#39: A woman's inability to pass on nationality

Nicol Lamaa writes, plus a brilliant series of talks, and more...

Hi, I’m Alya Mooro and you’re reading The Greater Conversation, a weekly newsletter honestly addressing all aspects of life through the eyes of a Middle Eastern / third-culture / woman / human. Each week, there’s some thoughts from me, along with a guest piece and recommendations of articles, books*, podcasts and etc worth consuming. If you’ve just subscribed, welcome! If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email to join the list.

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I'll keep this week's intro short because our guest piece is longer than usual. Nicol Lamaa has written a brilliant piece on Lebanese laws that prevent her, as a woman, from passing on her nationality to her children – and just how angry that makes her.

It must be said that Lebanon is not the only country to have unequal laws in this regard. There are around 25 countries that do not grant mothers equal rights to fathers in conferring their nationality on their children. The majority of them, I’m sad to say, are in the Middle East and North Africa. (Find out more here.)

This can lead to statelessness, and has dramatic consequences on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children, and on the autonomy and choice of women.

I’d love to chat more about this, please share your thoughts / experiences in the comments.

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Nicol Lamaa, 29, London

Is it possible for someone who has something, and has always had it, to understand what it’s like to go without? I am a Lebanese woman who is very close to my family. I am also a half person.

In her Ted Talk We Should All Be Feminists, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that she often makes the mistake of assuming that because something is obvious to her, it’s also obvious to others. I didn’t truly identify with this until I began having more open and frank conversations about feminism – something that is more controversial when in a Lebanese context.

People often define sexism as extreme or violent acts. But sexism can and does also refer to a man openly saying that women are in some way less than men. It’s no secret that the law in Lebanon is discriminatory against many parts of society – including women, and there is no shortage of these blatant, flagrant, sexist attitudes.

From the issues surrounding women and custody, the complete lack of legal protection for women who are suffering domestic violence, to the laws that permit marriage to girls as young as 9 years old, these are not just entrenched societal norms, practices or traditions, but also extremely serious and inhumane laws. There is no contract between women and the state that offers a fair exchange, no taxes paid for protection. In short, we are half citizens.

Often, when talking about sexism, I am met with the question of if “this is really the most important thing to be talking about right now.” Particularly in a place like Lebanon. There have always been many socio-economic and environmental problems in Lebanon, and this year seems to have only amplified them.

It would not be possible to cover all of the injustices here, but the existence of more than one problem doesn’t invalidate any of them. Racism isn’t any less important when we talk about sexism, nor is poverty, or the environment. In fact, more often than not, sexism forms part of the problem. Side-lining the conversation on women’s rights for a more appropriate time simply means that women have to deal with all of the existing problems – plus sexism.

I know that changing the law doesn’t mean that attitudes will change immediately. We are all familiar with the stories of Black US citizens who, despite gaining the right to vote, have faced – and continue to face – difficulty in practice. Nevertheless, the law exists to be enforced and should apply to everyone. While we do have huge issues with the penal system all over the world, laws are an important step in effecting real change.

In a conversation I had with my cousin – a Lebanese man who is engaged to be married to a Portuguese woman – I complained that if I were to marry my boyfriend, a Greek national, I would not be able to pass on my Lebanese nationality to my children. They would not be able to visit my country without visas; they would not be able to live or work there, nor would they be recognised as Lebanese nationals. Unless I had a daughter who married a Lebanese man, neither would their children.

“Why do you care?” he said. “It’s not like there are any advantages to having Lebanese nationality, and it isn’t hard to get a visa; you pay on arrival. Your kids wouldn’t ever live there, just like you haven’t lived there. You should let this go.”

I thought about it– why did I care? Did I just want something because I knew I couldn’t have it, and that a man could?

This conversation took place several years ago and I have thought about it deeply and often since. It is a thought that actually pains me. By choosing a person I want to be with, I feel like I am renouncing a part of my identity. Or rather, I am being actively denounced as a citizen, and relegated to one that doesn’t have full power.

Of course, the practical side of this has come to light this year. Countries all over the world have restricted travel from China, and more recently the UK, unless the traveller was a citizen of the country they wished to travel to. Would this mean that one day travelling to Beirut with my potential future family wouldn’t be possible?

Identity doesn’t bind people, it’s something you are born into, but it’s also a choice in the sense that if you don’t want to be involved with the culture and traditions of the country of your ethnic origin, there isn’t any obligation to. If you don’t feel embraced by that community, and if it’s something that is of no interest, that is your choice.

But I love my Lebanese identity. I love Melhem Baraket and the smell of zaatar, I love the Arabic language and have tried to make sure I keep up my ability to read, write and speak it fluently. I love our language beyond its letters, I love the words and the meanings and the depth that can be conveyed in Arabic. I love the music, the humour, the culture that is creative and life loving.

Of course, this is only one view of Lebanese culture, and it is not without its deeply troubling and problematic aspects. But I am hopeful and optimistic – almost in spite of my deepest fears – that my country will eventually progress and evolve. I believe in the potential of its greatness.

Every time I think I don’t care, I listen to an Arabic song or I speak to my grandma and a warmth grows from my chest. A feeling of longing and sadness overwhelms me.

Identity is a choice. Conforming or adhering or being involved in it is a choice. But I do not have that choice because I am a woman. I feel like my country is telling me: if you don’t marry someone from here, we are happy to let you go. You don’t matter.

I have done a lot of reading on the subject and, like with any injustice, the more I read the angrier I became, until I had no feeling toward the subject but pure rage. I often wonder if the men in my life would accept this, if any of them would see what I see; what seems obvious to me.

I am deprived of choice, but for other women, the inability to pass on their nationality means that they are deprived of so much more. In an unpublished 2013 study, the Frontiers Ruwad Association estimated that Lebanon had 60,000 to 80,000 stateless people, excluding Palestinians and migrants. Of these, 73% were born to a Lebanese mother.

Lebanon is a place where I can drink and smoke in the streets while wearing whatever I want, where it looks like I can be free. We boast about being more liberal than other Arab countries; that we can swear at our politicians and party until sunrise.

In Lebanon, it feels like a beautiful woman has the most power in a room. But, as Chimamanda has said, the ability to manipulate or siphon power from a man is not power. What use is this when that man is uninterested, or in a bad mood, or impotent? What use is this when the woman ages?

The truth of it is that we were given this pretence of power and preoccupation with beauty in exchange for what it really means to be equal. We were and are being lied to.

And I will not let it go.

Nicol Lamaa is a lawyer and writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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This newsletter is sponsored by The Doe, a digital publication which shares unfiltered, anonymous stories in an effort to encourage conversation and engagement with new ideas. The narrative I want to share this week is: Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Celebrities Talk About Politics.

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I started out my journalism career writing about hip hop and @josephjppatterson was one of my first ever editors so to write this piece for him for @complex_uk feels like the most satisfying circle. My pick of the 7 Arab Hip Hop artists you need to know.

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A quote from a book you should read:

“What would it be, I wonder, to conduct one’s life as a Chinese life instead of just a life? I speak Chinese, I cook Chinese food, practice tai-chi on occasion and drink oolong tea, but to flaunt one’s authenticity seems terribly gauche. I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

- Everything Here Is Beautiful, Mira Lee.



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Thanks for subscribing! I'm Alya, the person behind this newsletter. I am a freelance journalist and the bestselling author of The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. You can follow me on Instagram here, and Twitter here.

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