This February, the US Democratic Senator from Illinois Barack Obama announced that he was running for the American presidency in 2008. Other than being erudite and bright, the 45-year-old Mr. Obama has attracted the media’s attention because of his very un-WASPish background and the fact that he is genuinely African-American: as his “unpronounceable name” (his words) might suggest, Mr. Obama is half- Kenyan; It is his mother who is the American.
So here we have an African applying for the top job in the world. All very well you might say—it’s all in keeping with the wonderful opportunities afforded by the US to immigrants. However, Lebanese mothers whose children were sired by foreign fathers might not instantly applaud Mr. Obama’s ambitions; in fact they would probably be green with envy. Their children cannot even be Lebanese, let alone run for political office. Furthermore, their kids cannot apply for a passport or benefit from state services, such as free health care and education.
Against human rights and the Lebanese Constitution
This is a blatant breach of human rights and a breach of the Lebanese Constitution, according to which men and women are equal before the law. Unfortunately, this is the same law that declares a Lebanese citizen to be “a child born to a Lebanese man.”
There is no official explanation given as to why only Lebanese men can sire Lebanese citizens. Unofficial reasons include the fear of destabilizing the already delicate sectarian balance due to the many Palestinians who have been residing in Lebanon since 1948. But according to the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A), a Beirut-based NGO that contributes to the social development of local communities across the Arab world, less than 1% of registered marriages in Lebanon are to Palestinian men, a statistic that renders that argument null and void. As for the supposedly hair-trigger Lebanese sectarian system, well, that broke down decades ago and has been in constant shift ever since. In other words, there is no “delicate balance” to uphold.
The fact is that all the arguments given are merely excuses. The real issue is that women in this country are not really considered citizens. In fact, Lebanon does not even fully comply with the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
That we are not alone in this quagmire offers little comfort. Most countries in the Arab world do not grant women the right to pass on their nationality to their spouse or children. However, there have been changes. Last February, Morocco granted women the right to pass their nationality on to their children. Algeria did the same last year and Egypt two years ago. For a country that brands itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, we are far behind.
It is difficult to pinpoint the social and economic effects of such discrimination against women. Why should the children of foreign women married to Lebanese men, who probably do not even live in the country, be considered more Lebanese than children reared in Lebanon, who speak Arabic and attend Lebanese schools and are, in natural fact, Lebanese in all but name?
Many obstacles to children, society
And get this: While American sociologists and economists ponder the effects of the increasing number of women leaving the workforce, Lebanese women have to worry about their children not being able to enter it. Some progress, albeit very little, has been made (new administrative procedures allow women to give their children the right of abode in Lebanon, although this right also exists for former diplomats to Lebanon who wish to remain in the country). But these children will still have to apply, and pay for, a work permit, putting them at a major disadvantage to their Lebanese peers as employers often think twice about hiring foreigners.
Interestingly enough, if a child is born in Lebanon and declared illegitimate and no foreign link is established, then the Lebanese nationality is theirs. So mothers, don’t take it personally, it’s the father’s fault.
Isn’t it always?