Marie Rose Zalzal is secretary general for Tayyar al-‘Ilmani (Movement for Secularism) and a practicing lawyer in Abu Rumana, Matn, Lebanon. Part of a research project on the impact of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) on women, the interview was conducted by Suad Joseph on September 29, October 6 and December 19, 1994 and updated on February 11, 1997.

What is the Tayyar al-‘Ilmani?

The Tayyar al-‘Ilmani was founded in 1980 by Gregoire Haddad (the Greek Catholic Bishop who founded the Mouvement Sociale, a social service organization) along with representatives from other religions. I was among the founders. The Tayyar includes groups, clubs and individuals from around the country. We are not doing political work. Our focus is on cultural issues. For now, we are in a period of consciousness raising.

What are the goals of the Tayyar in terms of personal status codes?

The Tayyar is working on a civil marriage law that will guarantee equality between men and women and give them the freedom to create their own world. This is about human rights and applying human rights to personal status laws. Secularism is the route to equality and human rights. Secular personal status codes will promote civil society and make inter-communitarian marriages easier. Instead of sectarian-based hostility, people will be able to discover the richness of their respective religions. Sectarianism prevents this from happening now. Religions are a part of the problem, not the solution.

What is happening at present is a serious misuse of religion. Politicians and religious authorities justify their actions on the basis of so-called “religious necessities.” When rights are protected by civil law, no one will be able to pretend to be the “porte parole” of God and then realize his own plans in the name of God. Unfortunately, very few organizations are working on a unified civil code. It is mostly the Tayyar. Even secularists in Parliament fear raising the issue of personal status codes.

Our goal is to return religious institutions to the business of religion and not politics. We are trying to create the awareness that secularism is not against religion. On the contrary, it frees religions from wrong beliefs and makes spiritual life possible. Civil law is a matter of rights. It is not against spirituality. Our ultimate goal is to live in a democratic society that respects human rights and to reach this goal by democratic means.

How many different personal status codes are there in Lebanon?

It is hard to say. The concept of personal status is not identical in all religious communities. In the Muslim shari‘a (religious law), personal status has a more global meaning because it is related to religion. In this context, personal status includes marriage, its juridical consequences, matters such as separation, divorce, indemnities and also inheritance and child custody. For non-Muslim communities, personal status does not affect inheritance. Since 1959, non-Muslim communities have had a civil law on this matter that is adjudicated in the civil courts.

The state officially recognizes 18 religious communities in Lebanon. Each has its own courts and laws. A new religious group — the Coptic community — has been recognized recently and is working on its personal status law. This means that very soon, we will have 19 codes and 19 courts. On the other hand, the Lebanese legislation that recognizes 18 religious groups also states that whoever does not follow one of them can follow a civil code that will be developed for personal status. The civil personal status code, however, was never developed. Civil marriages performed abroad are recognized by the Lebanese state. But if a dispute arises in this foreign marriage, the law of the country in which the marriage was officiated is applied by the Lebanese civil court. Thus a single divorce court in Beirut is applying, at the same time, the French, Turkish, Cypriot and Californian laws of divorce, because there is no Lebanese civil law in this matter.

What are some of the key differences in the personal status codes of the different religious groups?

There are many differences. I will mention only a few of them. Some religions do not accept divorce (Catholicism, for instance). Others do accept it, but only allow the man to initiate it — here the man can divorce his wife merely on the basis of the manifestation of his will.

Polygamy is considered by some communities to be a crime and thus punishable. In other communities, polygamy is accepted by the higher religious authorities as a legitimate right.

Concerning inheritance, the Lebanese Civil Law of 1959 does not differentiate between men and women. The inheritance laws of some religious communities, however, give women half the share of men.

Even among Muslim religious communities, the differences are dramatic. The Shi‘a interpret their law in a flexible manner while the Sunnis do not. In some cases, a Sunni woman cannot inherit from her father. Many Sunnis have become Shi‘i in order to let their daughters inherit from them.

There is no legal adoption in any Muslim community. Adoption is allowed, however, in Christian communities.

How do those who do not belong to one of the 18 recognized communities marry legally?

They either marry outside the country in a civil marriage or they convert to one of the recognized sects. If a religious cleric in a recognized sect will not marry them, they have to travel abroad. One of the non-recognized religions is the Bahai faith. Their 300 members are obliged to travel abroad in order to have civil marriages. Couples who cannot afford to travel abroad are unable to wed.

How does the multiplicity of family laws affect women?

