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LEBANON: Could a New Civil Law Unify a Divided Society?

BEIRUT, Jan 25 2012 (IPS) - Odette Klysinska, a Catholic French native, sits in her living room in an affluent neighbourhood in Beirut, clutching her will in one hand, shocked to learn that it is no longer legally valid in the country she now calls home.

Klysinska is married to a Druze – a member of Lebanon’s minority religious community – and is suffering the brunt of the country’s ‘personal law status’, which prohibits Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites from bequeathing possessions or property to offspring of different faiths.

“How can a mother be banned from providing for her own children in death? It’s inconceivable,” she told IPS in disbelief.

Lebanon’s personal law, which includes marriage, inheritance and divorce, is ruled by ten different religious codes applied to 17 religious sects, with several of the country’s religious groups falling under one single jurisdiction.

The law is a byproduct of both Ottoman and colonial history, according to the Lebanese lawyer Amal Takieddine, and the site at which many of the country’s bloody wars were seeded.

She explains that the Ottoman empire of the 1830s gave four religious groups – Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims – exclusive authority over family law.

By the 1900s, European powers expanded the number of recognised sects in Lebanon to 17, further embedding civil freedoms into the hands of a few religious leaders.

Thus Klysinska is not alone in her ordeal. Scores of individuals from a diverse range of faiths and backgrounds have fallen victim to the rigid and divisive legislation.

Hassan, who chose not to disclose his full name, is a member of the Sunni community, which forbids wills and only allows women to receive a specified fraction of a family’s inheritance, leaving the rest in the hands of sons.

The father of a 20-year-old girl, Hassan was forced to convert to a Shiite to enable his daughter to inherit his wealth and properties.

Nibal Khodr, a young Druze, faced an equally difficult situation when her husband died in a motorcycle accident and she was refused sole legal guardianship of her child.

Now, every financial decision she makes on behalf of her underage son requires the stamp of approval of a local Druze cleric, or sheikh.

“The Lebanese personal law system is archaic and treats people as subhumans. Thankfully, I have a foreign nationality that gives me some sort of protection,” she asserted.

According to Tony Daoud, director of CHAML (Non-sectarian Nonviolent Youth Lebanese Citizens), most Lebanese religious laws deny mothers sole custody of their children after the death of their spouse. In addition, their limited rights can be easily revoked under claims of a “doubtful reputation,” or if they choose to remarry.

Lebanese personal laws also stifle basic freedoms, such as the right to decide how to dispose of a deceased loved one’s remains. Lebanese Muslim and Orthodox communities, for example, do not allow cremation, even if the deceased explicitly requested it in writing in a will. The practice is, however, accepted by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

“This situation has produced a lack of equality between people and promotes confusion,” Takieddine stressed.

Unlike the laws that prevent the Catholic Klysinska from writing her Druze daughter into her will, the Druze themselves are free to allocate their inheritance to whomever they please. In the absence of a will, inheritance issues refer back to Islamic law, which strictly prescribes that male descendents are entitled to twice the share of wealth as their female relatives.

Christian churches, on the other hand, treat both sexes equally in their blanket inheritance laws.

“The absence of a clear-cut law that applies to everyone prompts people to seek out loopholes in existing legislation, like converting to a different religion or selling assets to their offspring while still alive,” Takieddine added.

In an attempt to reform the system, CHAML has contributed to a new civil draft law tackling issues of civil marriage, adoption and inheritance, which was submitted to the Lebanese parliament in 2011 and is currently under review by a parliamentary committee.

Unsurprisingly, religious groups like the Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni Hez al Tahrir have expressed strong opposition to the proposal, which they claim “contradicts sacred Shariah law.”

But “A civil law for personal status is one of the main pillars of a civil and unified state,” Takieddine argued, adding that a multiplicity of personal laws has created a society in which individuals identify more closely with religious communities than with the state itself, giving the former greater control over civil liberties.

“Any feelings of kinship and loyalty in society are focused on religious groups,” Takieddine stressed. The adoption of a civil law could rectify this problem and also promote much-needed dialogue and unity among communities, which are still recovering from the 15-year-long civil war that raged from 1975-1990.

Civil laws could liberate youth from the sectarian grip of a country divided along religious lines, which might to lead to a relaxation of highly divisive religious affiliations and the unchecked political power of religious groups.

“Many of Lebanon’s wars are deeply rooted in the country’s personal law, which nurtures a sense of fear between members of various communities. Civil marriage and the unification of a civil law could translate into a more stable society that enjoys freedom of choice,” said Daoud.

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