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President Michel Aoun’s controversial naturalization decree, which is set to grant Lebanese citizenship to over 400 foreign nationals, has reignited outrage over Lebanese women’s inability to pass citizenship onto their children and foreign spouses.
“Supposedly, this decree is giving nationality to people who are important ... people who are considered ‘special cases,’” 45-year-old Vicky Abboud Stauffer said.
“But what is more special than the children of Lebanese mothers?”
While naturalization decrees such as the one recently signed by Aoun, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and caretaker Interior Minister Nouhad Machouk are not uncommon or unconstitutional, the timing and secrecy surrounding this decree sparked outcry throughout the country.
Some reports allege that naturalization is being granted to those paying large sums of money or with ties to the Syrian government, furthering impressions that Lebanese citizenship is being offered on the basis of monetary and political incentives even as the country’s female citizens still do not possess full citizenship rights.
Stauffer, a Lebanese citizen, is married to a man with a Lebanese mother and Swiss father. A 1925 decree, amended and cemented into law in 1960, forbids Stauffer from passing on citizenship to her son or to her husband, who could not receive it through his Lebanese mother.
As a result, their 15-year-old son Rolf, born and raised in Lebanon, is legally treated as a foreigner despite his family’s Lebanese origins.
Every three years, Stauffer must go to General Security to renew her son’s residency – a process she described as demeaning.
“It’s so frustrating. We’re standing in the same line as Americans, Filipinos, French and Syrians who are all doing the same thing as Rolf. Meanwhile, he has lived his whole life in Lebanon with a Lebanese parent,” Stauffer said.
In 2010, then-Interior Minister Ziad Baroud amended regulations for foreign spouses and children of Lebanese women, permitting them residency for free with an expiry date of three years. While it was not the end goal many had been fighting for, civil society praised the reform. Previously, spouses and children were required to renew their residency on a yearly basis and pay a fee each time.
Sarah Awad, 35, is the daughter of a Lebanese mother and foreign father who recalled the difficulty of this process while growing up in the country. Much like Stauffer, Awad’s mother had taken care of the process for her. But when she started university, she became responsible for her own paperwork, an exercise that brought her to tears at General Security on one occasion.
“They really make you jump through hoops. They would send me to different offices around the country to get papers that seemed to never exist. Once, it took me nearly a month to get all the paperwork together and my visa had expired during the process,” she recalled.
Renewing her residency was made more difficult after her mother left Lebanon. During her most recent visit to General Security, Awad was told she could not renew her papers without the presence of her mother.
“I just stood there, speechless,” she said. “Eventually, someone saw how distraught I was and helped me. It’s incredibly unfair.”
Today, Awad is married to a Lebanese man and said she is currently in the process of obtaining her long-sought citizenship.
Knowing that if she has children they will not face the same obstacles has changed her thoughts about her future in the country.
“If my husband was foreign I definitely would not stay in Lebanon,” Awad said.
Meanwhile, Stauffer, whose son will soon be entering university, has already accepted leaving her home country. “He doesn’t have a future here,” she lamented. “There are so many careers he cannot pursue, jobs he cannot have. I cannot pass any of my land to him. There’s no way he can stay when the state treats him as if he does not belong here.”
Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has recently proposed allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, except in cases where their husbands are from “neighboring countries.”
However, Executive Director of the Women’s Learning Partnership Lina Abou Habib said she doesn’t believe this proposal will materialize.
“To our knowledge, there is nothing on paper that is actually going somewhere,” she said.
Habib is also a longtime activist with the Jinsiyati campaign. Translating to “my nationality,” Jinsiyati has been fighting for the right of women to pass citizenship on to their children and spouses in Lebanon, among other Arab countries.
“No matter who is in charge, the state is constantly discriminating against women and ignoring our rights as Lebanese citizens. We live in a system that is dictatorial, running according to personal interests that are totally chauvinistic,” Habib said.
Highlighting recent events following the election of Lebanon’s new Parliament, including Bassil’s freezing of residency permits for the staff of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, Habib said the future looks grimmer than before.
“Maybe [the naturalization decree] is intended to break the will of women, but it’s not going to work,” Habib said. “The only thing that this has resulted in is a very, very bad image in terms of the credibility of Lebanon’s decision-makers. It shows just how fit they are to be in this office.”