Lebanon’s legal system is a potent and pervasive source of inequality. The Constitution purports to guarantee equality before the law regardless of religion or gender. However, Lebanese citizens face different judicial fates depending on their sects or their sex, and for women the principle of equality is regularly breached. Lebanon’s 18 religiously based sects maintain legislative and judicial autonomy over personal status and family laws, and confessional affiliation is defined on a patrilineal basis. This is not optional but part and parcel of being a Lebanese citizen.
Despite ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, the Lebanese state maintains reservations to provisions that ensure women’s equality in legislation governing the acquisition of nationality, marriage and family relations (Article 9, Paragraph 2 and Article 16, Paragraphs 1 (c), (d), (f) and (g)). Discrimination against women remains in the National Law, penal code and personal status laws. This legal landscape underpins women’s limited participation in the country’s political life.
Key areas of personal and family law perpetuate power dynamics to disadvantage women, in areas of marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance. For example, Muslim men may practice polygamy and also marry non-Muslim women, whereas Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims. Sunni and Shia men may easily divorce their wives without due legal process while for a wife it is very hard to file for divorce, even for serious reasons. Sunni and Shia husbands can further revoke divorce and demand a wife’s return.
Child custody and guardianship is the legal right of the father, and in the event of the father’s death most sects pass custody to male kin. When it comes to inheriting parents’ property, Muslim sons are entitled to twice what their sisters are. If a Sunni family has only daughters then the male cousins are entitled to a portion of the inheritance.
The Lebanese penal code also discriminates against women and leaves them unprotected. A wife can be accused of adultery at any time and under any circumstances while a man will only be tried if it occurs in the conjugal home or in the case of an established extramarital relationship. A wife committing adultery is punishable with a sentence from three months to two years, while for the same crime the husband faces only one month to a year. A woman can be forced into sex by her husband without legal consequence. Furthermore, the rape of a virgin by means of deception is potentially subject only to a fine and the law provides impunity to a rapist who marries his victim. Nationality laws transmit citizenship from the father. Women cannot transmit their nationality to their husbands or children, apart from in exceptional cases. But men can transfer Lebanese nationality to their spouse within a year of submitting the relevant paperwork.
The relationship of a Lebanese woman to her context is dependent on and mediated by male relatives with serious implications for her sense of belonging, her autonomy and her security. Since 2009, there has been a strong public demand to place law in conformity with constitutional principles of equality. This has been expressed in a public campaign, Jinsiyâtî (‘my nationality’), and supported by NGOs such as Al-Masâwa al-Ân (Equality Now).