Just Intermarried: Mixed-ethnicity Couple Rekindles Struggle for Civil Marriage in Lebanon

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"I hereby rule that any Muslim decision-maker in Lebanon, whether part of the legislative or executive branch, who agrees to pass a civil marriage law, will be considered as one who has rebelled against the Islamic faith. One should not wash his corpse or wrap him in a shroud, one should not pray for him and he shall not be buried in a Muslim cemetery."

This strident religious ruling from Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, Lebanon's grand mufti, is shaking up the country no less – and perhaps more – than the sectarian clashes in the north of the country, the influx of Syrian refugees and Lebanon's upcoming election.

The spark that prompted Qabbani to write the ruling was the wedding of Nidal Darwish, a Sunni Muslim man, and Kholoud Sukkarieh, a Shi'ite Muslim woman.

The two had decided, with the blessings of their families, to wed in a civil ceremony rather than a religious one. Moreover, in the absence of laws governing civil marriage in Lebanon, they could not choose an ethnicity in their national identity cards, where they are now registered as having no religion. That was the only way they could benefit from an injunction passed in 1936 that allows couples who claim no religion to get married in a civil ceremony in the country.

Lebanon, a multicultural country with 18 recognized ethnic groups, does recognize civil marriages that take place abroad. Like their Israeli counterparts, Lebanese couples who don't want to undergo a religious ceremony hop over to Cyprus for the weekend, get married in a civil ceremony and go back home to celebrate with their family and friends. This wary balance between church and state, which has been the status quo for decades, has been the subject of much public criticism and political struggles in a country that underwent a 15-year civil war.

Civil marriage in Lebanon is not just a matter of religious belief or human rights. The tremendous political importance attributed to the demographics of each of the country's ethnicities has to do with the fact that this population data is used to determine which ethnic groups can claim which seats of power in the government, from the Maronite Christian president to the Sunni prime minister and the Shi'ite speaker of the parliament. This gives the leaders of the various ethnic groups a powerful motive to minimize intermarriage, not just to keep their group homogeneous but also to gain or maintain political power.

If a civil marriage law were to be passed, it would likely dislodge the delicate demographic equilibrium, which would in turn disrupt the balance of power at the top of the country's leadership. It should be no surprise, then, that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman quickly dived in to the tumultuous waters of the marriage between Darwish and Sukkarieh. As a Maronite Christian who has seen the standing of Christians in Lebanon drop, he tweeted that a civil marriage law must be passed because it is a very important step in eradicating sectarianism and solidifying national unity.

A few hours later a Facebook group called "Together for civil marriage in Lebanon" was opened, which got more than 32,000 members within a short time. Dozens of pictures of mixed-ethnicity couples and marriage ceremonies in Cyprus were posted, along with invitations to conferences on passing a civil marriage law. "In Lebanon members of one ethnicity are allowed to kill members of another ethnicity, they're just not allowed to love or marry each other," wrote one commenter.

Unsurprisingly, there was opposition, with some of those against civil marriage saying proponents were encouraging prostitution and damaging the foundations of society.

This isn't the first time a civil marriage proposal has been raised in Lebanon. Since 1951 politicians and civil rights activists have been trying to promote such a law, but it has always been rejected, primarily by Muslim religious scholars. The last time the proposal came up it was then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, later assassinated in 2005. He deferred finalizing the government's approval of the law, saying the time was not yet ripe.

Is the time ripe yet for civil marriage in Lebanon? For Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the answer is clear: No. In three of his own tweets, two in Arabic and one in English, Mikati made that much clear. "The current priorities at this time do not allow us to address controversial topics," he wrote in Arabic, adding that the issue requires nationwide approval. National consensus, though, is the last thing that can be reached right now in Lebanon, which fears that the fighting in Syria could drag it into another civil war as well.

Meanwhile, Darwish and Sukkarieh continue to be regarded as heroes, even though their marriage is not yet officially registered. Their decision to give up on noting their respective ethnicities on their identity cards is indeed an act of courage, since without such a designation neither can qualify for a senior government job, for example. But without a law and orderly regulations, there is no legal way to register their marriage.

What might help them is public pressure, which supporters of civil marriage hope to attract through the petition being circulated on Facebook that calls on Suleiman to approve the Darwish-Sukkarieh marriage and advance a civil marriage law.

If we continue to belong to an ethnic group, we will remain a minority forever. Only when we belong to a nation, will we be a true majority, and will we have a true homeland called Lebanon, the organizers of the petition wrote. They are aiming to collect 10,000 signatures, and 3,330 people have already signed.

It would be interesting to see whether Israel ever takes its cue from Lebanon.

Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish, a Shi'ite-Sunni couple in Lebanon.Credit: AP
Israeli brides throw up their bouquets after exchanging marriage vows in a mass civil ceremony in Cyprus in 2011.Credit: AP

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