Matt Nash

Small crowd, big dreams

Protesters call for civil marriage, Monday in Beirut

Karim Slim, 23, sees Monday’s demonstration in downtown Beirut to support civil marriage legislation as just the beginning.


“[If] civil marriage [were] to become a reality in Lebanon, it would be the first step toward ending sectarianism,” he told NOW. Asked if he was hopeful that change will come quickly, he looked to the crowd of approximately 100 people peppered with signs in English that read, “Civil marriage is a civil right.”


“It doesn’t look so good from the participation.”


While the 1,000-plus people who RSVPed on Facebook largely failed to show up, organizers also said Monday’s gathering is part of a larger process.


Lebanon’s legal code does not deal with so-called “personal status issues” such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, or child custody. Instead, the law leaves these matters to various religious courts (so Sunni Muslims have one set of practices while Maronite Christians have another, for example). Activists have made repeated attempts to change this and allow for non-religious marriages, most recently in 1998, but thus far none have borne fruit.


Many religious figures warn that allowing civil marriage would be akin to opening the door to a completely secular society rife with divorce and children born outside of wedlock. Conversely, civil society activists routinely champion the idea of developing a body of civil personal status legislation. The politicians rarely have listened to these calls for reform.


This seems to have changed, however, late last month. On January 20, President Michel Suleiman posted the following status, in English and Arabic, on Twitter: “We should work on legalizing civil marriage. This would be a step toward eliminating sectarianism and consolidating co-existence.” Suleiman’s endorsement has seemed to breathe new life into the issue, sparking fresh debate in official circles.


Shortly after the president’s endorsement, Prime Minister Najib Miqati dismissed the idea of legislating for civil marriage in Lebanon, calling any debate on the issue “useless.” He has since softened his tone, saying on Twitter on January 27: “I believe that the civil marriage issue cannot be dealt with from a top-down approach.” He added, “It’s up to all national stakeholders to get into consensus about it [sic].”   


Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority has condemned the idea in stronger terms, issuing a religious edict (or fatwa) that called any Sunni Muslim with a civil marriage an apostate (a crime punishable by death according to the religion’s rules). He further said that any Sunni politician to support civil marriage legislation could not be buried according to the rites of Sunni Islam.


Last week, Sunni leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, called the fatwa “unacceptable” and said he supports new legislation for civil marriage provided couples can still marry religiously if they choose. He noted that he personally does not support the practice.


Whether this renewed public dialogue among politicians and religious figures will lead to new laws, however, remains to be seen.


Roger Bejjani, who helped organize Monday’s demonstration, said no politicians had been invited to participate in the event.


“We’re here to ignite this momentum,” he told NOW. “We want to tell the men of the robe to go back to their churches and mosques and leave the people to handle our own business.”


Pascale Choueiri-Saad, another co-organizer, told NOW that passing new legislation is the primary reason for demonstrating.


“For the time being we are planning to push this issue so it can be adopted in parliament,” she said. Choueiri-Saad added that organizers have not drafted a new law, but are rather hoping the legislature will discuss – and ultimately approve – a law floated by former President Elias Hrawi in the late 1990s, which was shelved by parliament at the time.


In a speech addressing those who came to demonstrate, Choueiri-Saad urged people to only vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections for candidates who publically agree to vote for civil marriage legislation. Asked by NOW before the speeches what the demonstration’s organizers plan next, Choueiri-Saad offered a forceful vision.


“Today we are here,” she said. “Next time, we will be in the parliament. We will take the parliament to be heard.” 


Read this article in Arabic

Protesters call for civil marriage, Monday in Beirut's Martyrs Square (NOW).

“Today we are here. Next time, we will be in the parliament. We will take the parliament to be heard.”