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Fighting for Arab women’s right to nationality
Women and nationality in the Arab region: A historical denial of right
In the early 2000, the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action, CRTD.A, and its network of feminist allies in the Arab region identified the denial of Arab women’s right to nationality to be a resilient form of state driven discrimination against women.
During this period in time, nationality laws across the region allowed men married to non-nationals to transmit their nationality to their spouses and children whilst women married to non-national were denied this right simply because they were women!
Whereas other forms of discrimination were often justified by invoking cultural, social and religious arguments, the denial of women’s right to transmit nationality has always been justified by obscure political arguments including nebulous mentions of “threats to national sovereignty”. When asked, decision makers would obscure this further with assumptions, namely the fact that male spouses are likely to pose danger to the state and, upon gaining nationality through their “credulous wives”, they would infiltrate state institutions and put state interests at risk. However, the bottom line was that similar to any other patriarchal make-up, Arab states have modelled their policies and the systems that recognise and bestow rights on the assumption that the concept of a citizen applies exclusively to a male citizen. Nationality, as a mechanism through which citizenship privileges are transferred, can therefore only be transmitted through a male holder.
This denial of rights and discrimination was further reiterated in the various reservations that Arab states invoked regarding the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, namely the reservation on article 9, clause 2 related to women’s right to transmit nationality to their family.
With such reservations, Arab states made sure that both their local laws as well as their minimal commitments to international women’s rights conventions would maintain women in the position of second class citizens.
Women’s right to nationality: a case in point about the indivisibility of rights
The denial of Arab women’s right to nationality was the main trigger for the denial of all other basic rights and entitlements, notably the children’s right to education and the children’s and spouses’ right to health care, work, and political participation. In addition, and according to a regional qualitative research undertaken by CRTD.A, in seven Arab countries from 2002 to 2004, women reported that their social vulnerability and exclusion, isolation and stigmatization increased by being denied that right. Women said they were feeling guilty for having failed their families and identified themselves as the root cause of the problems. In addition, women whose relationship with their partners was problematic or abusive suffered additional hardship as their and their children’s fate, in absence of a legal basis to claim their rights, often depended on the good will of their partners.
A first step towards change: Women nationality rights become a public and political issue
It is safe to say that advocating for Arab women’s right to transmit nationality received only minimal attention prior to 2001. Efforts were scattered, isolated and not particularly linked to sustained regional and international advocacy. In addition, the fact that the issue of nationality was politicised meant that several social movements shied away from it with some even consenting to the logic that Arab women ought not be able to transmit nationality in view of the dangers that this would pose.
When we identified Arab women’s right to nationality as a fundamental form of discrimination, the main goal of the Arab Women’s Right to Nationality Campaign was to draw attention to this matter and transform it into a public issue.
An initial decision was to establish transparency of the issue through a) understanding the legal framework and b) knowing about the number of women affected by this discrimination. Compiling and analysing legal frameworks was a straightforward exercise as texts were available and so was historical information as to their origin as well as the influence - or lack thereof - of international human rights conventions and instruments. Quantitative data and statistics on the other hand were quite challenging as they indicated that there were no credible and centralised sources of information as well as the tangled web of registration of marriages to non-nationals in addition to the fact that often, and for various practical, logistical and political reasons, such marriages end up not being registered.
Lacking statistics and hard data on the number of women married to non-nationals was deemed not to be a critical obstacle to the campaign. As the campaign was based on the assumption that rights are undeniable, indivisible and universal, this meant that no matter how many women suffered from this injustice, this right had to be recognised and implemented.
The most critical form of fact finding was in fact women’s own narratives on how they experience this denial of rights and how it affected their lives. The stories from across the region were not only powerful but also showed compelling similarities in women’s experiences across the region, a matter which is critical for human and women’s rights defenders. Capturing the voices and lived experience of women and how they perceived this injustice proved to be a turning point in the campaign on more than one level. For the women themselves, the process of research and fact finding was indeed empowering as women experienced a genuine awakening as they were relating their experiences and realising that these same experiences were shared by other women in their countries as well as in other Arab countries. The process further encouraged women to speak out in public and notably to the media about the denial of their rights and the urgency to rectify this injustice. This was by and large unprecedented as women were able to overcome fears of retaliation from the authorities, especially when many of them actually depended on the good graces of these authorities for the renewal of the residency permits of their families.
