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On Sept. 30, the young couple who in April obtained the first civil marriage license in Lebanese history announced the birth of their son, Ghadi, to the excitement of friends and family. The child became the first born of a civil marriage in a country where religious authorities have a high degree of control over personal and political matters.
As Ghadi turns one month old, Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish have fronted another historic challenge to their country's sectarian underpinnings by leaving the "sect" field blank on their son's government registration.
Lebanese citizens resentful of their country’s sectarian involvement in personal affairs have been formally striking their religious designation from government records since they were granted the right to do so in 2009. But young Ghadi is the first to be born sect-less, a designation that could have far reaching implications in a country where sect determines everything from who you can marry to whether you can be president.
The couple’s announcement last Saturday that Ghadi had been registered without a sect drew national acclaim from opponents of sectarianism and even the President of Lebanon, who welcomed the unprecedented step on Twitter. “Congratulations to Nidal and Kholoud and to all Lebanese on the birth of Ghadi, the first newborn registered without a sect,” Michel Sleiman said in a Sunday tweet.
The couple know that their decision could send shockwaves across Lebanon – in fact, that was the whole idea.
“When you remove the sect from your ID, you are taking a step forward toward a non-sectarian country where everyone has equal rights,” Sukkarieh told Al Jazeera. “I want my son to be a Lebanese citizen, not the son of a sect.”
Lebanon’s confessionalist system, which apportions high-ranking offices and seats in parliament between the country’s sects, was designed to ward off sectarian conflict between Christians, Sunnis and Shias. The system was codified in 1989 as part of a resolution to end the country's 15-year civil war between Christians and Muslims, in which more than 100,000 people died.
The result has been a fragile political balance led by the president, who must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister, a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament, a Shia. Sectarianism has been the dominant characteristic of Lebanese democracy ever since, and civil society activists say politicians merely pander to their sects rather then strive to lead the entire nation.
But a growing number of Lebanon’s younger generations, including Sukkarieh and Darwish, who view Lebanon’s sectarian tradition as regressive, have worked in recent years to break down barriers in their country.
In April, Sukkarieh, a Sunni Muslim, and Darwish, a Shia, successfully obtained Lebanon’s first civil marriage license, allowing the couple to marry at home despite being from different sects. The achievement came after a protracted legal battle and vehement opposition from sectarian leaders, who worry Lebanon’s sectarian political system could be threatened by such steps.
Now the pioneering couple is tackling first-time parenthood – and their country's sectarian system.
A 'sectarian regime'
Sukkarieh and Darwish began their campaign against Lebanon's sectarian tradition last year, when the mixed-sect couple sought to marry. As with most official procedures in Lebanon, religious communities have long held ultimate sway over marriage rights.
A 1936 decree issued by Lebanon’s French mandate granted religious officials the legal authority to administer marriage licenses – making intermarriage across sects impossible if neither person wanted to convert. For decades, that decree went unquestioned.
Sukkarieh and Darwish did not wish to bow to sectarian tradition but knew of no other option other than marrying outside their home country. That is, until a fortuitous encounter with a pioneering legal expert saved them a flight to Cyprus, where many mixed-sect Lebanese couples have civil ceremonies that are usually recognized back home.
That lawyer, Talal Husseini, had found a loophole in the French decree: Citizens who do not belong “administratively” to one of Lebanon’s 18 sects are instead subject to civil law. Sukkarieh and Darwish, who had both formally removed their sect designation from their family registry, were therefore eligible for civil marriage.
Together they embarked on a drawn-out – and unprecedented – legal battle that culminated on April 25 in a marriage contract signed by the interior minister himself. To an uproar of anti-sectarian fanfare, they became the first couple in the history of Lebanon – and the Arab World – to obtain a civil marriage in their home country.
With the precedent in place, a handful of like-minded couples are expected to follow suit this year. But Ghadi has his place in Lebanese history as the first child to result from a civil marriage in Lebanon.
His parents consider their actions to be important steps in the erosion of what they call Lebanon’s “sectarian regime.”
"It is time for that regime to end,” Darwish said. “It's time for us to move to a civic state that respects all citizens equally, regardless of their sect."
Sukkarieh told Al Jazeera that she knows other couples who plan on leaving the sect line blank on their newborns’ birth certificates. She said in a tweet that her baby's document was just “the first step in the path of hundreds of thousands.”
But that path could climb steeply uphill if the country’s conservative authorities have their way. The couple's civil marriage saga was met with a storm of sectarian rhetoric from religious leaders and high-profile politicians alike. In January, the country’s Sunni Grand Mufti, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, issued a fatwa condemning civil marriage and calling the idea a “germ” in Lebanese society.
“All Muslim men and women and all Muslim (scholars) are duty-bound to prevent such attempts to legalize civil marriage,” Qabbani said.
Lebanon’s Higher Shia council and a handful of political leaders have also voiced their opposition to civil marriage. Prime Minister Najib Mikati called it a “sensitive issue,” and said Lebanon “cannot afford another dispute.”
Activists say the backlash from Lebanon’s political and religious leaders is unsurprising, given that their political power hinges on the de facto support of their sect. The activists say leaders fear that babies born sect-less might be less inclined to identify with their sects' political representatives, and vote independently.
“The sectarian system is a source of material and political power for religious and political figures," said Lamia Osseiran, an activist and member of the Lebanese Civil Center for National Initiative. "They are all benefitting from this. You take that out, they lose all their power."
Sukkarieh and Darwish knew they would upset the status quo in Lebanon when they decided to drop the sect from Ghadi’s registration.
“When you drop the sect, you stop giving deputies power based on their sect,” Sukkarieh said. Instead, “you force him to stand with his own qualifications.”
A new Lebanon
Although polls indicate that at least half of Lebanon supports having a civil marriage option, and that anti-sectarian sentiment is on the rise, fears abound that sect-less babies like Ghadi could face legal and societal discrimination.
Sukkarieh and Darwish, however, say their team of legal experts has assured them Ghadi will not fall through Lebanon’s sectarian cracks, and that he will inherit all his parents’ rights.
“Legally striking out (the sect) does not lead to a loss of inheritance because it means a refusal to make the faith public,” lawyer Husseini told Lebanon’s Daily Star. “It doesn’t mean that if he is Christian or Muslim he stops being Christian or Muslim.”
Sukkarieh admits that some Lebanese have been slow to acknowledge that distinction, and that she and her young family have faced some “social problems.”
“Most people are encouraging us, but some are not able to differentiate between believing in God and putting the sect on the ID,” she said.
But the couple says their families are proud of the decision, and they have been pleasantly surprised by a storm of congratulatory messages on social media.
“It’s one small baby for @KONI16 (Sukkarieh) and @NidalD (Darwish), one giant leap for #lebanese society. Alf mabrouk guys! And thank you,” said Tarek Mnaimne in a Wednesday tweet.
The feedback has encouraged the new parents, who have high hopes that Ghadi will be joined by a wave of sect-less infants in the coming years.
“We are proud of our son," Sukkarieh said. "He and his friends will be the core of a new, non-sectarian Lebanon."