May you live happily ever after…
It’s a warm and humid summer afternoon in Beirut and we’re as usual struggling with the traffic on the (in)famous “autostrade” going to Jounieh when suddenly something catches my eye. No. It can be. It’s a HUGE advertisement board from a travel agency offering unbeatable prices for couples wanting to get a civil marriage in Cyprus. So for a couple hundreds of dollars, ladies and gentlemen, you can get a nice package for the best day of your life.
How could it possibly be the best day of your life when you have to leave your country to be able to get married, knowing that even though the state will recognize your marriage, you’ll have to endure the eyebrow-lifting, judgement-ridden comments from your family and friends “Shou heyda? You went to get a (please insert contemptuous tone) civil marriage in Cyprus? Why? Couldn’t you find someone from your own religion/someone who believes in God/ someone like us?”
Civil marriage is an important issue throughout the Middle East, and leads to so many passionate and heated debates within the Arab society that it’s likely to become even more of a sensitive topic. Indeed, Cyprus has celebrated over the last year 523 Lebanese marriages and 1.533 Israelis. A real business, that not everyone can afford.
The reason behind this flight to Aphrodite’s Island? An absence of a proper civil code that would consider people in terms of individuals rather than in terms of confessions. If we take Lebanon, or even Syria or Israel, civil marriages purely and simply do not exist, meaning that if an inter-religious couple decides to get married, they’re left with very few options. One of the partners could decide to change its religion (even if it would only be because of this law and not out of personal convictions), the couple could decide to get a civil marriage in Cyprus (and then face society’s judgement and forecast about how long the marriage’s going to last) or simply decide not to get married altogether, which would result in high pressures and finger- pointing from society, not to mention the difficult status of children born in an unmarried household in the Arab world.
Governments in the Middle East should definitely offer the possibility for civil marriage for at least three reasons.
First of all, marriage is a right, and as such, nothing should prevent individuals to exercise it.
The Arab Charter for Human Rights of 15th September 1994 implies at its article 17 that family affairs (and what is marriage if not the cornerstone of family affairs?) are inviolable, giving an entry point for the advocates for civil marriage:
“Privacy shall be inviolable and any infringement thereof shall constitute an offence. This privacy includes private family affairs, the inviolability of the home and the confidentiality of correspondence and other private means of communication.”
This crack in the concrete wall of the sacrosanct religious marriage is however countered by the Cairo Declaration for Human Rights in Islam of March 5th 1990, that establishes:
(a) The family is the foundation of society, and marriage is the basis of its formation. Men and women have the right to marriage, and no restrictions stemming from race, colour or nationality shall prevent them from enjoying this right.
(b) Society and the State shall remove all obstacles to marriage and shall facilitate marital procedure. They shall ensure family protection and welfare. »
Although the Declaration affirms that the state should facilitate marital procedure, it is very interesting to underline the fact that it is « no restrictions stemming from race, colour or nationality » that should prevent people from being able to get married. The silence of this law text regarding religion leaves the door open for interpretation. Does this mean that restrictions stemming from religion would be good enough reasons to prevent people from getting married? The practice in the Middle East of having weddings celebrated solely under religious authority seems to confirm this interpretation.
Which nicely leads us to the second reason why Arab governments should legislate on civil marriage. Only allowing religious marriages very often implies that one of the spouses has to convert to his or her partner’s religion, which violates the freedom of religion enshrined in International Law in general, and article 26 and 27 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights in particular:
Everyone has a guaranteed right to freedom of belief, thought and opinion.
Adherents of every religion have the right to practise their religious observances and to manifest their views through expression. practice or teaching, without prejudice to the rights of others. No restrictions shall be imposed on the exercise of freedom of belief, thought and opinion except as provided by law.”
This situation constitutes a true case of violation of personal will and beliefs. Indeed, it puts an intolerable pressure on human beings, as they find themselves forced by the state to choose between the person they love and personal faith. Having to choose between the two is not something that should be imposed on anybody, as it created internal conflict that seriously compromise the happiness and mental well-being of individuals, hurting them, their partner and families. This violence against people is reinforced by the absence of any civil code in Middle Eastern countries: all civil matters related to the family are administrated by religious authorities, which means that marriage, divorce, inheritance etc are regulated by the “laws” put in place by the different faiths. This is why you see in some communities women spoilt of what should be their equitable share of inheritance, or divorces dragging along for years, making people stuck in unhappy situations, while the ecclesiastic judge keeps asking the same questions and requesting audiences with separated couples . Religious authorities are ferocious detractors of civil marriage and try to give moral and God-related excuses to hide that what they’re really afraid of is losing their grip (and the money it brings) on their communities.
Finally, governments should use their heads sometimes and simply render to the naked truth: encourage mixed marriages, and you’ll get a strong social fabric and a more open and tolerant society. Not only would couples benefit from the facilitations given for civil marriages, but society as a whole as it would move from cohabitation to meaningful integration. Love is usually a powerful instigator of understanding and tolerance. Of course this implies that said governments manage to have enough courage to stand up to religious authorities, and separate once and for all State from religious affairs. As of now, we’re yet to see people bold enough to make this daring move, and perhaps give up some votes. Civil society activists that have been advocating for civil marriage, notably in Lebanon, via the social networking websites (check the group All for civil marriage in Lebanon on Facebook for example) are currently lobbying for civil marriage and doing what the government should be.
Come on you greying statesmen, you know you want to make this move. Be agents of change, and let us remember you for doing something good. For once.