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Ibrahim Traboulsi: the debate on civil marriage should not turn into a conflict


An expert on family law commends the interior minister for raising the issue of civil marriage and says that civil society has an important role to play on pushing debate over the issue forward.

Every time the subject of legalizing civil marriage is raised in Lebanon there are politicians and clergy who say, “now is not a good time”. This has been the case since 1951 – 68 years ago – when Raymond Edde, then a young deputy and leader of the National Bloc, proposed legalizing civil marriage as an option for couples. Edde’s proposition followed the adoption of a law on April 2, 1951 that granted religious communities jurisdiction over personal status matters. Today, an estimated 800 or so Lebanese couples want a civil marriage each year. They have no choice but to travel abroad, mainly to Cyprus, for their unions to be recognized under Lebanese law.

The debate over civil marriage resurfaced last week after Interior Minister Raya El Hassan told Euronews that she intended to “open the door for dialogue to recognize optional civil marriage in Lebanon”. The statement was quickly denounced by Dar el-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon. Since then, El Hassan, who is Sunni, has been silent on the issue. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who once voiced support for civil marriage, also changed his position, falling back to the old saying that “now is not a good time”.

“In a country claiming to be democratic, it is high time to launch such a dialogue. Nevertheless, this debate should not turn into a conflict between the civil society and the clergy or even between the secular State and religious authorities,” Ibrahim Traboulsi, a lawyer specializing in family law, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

Traboulsi praised the minister of interior’s courageous and forward thinking attitude for raising the subject and pointed to a survey conducted by the newspaper An-Nahar in 2010 that showed that 82 out of Lebanon’s 128 MPs had voiced support for legalizing civil marriage, including Parliamentary Speaker Berri and all MPs from his political bloc.

Civil marriage contracts held up at the ministry

Traboulsi said that El Hassan’s statement may have been motivated by “the many civil marriage contracts concluded in Lebanon that are still held up at her ministry because former Minister Nouhad Machnouk did not ratify them”.

In 2013, Nidal Darwish and Khulud Sukkarieh became the first and only couple to have a civil marriage contract issued in Lebanon after they removed their sectarian affiliations from their civil status records, Traboulsi said. Many other couples soon followed suit, but their marriages have yet to be validated.

"Ms. Hassan simply expressed her willingness to launch a national debate and dialogue," Traboulsi continued.

In response, Dar al-Fatwa reiterated the position put forward by Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani in 1998 when he lobbied then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri to not sign a bill that would have legalized civil marriage. The Council of Ministers had approved the bill by a vote of 21 to seven. But Qabbani issued a fatwa against civil marriage, and under pressure from Sunni religious authorities, backed by all religious institutions, both Christian and Muslim, Hariri did not sign the bill or send it to parliament.

“In 2019, the opposition is still coming from the Muslim community, as it did in 1998, particularly from the highest Sunni authority,” Traboulsi said.

“Today, the Christian clergy no longer hesitates to announce their support of civil marriage,” he continued, adding that in 2011 the Maronite Patriarch voiced his support for mandatory civil marriage, and just last week, Bechara al-Rahi, the current Maronite Patriarch, reiterated this position.

The Muslim community’s opposition to civil marriage likely stems from the fact that the bills introduced on the subject include articles that go against Muslim principles and rules of sharia regarding inheritance, polygamy and adoption, according to Traboulsi. Civil marriage statutes would prevent polygamy, allow adoption and provide for equal inheritance between men and women.

Giant steps

There are currently 35 bills on personal status that have been submitted to parliament and not yet taken up for discussion. Using the term “optional” in these bills when referring to civil marriage gives “freedom to believers… whether to adhere to this system or not,” Traboulsi said.

But the Muslim community completely rejects the concept of civil marriage whether it is conducted in Lebanon or abroad and regardless of if it is optional or mandatory.

For Traboulsi, the current Lebanese law authorizing civil marriage abroad is not fair toward Muslims. “A Lebanese couple, where the two parties are Muslim, who opt for a civil marriage abroad, has no choice but to adhere to sharia law in case of conflict,” he explained.

This also applies to Darwish and Sukkarieh who entered into a civil marriage contract in Lebanon in front of a public notary. “Even though the minister of interior at the time, Marwan Charbel, ratified their contract, their union will still be governed by sharia law in case of conflict,” Traboulsi added.

Still, the couple broke a taboo and set a precedent by forcing the authorities to recognize their union.

Traboulsi, however, is not optimistic about the possibility that Lebanese politicians will go against religious authority and legalize civil marriage. “As long as Muslims continue to oppose even optional civil marriage, I don’t see how this can change,” he said.

He added, however, that civil society has contributed to making giant steps forward when it comes to child custody, alimony and especially domestic violence.

The victory on domestic violence came with the adoption of a law in 2014 that protected battered women and abused and out of school children. It is now no longer the responsibility of religious authorities to protect these people, but up to civil courts, and therefore the state, Traboulsi said, adding that the law provoked anger from the clergy when it was adopted.

At the time, religious authorities accused the government of taking away their powers and prerogatives. For the standoff between the clergy and advocates of civil marriage to be overcome, it is important to launch a national debate or even hold a vote on the issue, Traboulsi concluded.

(This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of February)

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