No way out: On civil marriage and religious authorities in Lebanon

"My choice is still the same today and I don’t see it changing in the future; I’m adamant on having a civil marriage despite how unattainable it is in Lebanon."

I remember clearly, early on in my life, always saying that if I ever decided to get married, I would have a civil marriage not a religious one. My family would get really upset, but then say “she’ll get over it, she’s too young now to decide anyway.” I don’t know where I got the idea of a civil marriage, given the fact that I lived my entire life in a village, before I moved to the city at 17 years old. My background was always religious and had no space for “outside” thoughts.

My choice is still the same today and I don’t see it changing in the future; I’m adamant on having a civil marriage despite how unattainable it is in Lebanon.

A civil marriage means to be legally married according to the civil court. In Lebanon, there are no civil courts, and therefore no civil marriages. People are forced to marry in religious courts, and their personal lives are forever tied to religious legislation. There is also the issue of personal status laws, which vary based on sect, meaning Lebanon has more than 15 different personal status laws. This leaves most citizens unprotected, and unequal by law.

For example, two people from different religions cannot get married unless one of them converts their religion to the other’s, in order to have a religious marriage. Ironically, not all religions allow this to happen. And that’s not even the worst part of the monopoly religious courts hold.

From a legal perspective, it’s not like there exists a law that explicitly bans civil marriage. The real problem is the existence of an incomplete marriage law. Law 60LR basically does not tell people how to marry civilly, but only states that if someone were to have a civil marriage abroad, it is considered legal in the country. 

In practice, the main civil marriage destinations for Lebanese citizens are Cyprus and Turkey. What this means is that Lebanese citizens are given an ultimatum when it comes to their private and personal lives: either have a civil marriage abroad - something reserved for those who can afford it - or have a religious marriage in Lebanon and subject yourselves to unequal and unfair laws.

The accessibility of civil marriage has negative effects on all Lebanese citizens, but particularly women. For me, the case of Liliane Cheaito is a striking and clear example of how harsh this system can be. Liliane was severely injured after the August 4 Beirut port blast. She is confined to her hospital bed to this day, more than three years later, unable to speak or walk due to a head injury she sustained during the explosion that severely damaged her frontal cortex.

Liliane was prevented from seeing her son Ali for two years after the port blast because she got roped into a custody dispute with her husband. After the injury, Liliane’s husband’s family took her son Ali, and refused to let him see his mother. Even her husband, who barely visited her, only came to see her 25 days after the blast, for only two hours. It wasn’t until a Shi'ite court issued an order recently that she was finally able to see Ali, and she’s only been allowed to see him a few times since then so far. Had she had the chance and the opportunity to get a civil marriage, Liliane could have been protected from the unjust, patriarchal religious laws.

Not a single person from Lebanon’s political elite lifted a finger and stood against the religious court that Liliane belongs to. The state could have stepped in and forced the husband’s family to let their grandchild see his mother. But that cannot happen in a framework where rights are in favor of the husband no matter what the case is. Then again, do we expect anything more from the people who almost killed her by incorrectly storing ammonium nitrate in the port?

In the first half of 2023 alone, nine women were killed by their husbands in Lebanon. The fact that these stories are somewhat “normal” in the news media shows just how unconscious some men are as to what it means to have a loving, and a caring relationship with the women that they are tied to through marriage. The absence of a personal civil status law prevents us from giving these women the justice they deserve, and “matters like these” are resolved within the family or in a religious court.

This year only, I have witnessed 5 of my friends getting a civil marriage abroad, and I wasn’t able to attend any. My closest girlfriends have already made their decision: they’re also getting a civil marriage. In parallel, with all the collapse happening around us, many women and feminist organizations never stopped demanding to amend the law and have civil marriage in Lebanon, only to be met time and time again with complete refusal from religious authorities. I believe that sooner or later it will happen. Other women do too, otherwise they wouldn’t keep up the fight. Meanwhile, we’ll keep getting married abroad, and find loopholes to try to do that locally, and we’ll never rest until we get equal rights, and separate the religious authorities from the civil ones.