BEIRUT (AFP) – The thousands of women parading along Lebanon’s sunny beaches this summer in skimpy bikinis or strolling the city’s pavements in miniskirts or shorts will all technically be breaking the law.
More than 60 years after the tiny Mediterranean country gained independence from France, its penal code is still bogged down with archaic laws, some of which date back to the Ottoman Empire.
“Some laws have not been amended for decades,” Judge John Azzi, an advocate for women’s rights, told AFP.
“It is as though nothing has changed” since Ottoman and French rule over Lebanon, when the country’s laws were passed, Azzi added.
One 1941 law, for example, still prohibits women from donning a two-piece and hitting the beach.
Their punishment? A fine of 250 Lebanese-Syrian pounds — a currency that no longer exists.
While such laws may prompt laughter among some people, others say they could also be viewed as appropriate among conservative societies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“If you ask the opinion of more conservative people, these laws are not at all shocking,” said MP Ghassan Mokhayber, who sits on parliament’s administration and justice committee.
However, some laws are outdated by any standards.
Lebanon has not yet introduced into its legal system words such as “Alzheimer’s”, “Parkinson’s”, or even “coma”.
Instead, judges use the words “insane” or “fool” for the person in question — as did their predecessors in the days of Ottoman rule over Lebanon from 1513 to 1918.
“How can these terms still be used today in the 21st century? It’s incompatible with the evolution of science,” Azzi said.
“An archaic law is like expired medicine: after the expiration date it becomes harmful. The law becomes unjust.”
A rapist, for example, is let off the hook if he marries his victim, and the perpetrators of “crimes of honour” may benefit from “extenuating circumstances.”
Mokhayber said legislators have shown no interest in changing the outdated laws and that they are largely to blame for maintaining the status quo.
“Parliament is just not that dynamic,” he told AFP. “There must always be some sort of pressure, generally political, to get things moving.”
Legal experts are especially critical of laws on personal status in Lebanon, which are still micro-managed by the courts of the country’s 18 religious communities and which in some cases draw on the 1917 Ottoman family laws.
“Another completely absurd law is one which recognises civil marriage while prohibiting the actual ceremony on Lebanese soil,” Azzi said.
“It’s both tragic and comic when a judge can divorce such couples ‘in the name of the Lebanese people’ but ‘under the law of Sweden, France, Cyprus’,” he added.
A 1925 law still forbids women who marry foreigners from passing citizenship on to their children or spouses.
Another can land women in prison for two years for adultery — even without being “caught in the act”, a prerequisite for adulterous men to be indicted.
Perhaps more troubling is the way the law is sometimes applied.
“A judge once punished a group of people who did not have identity cards on them while they walked along the beach,” said lawyer Paul Morcos, who heads the private consultancy firm Justicia.
But the authorities have gradually begun to make changes, with women being recently allowed to open bank accounts on behalf of their children.
Another improvement in personal status records is the decision to remove the word “bastard” from the identity cards of children born out of wedlock.
And last year, in an unprecedented move in sectarian Lebanon, the interior ministry allowed Lebanese to have their religion removed from their civil records.
As for shorts and bikinis, these are unlikely to disappear any time soon, archaic laws or not.
“You have women who are half naked in nightclubs and on the street and we’re talking about shorts here,” said Roula Nehme, 31, a manager at a Beirut restaurant.
“If anything, women are showing more and more flesh and nothing will stop them from doing so.”