Since the Claiming Equal Citizenship campaign was launched back in 2002, the WLP partners have spent endless hours meeting with and lobbying politicians. In several countries where the Partnership is active, the message did get through to politicians, and nationality laws were either fully or partially reformed, allowing women to transmit their nationality to their children and, in the case of Algeria, to their spouses as well. In seemingly open and liberal Lebanon, dialogue with politicians has been the most challenging. Indeed, in this country divided and ruled by confessional communities, talking about and acting on gender equality is quasi impossible. Indeed, in the past few months, the political elite failed the women’s movement by sinking a bill on protecting women from domestic violence. This is consistent with the state’s persistent determination to refuse to put in place a quota for women’s political participation, which is totally consistent with its earlier position in refusing a proposal to introduce “optional” civil marriage for those citizens who want to opt out from the oppressive confessional system that has long ruled people’s lives. Hence, Lebanon always showed tenacity in resisting to bring about any serious reform that would address entrenched gender discrimination in all aspects of life… until very recently….
In September 2011, newly appointed Minister of Labor, Dr. Charbel Nahhas, an economist and anthropologist by training, responded to the pressing demands of the Claiming Equal Citizenship campaign and issued a ministerial decree based on the recognition of women’s citizenship rights, as well as the duties of the state vis-à-vis women, and put in place measures which would recognize the right to work of non-Lebanese spouses and children of Lebanese women (in a country that still does not allow women to transmit nationality). The Minister had gone against the tide and acknowledged that, since the greater powers are not willing to change the discriminatory nationality law in Lebanon, he is nevertheless able to bring about changes within his own Ministry.
This week, the Claiming Equal Citizenship campaign in Lebanon had an extended audience with the Minister. Since the new ministerial decree had come into effect, the campaign, which operates a legal aid unit, was loosely monitoring the implementation of the decree, the experiences of women in dealing with it, and the gaps in implementation. Three activists in the campaign met with the Minister and shared testimonies about women’s experiences in dealing with the new decree. In the history of interface with politicians in Lebanon, rarely has the campaign had a candid and productive encounter with a senior decision maker in the Cabinet which resulted, among other things, in establishing a liaison whereby our monitoring of the implementation of the new decree will be continuously fed into the Minister’s office in order to highlight problems and hurdles that women may face, including cases of corruption or mishandling.
The aim of the campaign is indeed the radical reform of the law and the full recognition of women’s citizenship rights. This goal has yet to be achieved. However, this recent experience has indeed indicated that everybody can do something for equality if they really want to. One wonders, for instance, why the Ministers of Education and Public Health do not follow suit by recognizing the basic rights and entitlements of education and health care for the non-Lebanese spouses and children of Lebanese women?
Beyond the myth of and obsession with demographic balance that many a politician in Lebanon has put forward as being the obstacle to reforming Lebanon’s shamefully discriminatory nationality laws, the real reason lies in the patriarchal make-up of this country, which permeates the mindset of many of its citizens and decision makers alike. The way to equality remains long and fraught with hurdles. However, our interaction with the current Minister is nevertheless an example of what is possible when we are able to free ourselves from the tyranny of patriarchy.