December 2009

This post is part of the Kolena Laila initiative.

Like most other places in the other Arab world, the Lebanese Laila is subject to an institutionalized form of patriarchy that finds its purest expression in the personal status. When a Lebanese woman is born she, like her male counterpart (say, Louai), has a personal status and a familial status and she can ask for an extract (ikhraj qayd, a form of ID) of both. When they get married, however, Laila and Louai part ways in the system. Whereas Louai opens his own “khanah” — a new familial extract listing the members of his nuclear family under his name — Laila is transferred from her father’s extract to that of her husband’s. At first glance it might seem that the new “khanah” actually belongs to the married couple, but should Laila get a divorce, she has to reapply to be transferred back to her father’s “khanah” while her children remain under her divorcee’s khanah.
This might sound like a trivial matter, but bear with me.
Many of the problems civil society is attempting to tackle today are linked to this form of registration. Into this personal status is written the sect, where the children follow the father’s. It also locates the individual in the sectarian matrix upon which marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are based. Had we had a matriarchal society instead, where the khanahs are headed by women, these would still be issues to contend with. But because we live in a patriarchal society, Laila faces a problem Louai does not face. Should she get married to a non-Lebanese, she cannot start a “khanah” of her own under which she can include her children because Laila can give neither her children nor her husband the Lebanese citizenship. Though the way we are registered is not its cause, this problem traces yet another thread forming this Gordian knot of registration.
By a fluke of the system, I happen to be one of few Lebanese women who has a khanah of her own. A few years ago, I was discussing with a friend what might be a possible way to maintain this institutional independence should I get married to a Lebanese. Eventually I did not, so now I am extending the solution we came up with into a generic recipe for my other, new problem: giving the Lebanese citizenship to my future children. For this, you would need:
2 unmarried people
1 understanding family
1 or more baby born out of wedlock
* Do not get married just yet or, if married, get a divorce
* Have baby/babies out of wedlock — but in Lebanon — and register them in the nufus (personal register) as “illegitimate” (mawlud ghayr shar`i). This will add the children to your khanah or, usually, the family’s khanah and they will carry the last name of the family that acknowledges him. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Based upon this personal status, go to Internal Security and get the children a Lebanese passport each. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Finally, get married or remarried to your foreign husband, have him recognize the child or children as his own, and live happily ever after.
* To avoid the derision of bureaucrats, you could really abuse the system and get your father to do the paperwork!*
I know that doing this will cause problems to most Lebanese women, but I bring it up also to illustrate the interrelatedness of many of the problems civil society is attempting to address individually: sectarianism, religion, patriarchy, the way we are registered… and how these are embedded in the smallest details of our personal lives. I think that changing one aspect of the system without addressing more fundamental issues helps at some level, but in the long run it is only a band-aid that serves to make the system even more Byzantine. To be relevant for wider sections of society, the right for a mother to give her family the Lebanese citizenship and women’s rights more generally need to be addressed both individually as well as part of the larger struggle for a more just, more inclusive Lebanon.

* A disclaimer: I do not know anyone who has tried this method and I am in no way saying it is fool proof. In fact, if you find any problems with it, I would like to know before I try it myself!

On Thursday, Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries celebrated the first Lebanese woman to open a bank account for her minor children. The Women’s Union of the Progressive Socialist Party (i.e. Walid Junblat’s party), in coordination with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks in Lebanon, was instrumental in bringing about this accomplishment. Initiated locally, the project was funded by USAID and based on a legal study by the young lawyer Paul Morcos of Justicia.

PSP’s Women’s Union marketed the project primarily using the language of rights. But the problematic and the way Morcos proceeds to deal with it is a bit more complicated. The full study can be found here, but the main obstacle, according to the banks, was that in Lebanon the father is the compulsory legal guardian (وليّ جبري) for minor children. This is according to “secular” and religious law, both Christian and Muslim. This is a long story, but “secular” in this particular case relates to an article from Majallat al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya, or Mecelle in Turkish — this being the Ottoman civil code of 1877 which was an attempt to codify the principles of the religious (Hanafi) court. Byzantine indeed!

