She is less than a month into her tenure as Lebanon's Minister of Interior but already, Raya Al Hassan is making ripples. In a controversial interview with the Euronews TV network, Ms Al Hassan vowed to "open the door to a serious and deep dialogue with all religious and other authorities, and with the support of [Prime Minister Saad] Hariri, until civil marriage is recognised". The statement has fanned the flames of a debate raging since the 1950s over whether civil marriage should be allowed as an alternative option to religion-based marriage, which is currently the only means to get married in Lebanon. Many before Ms Al Hassan have tried and failed to challenge marital laws first enshrined when the French mandate overseeing Lebanon ended in 1943. Yet the country's deep sectarian divides have ensured that whenever the idea is debated, the result is always the same: the proposition is rebuffed by a plethora of politicians and clergy – Muslim and Christian alike – and ends up being abandoned as a lost cause.
The issue is so contentious that protesters have been taking to the streets of Beirut in the past few days calling for civil marriages to be recognised – a proposal which has been roundly rejected by Lebanon's highest Sunni authority, Dar Al Fatwa, and the Catholic Church, which called it "wrong", "confusing" and a contradiction of the sacrament of marriage. Meanwhile protesters argue that marriage should not be beholden to sectarianism.
There are currently 18 different religious sects in a country with no unified personal status laws. This situation renders non-religious and interfaith marriage impossible on Lebanese soil and condemns matters of the heart to follow the sectarian lines of the country, which are firmly embedded throughout the legal system and society itself. The option of having a civil rather than a religious marriage would not replace the current system; it would merely create an additional secular court, giving couples the freedom to choose. Allowing civil marriages would be a progressive move, encouraging more peaceful coexistence between sects as well as championing gender equality.
Yet religious and community leaders persist in blocking them at every turn. The issue today is not about permitting couples to marry secularly. They already do so. Lebanese couples can marry in a foreign country with secular marriage laws, such as neighbouring Cyprus, and return to Lebanon to be recognised as a married couple.
But even those who can afford to have a civil union abroad are not guaranteed legal protection when they return to Lebanon. Should things go awry and they find themselves heading for a divorce or custody battle, they might only be allowed to plead their case in religious courts, particularly if they are from the same religious background. In the case of interfaith marriages, matters become even more difficult as judges often do not fully comprehend the law of the country they married in, which should apply in theory but rarely does in practice.
What makes the situation even more absurd is that civil marriage is not actually illegal in Lebanon. A 1936 law dating back to the French mandate era permits couples with no religious denomination to wed in a civil union. This creates a scenario whereby Lebanese couples must resort to mandate-era legislation and become renegades on paper just to secure a secular marriage, by denouncing their religious affiliation. Khouloud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish decided to exploit that loophole. In 2012 the Muslim couple erased their religious orientation from their official documents and became the first couple to marry secularly in Lebanon. From 2013 to 2015, others followed suit, until Nohad El Machnouk – the interior minister at the time – decided that, unlike his predecessor, he would not recognise such marriages. That has left couples since in an administrative limbo that has yet to be resolved.
It is crucial that religious leaders and politicians stop ignoring the reality of those who resort to such desperate measures to find their way around outdated laws. Activists have pointed out that civil marriage could address some of the shortcomings of the current court system when it comes to women’s rights, particularly with regards to divorce settlements and child custody. For too long, Lebanon has viewed itself along sectarian lines; separating them from the institution of marriage is the first step to ending those divisions. As Ms Sukkarieh puts it: "Once civil marriage is legalised, this means that the first column of sectarianism is broken."
Ms Al Hassan is not the first to try to champion the option of civil marriage but her predecessors have always capitulated under pressure. In fact, the issue could have been resolved 20 years ago. At the time, a bill in favour of optional civil marriage was proposed by then president Elias Hrawi and was approved by a majority of the ministerial cabinet. However, then prime minister Rafiq Hariri refused to refer it to parliament as he feared a backlash from conservatives. Religious courts are a lucrative source of revenue so it is perhaps little surprise their power over communities is guarded fiercely.
It is significant, therefore, that 15 years on from that stand-off, Mr Hariri’s son, the current prime minister, pinned his colours to the flag in favour of civil marriage. Lebanon’s foremost Sunni cleric, Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, came out strongly against it, declaring in 2013 that civil marriage was a threat to “the teachings of Islam and the foundations of Arab society”.
It has taken more than seven decades but calls for more avenues for couples to marry are gathering momentum. A 2013 survey by Information International found more than half of those questioned backed civil unions. Lebanon is ready for much-needed change and today’s politicians must not give way to pressure or self-interest. The chief demand among demonstrators gathering last weekend was for Ms Al Hassan to recognise the civil marriage certificates that her predecessor refused to sign. Much hope is pinned on her and in her first few weeks in office she has promised to be an advocate for change.
"Because I'm the first woman, I need to act as a role model," she told The National when she took up her post. Whether she will succeed in doing so, or fall foul of the sectarianism that got the better of her predecessors, remains to be seen, but allowing couples to step outside sectarian lines will surely have positive repercussions – at all levels of politics and society.