The media accompanied the process especially since it could rely on first hand accounts, human interest stories and pictures to show the reality of the denial of women’s right to transmit nationality.
As the stories and information became public, the case itself turned into a public issue that prompted a social and political dialogue. As of this point, there was no going back. Women’s right to nationality became a public issue.
Multiple strategies for action, regional solidarity and collaboration
Developing the strategies of the regional Nationality Campaign was both an organic and iterative process. Several strategies were required in order to inform, get the word out to concerned parties, mobilise and get the attention of policy makers and politicians.
The strategies applied simultaneously included fact finding and action research as well as translating research which was used in communication sound bites. Another equally important strategy was to identify and challenge arguments used by politicians to block the reform. The Campaign took a clear and unified position across the region and that is the primacy and universality of rights thus moving away from the specificities of each of the contexts. The fact that women suffered in the same way across the region was a powerful argument to challenge narrow-minded political interests, which were adamant in denying women’s rights.
However, the most powerful strategy was undoubtedly the regional solidarity and collaboration amongst the regional network members who lobbied in unison and who supported each other through engaging in country-based and international advocacy for calling for a reform across the region.
Advances in women’s rights within the scope of overall reforms
The first three Arab countries to respond to women’s demand to the right to transmit nationality were Egypt (2004), Algeria (2005) and Morocco (2008). It is important to note that the reform of the nationality law in these three countries, though different in terms of the level and depth of changes introduced, came as part of a package of reforms related to the rights of women as citizens. In Egypt, the country that kicked off the reforms, this materialised at the same time as the Khul’ law (i.e. the law that allowed women to divorce their husband, a demand which was spearheaded relentlessly by the women’s movement in Egypt for over two decades in an attempt to bring some justice to the institution of the family). In Algeria, the law was reformed in parliament simultaneously with a partial reform of the personal status law, which was also long advocated for by the feminist movement. Morocco had for its part completed a radical reform of the personal status laws in 2001. Responding to the demands of the women’s movement to reform the nationality law, the Moroccan king noticed that it is only logical so as to ensure that the reform kicked off by the family laws would spill over other discriminatory laws.
Achievements against all odds
Since the beginning of the reform in Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, many other Arab countries followed suit namely Palestine, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, UAE and Saudi Arabia though the reforms have been uneven. Most importantly, a key achievement has been in being able to secure a sustained interest in the nationality issue in a context where conflict and unrest prevail and the power of media has been known as being benign.
Another key achievement is the point of no return that women themselves reached. During a demonstration in Beirut in 2011, a woman told reporters “I know that if we protest, this will not mean that the law will change now. However, I am here because it is my right and decision makers have to listen to me”.
What now, what next?
The Nationality Campaign was launched in Lebanon in 2001. Since then, several Arab countries changed their laws and acknowledged the right of women to transmit nationality except for … Lebanon. Since 2010, there have been a number of positive but small changes in this country, namely facilitating residency and work permits for spouses and children of Lebanon women, the submission of a law petition by the official National Commission for Lebanese Women and the formation of the first ever Ministerial Commission to consider a reform of the law. The latter development, however, has been most disappointing as the commission in charge rejected the mere idea of the reform saying that “equality constitutes a threat to higher national interests”. Whilst this is undoubtedly a setback for women in Lebanon, the growth of the campaign and the strength it has gained has meant that all the Arab members of the campaign have now rallied behind women in Lebanon in their demand for justice and equality in nationality laws. On an international level, the Women Learning Partnership, an international feminist network, has also intensified its international lobby to demand accountability from Lebanon vis-à-vis women.
In the Arab region where conservatism and religious fundamentalism is gaining ground, the Nationality Campaign is now closing ranks to meet this new challenge and address this new war on women and their rights.
The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) is a non-governmental organization registered in 2003 (registration number: 68) and based in Beirut, Lebanon. Whether working in Lebanon or across the Arab countries in collaboration with partners in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia, CRTD.A seeks to contribute to citizenship, social justice and gender equality.