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"Citizenship is everything"

Abigail Fielding-Smith
6 March 2008

As part of our coverage of International Women's Day 2008, Abigail Fielding-Smith meets the women fighting for citizenship rights in Lebanon.

Citizenship, according to one of the Middle East's most effective women's rights campaigners, is everything. Speaking about the challenges posed by the diversity of identities, cultures and religions in the region, LinaAbou Habib, the Director of CRTD-A (a region-wide coalition of NGOs working on gender issues), explains "all we can aspire to isa situation of inclusive citizenship. Everything else is a temporary compromisewithout this".

Although women are guaranteed equal citizenship status by most Arab constitutions, nationality laws discriminate against them. If they marry a non-national, women cannot confer their nationality on to their spouse, and worse, on to their children. Men, by contrast can not only confer their nationality on to their spouse and children, in certain circumstances they can also confer it on to their wives' children from a previous marriage. "Such is the power of the penis" says Habib, rolling her eyes.

Habib helped launch a campaign on this issue in 2002, and since then Algeria, Morocco and Egypt have changed their nationality laws. Ironically, the one country where the campaign is foundering is the one with the most liberal reputation, where CRTD-A is based: Lebanon.

Gilberte Hermann, a Lebanese painter, married a German national and gave birth to their child in Lebanon before the family moved to Germany. When she and her husband separated five years later, she returned to Lebanon with her daughter, who grew up in a Lebanese school, speaking Arabic, thinking of herself as Lebanese. But Jessica, now 17, is not allowed to take the Lebanese baccalaureate that all her friends are taking. When she graduates, she will not be able to practice medicine or law in Lebanon, let alone vote. To get a job in the country she has grown up in, she will have to apply for a work permit. "It's so unfair", says Gilberte. "I don't want her to have to marry a Lebanese guy to get all these things."

The Lebanese government's refusal to grant children like Jessica citizenship is rooted in anxiety about altering the confessional distribution of an already volatile country, with a large (predominantly Sunni Muslim) refugee population. But as Abou-Habib points out, this amounts to a fear of women's susceptibility as much as a fear of upsetting the demographic balance: there is nothing to stop Lebanese men giving citizenship to Palestinian refugees through marriage

"I will fight this until I'm 90" says Gilberte defiantly."And when she is 18, I will tell her (Jessica) to start fighting too". She is doubtful about whether she will see her daughter get Lebanese citizenship in her lifetime. "Not while there are still one million Palestinian refugees here, not until there is peace in the Middle East. But you have to carry on fighting anyway."

Abigail Fielding-Smith is Middle East Editor at IB Tauris Publishers and a freelance writer on Middle East issues. She is currently based in Beirut.

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