Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Woman’s Call

On a rainy International Womens Day in Beirut, Lebanese women took to the streets dressed in top-hats and men’s suits, with moustaches painted onto their faces. Donning a man’s wardrobe, their call was for their rights as women to be adopted and respected. For months since then there have been ongoing sit-ins in the capital calling for gender equality. This call has focused on their right to pass on nationality to their children, highlighting one of the most significant problems inherent across MENA states regarding citizenship laws.

All of the States in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Woman (CEDAW), the last being Qatar in 2009. Equally however, most have put in reservations to Article 9 of this convention, the article granting equality in nationality rights. This means that the concept of dependent nationality, where the nationality of the children and the wife is dependent on that of the father or the husband, remains apparent across the region. The lack of a legal right for a woman to pass on her nationality to anyone is a worrying regional phenomenon.

The degree of discrimination varies but no State is exempt from it. Most states do not allow women to pass on their citizenship to their husbands or children. This is the case in the Gulf, for example, where men can pass on their nationality to their children and foreign wives, but women do not possess the same right. In Saudi Arabia, the situation is slightly different from other Gulf countries due to a new law in 2007 that states that a Saudi mother who is married to a foreign man may pass on her citizenship to her son after he becomes an adult - the discriminatory treatment of women continuing the cycle of gender discrimination. Tunisia is a rare case where both males and females have equally been able to pass on citizenship to their children and spouses even when born outside the state. Despite being the best case example across the region, even in Tunisia there are elements of gender discrimination. A Tunisian woman married to a foreigner needs the father’s approval before passing on citizenship to her children.

Not possessing the right to pass on nationality to your children is often a main cause behind the inability to prevent new cases of statelessness.  The number of people negatively impacted - with statelessness being one of these impacts - by gender discrimination in nationality laws is potentially huge. Many women in the MENA are married to men who are not nationals of the same state and may thus face problems in terms of transmitting nationality to their children.  For example in Lebanon just under 18,000 women are believed to be married to non-nationals, and the number of Bidoon men in Kuwait married to Kuwaiti women is significant.

The region is experiencing significant civil society movement to challenge this. Lebanon, Bahrain and Kuwait show good case examples of this. However there are often significant and politically sensitive problems intertwined with this issue, such as demographics and immigration, that achieving legal change for gender equality will continue to be a huge challenge.

Zahra Albarazi, MENA Project Coordinator, Statelessness Programme

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