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LEBANON: Women wed to foreigners want rights for their children and husbands

March 4, 2010 |  8:02 am

When Rand Mnaimneh heard the Lebanese government might give "green cards," or permanent residency status, to the families of Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese, she wasn't even tempted, despite the suffering her family endures because her husband is Palestinian.

“The green card makes me feel like a refugee as well. It’s nothing. I’m against it," she told The Times. "I am a citizen and I want my children to be citizens. They were born here; they are a part of me.”

Mnaimneh is Lebanese, and because Lebanese law prevents her from passing on her citizenship and her husband has none, their children will remain stateless, barred from public schools, hospitals, social services and -- because they are Palestinian -- certain skilled professions.

Lebanese men who marry foreign women, on the other hand, can obtain citizenship rights for their spouses and children with relative ease.

The proposal to grant green cards was introduced two weeks ago by lawmaker Nahmtallah Abi Nasr, a vocal opponent of granting women full citizenship rights. Abi Nasr, like most Lebanese politicians, opposes nationality reform on the grounds that allowing women to pass on their citizenship would upset the delicate sectarian balance that underpins Lebanon's power-sharing system by opening the door to the naturalization of mostly Muslim Palestinians.

But a recent study showed only 22% of women married to foreigners are married to Palestinian men. About 400,000 Palestinians live as refugees in Lebanon.

The proposed law would grant spouses and children of Lebanese women permanent residency and access to public health and education while barring them from participating in politics or obtaining a passport. Although it would provide a measure of relief to some of the estimated 80,000 men, women and children affected by the current law, Lebanese women's rights groups have come out strongly against it.

They fear that accepting a compromise now means giving up hope of real equality in the future.

"If the green card is issued, the nationality law will be dead," said Nayla Madi Masri, who works for the National Committee for the Follow-Up on Women's Issues. "In Lebanon, every 'short-term' solution becomes long term."

The committee recently sponsored a high-profile media campaign featuring famed television presenter George Kordahi lending support to its cause coinciding with the release of the first comprehensive study on the plight of Lebanese women who are married to non-Lebanese men, conducted by the committee with the United Nations.

The issue of citizenship has renewed urgency in light of security concerns stemming from the use of forged passports in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, with some Lebanese politicians calling for all holders of foreign passports, especially those issued by Western countries, to be treated "as potential spies."

"I never thought it would get to this point," said Sawsan Al Hajj, who is married to a Swiss man and whose daughter holds a Swiss passport. 

Not everyone opposes the green card compromise. Rima, whose mother is Lebanese and who asked not to be quoted by her family name, said being allowed to live and work in Lebanon is more important to her than having the passport.

"I think this is a great compromise," Rima, who carries a American passport, wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "It's good enough for me." 

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: A television spot promoting women's nationality rights featuring George Kordahi, a well-known TV presenter. Credit: UNDP via YouTube with translation by Meris Lutz