5:14am , Wednesday 20th January 2021

The Curse of Syria's Sexist Citizenship Law

16 December 2008

Muntaha is a Syrian woman who, twenty four years ago, married an Egyptian man. Back then, she was unaware of the consequences of this marriage, and she did not they will haunt her forever, since the Syrian citizenship law will never give her justice.

She got married in a country that does not recognize the right of her children to have her nationality, although it affirms the “blood right” of her brother’s children to have the Syrian nationality despite the fact that he lives in Holland, and that they were born to a Dutch mother in a foreign country.

There is no reason for this disparity apart from gender discrimination.
Syrian citizenship law deprives any woman married to an ‘alien’ from the right to pass on her nationality to her children.  Article III, Para (a) limits the right of giving the Syrian nationality by virtue of birth, to those born in the country -or abroad- to a Syrian Arab father.   Syrian women are not given the same right, and the Government provides no explanation or justification for this disparity.

The “My Citizenship is a Right for me and my Family” campaign was told by the government, that granting this right to women poses a threat to national sovereignty and security. The premise is that an alien spouse of a Syrian woman may, after they marry, work against Syrian national interests.  However, the irony is, that the Syrian government assumes that the ‘alien’ spouses of Syrian men will not be working against Syrian interests. This not only implies a false consciousness that has been circulating for centuries, that women are emotional while men are rational, but it also manifests and thus facilitates the creation of a double standard between both genders, that is supported by those in power.
A Journey of Expectations:
Muntaha’s dilemma with Syria’s citizenship law began when she got married to an Egyptian doctor 24 years ago.  She left Syria and headed to Egypt with him. A month later, she returned to Syria both divorced and pregnant.
The consequences of this marriage still plague her life, and her son constantly reminds her that “You should have known your rights before marrying a man who carries a different nationality.”

She is awaiting the outcome of her seventh petition to the President of the Republic for the only exemption that will grant her son Syrian citizenship.  She has knocked on every door, from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs — which assured her that her request does not contradict with Islamic Shari’a law—to the Ministry of Justice and to lawyers, who assured her that this does not go against the Syrian constitution.

She says she “had expected to be the only woman facing this problem or, at most, one of a very few”. She was surprised to learn that she is one of tens of thousands of women who suffer because of this law, not only in Syria but over most of the Arab World.
In 2003 she testified about her son’s situation to a campaign launched by the League of Syrian Women in Damascus who invited her to talk about her case.  “I was so glad when I found out I was not alone, and that there are many cases similar to mine. This gave me hope that things would improve,” she said.

In the wake of the regional campaign in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria under the slogan “My Citizenship is a Right for me and my Family”, Egyptian women won the right to pass on their citizenship to their children.  Presidential decrees also won it for women in Tunisia and Algeria.  But women in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Morocco, are still waiting.

Conflicting Statistics:
According to figures provided by the Ministry of Interior in 2006, there are 1,451 Syrian women married to Arab men of other nationalities.

However, a preliminary estimate prepared by the League of Syrian Women, which leads the campaign in Syria, puts the number of Syrian women married to both foreign and Arab men, at around 100,000.  The Syrian Planning Commission’s figures put the size of the average family in Syria at five members, which means that the lives of about half a million people in Syria could be impacted by this problem.

All this in spite the fact that Article (25) of the Syrian Constitution stipulates that “all citizens are equal before the law in rights and duties and Article (44) states that “The family is the basic nucleus of society and is protected by the State”. All this despite all international agreements and accords ratified by Syria, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Articles (7) and (8), which clearly stipulate that a child must be registered immediately after birth, and that a child has the right to a name, to citizenship and to live within a secure family. The Declaration of Human Rights stipulates in Article (15) that every individual has the right to enjoy citizenship, and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of that nationality or the right to change it.

All this was included in the Arab campaign that was undertaken by The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTDA) in Lebanon, whose purpose was to exert peaceful pressure on governments to repeal the discrimination against women that is embedded in the citizenship laws throughout the Arab world.

Faded and Disintegrating Papers:
Muntaha may be going into the twenty-fourth year of her saga carrying a huge dossier of papers that have faded and started to disintegrate. Her son Mohammad’s entire life has been devastated by this problem, all the more so because his father has refused to cooperate.  Mohammad’s birth certificate was not received until he turned seven. While his Egyptian nationality was later acknowledged, he still does not have a passport or a single document to prove his identity.

