BEIRUT — Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish weren’t interested in making legal history when they got engaged last year. She’s a Sunni Muslim and he is Shia, and like many interfaith couples in this part of the world who don’t want to convert, they planned to get married outside their home country. Then, at a photography workshop, Sukkarieh met a lawyer with a cause and an intriguing proposal: Would she and her fiancé be interested in using their wedding to do something radical?
Last November, they tied the knot before a willing notary, becoming the first couple in the history of Lebanon to marry in a nonreligious ceremony. In January they embarked on what promises to be a long, fraught challenge to the legal status quo, using an obscure provision of old colonial law to demand that the Lebanese government officially recognize their marriage.
What sounds like a simple thing in the West—a civil marriage with a judge or a notary presiding, and no religious contract—is a near-impossibility in the Middle East. Their marriage, and the controversy it has triggered here, shines a light on a crucial but unappreciated way in which this region differs from much of the rest of the world. Lebanon, like almost all the Arab states, most Islamic countries, and Israel, simply doesn’t have civil laws for matters of personal status.
The effects of this difference percolate deeply through society. In the West and Asia, marriage and family law have evolved to reflect broader changes in society, even when religious authorities don’t agree. Civil codes have adapted to the rise of divorce, developed custody standards that are fairer to women, and are now starting to recognize the rights of same-sex couples and their children.
In the Middle East, on the other hand, the laws governing marriage, inheritance, and sometimes even citizenship move only when religious authorities allow, which means they’ve remained almost entirely static during the last century. They stifle identity and cause countless problems for families whose members might include different faiths or different nationalities; for couples that want to divorce; for women, who often have far fewer rights than men under religious codes; and for people who want to equitably share their inheritance with their daughters.
Sukkarieh and Darwish, and the civil-law advocates who support them, see their marriage only as a beginning. By forcing the state of Lebanon to recognize their union, they hope to catalyze a broader movement to grant people a legally recognized personal life outside the umbrella of religion—and establish a clear civil sphere outside the influence of clerics. In doing so, they are flying straight into the teeth of a countervailing trend: the rise of political Islam.
“We want political life to be 100 percent secular,” Sukkarieh explained one recent evening in the garden at Fitness Zone, the gym where her husband works as a receptionist. “I’m not afraid to question a sheikh. It’s time for the politicians to stop being afraid of clerics.”
Middle Eastern marriage and family law is, ironically, the legacy of what was once a very progressive idea. Over the centuries that the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, it presided over an astonishing patchwork of minorities, including sizable populations of Jews and Christians. The Ottoman Sultans, cosmopolitan Muslims based in Istanbul, took the open-minded approach of granting Jews, Christians, and other minority sects the right to govern their own personal affairs. Separate religious courts governed the private lives of different religious communities.
Ottoman rule crumbled in the 19th century, replaced by European colonial powers, and finally by independent states in the 20th century. As these emerged, new ideas jostled to replace the old balance of cleric and state. Islamist philosophers argued for a more rigid system governed entirely by Islam, while secular nationalists argued for new modern civil governments. Most of the Arab states ultimately moved toward more religious legal codes, though some, like Iraq and Syria, were resolutely secular for a time. Lebanon inherited some secular legal precepts from the French mandate period, which ended in 1943. But most of the former empire fell back on the Ottoman notion that, where personal life is concerned, each religion should govern its own.
For at least two generations, the laws of religious sects have controlled personal status matters almost everywhere. (One exception was Tunisia, where a secular dictator in 1956 implemented a progressive secular code that gave women equal rights.) Even in states that have some civil rules, Islamic law trumps them for Muslims. In Christian communities, clerics hold sway over family life with such strict and antiquated codes that many of the dwindling number of Christians in the Arab world have converted to Islam, which has comparatively simple procedures for divorce. Israel offers more of the same, with the most conservative ultra-Orthodox sect in charge of sanctioning marriages—and even of certifying who counts as a Jew. This has created some strange scenarios: One of the few ways that Israelis and Lebanese cross paths with each other, as citizens of two nations that have technically been at war nonstop since 1948, is in Cyprus, where package tour operators fly couples from both countries who must leave home to hold a civil marriage ceremony.
The result is a patchwork of laws where neighbors may have entirely different marriage rights and interfaith couples face myriad complications. For many communities it blocks any attempt to secure equal rights for women, and curtails the rights of people who consider themselves secular or nonbelievers. Ultimately, it creates a vast zone of activity that’s solely the province of clerics and off limits to the state.