The freedom and equality of women are deeply affected by the multiplicity of laws. Generally, the woman must follow the man in his religion. There are, however, a few exceptions, particularly with respect to Muslim/Christian marriages. According to Muslim law, Muslim women are not allowed to marry Christians, yet Christian women are allowed to marry Muslims. On the other hand, some Christian groups do not approve of intermarriage between Muslims and Christians because it affects the religious education of the children. In both cases, their choice will cost them much. Intermarriages also affect inheritance. Muslim law does not allow Christians to inherit. Children can inherit from their fathers only if they belong to the same religion as the father. Likewise, a woman can lose her inheritance from both her father and her husband because of intermarriage.

How is divorce adjudicated in inter-sectarian marriages?

The religion in which the marriage is performed must also perform the divorce. Otherwise the divorce is not recognized. For example, assume a Maronite couple marries in a Maronite church in Lebanon. The couple then lives in the United States for 20 years and is divorced in civil courts there. The woman remarries in a civil marriage in Cyprus, returns to Lebanon, spends 7 years with her second husband and then asks for a divorce. This would be easy because the second marriage was not legal in Lebanon. The first marriage would still be in effect because its dissolution was not conducted by the court of the religion that performed it. The only exception is when both parties change their religion and divorce in their new one.

Some studies indicate there has been an increase in the number of divorces since the civil war. Does this conform with your observations?

There are a lot more divorces now, initiated by both men and women. During the war, a new kind of marriage began taking place, the mut‘a (temporary) marriage. This marriage is not recognized by the Lebanese state as legitimate and children from such marriages are not legitimate.

With multiple family codes and the increase in divorces, the situation is getting more and more complicated. The development of a civil law of personal status would be an important step towards resolving these problems.

Who is lobbying for a change of personal status codes?

Religious and political leaders share a common interest in preventing any movement toward secularism. Some politicians are convinced that a secularism that respects religions is the solution of our main problems. But they do not take risks, especially since the religious communities are very strong financially and socially. Some secular groups are trying to change the personal status laws. To be able to change these laws, however, at least ten members of Parliament have to propose a change.

How has the war (1975-1990) affected the implementation of personal status codes?

There have been many social changes. Pressure on women has decreased considerably since some women have achieved a sort of financial independence and have come out of the war “healthier” then men. They have become more practical. They were strengthened by having to deal with the daily reality of war. Men used to be the “sulta” (authority) and would rely on inherited authority. Women had to create their own authority. More women are asking for divorce in all religious communities. The husband’s choice is becoming more dependent on the woman’s will. The difference here is in the better application of the law. Although this will not lead to a change in the laws, it might change the mentalities that will one day change the law.

Did the war affect the government’s attitude toward personal status codes.

No, because the government leaves that to the religious authorities who are against any change in this matter. Muslim religious leaders pretend that personal status codes are contained in the Qur’an and thus cannot be changed. Christian communities will only accept changes that maintain their power. In 1991, Catholic communities changed their personal status code in conformity with the change that took place in the Vatican. They have been applying it since then. It is illegal and unconstitutional, however, because this change did not go through the parliament.

The president recently raised the issue of civil marriage. Reactions from religious leaders were so vociferous that even those who support civil marriage hid from the issue. The Tayyar and some other groups backed the president’s proposition. Only popular pressure can change the government’s position. This is not going to happen soon because the government does not respect the democratic process.

How are women’s organizations involved in bringing about change?

Women’s organizations have been very active. Their struggle has led to many changes in the law, especially in the past few years. For instance, women no longer need the approval of their husbands to run a business or travel abroad. The testimony of a woman is now equal to that of a man. These laws have changed because of women’s organizations. Now we have women in Parliament. They have to prove themselves, though, because they were elected from above.

What are the most important rights for women on which you are working?

Education is one of the most important rights, It is very important for a woman to know her rights as a human being. She must know that being a woman is not a handicap. The major problems in Lebanon now are the same for men and women. It is hard to think in terms of women’s rights only when the whole society lacks the means to secure its rights. At this level, we want to see Lebanese law applied, which includes the international conventions of human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights.

How has the war affected the practice of women’s rights in Lebanon?

There were good and bad effects. When shells were falling, only religious sects mattered. But women took a lot of responsibility during the war. Whether men wanted it or not, they had to let their wives work because they needed the money. It was easier for women to work because they had no hesitation about working in all different kinds of jobs. This was especially so in the working classes.

Another problem during the war was that those who had very little money educated their boys before they educated their girls. But we now have women in parliament, more women are becoming judges and lawyers and so on.

Will the state take initiative on reforms for women?

I have no hope for change for women coming from the state. Nonetheless, there is social and political advancement in society. Local change is faster than national political change. And eventually social pressure will bring about political change.

How to cite this article:

Suad Joseph "Secularism and Personal Status Codes in Lebanon," Middle East Report 203 ( ).
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