My problems with Libya’s citizenship laws

If we were to sit back, put aside everything we had learnt, all the ideas that were passed down to us from one generation to another, what would we make of the meaning of marriage? By definition, marriage is the union between a man and a woman as partners in a lifetime-committed relationship. And if we were to add bits and pieces of the meaning of marriage in our society, we would start to understand the cultural lines that bound us and perhaps start to unravel the potentially problematic features of the meaning we made of marriage. Having said that, in Libyan society as well as many other societies in the Middle East and the rest of the world, marriage is glorified and is seen holy. If we try to navigate our society with its traditions and culture through the lens of marriage, its significance can help us identify the issues that exist in 21st century Libya, especially in regards to women. There is no place in the definition of marriage that highlights gender power between a man and a woman. However, it is society that impresses such power onto its members.

The concept of marriage in Libyan society is a mixture of a long-lived legacy of patriarchy that – while supposedly intertwined with Islam – is mostly cultural. Being a Muslim myself who constantly asks questions regarding the issue of women and marriage in Islam, I feel comfortable claiming that the current state of affairs is filled with contradictions and a confusing intertwining of concepts from culture and religion. And while I neither claim to be a theologian nor an expert on the study of Islam, the general characterization of marriage is a relationship of companionship and compassion.

Under Gaddafi, the legislature placed men and women as equals before the law except in one area: family law. According to Libyan family law, a man may marry a non-Muslim woman without requiring her to convert. However, a woman intending to marry a non-Muslim man is not permitted to unless he converts to Islam. Some argue that this is because children take their family name and identity from the father, and this creates a further conversion about patriarchy. However, the focus of this article is on women who are married or intend to marry non-Libyans who are also Muslims.

While these women are allowed by the state to marry Muslim non-Libyan men, they are not allowed to pass along their citizenship – not to their husbands or children. This is still the case under al-Sarraj, who has not prioritised this issue at all. Disallowing Libyan women from giving their citizenship to their husbands and children does not only hinder their ability to live within society as equal members, but also means that their rights are legally jeopardised. For example, Libyan citizens are entitled to free public education (elementary, secondary and higher) as well as free health care. Yet, children of Libyan mothers and non-Libyan fathers are not entitled to such rights.

The problem does not only stop there. Libyan mothers often find themselves put under the “foreign” category taking away many of their rights as citizens as well.

When it comes to the justifications for such a law, many opinions differ among many groups, from politicians to lawmakers to religious figures to “ordinary” citizens and members of society.

The general rhetoric is that Libyan women are often used and abused by foreigners through being tricked into marriage for purposes of obtaining employment and higher standards of living in Libya. Some claim that children must follow their father’s citizenship regardless of what it is. Others blame women who marry non-Libyans for not being satisfied with their husband’s citizenship; if they did not want it, why did they decide to marry outside of their country? Despite that, the rhetoric of protection is what many base this law upon. Protecting women from being fooled and left alone, protecting children from the potential risk of being fatherless, and protecting the country’s resources.

Since Gaddafi’s regime fell apart and the NTC took power in 2012, the National Council of Islamic Jurisprudence (Dar al-Ifta) was re-established as an independent institution of the government that directly reports to the executive office. Led by its Grand Mufti Sadeg el-Geriani, this institution contributed to an anti-women’s rights discourse that continues to degrade her status. In addition to all the fatwas that were issued on behalf of the institution that are by nature discriminatory against women, the institution issued an edict in 2013 that prohibits women from marrying non-Libyan men. The grand mufti stated that Libyan women should not be allowed to enter into a marriage with foreign men even if they are Muslims. As a result, the government suspended all marriage licenses hindering many women in their ability to marry. Doubtless, the grand mufti claimed to have had justifications for issuing such an edict.

With a highly charged political environment and a state that still deals with post-uprising chaos, he articulated that many Shiites and Druze men from Syria and Iran are taking advantage of the misconfigured situation to enter into the country through marriage deals. The Libyan National Council of Islamic Jurisprudence claimed to have women’s best interests at heart and therefore issued such an edict.

The status of women in Libya in the post-Gaddafi era took a rather negative turn. Ironically, Libya is a state party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But this stance should not fool us into thinking that it is implemented in practice. The grand mufti warned Libya’s legislative officials against this convention claiming that it is not in line with the religious and cultural heritage of Libya, and therefore its implementation should not be accepted. The institution that the grand mufti represents did not only issue an edict that discriminates against women and hinders them from obtaining their internationally recognised human rights, but a number of fatwas that actually oppose the Islamic Sharia have taken women 50 years back.

In other words, the 2011 uprising that many women supported and stood at the forefront of, in hope of a better status and rights, has turned against them with the increasing power of the National Council of Islamic Jurisprudence.

In addition to the fact that prohibiting women from marrying foreign men is an act that opposes the international declaration of human rights, it actually opposes the Islamic Sharia. According to the Islamic tradition, a woman is allowed to marry any man regardless of race or ethnicity as long as he is a Muslim. Yet, the Libyan grand mufti issued a fatwa that states otherwise. Should one be sceptical of an institution that reports to the executive with edicts that oppose a Sharia it is supposed to advocate for?

Such scepticism does not come from anti-religious rhetoric. Instead, it comes from a consciousness that is based on education and faith. But while there are many problems with Libya’s citizenship laws in regards to women marrying foreigners, the problem goes deeper than that. It is not about religion, it is about a culture that is based on decades of patriarchal values and misogyny. The current citizenship law does not protect women; it is a legal tool of a misogynistic mentality to protect male supremacy in a nation where females are second-class citizens.

Before the law, men and women are not in fact equals. The law is misogynistic in both definition and nature. A Libyan man is allowed to marry non-Libyans even if she is not Muslim – and if not, she is not required to convert – while granting his wife and his children full citizenship documents and rights, even if they do not reside in the country. On the contrary, if the same situation were to be applied to a woman, she would not be granted any of these rights as a citizen of the country. The case does not only apply to women married to foreigners residing abroad, but also to those who live with their families in Libya. The justification given to the double standards of the law is that for the mere protection of Libyan women and their children. This is a lazy argument that doesn’t deal with patriarchy at its roots.

Family lawyers and other advocates claim that due to the huge number of cases where Libyan women were fooled into marrying Egyptian and Tunisian men, for example, they were left alone once their husbands entered the country and obtained employment. For such reasons, lawyers feel the burden of responsibility to protect women from situations of betrayal. As far as the protection of the children goes, advocates of the law claim that disallowing the passing down of citizenship from mother to children restricts women’s choices in marriage, which is ultimately for her own and her children’s own good. They claim that, in most cases, children are left fatherless when husbands betray their wives and leave. Hence, with such restrictions, women are more protected.

My response to such claims is that, while there must be cases in which situations of betrayal and dishonesty occur, it cannot be regulated by law. Of course, success stories are not going to bring their cases to family lawyers. Instead, only those stories in which the husband left ends up on lawyers’ and officials’ desks. In addition, if the Libyan justice system is truly concerned about the female population, it should provide citizenship and rights to all women and their children regardless of who the father is. If the marriage law did not exist in its current form, women who chose to marry foreigners would have stronger standing families, with children able to go to school and able to attain medical treatments. A law such as that which exists today in Libya places the female population under a category that is less-than-full citizenship.

If women were granted full citizenship and rights, her children would not be considered less as Libyans than the children of a Libyan father and a non-Libyan mother. But the citizenship law stems from fear: fear of change, fear of threatening the existing male supremacy, fear of undermining the Arab Spring, and fear of women’s expansion of possibilities.

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