BEIRUT – Nationality was a controversial topic in Syria even before the influx of foreign fighters, the fleeing of 5.2 million people from the country and the increasing restrictions on freedom of movement for Syrian nationals. While those issues continue to make international headlines, Damascus is reviewing a proposal to improve women’s rights under the Syrian Nationality Law.
Under the current law, Syrian nationality can be passed on only through a Syrian father. However, a special committee is studying a proposal that would grant nationality to foreign husbands of Syrian women, General Mohammad Al-Sha’ar, Syria’s minister of interior, said in an interview with the state-run newspaper Tishreen in late August.
This is not the first push to grant Syrian women the right to pass on their nationality. The Syrian Women’s League began pushing in 2003 for legislation that would grant Syrian mothers the ability to pass nationality on to their children even if they had a foreign father. In 2010, the group presented a parliamentary session with a proposal to amend the legislation. The war erupted shortly after, and no amendment was passed.
However, six years of conflict have changed the role of women in Syria, and as Damascus looks to reconstruction and real estate development, this latest proposal “may have a better shot,” according to the Syrian Law Journal (SLJ), an online legal publication and Syrian legislation database.
Syria Deeply spoke with a member of the Syrian Law Journal about why this proposal is now being studied, the impact it could have on Syrian society and the reasons why some remain opposed to the possible legislative change. The staff member chose to not be identified for security reasons.
Syria Deeply: What is the current state of the Syrian Nationality Law?
Syrian Law Journal: Syrian nationality is based on the principle of jus sanguinis, which means that nationality is obtained through the parents, not through the place of birth. More specifically, under the current Syrian law Legislative Decree 276/1969, only the father can pass on Syrian nationality to his children.
There are some exceptions: A person born in Syria and unable to prove who his father is can apply for Syrian nationality, as can a foreign woman married to a Syrian if she has resided in Syria for two years. Her children from a previous marriage can also apply if they are minors, under certain conditions. A person living abroad who can prove their Syrian origins can also apply.
The Nationality Law reflects the pan-Arab positions of the Baath Party and other currents active in Syria for the past 60 years. This gives Arab applicants preferential treatment as they are distinguished from other foreign nationals. If an Arab national moves to Syria, they can apply for Syrian nationality. Non-Arab foreign applicants can apply if they have lived in Syria for five years, speak and write in Arabic and have sufficient resources. However, a foreign national who served Syria in a way deemed noble can apply without time constraints.
It’s quite ironic, because the children of a Syrian mother and a foreign father cannot obtain nationality even if they have lived in Syria for their whole lives, whereas the adult children of a naturalized father can become Syrian nationals after residing in Syria for two years.
What’s also interesting is that Syrian nationality is not yours to forfeit. The state reserves this right. If I want to forfeit my nationality, I can’t just go and declare, “I don’t want to be a national anymore.” I have to petition the minister of interior as I can’t abandon it on my own.
Syria Deeply: Is the proposal to allow Syrian wives to give nationality to their foreign husbands a consequence of the war?
SLJ: I don’t think it’s to do entirely with the conflict. But because of the conflict, the role of women has changed in Syria. A committee was recently formed to reflect that change. It’s going to be an issue in the foreseeable future but I can’t say for sure when it will happen.
More women have had to take on bigger roles that would ordinarily be the father’s or the husband’s, because men have either emigrated, are fighting or, in many cases, have been tragically killed.
For example, fathers usually submit the application for Syrian children living abroad to renew their passports, but women are now taking on this role and other administrative matters that the war has made increasingly complex. In light of this, some Syrian embassies are reported to have requested that the Sharia courts grant guardianship rights to expatriate Syrian mothers.
Women are a leading force in Syria. Since the conflict, more women work in state institutions, in the government and in the judiciary, so it’s natural that this issue takes more precedence. Syria is the only Arab country with a female vice president. A woman served as speaker of the Parliament – the People’s Assembly – until three months ago. We have parliamentarians, ministers and members of the local councils who are women.
