lias Atallah was born to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. Even though he was born and raised in Lebanon, he cannot obtain Lebanese citizenship because Lebanese women who are married to foreigners are not allowed to pass on their nationality to their spouses or their children. The fact that Atallah’s father is Palestinian further complicates matters, as Palestinian refugees have limited rights in Lebanon. Unfortunately, Atallah’s situation is not unique.
Lebanon is home to thousands of children born to Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers who are denied very basic rights. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, face no such restriction. For decades, Lebanese human rights activists have been fighting this act of discrimination by demanding reform of the country’s nationality law; however, it continues to be an uphill battle.
Discriminatory Nationality Laws in the MENA region
A 2018 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) survey of nationality legislation revealed that 25 countries have yet to achieve equality between men and women when it comes to conferring nationality upon children. Over half of these states were in the Middle East and North Africa. These countries include Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. The UNHCR report grouped the nationality laws of the 25 states into three distinct categories.
The countries in the first group have “nationality laws which do not allow mothers to confer their nationality on their children with no, or very limited, exceptions.” The second group provides for “some safeguards against the creation of statelessness,” with some exceptions being made if the father of a child is unknown or stateless. In the third category, the countries “limit the conferral of nationality by women but additional guarantees ensure that statelessness will only arise in very few circumstances.” Lebanon falls in the first category, leaving many children with limited rights in their mothers’ country of origin.
Lebanon’s 1925 nationality law allows the foreign spouses of Lebanese men to obtain citizenship after one year of marriage. The law only grants Lebanese citizenship “to children born to a Lebanese father, those born in Lebanon who would not otherwise acquire another nationality through birth or affiliation, or those born in Lebanon to unknown parents or parents of unknown nationalities.” This law is blatantly discriminatory against Lebanese women, as “children of Lebanese mothers with unknown paternity” have greater rights to citizenship than “those with Lebanese mothers and a known foreign father.”
Lebanon’s citizenship rules affect almost every aspect of the lives of the spouses and children of Lebanese women. Children of these unions can obtain nationality from their fathers. However, if the fathers are from stateless populations, the offspring are in jeopardy of becoming stateless themselves. By not granting the children of Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers citizenship, Lebanon is denying them access to basic rights, including education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.
Lebanon’s Hidden Political Tug-of-War
There is no publicly available data on the number of Lebanese women who have married foreigners, or the number of children affected by Lebanon’s nationality law. Nevertheless, a 2009 UN Development Program-backed study found that there were 18,000 marriages between Lebanese women and foreigners in Lebanon between 1995 and 2008. Another 2012-2013 study conducted by Lebanese human rights organization Frontiers Ruwad Association found that 73 percent of stateless people in Lebanon, who were not of Palestinian origin, were born to Lebanese mothers.
In addition to violating international law, Lebanon’s nationality law violates Article 7 of its own constitution, which guarantees that all Lebanese people are “equal before the law.” For two decades, Lebanese activists have campaigned to amend this legislation. However, their efforts have often been met with resistance from politicians in Beirut, who have suggested that allowing women to confer their citizenship to their spouses and children could undermine the country’s long-term national security interests.
Politicians fear that integrating Lebanon’s large Syrian and Palestinian refugee populations could alter the country’s demography and disrupt the sectarian political power-sharing system. “We’re being told that should women have the right to confer nationality that they are going to ‘destroy’ the delicate sectarian balance of this country, hence leading to another war. This is truly bizarre,” Lina Abou Habib told the Women’s Right to Nationality Group. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stated that this justification is “clearly discriminatory,” as it is not applied to Lebanese men “who marry foreigners—as many as four wives for Muslim men.”
While individual ministries in Lebanon have implemented some incremental changes to increase the access of children of Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers to some elementary rights, such as education and work, they are “piecemeal and subject to change,” according to HRW. Yet, the lack of information about the existing rules and procedures complicates their ability to access these rights. To date, efforts to completely overhaul Lebanon’s citizenship law have failed.
“We used to say that Lebanon is advanced, and women are getting their rights. No, we’re not getting our rights,” Hanadi Nasser, a Lebanese woman married to a foreigner, told HRW. “I’m not going to stop fighting for my rights. No matter what they do. We’re going to keep calling for our rights. We’re Lebanese and so are our children,” Nasser concluded defiantly.
Some hope that Lebanon’s newly-elected government will be more open to reform, as four women were appointed to the country’s cabinet in January, including the first woman in the Arab world to serve as an interior minister. However, even if there is currently no political will to reform Lebanon’s nationality law, the fearless love of the country’s mothers is sure to overturn this discriminatory policy in the future. The call for women’s rights and gender equality is gaining momentum worldwide and someday Lebanon will have to abide by its own constitution, which guarantees equality before the law to all Lebanese regardless of gender or religion.