At a protest, a child’s sign announces: ‘Citizenship starts with the mother and ends with the kids.’
The right of women and children to equal citizenship is guaranteed by the majority of Arab constitutions, as well as by international law. Yet across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the Gulf, women and children are being denied their right to nationality – a crucial component of citizenship.
In many countries in the region, women who marry foreign men cannot confer their nationality to their husbands, or even to their children. Men, on the other hand, can pass on their nationality to their wives and children.
This has made children foreigners in the countries they grew up in, while men lack key rights even after living in countries for many years.
They often have no access to welfare benefits such as free healthcare and education, and must obtain and regularly renew residence permits. They are also often restricted from owning or inheriting property, excluded from certain professions, discriminated against in the employment market and treated as foreign students when applying for university.
‘Since when do women give their nationality to their families in Lebanon?’ male politicians ask. They have little time for the ongoing campaign for the amendment of nationality laws in Lebanon.
But a small group of women is fighting back.
‘Throughout the Arab world, nationality laws lead women, men and children to suffer hardship. These laws ensure that women are not allowed to pass on their nationality to their husbands or children. And when a family is deprived of citizenship, it is also deprived of all the other rights that come with it,’ says a spokesman for the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTDA), an NGO based in Beirut that is leading the campaign for women’s right to citizenship.
The NGO has produced a film, My Child the Foreigner, to highlight the issue. It tells the story of the women whose families suffer the from these arcane nationality laws.
Amanda, 22, has a Lebanese mother and a Swiss father. She feels she is ‘treated like a foreigner’ despite living in Lebanon with her parents for a decade. Now studying in London, she says, ‘I feel humiliated every time I go back to Lebanon… I am studying to become a professional dancer and when I applied in Beirut to take part in an international dance competition, I was not allowed to participate and was told I cannot represent Lebanon because I do not have the Lebanese nationality. It made miss a great opportunity.’
She adds: ‘My mother even had to sell me her house to me by means of an official contract instead of just transferring it into my name, because I could not own the whole of it and I cannot inherit it. This is so unfair.’
Across most of the Middle East and the Gulf, until recently women were forbidden from passing on their nationality to their families – but things are changing.
Palestine was the first Arab country to give women the right to pass on their citizenship, in 2003, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya. Last year, the UAE announced that children of Emirati women married to foreigners could apply for citizenship once they turn 18. And in January 2012, the Council of Ministers in Saudi Arabia announced it would grant citizenship to children of Saudi women married to non-Saudi men, on the condition that they meet other citizenship requirements.
But countries including Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Syria have yet to change their laws. In Lebanon, where women won the right to vote in 1952 – 19 years before in Switzerland – the Lebanese cabinet chose, in March, not to endorse the long-awaited reform of the nationality law.
In Lebanon alone, an estimated 17,000 dual-nationality families are affected, says CRTD-A director Lina Abou-Habib.
Nadira is a Lebanese woman who has lived in Beirut since 1995, married to an American citizen and has two children aged 22 and 16.
‘Why is a Lebanese man allowed to transmit his nationality to his foreign wife and children after one year of marriage, whereas I, because I am a woman, am not allowed to pass it on to my foreign husband and children, even though we have lived here for 17 years?’ asks Nadira.
These laws have caused Nadira and her family enormous inconvenience. ‘Because by law I could not grant them the Lebanese nationality, my husband and two children entered the country on a visa and had each to apply for a residency permit to be renewed every year. ‘
Nadira’s children are at a serious disadvantage because of their nationality. ‘My eldest son is currently studying medicine at a private Lebanese university; he could not have studied at the state university because he is not a national – unless of course he pays extortionate foreign fees,’ she explains.
‘My son was brought up and studied here, speaks and writes Arabic, and feels as Lebanese as everybody else, yet he will not be allowed to practise medicine in Lebanon when he graduates.’
Non-nationals are banned from certain professions in Lebanon, including medicine, engineering and law – even if they have studied at Lebanese universities, so Nadira’s son won’t be able to work there as a doctor when he graduates.
To make matters worse, Nadira has an example of how unfair the situation is right within her own family. In Lebanon, Palestinians cannot own property or practice professions, because of their refugee status.
But Palestinian women who marry Lebanese men can be naturalised after they have a child with their husband. ‘This means that my brother, who married a Palestinian woman two years ago, will give her the nationality soon, while I, who have been married for more than 20 years, cannot pass on the nationality to my American husband.’
Nadira feels the discrimination keenly. ‘It is my right to transmit my nationality, as much as it is his right… How fair is that, when my own children who were born from a Lebanese mother, cannot become Lebanese?’
She adds: ‘They are separating me from my children by not letting me give them my nationality… my children will have no future in Lebanon because they will always be treated as foreigners.’
Things are changing in the region. But slowly.
Palestine was the first Arab country to give women the right to pass their citizenship on to their children, in 2003, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya. Last year, the UAE announced that children of Emirati women married to foreigners could apply for citizenship once they turn 18. And in January 2012, the Council of Ministers in Saudi Arabia announced it would grant citizenship to children of Saudi women married to non-Saudi men, as long as they meet other citizenship requirements.
But countries including Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Syria have yet to make any progress on womens’ citizenship rights. In Lebanon, where women won the right to vote in 1952 – 19 years before in Switzerland – the Lebanese cabinet chose, in March, not to endorse the long-awaited reform of the nationality law.
In Lebanon, where women won the right to vote in 1952 – 19 years before women in Switzerland – the Lebanese government recently chose not to endorse the long-awaited reform of the Nationality Law.
The irony is that the media often considers women in Lebanon to be politically emancipated, but they fail to report that Lebanese women are to this day being deprived their full citizenship rights.