This is no ordinary situation and it affects every aspect of his life.  Mohammad can’t travel from one Syrian governorate to another except in a private car, as he has no identity card to mount a bus. He cannot move freely and securely even within the governorate in which he resides for fear of getting into a situation that may force him to go to a police station, where he would not be able to prove his identity.  He mentions how many obstacles this throws in his way, starting with his inability to get a job with the government because he is not a Syrian national, to his inability to start a private business because as a non-Syrian he has no right to buy or lease property.  This leaves him with one option — to seek employment with others.  However, such employment leaves him without the security of a contract or insurance.  In addition, Mohammad cannot get married as he holds neither an ID nor a passport (considering his father has refused to sign any documents).   He has to go through this suffering, day in and day out, in the country where he was born and where he lives, the only country that he knows and loves.  His mother has also suffered, and dreams of the day when he can become a Syrian citizen so she can prove to him and everyone else that she has done nothing wrong.The League of Syrian Women’s Campaign:

The League of Syrian Women’s Campaign:
The government has yet to respond to the demands of the League of Syrian Women, which started campaigning in 2003. The campaign is backed by 35 of 250 parliamentarians, who signed both the petition that it presented to the speaker of the People’s Council (parliament) at the time and a letter submitted to the President of the Republic on May 16, 2006. The latter was signed by thousands of citizens supporting the amendment of the law.  It should be noted that the Syrian constitution requires one-fifth of the 250 members of parliament to amend a law, in addition to the approval of the president of the republic.

Yet the League continues to hope for renewed action by the People’s Council as promised by deputy Mohammad Habash.  At a meeting on December 15, 2007, he assured representatives of the families affected by this problem, that it would be brought for discussion before the presidency of the Council.  However, our investigation and follow-up with the League and other sources have shown that up to this day, Habash has not presented the case.  He has justified this by telling reporters that he has been waiting for the right time in order to ensure that the petition is given due consideration.

Meanwhile, the families deprived of Syrian nationality have not stopped trying, either as individual entities or collectively.  Some of those born of Syrian mothers and Arab or foreign fathers have resorted to ordinary naturalization procedures to obtain nationality.   Foreigners are subject to Article (4) of Decree No. (276) of 1967, and Arab nationals are subject to Article (16), with certain conditions that must be applicable, such being over 18 and free of communicable diseases and handicaps.  This automatically deprives all children under 18 years old as well as any sick or handicapped persons from the right to apply through the legal naturalization system.

Tareq’s case illustrates this perfectly.  He was born to a Tunisian father and a Syrian mother. After waiting for more than 10 years, he obtained Syrian citizenship.  He had applied for an alien rather than a child of a Syrian mother.  Tareq has a handicapped brother who, under the law, is not eligible.  This forced the family to split up so that the handicapped brother could work and live in Tunisia, while the other members of the family continue to live and work in Syria.

Obviously, individual solutions – such as seeking exceptions and processing papers through ordinary naturalization procedures – will not settle the issue.  The legal article needs to be amended. This is what Dr. George Jabbour, a member of the People’s Council, demanded in 2004.   Stated:  “I hope that the Council will study the suggestion to amend the article and adopt it.  I appreciate the efforts to update the laws that impact Syrian women.”

The draft amendment deals with Article (3) of Paragraph 1 which stipulates that  “Syrian citizenship is granted by virtue of birth to any child born to a Syrian Arab father”. He wants to amend it to read:  “Syrian citizenship is granted to any child born to a Syrian Arab father or mother.”
Secretary of the Interior Ministry, Mr. Hassan Al-Jalali confirms that the normal naturalization process is extremely difficult. “It is extremely hard for non-Syrians to obtain Syrian citizenship, even through the normal application process.  Nobody has obtained one for many years”.  A review of the official Gazette, from 2004 to January 2008, shows that not a single decree or decision granting citizenship in the normal way or by exemption was provided.  On the other hand, it shows the number of instances where citizenship is granted by the Ministry of Interior to the spouses of Syrian men.  An official at the publishing department of the Official Gazette confirms: “I have not noted any decision or decree granting citizenship through the normal process for many years, although there are more than 50 cases a week, where Syrian men give their nationality to their non-Syrian wives, Arab and foreign alike.”
Action by Government Agencies:
The Syrian Commission for Family Affairs is a governmental organization.  In Cooperation with the Union of Syrian Women and other non-governmental organizations in Syria, it presented a study aimed at rescinding reservations against Clause (2) of Article (9) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on the rights of women with respect to the nationality of their children.  This followed their submission of legal studies highlighting discrimination in the current Syrian citizenship law and the organization of a number of panel discussions with members of the People’s Council.  Most of those attending were in accord and the Commission then submitted a proposal to the Syrian prime minister to rescind those reservations and begin procedures to apply clause 2 of the Convention. Everyone waits while the government continues to evade:
“To date there has been no official response to our efforts,” said Sawsan Zakzak, a women’s rights activist.  She adds that the government has totally ignored the issue and insists there is no justification for  the establishment of discriminatory laws that are said to protect national security or sovereignty.

The campaign continues, and the families are left in uncertainty, between the various legal and religious positions on one hand, and the decisions taken by the government on pretexts of national interest, on the other.

The social, economic and familial problems created by this situation are compounded by the rise in the number of persons in Syria who hold no nationality at all.
Religious Officialdom:
Religious officials, too, are divided between those opposing, and those supporting the right of women to pass on their nationality to their children. Yet, this has nothing to do with Islamic law which does not touch on the issue of nationality since Muslims make up one nation, the Umma.  Those opposing the amendment of the law are therefore merely towing the government’s line.

