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Campaign to Change Unfair Citizenship Law Continues

Ahmed Abdul Khaliq is a judo professional, born and raised in Syria. Yet despite his talent, Abdul Khaliq can never aspire to represent his country in championships abroad.

Because his mother is Syrian and his father is Egyptian, the authorities regard him as a foreigner, in a country where he has lived all his life and where all his family and friends are.

Nadia, a 20-something who studied archaeology but is currently out of work, should be applying for work in a state institution, yet she cannot even dream of doing so.

Like Abdul Khaliq and many others, Nadia faces an insurmountable obstacle – although her mother is Syrian, her father is a foreign national, and she is therefore automatically denied citizenship.

People like this may never have been outside Syria, yet they are treated as foreign residents and thus deprived of rights such as a free higher education, certain kinds of employment, and pensions.

In October, the Syrian parliament voted against a move to give women the right to pass on their nationality to their children, despite a major campaign led by human rights groups to amend the citizenship law.

Although Syria signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, in 2002, it reserved the right to make a special exception when it came to citizenship rights.

The authorities have argued that under Islamic law or Sharia, children’s identity derives from the father’s name and nationality, not to that of the mother.

Some observers believe that in reality, it is political considerations that lie behind the state’s determination to preserve a narrow definition of nationality.

A human rights activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the authorities did not want to be in a position where the children of Palestinian refugee fathers could claim Syrian citizenship.

Damascus’s policy has been to deny Palestinians the right to become Syrians so as to maintain the refugees as a distinct group and press for their right to return to their original homeland.

A second factor relates to the peculiar status of Kurds in Syria, a large number of whom have never been given identity cards as proof of citizenship, and are therefore regarded as stateless persons even when they are lifelong residents of the country. Once again, the human rights activist noted, a change in the law would subvert this policy by allowing the children of such “stateless” fathers to inherit citizenship from a Syrian-national mother.

Although the proposed change to the law was defeated in parliament, women’s rights activists say they will continue pressing for an end to this injustice.

“We were shocked that the National Assembly voted to maintain discrimination against women, but we have not given up hope,” said Sawsan Zikzik, an activist working with the non-government Syrian Women’s League.

Zikzik noted that Mohammed Habbash, an Islamic cleric who holds a set in parliament, has submitted a new motion for a change to the citizenship law. Some prominent clerics dispute the religious arguments that have been cited in favour of maintaining the status quo.

Syria’s chief cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmed Badruddin Hassoun, said in a recent interview that there was nothing in the rules of Islam to prevent women passing on citizenship to their children.

The mufti took the view that legal citizenship constituted a political right, quite different from the matters of inheritance and kinship which Islamic law deals with.

Since 2003, the Syrian Women’s League has documented cases of individuals deprived of citizenship because their father is not Syrian.

Although there are no firm statistics, the league estimates that there are currently 100,000 Syrian women with foreign husbands, mostly from Arab states such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.

The group has gathered around 20,000 signatures in favour of changes to the law, and has submitted petitions to government, without success. It has also raised the issue in the local media and joined forces with other organisations that campaign for the same rights in Lebanon and other Arab states.

Supporters of change say the law as it stands contradicts the Syrian constitution, which guarantees equal rights for both sexes.

Syrian men can automatically pass on their citizenship even if they were not born there or have never visited the country, civil rights groups say.

Yet Syrian-born residents whose fathers happen to be foreign miss out on the benefits enjoyed by fully-fledged citizens. For instance, they pay tuition fees at state universities, which would otherwise be free. They are barred from employment in the public sector, so are confined to private-sector jobs, which do not offer pensions or state medical insurance, and often pay lower wages.

“We have found that most of the problems start when schooling ends and work begins,” said Zikzik. “These individuals need a residency permit to secure a job.”

This creates a vicious circles, she explained, as in order to renew their residency permit, these non-nationals need to be holding down a job.

Most people in this situation will end up taking their father’s nationality of these individuals end up bearing the same nationality as their fathers. Some, however, find themselves mired in problems when they apply to the given foreign state, and may end up with no passport at all.

Leila, 27, is divorced from her Egyptian husband and is raising her disabled son on her own.

“I didn’t know that I couldn’t pass my citizenship on to my son,” she said. “Had I been advised by anyone, I wouldn’t have married a non-Syrian, thus creating a lot of problems for my child.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)