Why you should care
Because Lebanese youths may be proving that love is the ultimate subversive political force.
When Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish fell in love, they didn’t expect their partnership to end up in history books. However, their marriage, the first nonreligious union in Lebanon, has opened a new political chapter for the country.
Since Lebanon recognizes only religious unions, mixed couples are usually forced to change sect or marry abroad. Sukkarieh, a Sunni, and Darwish, a Shia, were planning to tie the knot in Cyprus when their attorney said he had found a loophole, which set the stage for Lebanon’s first civil marriage.
Lawyer Talal Husseini had discovered the following decree: “For those that do not belong administratively to a religious community, the civil law applies to their personal status matters.”
All that the couple had to do was strike their sects from their family registry, becoming “administratively” nonreligious, and then sign a marriage contract. So that’s what they did, on October 10, 2012, a date they purposely chose because it’s the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Lebanese Ministry of Interior took months to accept their petition, but on April 25, 2013, Sukkarieh and Darwish became the first couple to acquire a civil marriage in Lebanon since 1936, when a French mandate instituted sectarian laws. News of the union spread quickly, stirring public debate and pushing political figures to speak out on the issue.
It lays the first stone of a nonsectarian regime.
“Civil marriage for us is not only a marriage issue, it’s actually a Lebanese issue because it lays the first stone of a nonsectarian regime ,” Sukkarieh said.
President Michel Suleiman welcomed the news, declaring: “We need civil marriage to overcome the sectarianism that is destroying the country.” But not everyone felt like celebrating. Prime Minister Najib Mikati opposed the idea, noting, “It is futile to research the issue of civil marriage.” He further vowed, “As long as I am in government, I will not raise this subject in the council of ministers.”
Later in 2013, Sukkarieh and Darwish landed on the front pages again after welcoming their firstborn, Ghadi Darwich, the first “sect-less” child to be registered in the Republic of Lebanon. They left the boxes for selecting the baby’s religion empty.
The couple hopes their example will be a step towards a more secular society. “I want to see my child grow in a secular state, where people feel they belong to a nation — and not a sect,” says Sukkarieh.
We need civil marriage to overcome the sectarianism that is destroying the country.
That’s no mean feat in a country with 4 million people and 18 legally recognized religious sects. Even the political system reflects these divisions, including an unwritten agreement ensuring that the president is always a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.
But the younger generation is starting to blame this system for perpetuating divisions that fuel sectarian violence, which has only worsened in recent months, thanks to the Syrian spillover.
In December, a car bomb in Beirut killed 16-year-old Mohammad al-Chaar. Outraged Lebanese youths took to social media to stage a “selfie protest” against sectarianism under the hash tag #notamartyr , posting photos and messages like “I want people to have the freedom to love, not to hate” and “I don’t want to hear thunder and mistake it for a bomb.”
A popular Lebanese blogger gives voice to the frustration over the ongoing violence. “In Lebanon we are always told, ‘We are at war, everything else should wait,’ but people want to live better now. They want to marry who they love now,” Gino Raidy says.
So even if some politicians say it’s not a good time to bring up civil marriage, activists believe it is precisely the right time because intermarriage and post-sectarianism could help stop the vicious cycle of violence.
They want to marry who they love now.
Sukkarieh and Darwish have not only given the people of Lebanon hope and momentum, but also set an important legal precedent. In the face of threats from religious extremists, six more couples in the past year have secured civil marriages, and another dozen await ministry approval to do so.
The measure is gaining some speed, but it’s still considered exceptional, and activists like Ogarit Younan, head of the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights, believe the next step should be approving a civil marriage bill. “We have a real chance now,” says Younan.
A draft law was recently presented to parliament but, unsurprisingly, met with ferocious opposition by religious authorities. Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, even issued a fatwa — religious edict — declaring that any Muslim official helping to “plant the germ of civil marriage in Lebanon” would be considered an “apostate” and “would not be buried in a Muslim cemetery.”
And there are even some activists who are not satisfied with the law because it requires couples seeking civil marriage contracts to pay a $300 fee to the religious court of their parents.
Abdalah Salam — Sukkarieh and Darwish’s legal adviser — feels the current procedure is sufficient since it has been accepted by the Higher Advisory Commission of the Justice Ministry. “What we really need now is to educate people and help them understand that removing reference to their sects does not mean renouncing their faith,” he says.
Normalizing civil unions would not only be a landmark for Lebanon, but also a bold example for neighboring countries like Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where sectarianism flourishes and only religious marriages are recognized.
“It is slower than going out on the street to start a revolution but, in the long term, it’s better,” says Raidy, the young who hopes this grassroots movement can help heal the wounds of sectarianism — one love story at a time.