Wedding bells are ringing out for change in Lebanon. On 10 November 2012 Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish became the first couple in Lebanon to tie the knot by way of civil marriage. They were married before a notary in Beirut, after having their respective sects removed from their official documents, the only way the bride and groom could marry in Lebanon without the religious authorities officiating. Under Lebanese law, marriages can only be performed by a religious authority, such as a church or Islamic court. In Lebanon civil marriage does not officially exist, yet.
For a long time the marriage question in Lebanon has not been; to marry, or not to marry, but where to marry and according to which religion and its corresponding laws. In the religiously ring-fenced legal system of Lebanon, finding the answer to that question can take months and piles of paperwork, often enough to intimidate any couple looking for loop-holes.
But pioneers Kholoud and Nidal succeeded in concluding the first non-religious marriage after establishing their marriage contract on a 1936 law that allows civil marriage for those with no religious affiliation.
The easier option would have been to marry abroad. Many Lebanese couples travel to nearby Cyprus to conduct their civil ceremonies, registering it afterwards with the Lebanese Interior Ministry. This quick fix also ensures that the couple avoids Lebanon’s sectarian personal status laws once they are married, as the law of jurisdiction in the country where the marriage was celebrated applies.
The Interior Ministry has yet to register the Succariyeh-Darwish marriage. All official marriages are registered in the personal status registry held at the bureau of the Interior Ministry. Because everything in Lebanon is tied up to religion, there are currently no laws in place to govern a civil marriage. There is no legislation covering custody and alimony, inheritance and other personal status issues for civil marriage.
Nonetheless, Kholoud and Nidal’s attempt at civil marriage reignited the debate over non-religious marriages in Lebanon. Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri saluted the couple’s courageous step in several official statements and tweets. Prime Minister Mikati was less enthusiastic and tweeted that “The current priorities at this time do not allow us to address controversial topics.”
Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Qabbani as well as the Higher Shi’a Council expressed their strong opposition to civil marriage; Qabbani issued a ruling stating that “any Muslim decision-maker in Lebanon, whether part of the legislative or executive branch, who agrees to pass a civil marriage law, will be considered as one who has rebelled against the Islamic faith.” Christian leaders and the Council of Maronite Bishops appeared to be less riled over the matter and stated that civil and religious marriages “could go hand in hand.” Advocates of civil marriage say it is a right that should be enjoyed by Lebanese in Lebanon, especially given the fact that the Lebanese state recognizes civil marriages when conducted abroad.
The juncture of law and religion in Lebanon has caused huge division among its citizens, who are treated differently under the law according to sect. Each of the eighteen recognized sects in Lebanon has its own personal status regulations. These diverging personal status laws ensure that Lebanon remains a religiously ghettoized society. The delayed construction of a civil legal system—or even an optional personal status system that would govern personal status matters outside the religious sphere—has deepened these rifts.
Divorce laws are equally divisive. In Islamic law marriage is considered to be a civil contract and can be dissolved by divorce. By contrast, most Christian denominations in Lebanon consider marriage to be a holy institution, which cannot be dissolved by human will. Lebanese divorce laws often increase the likelihood of extra-marital affairs as unhappy couples stay together to avoid the costly, and in some cases impossible dissolution of religious marriages.
In a striking decision dated 11 February 2013, The Lebanese Supreme Council of the Judiciary approved Nidal and Kholoud’s marriage. The Council passed a measure to permit civil marriage for Lebanese couples not belonging to any of the eighteen officially recognized sects, according to the law of their choice, and that notary public officers are endorsed to hold such marriages. However the Supreme Council’s decision is not binding, the issue is now being referred to the Interior Ministry for approval.
Private initiative has pushed Lebanon’s legislators and government to do what they are entrusted to do in the first place; legislate when needed. Instead of forcing Lebanese citizens to shop abroad for a foreign civil legal system, Lebanese legislators should pool their effort towards ending this infringement to the principle of the sovereignty of the state. Kholoud and Nidal have paved the way towards, not only civil legislation for marriage, but a sovereign, secular state for all Lebanese.