Middle East Nationality Laws and the Negation of Women’s Rights

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If married to foreigners, female citizens in places such as Lebanon and Oman are unable to pass this citizenship to their children

Lebanese lawmakers recently approved legislation permitting the children of Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers to work in the country without special permits, removing a longstanding barrier to employment for the marginalized group.

Lebanese civil society, including the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW), praised the change. The group added, however, that while it was a step in the right direction, the new law “does not offer a radical solution to [the offspring’s] suffering.”

The amendment shines the spotlight on the inability of Lebanese mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children if married to non-Lebanese men. This means that despite being born and raised in Lebanon, these children live as foreigners with a residency permit that must be renewed.

The issue isn’t exclusive to the Levantine country. Such laws derived from colonial rule under France and Britain, and were maintained by the new states following independence.

Similar nationality laws exist in Jordan, Syria and several countries in the Gulf. They were previously in force in North African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, but reforms, even before the Arab Spring in 2011, granted women and their children the long-sought right.

“Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco now have comparatively the best nationality laws regarding gender equality,” Dima Dabbous, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) regional director at NGO Equality Now, told The Media Line.

“The feminist movement in North Africa is very strong, comparatively much more advanced and organized than in the rest of the region. In the Gulf it is nonexistent, and in the Levant it is very fragmented,” she said.

When the issue comes up for discussion, the subject of Palestinian refugees is often raised at the same time, particularity in Lebanon. The country is built around a unique confessional framework: The 128-seat parliament is distributed equally between Christians and Muslims, and proportionally between their respective sects.

“There is always an issue of who is going to get bigger at the expense of others. Christians don’t want [a reformed] law because Palestinian men will marry Lebanese women and pass on their Sunni heritage, therefore creating more Sunni Muslims,” Dabbous said.

However, a 2016 census of Palestinians in Lebanon found just 3,707 cases of a Palestinian head of household married to a spouse of a different nationality. Moreover, a 2009 United Nations Development Program-backed study found that there were only 18,000 marriages in the country between Lebanese women and foreigners between 1995 and 2008.

“Politicians have been using inflated figures for political fear-mongering; the actual numbers are much more modest,” Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.

Dabbous agrees.

“Officials are afraid of a phenomenon that isn’t even happening,” she said.

Several proposals have been made to reform the controversial law. The one with the most traction was put forward by the NCLW; it would give citizenship to underage children of Lebanese mothers, while those aged 18 or over would only be granted residency permits, with eligibility for citizenship after five years.

The proposal has received mixed reviews from activists. Some say it is a step forward to equality while others say it could lead to further discrimination. Attempts to reform the law have so far failed.

Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman also restrict a woman married to a non-national from passing on her citizenship to her children.

Unlike in Lebanon, though, fear of large-scale demographic change is not as prevalent. Khalid Ibrahim, executive director at the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), said the laws in the region were “rooted in discrimination,” as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

“Saudi women advocated for the right to drive, and they got it, but only in 2018!” he related to The Media Line. “And when they finally got it, they imprisoned the women who fought for it!”

When asked how governments justify their foot dragging, Ibrahim said their near-exclusive male composition allows them to forego explanations.

“Name a single female president in the region,” he said. “You can’t. There aren’t many female ministers, either. [These governments] don’t have to defend themselves; who would they defend themselves from?”

However, one woman leaving a mark in this area is Habiba Al-Hanai, an Omani human rights activist and executive director of the Omani Association for Human Rights. She experienced the restrictions presented by her country’s nationality law firsthand.

Hanai married a German-Arab of the Muslim faith in 1996 after receiving a permit from the Interior Ministry, and gave birth to their son in 1998. The boy received German citizenship – but not Omani citizenship.

“When I went to register him for school, I had to submit papers for his residency,” she told The Media Line. “I was treated the same way as women who got married without permission.”

The couple divorced, and in 2005, when their son was seven and she was applying for his permanent residency, the Omani government gave her a document stating that if her ex-husband wanted custody, she must “willingly” send him to Germany.

Hanai later spoke about this in the media, and her campaign against Oman’s nationality law took off. She participated in the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, and was later arrested on charges of “insulting the Omani people.”

When her son turned 18, he was forced to leave the country, going to Germany. He was not entitled to residency or even his inheritance.

“He was born [in Oman] and lived there for 18 years, and now he has to visit with a tourist visa,” Hanai stated indignantly.

Oman did amend its nationality law, whereby children born to a foreign father can receive citizenship if the couple has been divorced for at least 10 years and the child is under the age of 18.

Hanai calls the change “nicely polished,” something that would “please an international organization” but does not reflect the reality on the ground.

“What if your child is about to turn 18? They’ll keep you waiting, so they do not have to give [citizenship],” she said.

She left Oman and now resides with her son in Germany.

“Why should I call Oman my country if they won’t call my children Omani? Home is where my children are,” she said.