The leading role played by women in Lebanon’s protests should come as no surprise. Lebanese women have long been leaders in the country’s protest movements. Indeed, they have often borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance that today’s protesters wish to topple.
For example, while Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s recognized religions, all of them discriminate against women. Autonomous religious courts administer these laws with little or no government oversight and make it more difficult for women than for men to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, to ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, and to secure financial support or settlements from a former spouse.
Under religious personal status laws, Lebanon allows child marriage – including for girls as young as 9. Girls who marry early are more likely to leave school and risk marital rape, domestic violence, poor work opportunities, exploitation, and health problems from early childbearing. But the Lebanese government has yet to change the law or set a standard minimum marriage age of 18.
Lebanon’s outdated nationality law also discriminates against women married to foreigners, by denying citizenship to their children and spouses, but not to the foreign spouses and children of Lebanese men. The law affects families’ legal residency and access to work, education, social services, and health care. It even leaves some children at risk of statelessness. Reforming the law has been a demand of local women’s rights groups for decades. Politicians claim that letting women married to Palestinians confer their citizenship to spouses and children would disrupt Lebanon’s sectarian balance. But official data suggests this is not just discriminatory, but false too.
In his national address this week, Lebanese President Michel Aoun acknowledged the need for reforms, including establishing a unified personal status law. Lebanon’s parliament and new government should prioritize this, and also act to end all discrimination against women. Lebanon’s religious plurality should be its strength, not a means to divide society and marginalize women.