The issue, hence, risked stepping on spiritual toes and questioning the patriarchal and sectarian foundations of Lebanon (God forbid). Morcos circumvented the problem by shifting the focus from the Gordian knot of guardianship and highlighting instead how allowing a woman to open such accounts not only does not threaten this existing structure, but also contradicts rights accorded to women and enshrined in Lebanese law. A very intelligent solution given the imperfect circumstances. The recommendations in Morcos’s study deal with the woman not from the point of view of her rights as a mother, but as a “stipulator/assignor in trust” in a commercial contract. Her son or daughter is “the beneficiary” and the bank “the assignor.” The achievement, nevertheless, is not to be underestimated. More so because it had to do with asserting rights already accorded to women by law and of which she has been stripped through cultural/economic practices. To meet this recommendation halfway, the banks need to engineer account types to allow it to progress legally.

Which brings me to another aspect of this accomplishment. The other study that fed into the project was led by economist Kamal Hamdan and dealt with a completely different aspect of the issue at stake: economic benefits. The study demonstrates that this bank “service” would lead to an additional 100,000 bank accounts over the next ten years with a cumulative value of $400 thousand. I think this too is key to understanding how concrete results were achieved in less than a year. The project has all the right ingredients, indicating broad political support: a civil society actor linked to a sectarian party, private banks interested in expanding their economic possibilities, public institutions interested in empowering private interests, and outside funding interested in shaping the world in its own image. Far from ideal, but it seems to get things done.

The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has elicited negative reactions from many non-Muslim quarters. The European press, religious leaders, as well as some politicians have spoken out against it. But it has also given an unexpected boost to the far right in Europe. In Norway, we woke up Monday to a far right politician pondering a ban on the burqa and on the call to prayer (the latter is allowed as long as it is under 64dB). But the scene is gloomy because this goes beyond individual politicians or parties. The Swiss vote has left many wondering whether similar referenda in other European countries would yield similar results.

What is happening in many countries of Europe today when it comes to Islam is a curious and complex phenomenon and relegating it to bigotry does not explain anything. Tariq Ramadan has written one of the most reasonable articles I have come across that tries to make some sense of it. He is right to point out that the minaret is a symbol. The Union Démocratique du Centre, who proposed the ban in Switzerland, first considered targeting halal slaughter of animals but did not want to offend Swiss Jews. Minarets, I might add, work better here precisely because they are visible symbols. But symbols of what? This is the crux of Ramadan’s argument:

[…] while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary. At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

The part of his article that calls for more Muslim participation as a solution is open to debate (wouldn’t more visibility cause more fear?), but still, he brings attention back to the main issue: this is about Europe as much as it is about Islam in Europe. But Ramadan’s article raises more questions than it answers. Identity crisis, fine. But why Muslims? (This issue predates 9/11, so the answer is not “terrorism”) Why not racism, which offers more visible scapegoats?

In addition, Ramadan points a finger at the “flame-fanning” populists, but what about the liberal politicians? What about, for example, the headscarf debate in France and Jack Straw’s comments on the burqa? Don’t they lend more legitimacy to anti-Islam sentiments than raving right-wingers? And how does this relate to Europe’s current wars in majority Muslim countries? And why should Islam in Europe be perceived as an extension of an external, homogeneous Islam rather than as a European phenomenon? Why is it that in Norway, for example, where things are relatively great, it is perfectly normal to find every once in a while reminders in the main stream press that Muslims are Norwegians too — and one need only make such reminders about Muslims and Jews these days? And as far as identity is concerned, why does Europe have to end where Islam begins? Why is it that despite (because of?) a suppressed shared history, Europe and Islam are assumed by many to be inherently incompatible?

These questions are not exhaustive, some are probably irrelevant, and those that are relevant do not have easy answers. But this debate is at its infancy and if Islam in Europe is to have a normal future, one should at least start by asking the correct questions and reframing the debate on premises not dictated by the right. Premises that bring economy, politics, and history — even anti-Semitic history — back into the picture. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a Muslim minority that in most European countries does not pass the 6% mark. A minority that often finds itself, for internal and external reasons, in a weaker socioeconomic position than average. Yet, precisely because the premises of the debate are being set by the far right, a growing number of citizens choose to succumb to public passions that have little to do with facts.