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.