Al Jazeera World

Divorce in Lebanon

The stories of five Lebanese women struggling with the complex systems of divorce within a multi-faith community.

Beirut’s recent woes about rubbish have given light to its underlying political instability but Lebanon is often overlooked for its religious tolerance and diversity. The small country that borders the Mediterranean officially recognises 18 religious denominations, each with the freedom to administer marriage, divorce and alimony matters to those of their faith.

Civil marriage is also a viable option for all denominations, and is increasingly popular, especially among couples from different faiths. Some might argue, however, that the increased freedoms come at a price.

According to statistics from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, between the years of 2000 and 2013 the divorce rate in Lebanon increased by 55 percent. Regardless, many maintain that the flexibility is necessary. This system legitimises various religious courts which then coordinate and communicate with other courts, government bodies, that control disputes outside the religious context.

My divorce didn't prevent me from being active in society and standing on my own feet once again. Life must go on ... what's important is that women must be well-equipped to survive.

by Nadine Mchantaf, teacher

“The modern republic was established by the previous generation and was protected as one of the pillars of religious coexistence. The state can’t impose civil marriage as it’s not accepted by some religions,” says Bishop Hanna Alwan, the Maronite patriarchal vicar for legal issues.

The sentiment is echoed by many in the Lebanese community, including those working towards a more secular way of life.

Blogger and activist Imad Bazzi is one of those in support of freedom of choice between religious and civil marriage.

He says: “Sectarianism grows if people are mobilised by religious groups and courts to follow certain political or sectarian ideologies. But if they’re subject to a civil authority, it can’t mobilise people for religious, sectarian or political purposes. People who get married under civil law are free to choose what they want to do and how. Those who go through the religious courts system choose to be under the umbrella of their religious group.”

However, it is clear that each religious court comes with its own set of rules that women may view as obstacles in the case of dissolving a marriage.

Often it can be difficult to achieve what are considered to be fair settlements and obtain rights for the female that would be standard in some parts of the world. Some women struggle to retain custody of their children, even when there is evidence of domestic violence.

Dina Semaan is a Maronite Christian who eloped and married a Muslim man without her parents’ consent. Her divorce was relatively straightforward but took nine months and she was granted custody of her children in the Islamic court. The ruling only stands if she does not remarry.

“Is it acceptable for the judge to be in favour of a ruling which strips the woman of all of her rights? Didn’t he consider my future?” she asks. 

Legalities and faith-based complications aren’t the only issues women who wish to divorce in Lebanon have to contend with. Although the state is working towards recognising women’s needs, some in the Lebanese community are yet to be as accepting.

Majida Faour is Druze, a well-recognised Abrahamic religion in Lebanon. She has been divorced twice; the second time owing to the societal pressures placed on her marital status.

“To avoid being called a divorcee, I threw myself at another marriage. This was my mistake. I did it to silence people around me,” she says. “I’m tired of how people look at me when I go out or attend an event … Some people are quite difficult to deal with and I get to the point where I wish I had a man to protect me or stand by me.”

Shia Muslim Jafari court judge Sheikh Hussein Al Qassas believes people are avoiding the real issues within Lebanese society.

“The problem isn’t civil or religious marriage. It’s people suffering because of the reality they live in,” he says. “They’re suffering from religious, racial and intellectual fanaticism. These have nothing to do with religious or human law.”