There have been occasional bursts of reform, including a brief period during the 1950s and 1960s when secular regimes in Egypt and Syria appeared to have momentum on their side. In the years before recent the Arab uprisings, civil law advocates made some headway. Egypt reformed divorce laws to fix some of the most imbalanced practices, including custody rulings that almost universally favored fathers over mothers. Algeria gave women substantial rights to pass citizenship to their children. Saudi Arabia reluctantly began to consider giving children born to a Saudi mother and a foreign father—previously treated as complete foreigners—a chance to win legal residency in the kingdom.
Today, though, even those small steps are imperiled, as Islamists all over the region press for political power. In Egypt they are seeking to roll back the limited rights to divorce that women earned in the last decade. Some have also asked to lower the age of marriage from its current minimum of 18 and to limit the rights of religious minorities and women to run for high political office.
Though such extreme propositions appear unlikely to become law right away, Islamists have successfully shifted the political dialogue in most of the region. In Iraq, a new constitution written after the US invasion raised the status of Islam in the legal code, and sectarian officials have gained vast new powers over both the personal and the political. Libya’s new leader in his first speech legalized polygamy, which had been banned by Khadafy. Tunisia’s progressive personal status code, which gave women equal rights and cut clerics out of personal status matters, is under attack.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the history, when civil-law advocates look for a model legal regime they turn to Turkey. What was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire is now the only country to have completely scrapped its religious rules for a civil code that applies equally to all citizens—although there, too, Islamists are gradually chipping away at the state’s secular bedrock.
Lebanon, where Sukkarieh and Darwish live, has been an especially fertile ground for secular challenges to clerical control. This small country is notorious for the entrenched factionalism of its 18 sects—Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other smaller offshoots—whose animosity was inflamed during the civil war from 1975 to 1990. But it also has a deep tradition of interfaith cooperation, a powerful secular civil society built on the region’s best universities, and the Arab world’s most thriving independent nonprofit sector.
Even so, it remains bound by the region’s assumptions about the role of religion in civic life. In Lebanon, candidates run for office based on their sect. Public sector jobs are handed out by sect. Voting is regulated by sect. And naturally, marriage, divorce, and inheritance are controlled by religious codes.
Today, a small but vociferous group of activists is pushing against this. They include lawyers from prominent political dynasties, feminists, activists for political reform, frustrated youth, and working-class believers like Sukkarieh. Parallel movements exist all over the Middle East among urban elites and occasionally in rural villages.
Like Sukkarieh and Darwish, these advocates see civil marriage as a proxy for something bigger: a truly secular state.
“Only a secular regime guarantees freedom, even freedom of religion,” says Lina Abou-Habib, who runs a Beirut-based NGO that pushes for women’s rights around the region. One of their many campaigns hopes to force Arab governments to allow women to pass citizenship to their children—a right currently reserved, in most places, for men alone. Abou-Habib says the hegemony of clerics has led to absurdity. She’s a Greek Orthodox Christian married to a Sunni Muslim; under the prevailing legal code, since she hasn’t converted, if she were to die now her daughter wouldn’t even be able to inherit her car.
For Sukkarieh and Darwish, getting their marriage registered with the state has become a consuming second career. So far the government has withheld legal recognition of their marriage contract, but courts have recognized it—which, in Lebanon’s complicated bureaucracy, is looking like a victory for the couple. And the larger argument appears just to be beginning. Lebanon’s president came out on Twitter in favor of civil marriage; the billionaire prime minister opposed it. At the end of January, the top Sunni cleric threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported civil marriage, but the richest and most powerful Sunni politician said he supported civil marriage and opposed the mufti.
Meanwhile, other couples say they intend to follow their lead as soon as the issue is resolved. A Lebanese journalist has tentatively scheduled a group civil wedding for more couples in April, assuming the pathbreaking marriage successfully wins formal recognition this month.
It’s been 70 years since some Lebanese started talking about civil marriage, and no couple has gotten as far as Sukkarieh and Darwish. At a time when the future of the Arab state is being vigorously contested by empowered citizens around the region, secular activists have been buoyed by the unexpected landmark in Lebanon. It’s premature to read too much into it; after all, Islamists are sweeping to power in elections all over, and it could take decades for their own internal schisms and inconsistencies to create openings for a strong secular alternative. But the civil marriage faction hopes to build that, one family at a time. “We didn’t expect it,” Sukkarieh said, “but we’ve rejuvenated civil society.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.