Lebanese Women Married to Foreigners Fight for Equal Rights

by VR Sreeraman on  March 8, 2010 at 12:21 PM Women Health News
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Samira Soueidan thought she had won a major battle last year when a judge ruled she could pass on her Lebanese citizenship to her children, a first for women wed to foreigners in this tiny Mediterranean nation.
 Lebanese Women Married to Foreigners Fight for Equal Rights
Lebanese Women Married to Foreigners Fight for Equal Rights

Her victory was short-lived, however, as the decision was quickly appealed, highlighting the struggle facing thousands of Lebanese women married to foreigners but prevented by law from passing on their nationality to their spouse or children.

"When my attorney called to say that the judge had ruled in my favour after a nine-year legal fight, I was shaking," recalled the frail 48-year-old widow, who was married to an Egyptian and has four children.

"Our laws are unfair and completely disregard women," said Soueidan, sitting in her modest living room in a working class neighbourhood of Beirut and drawing nervously on a cigarette.

Under legislation adopted in 1925, 18 years before Lebanon's independence from France, only Lebanese men can get citizenship for their spouses and offspring.

The measure often leads to surreal situations in which children born and raised in Lebanon to a foreign father face costly legal and social difficulties and in many instances end up rejected by the only country they know.

"Every year I have to get residency permits for my children, I have to come up with the fee and I have to undergo the same questioning" by the Lebanese authorities, lamented Soueidan, who began working as a cleaning lady after her husband died in 1994.

"One year, I couldn't come up with the fee and the authorities threatened to deport the kids to Egypt, where they had never set foot," she added. "I ended up going to a loan shark to borrow the money."

But efforts by rights groups and women's organisations to change the law have gained momentum in the past year, with draft legislation currently pending in parliament.

Similar campaigns in three other Arab countries -- Algeria, Egypt and Morocco -- have been successful in recent years.

Those opposed to an amendment in Lebanon are mainly from the minority Christian camp who argue that granting women the right to pass on their citizenship would upset the country's delicate demographic balance.

Lebanon's Muslims account for about 64 percent of the population against the Christian community's 35 percent.

There are also fears that changing the law would hand citizenship to many Palestinian refugees who are married to Lebanese women.

Judge John Qazzi, who ruled in Soueidan's favour, said the debate on the issue was politically motivated and illustrated Lebanon's paternalistic approach to women's issues.

"This battle is not about citizenship, it's about women's rights," he said. "Politicians in Lebanon look at women as immature citizens."

Hripsmeh Arkanian, 59, who is married to a Palestinian and has two children, entirely agrees.

"I stopped voting a long time ago," she told AFP at her home in a suburb on the outskirts of Beirut. "If my vote counts, then why isn't it heard?

"And if my vote is equal to a man's vote, then this should also apply in the case of citizenship."

She said the administrative hassles her son encountered in Lebanon when he married a Romanian woman prompted him to leave and seek a job in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

"I went to visit him recently and I noticed that the ring tone on his cell phone was the Lebanese national anthem," Arkanian said.

"It brought tears to my eyes because I realised how attached he is to Lebanon which, in the end, considers him a stranger even though his mother is Lebanese and he was born and raised here."

Sociologist Fahmiyeh Sharaffedin, who published a study on the citizenship issue in 2008, said she was baffled by the discrimination women face in Lebanon given both sexes are officially equal under the constitution.

"Other countries impose restrictions on citizenship but they apply to both men and women," she said. "I don't understand why concern over the country's confessional balance only applies to women and not men.

"Why can a Lebanese man marry, have children and boost the size of one community, be it Christian or Muslim?" she asked. "Why doesn't this apply to women?

"We are fighting for equality and we won't accept anything less."

Source: AFP

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