel are incredible obstacles for them. Beyond that, the stateless are in a perpetual state of flux, where the children who lack nationality rights can be deported because of rejected residency, leading to broken families.
At nine years old, Karim is forced to renew his residency visa every three years in order to stay with his family in Lebanon. He cannot attend public school, and is thus forced to pay to study privately. Karim is determined to study hard enough to become a doctor so that one day he will be able to help his mother, Nadia, who struggles to pay the cost of his schooling. Karim’s father is of Kurdish origin and also stateless. He was born in Lebanon fifty-five years ago.
Deep in the Bekka Balley, Ibrahim lives with his mother. He did not grow up with his Syrian father, who left the family many years ago. Ibrahim has struggled with important milestones. He was to be married once, but his fiancée eventually left him because of his “social condition.” The family cannot return to Syria either.
“My brothers and I cannot even go to Syria because when we were born there, there was not enough money to register births, marriages and deaths,” Ibrahim says to The Majalla.
But not everybody is the same in the eyes of the law---on September 20, 2013, the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir published a copy of a presidential decree granting Lebanese citizenship to 112 foreigners, provoking a hail of criticism and anger from Lebanon's population. The individuals in the order came from an array of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Holland and Jordan, among others. The order caused a scandal, especially among the Lebanese women who themselves are not allowed by the law to pass on their citizenship to both their foreign husbands and children.
Gender inequality in nationality laws can create statelessness in which children cannot acquire nationality from their fathers, and are forced to live an incomplete life. This can occur under several different circumstances: First, where the laws of the father’s country do not permit him to pass on nationality under certain conditions, such as when the child is born abroad. Statelessness also occurs when either a father is unknown, was not married to the mother at the time of birth, or when a father has been unable to fulfill administrative steps to pass on his nationality or to acquire proof of nationality for his children. Administrative challenges can arise in many different situations, such as if the father has died, has been forcibly separated from his family, or has abandoned the family and is therefore unwilling to fulfill the proper steps to pass on his nationality or to acquire proof of nationality for his children.
Not only do the women themselves pay the consequences of this law, the entire family and society as a whole does as well. The government has refused to discuss the archaic law, which dates back to 1925. Some critics say this is because a change in numerical terms by one group over another would result in a shift in political representation and the balance of power within the already vulnerable and sectarian-divided government. Granting women the right to pass on citizenship would lead to an increase in the number of Muslims within Lebanon and could possibly open the doors to Palestinian refugees too.
Sixty years ago, the nationality laws of the majority of countries did not provide equal rights to women. Despite the adoption in 1979 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the most recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) survey of nationality legislation reveals that equality between men and women relating to the passing of nationality onto children has not yet been attained in twenty-nine countries throughout the world. These nationality laws do not give mothers the ability to pass their nationality onto their children on an equal basis as fathers.
A great deal of progress has been achieved in recent years. From Arab countries such as Morocco and Egypt to Indonesia and Bangladesh, a reform in the law meant women were given the right to pass on their nationality to their children---a right that had been previously held by men only. However, eleven countries in the Middle East and the North African region still have not granted women this right.
Despite the difficulties and lack of progress, there are still those who are working to tackle the situation. Moustafa is the founder of an independent movement called Individual Association of Human Rights. He is stateless, married and the father of three children---three stateless children. “I started this campaign alone, without money, more or less two years ago,” he explains, continuing, “I suffered a lot for my condition. Today we need to be united because the inability to extend the nationality denies not only women their full rights as nationals, but also denies her children their basic rights as human beings.”