A Legal Guide To Being A Lebanese Woman (Part 1)
For the past four years I have been researching the histories and the applications of the Lebanese legal system.
An understanding of this legal system, which is the architecture of the Lebanese state, has been vital to my dissertation. I have spent thousands of hours poring over legal texts and legal histories, putting together the puzzle of how, when, and why laws are promulgated, amended, and put into practice in Lebanon. I have met with countless lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, clerks, and defendants and have spent days on end in courtrooms, judges’ chambers, law offices, and in the living rooms of ordinary citizens in order to better understand how the legal system actually functions. This time has been spent in different branches of the legal system such as religious personal status courts and institutions, civil personal status courts, civil courts of cassation, and criminal courts. I am often shocked by how much I have learned over these past four years. Many of my previously held assumptions on the legal system, the state, and my place in it as a Lebanese citizen, have been challenged.
One of the lessons I have learned is that the previous sentence should have been written as such; “I have learned much about my legal position as a Lebanese Female Sunnite citizen.” Such specificity is vital because Lebanese citizenship is constituted through these two registers of recognition; the sexed and the sectarian. In fact, sex is a more legally salient category than sect because sex-based differentiation saturates most branches of Lebanese law, whereas sect-based differentiation is more legally contained. There is no abstract mass of Lebanese citizens; there are Lebanese male citizens and Lebanese female citizens. The strongest evidence of this fact is a citizenship law that does not allow a majority of the total population to pass citizenship on to their spouses and children. Even more striking, while there has been a successful campaign to remove all sectarian categories from the census registry and the one identification document on which it is recorded, there is no equivalent movement to strike "sex" from either the registry or the three identification papers that it is recorded on. Furthermore, there is a widely circulating public discourse in Lebanon that stresses the necessity of "desectarianizing" the law in order to achieve equality between citizens. There is no similar discourse regarding the need to degender (or de-sex) the legal system. In fact feminist discourses in Lebanon advocate achieving equality between male and female citizens, a discourse that, if it were articulated in sectarian terms (achieving equality between Shiites and Maronites in the law, for example), would be (rightly) viewed as a reentrenchment of political sectarianism. It is necessary to study the legal system as a whole in order to understand the position of male and female citizens vis-a-vis the law and the state. Civil and personal status law together constitute these gendered categories of citizenship, and therefore a focus on one or the other reveals only a partial picture of ways that "the citizen" is produced and practiced in Lebanon.
This week I am posting a chart that I have created highlighting sex- based differentiation in a number of branches of the Lebanese legal system. I had to be choosy; I could not include, on the pages of Jadaliyya, the differentiation across all branches of civil law or across the 16 different personal status laws operating in lebanon. Furthermore, the chart does not reflect the most important lesson I have learned throughout my research; that the law on paper does not always look like the law in practice. A number of the listed legal articles are rarely used by lawyers or judges in prosecuting, defending or adjudicating a case, but the important thing is that they can be because they are still on the books. Moreover, we should not assume that law is the only vector of power being performed in court rooms. Women often win cases against male plaintiffs who technically have more rights according to the law. They win by employing other technologies of power, such as their class position, their personal connections, or by gaining the sympathy of the judges, clerks, and legal secretaries who know the legal price of sex that women pay in Lebanon. Unfortunately, until the laws are ammended or better yet, until sex based differentiation is abolished in Lebanese law, women (those who can) will be forced to rely on these informal avenues of power in order to attain a modicum of legal equity.
Part two will analyze the different legal positions occupied by married and unmarried women in civil law.