Dependent identity: The MENA, Women and Citizenship

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By Zahra Albarazi · 17 October 2011
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State sovereignty in determining nationality legislation has led to a number of difficulties worldwide, including the lack safeguards against statelessness, and often discriminatory policies.  In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a substantially apparent flaw in state citizenship legislation is gender discrimination. Women rarely possess the right to pass nationality on to their children or their spouse – and maternal affiliation can only be the case in extreme circumstances. This leaves the acquisition of citizenship dependent on the male figures in the family. Individuals who have often lived all their lives within the country of their mother - and cannot leave - are unable to acquire her nationality. This situation is not only impractical, it also leaves thousands of people at risk of being born stateless.

 The region hosts some of the largest groups of stateless people worldwide and despite much lobbying for reform of this discriminatory flaw, it is one of the main causes of inaccessibility to citizenship. With no effective institutional policies to protect the rights of stateless persons in the MENA region, stateless individuals living in the nation-state of their mothers face obstacles in accessing their basic civil, social, and political rights. This can also lead to generational problems.

Nationality laws of the MENA region are a reflection of colonial legislation and it is these original influences that have shaped these discriminatory clauses. The concept of ‘a citizen’ in these countries developed as a hybrid of both Ottoman and Western ideologies. The contemporary notion of nation-states identifying citizens and establishing citizenship as an individual’s link to fundamental civil and political rights was, for many communities and tribes residing in the region, an alien concept. The first modern concept of nationality law was seen in 1869, when the first Ottoman citizenship law was implemented, which established paternal jus sanguinis. In 1918, Ottoman citizenship ceased to exist, while the British and French division of nation states was followed by MENA states adopting nationality laws derived from these colonial influences. Unfortunately, these new frameworks continued the tradition of paternal jus sanguinis.

These discriminatory clauses continue to have wide-ranging repercussions across the region. Many states worldwide have certain levels of gender discrimination in related legislations but no region witnesses this to the same extent as the MENA. Whilst the colonial powers went on to amend these flaws, the same laws, transmitted to states worldwide, remained unchanged in the MENA.  This is despite the fact that this often contradicts the element of equality found in the respective constitutions. States in the region in fact became less and less willing to allow their women to enjoy the basic right of transmitting their citizenship for various developing political reasons.   The multifaceted dimensions of this issue similarly led to the unwillingness of states to naturalize certain groups. An example of this can be seen in the recipient countries of substantial refugee and stateless communities, such as the Palestinians, which became reluctant to allow change as they were concerned that this would lead to thousands gaining access to their nationality.  In both Jordan and Lebanon only men can transmit nationality to their children, regardless of where the children are born and raised. In Jordan, the Palestinian refugee phenomenon has rendered lobbying to change the law unsuccessful.  In Lebanon, the state sees the naturalization of many Palestinians, which would come with such legislative change, as a threat to the volatile confessional demographics and the imposed pluralistic sectarian political regime.  Along the same lines, retaining gender discrimination embodied in legislation has therefore been seen as an effective tool to manage certain political agendas.

Reform was gradually introduced by many states worldwide based on the adoption of an international human rights consensus.  The MENA nation states also went on to sign and ratify many international and regional human rights frameworks, but never amended gender discrimination clauses.  All countries in the MENA have, for example, ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Woman (CEDAW), but most put in reservations to Article 9 which demands gender equality in nationality laws.   Although some Arab states have recently followed European countries in amending the law - notably North Africa has been at the forefront of such change - these are the countries that suffer the least from confessional problems and large refugee populations. Despite the dynamically changing scene in the region, disentangling confessional socio-economic politics from the push to amend adopted paternal jus sanguinis laws will clearly be a tough path, but the momentum for change continues to grow.

About the author

  • Zahra Albarazi

    Activist Consultant
    Zahra Albarazi
    Zahra Albarazi is the co-ordinator of the MENA Nationality Research Project with the Open Society Justice Initiative, where she also undertakes legal research on statelessness and citizenship in... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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