Identity and Gender: Women’s Unequal Right to Citizenship in the Middle East

A Lebanese woman holds up a banner durin

A recent UN High Commissioner for Refugees report revealed that 27 countries limit women’s ability to pass their nationality onto their children or spouses. Twelve of these are in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. If you include the partially recognized State of Palestine, 13 of the Arab League’s 22 member states have such restrictions. In many of these countries, citizenship is conditioned on birth to a citizen father. Therefore, unlike men who marry foreigners and have children, women in these countries are often unable to pass their nationality onto their foreign-born or stateless husbands or their children.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of people across these countries lack the rights that come with full citizenship in the countries in which they were often born, raised and spent their entire lives. Some recent reforms have attempted to alleviate in part the difficulties that accompany these regulations. However, for political and ideological reasons, these limits remain in place.

Lebanon is one such country. A 2009 study in Lebanon estimated that around 17,000 Lebanese women were married to foreigners, meaning some 77,400 women, their husbands and children were affected by these restrictions. Without the right to citizenship, those affected cannot own or inherit property, access public health or education services or work without a permit. Three times between 2010 and 2013 laws were proposed that would have eliminated the disparity in citizenship rights. However, parliament failed to bring any to a vote. Since Lebanon has been without a president for more than two years, it is near impossible for any new law to be debated or passed now.

Beiteddine - drapeau libanais

A similar state of affairs persists in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 2014, the government disclosed that some 88,983 Jordanian women were married to foreign men by which they had 355,932 children. And while Jordan is a signatory to much of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it has not signed Article 15 which guarantees the right of every individual to citizenship. Recent reforms following years of organized protest have granted “service-related privileges” to non-citizen children of Jordanian mothers, providing that the mothers have lived in Jordan for five years. These “privileges” include the rights to free high school, healthcare, property ownership, and second preference after Jordanians in all employment opportunities. The then prime minister stressed, however, that the government has no intention “now or in the future of granting these children citizenship.” For many, the reforms had still not taken effect a year after the law was passed.

Jordan flags

Other countries in the region like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf States have also undertaken recent attempts at reform. However, they all fall short of granting truly equal citizenship rights to women. Gendered rights citizenship is by no means unique to the Middle East, however. As Suad Joseph notes, the absence of gender bias “is the exception around the world,” rather than the norm. There are various reasons for this specific gender bias regarding citizenship across the Arab Middle East. But for Lebanon, Jordan and, until recently, Egypt, there is a single driving issue behind the desire to restrict the citizenship rights of women: Palestinian refugees.

The issue of Palestinian refugees and their place within the country and the national collective is at the forefront of nearly every political issue in Lebanon. Out of fear of permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon, the hundreds of thousands of refugees are barred from holding or inheriting property, working in twenty professions and have limited access to education and health services. The official explanation given for these discriminatory policies is that they ensure the continuation of Palestinian ties to the homeland. However, Lebanon’s political system is based on proportional representation according to religious sect. As Palestinians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, many fear their absorption would upset the delicate balance of Christian and Muslim representation.

In reality, the discriminatory law came into effect in 1925, more than two decades before the influx of Palestinian refugees. Also, while the second biggest group of foreign husbands is Palestinian in origin, they only represent about 20% of the 17,000 marriages.  These 3,400 people are a minuscule proportion of the entire Lebanese citizenry. However, this fear of Palestinian (and recently Syrian refugee) integration drives the unwillingness to extend equal citizenship rights to women, especially amongst Christian political parties. This issue reared its head recently when Gebran Bassil, foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, called for the right of women to pass citizenship to their husbands and children, as long as they are not Palestinian or Syrian.

Frans Timmermans and Lebonese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (Left)

This fear of integration of Palestinians extends beyond Lebanon’s ethno-religious political system. In announcing the 2014 reforms in Jordan, the prime minister asserted his opposition to granting citizenship to the tens of thousands of stateless Palestinians mostly from Gaza living in the country. Ignoring the fact that the majority of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian origin, he said that granting such rights might “affect the demographic balance in Jordan.” A similar debate took place in Egypt in 2004 over whether to exclude Egyptian women married to Palestinian men from equal rights to citizenship. They would eventually be granted the right to pass their citizenship to their children, provided they were born after 2004.

While advances have been made in ensuring equal citizenship rights for women across the region, political wrangling over the place of stateless people and refugees, especially Palestinians, has hampered significant progress. As we saw recently with the burkini ban in France, these issues of identity and ideology are often contested on women and their bodies. And while these battles are being fought, women, their husbands and children are left to suffer the challenges of unequal citizenship rights.





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