Religion and its institutions play a major role in drawing out the social lines that divide the Arab region, and in drafting numerous laws and legislations, specifically those affecting personal status; marriage, divorce, heritage, and other issues.
This dominance exerted by major religious institutions over Arab legislation has led to ongoing tensions throughout region, making civil marriage one of the most contentious social issues, irrespective of country or religion.
Civil marriage shifts the power to grant the right to marriage from the religious institution to governmental institution, allowing unions that would otherwise not be approved by religious institutions. As an example, a Muslim woman could marry a man from any other sect or religion, whereas this would otherwise be prohibited. Moreover, divorces could be granted for reasons other than those validated by the church.
Civil marriage challenges religious authority in the Arab region, putting it in confrontation with continuous campaigns from religious forces, which describe the practice as “devious” or “immoral”.
On the other hand, supporters of civil marriage in the Arab world emphasize that it does not contradict religious unions in any way, nor does it prevent them. Religious unions will remain available to those who favor them, without forcing anyone to abandon the institution, thereby making civil marriage an alternative that benefits those who desire it, without affecting anyone else.
Definition of Civil Marriage
There is no unified definition of civil marriage, but most definitions concede that it is a marriage of two consenting adults, without the necessity of a guardian or guarantor’s approval. Civil marriage also precludes restrictions regarding religion, sect, race, skin color, or any other distinctions.
Civil marriages were conceived with the start of French revolution in 1789, to safeguard the cornerstones of modern society. The fall of the French monarchy and the foundation of the first French republic presented the idea of marriage as independent from the church.
This idea of marriage exclusively approved by the government was unprecedented in Europe at the time. It took a relatively long time for civil marriage to outrank traditional marriage in terms of popularity, yet in time it allowed people freedom from the religious and social restrictions on multi-denominational marriages. Moreover, it released people from the Catholic Church’s iron grip on divorce rights.
Today, in most developed countries, civil marriages are ubiquitous, with few exceptions—the UK does not recognize civil unions between heterosexual partners, allowing only homosexual partners to seek such unions. Yet, in other European countries, there are no restrictions on religious marriages for those who seek them; however these marriages must be registered by a government authority.
Transferring the authority over marriage from religious to governmental institutions marked the first step makes in facilitating documentation and safeguarding spousal and child-care rights during marriage and divorce.
Tunisia: The Notable Exception
Amid the prevailing bans in Arab countries on any marriage that falls outside religious laws and customs, Tunisia alone has legalized civil marriage, banned polygamy, and granted women the right to file for divorce. Muslim women are nonetheless still prohibited from marrying men from any other denominations. These legal reforms were issued in 1956 by the first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba,
Yet, despite Tunisia’s relatively progressive status among Arab countries in terms of social rights, a different kind of controversy emerged.
When Islamist parties gained popularity following the 2011 revolution and secured the majority in the parliamentary elections, they rapidly demanded the abolition of civil marriage, and the reinstatement of polygamy. In addition, they attempted to abolish the Tunisian constitutional articles safeguarding equality between the sexes.
According to the former Tunisian presidential candidate Adel Alimi, Salafists view the Tunisian marriage law as “aberrant, and a violation of God’s rules”.
Though these laws never came to fruition, the calls by Islamists nonetheless continue.
From Tunisia to Syria, Arabs continue to struggle over the contentious issue of civil marriage.
Marriage is just one of the issues in which Arab religious institutions exert their dominance over social customs.
Egypt: The Church Impedes Divorce
The discussion over civil marriage in Egypt emerged in a different form from those in other Arab countries. The demand for civil marriage is relatively confined to Egypt’s Coptic Christians.
The Coptic Church has set major restrictions on divorce, whereby it is prohibited except in two cases; adultery, or change of religion. The current law omits seven other cases in which divorces were sanctioned according to a law in 1938, after Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria halted the 1938 personal status law when he was consecrated on 1971.
Although the Church unilaterally handles marriages and divorces for all Christian sects in Egypt, a unified draft personal status law sparked controversy in 2014, as it restored the previous conditions for divorce.
The draft law received censure from the Church, which claimed that it violates the principles of Christianity, and thus cannot be approved. The church succeeded in the battle by amending the draft law, and removing the articles that contradicted with its vision.
Civil marriage remains a major demand for Christians in Egypt, as thousands await the approval of their divorces, often for years on end, and permission to remarry. However, they are not the only group demanding a civil marriage law.
Similar campaigns were launched by secular organizations and activists in Egypt, as well as feminists groups, and those with no religious affiliations, who already bear the brunt of an array of laws targeting them.
Lebanon: Cyprus is the Destination
Unlike most other Arab countries, Christians in Lebanon constitute a large demographic, at 40% of the total population. Each sect has jurisdiction over the marriage laws within its community, and there is no unified law organizing marriage and divorce in the country, which has been a major cause for problems for the citizens, particularly those who wish to obtain interfaith marriages.
One of the most common methods for Lebanese couples to resolve this issue is by traveling abroad to a country where civil marriage is permitted. Cyprus tops of the list of destinations, as the easiest solution, and the closest country.
However, having such marriages recognized Lebanon is no easy task. There are no specific laws governing such cases, and the matter is open to interpretation according to the status of both partners, amid the absence of an all-encompassing marriage law.
The Lebanese Parliament Votes
Over the years, many public demands have been raised in Lebanon to issue a civil marriage law, beginning in 1951, when a draft law was proposed the parliament. However, the law failed to pass. The motion was resurrected again in 1975, but yet again failed to pass.
The closest it ever came to passing was in 1999, when former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi proposed the draft law to the cabinet for debate. However, the law did not see the light, as it was blocked by the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Hariri refused to submit the law before parliament, stating as his excuse that the “conditions in Lebanon do not allow it”.
In 2013, Lebanon witnessed the first civil marriage between Lebanese citizens inside the country, exploiting a legal loophole that allows civil marriages if both partners have struck off their religion in the marriage license.
This legal loophole dates back to the French mandate over Lebanon era, but the case did not constitute a breakthrough in terms of overcoming the absence of civil marriage law. Since then, countless marriage attempts have been thwarted by the existing sectarian personal status laws.
Syria: Wartime Anomalies
Similar to Lebanon, Syria faces various social issues regarding interfaith marriage, caused by the sectarian and religious diversity.
However, once again, the most contentious topic is the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. The Syrian personal status law relies on the Islamic Shariah as its main source of legislation. As such, a marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is considered void and illegal, with no legal loopholes. The man must convert to Islam before a marriage can be approved.
Further, marriage in Syria, as in most Islamic countries, is predicated on parental consent, though the law does not explicitly state this.
Contrary to the situation in Lebanon, Syrian law prohibits the recognition of any marriage that falls outside the existing proscriptions of its personal status laws, even if the couple gets married abroad.
In addition, if the married couple has children, Syrian law stipulates that the children are registered under their mother’s surname, considering them “illegitimate”,
The various movements calling for civil marriage have failed to record any victories over the past years, and a draft law has never reached parliament.
Yet, amid the ballooning sectarian tensions during the ongoing civil war, the country witnessed the first civil marriage in early 2013, after the Kurdish Democratic Union Party announced autonomy over certain areas in the north of Syria, such as Qamishli.
Nonetheless, the various conflicting groups refuse to recognize such marriages, though many consider it a victory for secularism, and a ray of hope for civil marriage.