“We do not object to this from a religious point of view”, says Sheikh Usama al-Rifa’i, “but we feel that civil society in Syria is trying to put pressure on the government to rescind its reservations against the (CEDAW) convention clause relating to the right of women with respect to their children’s nationality”.  He added that the Syrian government and all other Arab governments without exception have expressed their reservations concerning this clause and religious officials support a unified stand with the government on this matter.

But Mufti Ala’ Uddin Al-Za’tari, an official of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, does not oppose the proposition.  Indeed, he confirms that Islamic law does not touch upon the issue of nationality. He also supports equal rights for men and women with respect to their children’s nationality.  “Those who accuse the Shari’a law of contradicting the citizenship law and of depriving a woman of her right to grant her nationality to her children must produce proof,” he said.  “Naturalization is an administrative procedure, governed by a political and a constitutional umbrella and we can, therefore, work on the equality of men and women in granting their nationality to their children.  The rules of theology provide that the absence of a ban on any given issue implies its approval. So unless a ban is expressly pronounced in the Shari’a, (Islamic jurisprudence) it is not permissible to prohibit it.”

The Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, Ahmad Bader Hassoun, has also supported the move by the People’s Council giving women equal rights with respect to the nationality of their children.  In many of his public statements, he said that this is a woman’s right because citizenship differs from lineage – while the former is a political, not a national right, lineage is a legal and inheritance right.

As for concerns about the national interest and sovereignty of the State, international law professor at the University of Damascus, Fouad Deeb, did not deny the existence of a problem. But he stated that in a male dominated society the law is understandably not favorable to women.  He states: “Effecting the principles of equality does not necessarily imply that we should dismiss Syrian reservations and concerns about the implementation of Clause 2 of Article 9 of CEDAW as it relates to the right of women to grant their nationality to their children.”  And while Prof. Deeb maintains that the current law does not contradict the constitution, which leaves to the law the matter of regulating the practice of equality for all Syrian nationals, he added that the laws should nevertheless be reviewed to take into account the humanitarian implications and consequences to the families affected by the law, to ensure that no children are left without nationality. Depriving them of such rights entails that they are treated as foreigners with the subsequent restrictions on ownership of property, voting, candidacy and educational rights.

Women’s rights activist and lawyer Daad Musa, however, states that Article (3) Para (1) of the citizenship law clearly violates Article (25) of the constitution which stipulates the equality of all citizens.  The general principle of this article contradicts the constitution just as many other discriminatory laws against women do.  Yet not a single case was presented to the courts because legal action must be brought individually rather than collectively. And while the individual women involved are afraid of filing individual suits lest their situations are made more complicated, organizations are unable to file suit on their behalf.

In addition, over ten male and female lawyers who were interviewed on the issue of nationality said they would refuse to take on legal cases involving citizenship issues because they involve administrative procedures rather than legal cases.  “These are not lawsuits to be taken to a court of law.  They need to be filed with the Ministry of Interior and can then be followed up by the individual concerned,” said lawyer Muna As’ad. Saniyya Yousef. Another lawyer said: “We prefer not to take on such cases because they take up a lot of time and involve going back and forth uselessly.”

Dr. Mohammad Al-Hussein, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Damascus University, views that nationality is a legal and political relationship between the individual and the state and constitutes “the rational link which draws the family into its national identity and is crucial to complementarity between men and women”.

He adds that “the unity of the family and its sense of national identity require that citizenship must be granted to the children and husbands of Syrian women, particularly that Syrian law does not ban dual nationality. So I see nothing to prevent the amendment of the law.”

The debate goes on.  Meanwhile, Syria loses out on the exceptional talents of people such as David, who was born in Latakia to a Cypriot father and Syrian mother.  He studied in Syrian schools, then went to university and qualified for graduate studies. But because he does not hold Syrian citizenship, he was neither able to enroll at a local university, or find a job commemorating his qualifications.  Another example is Ahmad Abdul-Khaleq, Syria’s national champion in Judo.  His mother is Syrian but he cannot represent Syria abroad because he himself is not Syrian.  Then there is Aalaa’ el-Basha, who studied at the College of Archeology and Museums, and has the required qualifications and capabilities but may not work in the public sector because her father is not Syrian, depriving the state of her special qualifications.

Despite having expressed its reservations with regard to clause 2 of article 9 of CEDAW, which Syria ratified by Edict 330 of September 25, 2002, Syria is still required by international law to apply the articles of the agreement and to work towards rescinding those reservations by amending its laws, and bring them in line with international conventions.  Until then, Muntaha, her son and thousands like them will continue to suffer; the country will continue to be deprived of the exceptional talents of those like Ahmad, Aalaa’, David and so many others who cannot work or represent the country of their birth and residence.

The problem will continue to take on new dimensions.  The latest of these was the Ministry of Interior decision to limit the distribution of government-issued subsidized coupons for heating fuel to Syrian families and their members, leaving out Syrian women married to non-Syrian men even if they reside with their husbands and children on Syrian national soil.

This report was prepared and published with the support of ARIJ(Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism)


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