In Israel, two parallel legal systems will have jurisdiction over issues related family laws: the religious legal system, which consists of independent courts for each of the 13 religious communities recognized by Israel, and the civil legal system, which includes Family Courts that were established by the Family Court Law. The religious courts have the authority to rule on matters related to the personal status of members of a married couple, provided that both spouses belong to the same religious denomination. Currently, these courts have exclusive jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce, while all other family law issues, such as alimony/child support, custody, division of property, etc., may fall under the jurisdiction of either the religious courts or the civil Family Courts. The terms and conditions of this parallel jurisdiction differ from one religious community to another, due to the varied applicability of certain provisions of state law.
As there is no civil marriage in Israel, Arab women are compelled to participate within religious court systems where they face multiple forms of institutionalized, gender-based discrimination – including, inter alia, ‘Obedience’ provisions, inequitable rights to inheritance, disparate weight of testimony, and gender-exclusive arbitration. These courts derive their legal legitimacy not through civil law at the local or national levels, but through supra-governmental religious frameworks. Hence attempts to challenge discriminatory practices at the national level are easily sidestepped for lack of mandate. Furthermore jurisdiction over personal-status law is one of the last bastions of autonomy for the Palestinian national minority in Israel and therefore subject to intense internal debate. Attempts to forge a civil alternative to religious marriage are often met with hostility on grounds of national sovereignty.
In Lebanon, where similar civil/religious emnity persists, a new precedent may be in the works. For the first time in history, a civil marriage has taken place within the country. Though the legal context concerning civil marriage in Lebanon is distinct from its counterpart south of the border, the case has nonetheless sparked intense interest in Israel. Campaigners for a civil option will undoubtedly be keeping their eyes open in the coming months as the story unfolds.
From Elias Muhanna – Jadaliyya, January 26, 2013
The long-term implications of such a development could be very interesting. Lebanon’s politics are based, in a fundamental way, on the parsing of the country’s population into discrete confessional communities. What happens when we begin to see people transgress the boundaries of these communities in greater numbers? What happens if, five years from today, there are 150,000 people who do not belong–administratively speaking–to an official sect? How would such people run for political office under the current system? How would they get divorced and bequeath property to their children? Speaking of their children, what is their own administrative status? Might all of these uncertainties end up providing a disincentive to remove one’s confessional ID altogether? Stepping back, is there a case to be made for creating a “19th sect” (i.e., the secular sect) that has representation in Parliament? Alternatively, would it not make more sense to start taking seriously the long deferred problems of the confessional system altogether?
The current civil marriage debate brings all of these important questions to the fore, even if the status of Kholoud and Nidal’s marriage has been rejected by an advisory panel at the Ministry of Justice (Hay’at al-tashri’ wa-al-istisharat). Marwan Charbel, who is the interior minister–and, by the way, claims to be a supporter of enacting civil marriage in Lebanon–announced the decision, citing the fact that no Lebanese law exists to legislate this marriage as the basis of that rejection. While it may take a while to sort out the details of this particular marriage, there is no doubt that the Lebanese secularist movement has won a major, even if only symbolic, victory towards achieving its stated objectives.