As Americans celebrate Mother’s Day, many mothers around the world are still fighting for basic rights. In 27 countries they are fighting for the right to pass their nationality on to their children. Lebanon, my home country, is one of them. The United Nations’ refugee agency considers it one of the seven worst countries when it comes to safeguards against statelessness.
“We give life, but we can’t give citizenship?” one mother asked at the latest protest held by the campaign for women’s right to citizenship, My Nationality Is a Right for Me and My Family.
This is a reality for every Lebanese woman. A childhood friend of mine, for example, is in a committed relationship with an Englishman she met in Lebanon. They both live there and hope to for many years. She is Lebanese, but her children will not be.
Nor will my future children, unless I marry a Lebanese man. My brother’s children? They will be Lebanese regardless of their mother’s birthplace.
A law dating to 1925 considers the children of Lebanese women who marry non-Lebanese men to be foreigners in their own country. From 2010 to 2013, three nationality-law proposals — one by former Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud — were submitted to the Lebanese parliament. Not only were none of these ever approved, according to Lina Abou Habib, coordinator of the nationality campaign, but parliament also did not even acknowledge receiving them.
The lack of this right undermines Lebanese women’s equal status and dignity as citizens. It has very real consequences for non-Lebanese men’s children in Lebanon, who will forever be considered foreigners in their homeland. Some 76,000 women there are married to non-Lebanese men, according to Abou Habib, citing data from the Ministry of Interior. Not only do the children and spouses require residency permits to remain in the country, but they are also prohibited from working unless they apply for work permits. In recent years these restrictions have been eased by allowing free three-year renewable residency permits for the foreign spouses and children of Lebanese women. But the process of obtaining these is cumbersome and subject to the whim of whichever bureaucrat is in charge of your folder. Moreover, it does not apply to some16,800 women married to Palestinian men and their children, says Abou Habib.
Being stateless means living without existing.
Not having Lebanese citizenship means these children cannot access government services such as public education and health care. Perversely, children born out of wedlock or without known fathers are granted citizenship, leading some Lebanese women to claim their children are fatherless.
The worst consequence of the current nationality law is that some children can end up stateless. If their mothers hold only Lebanese citizenship and their fathers do not have citizenship (which is the case for many Palestinian refugees) or have lost their documents because of war or have no means to register their children in their home country, then the children will be stateless. As such, they will have no official identity documents, no access to government services, no right of movement and no ability to legally work or live in the country. Being stateless means living without existing. Official estimates of the number of stateless women, men and children in Lebanon vary, but the current consensus seems to be about 200,000.
East meets West?
Politicians try to justify this transgression by claiming to be staving off sectarian imbalance. In Lebanon, there is a widespread fear that a wave of nationalization of Palestinian refugees could set off an overwhelming increase in the number of Sunni citizens, aggravating an already precarious situation among Shias, Sunnis and Christians that is only aggravated by the Syrian refugee crisis. Never mind that this fear is apparently irrelevant when Lebanese men marry Palestinian women.
A study conducted by the American University of Beirut showed that the vast majority of Lebanese people surveyed supported Lebanese women’ passing on their citizenship to their Palestinian children and, to a slightly lesser degree, to their Palestinian husbands. Ultimately, as Abou Habib puts it, “The right of Lebanese women should not be a matter of political debate.”
Lebanon is not the only country to prohibit women from passing on their citizenship. It’s not even the only Arab country to do so. But unlike other Arab states, Lebanon considers itself a beacon of liberalism in the Middle East, the place where East meets West. Lebanon cannot claim to uphold Western values while continuing to deny women equal rights.
Countries far less liberal than Lebanon, such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, have made provisions to prevent statelessness. Children of Emirati women and foreign men, for example, can apply for citizenship after they reach the age of 18. Egypt, a country known for its culture of sexism, has granted women the full right to pass their citizenship on to their children.
I am proud to be Lebanese. So is my childhood friend. We identify as such. We want our children to be Lebanese, regardless of who their fathers are. Being Lebanese is being part of a community. It is being part of a people who have a zest for life, a kindness, a humor and a resilience. It is being part of my family. We want to be celebrated in Lebanon on Mother’s Day. But how can we keep ties to a country that creates so many hurdles for our children? How can we instill in them a sense of Lebanese pride if the country won’t acknowledge them as their own?
Lebanese citizens should not consider themselves free and liberal until this issue is resolved. In 2015, women should not have to sacrifice by choosing a spouse over their nationality. We Lebanese must continuously lobby our government to amend the antiquated nationality and ensure our government protects women’s rights.