That being said, some women have had to leave the country for safety and economic reasons. Sanctions make it hard to work inside Syria. Some of these women might marry into foreign families. In some ways, this is also a factor.
Syria Deeply: There has been an influx of foreign fighters, some of whom have been in Syria for several years and have married Syrian women. Is there concern that nationality could become a reward for foreigners who fought in Syria?
SLJ: I am skeptical of interpreting this as a rationale for amending the law, but obviously, if the law is changed, it would consequently benefit foreign husbands. I doubt it’s been moving faster because of the presence of foreign fighters coming to Syria. For a while now, some members of the Parliament and other public officials have been calling for Syrian nationality to be granted to the children and husbands of Syrian women. It actually predates the conflict.
Syria Deeply: What factors did contribute to the recent push to amend the law?
SLJ: Nationality is an important point for a lot of people. It’s not a political argument. A Syrian national also acquires economic rights – for example, property ownership and the ability to work in the public sector.
It’s a big deal for real estate ownership. To inherit property, there are restrictions on foreign ownership – after obtaining authorization from the minister of interior, foreign families can own one residence measuring a minimum of 140 square meters [1,500 square ft]. Foreigners can own property in Syria through a company, but not everyone will form a company and transfer all of their assets to it.
It will also protect a family’s wealth, because if your nationality prohibits you from owning property, you must sell it to a Syrian national within two years or it is automatically transferred to the state in return for compensation, which may not amount to a favourable sum. Faced with a legal deadline, you’re going to have people who will try to purchase it at a discounted price.
It’s also a constitutional issue. Article 33 of the Constitution guarantees equal rights for citizens without discrimination based on “sex, origin, language, religion or creed.” When you don’t let women pass on their nationality, in a way you’re giving men more rights.
Overall, I believe that it will be a positive development for the advancement of women in our society. It’s just a shame that we had this conflict, because it means we’re going to have to work twice as hard, if not more, to get back on track. I do believe that if women can pass on their nationality, it will help us in the reconstruction stage, even if it wasn’t intended for these specific circumstances.
Syria Deeply: Are any restrictions or parameters being studied alongside this possible legislative change to prevent, for example, a foreign ISIS fighter who married a Syrian woman from obtaining nationality?
SLJ: You have to look overall at the marital and immigration laws in Syria. The Nationality Law cannot be read in isolation to other legislation such as the Personal Status Law and its provisions on marital contracts.
Today, if a man enters Syria legally with the government’s approval – through a visa granted by the authorities – and marries a Syrian woman in accordance with Syrian laws, I think you would have a case to make for nationality, if the law is amended and the legal conditions are satisfied.
But if he crossed into Syria illegally and he has been fighting against the state whose nationality he wishes to be granted, I think it’s going to be a long shot. Depending on the circumstances, it is questionable whether this marriage would even be valid under the Personal Status Law.
Syria Deeply: What needs to happen to pass this amendment?
SLJ: The Ministry of Interior can make a recommendation to the Ministry of Justice, who would then form a committee to draft a new law. This would go to the Council of Ministers, who can either approve it or return it for further review.
It would then go to Parliament, which would debate the bill – there are some MPs in favor of it. The Baath Party and their allies possess a parliamentary majority so they will have significant input. Opposition to the bill is possible, but the Parliament of today, which was elected last year, is not the Parliament of yesterday. You have a more active Parliament and you have more women in the Parliament. For example, after substantive policy disagreements in July of this year, Syrian MPs unseated their speaker and a non-Baathist took on the role of acting speaker – two events that have not happened for more than 50 years. The irony is that the speaker was the first woman to hold that post since 1919.
If the bill is passed in the Parliament, which I believe it could be, it would then need to be ratified by the president.
Syria Deeply: What prevented past attempts to amend the Nationality Law, and what are the arguments of those opposed to it?
SLJ: Our state is quite liberal compared to other Arab countries, but in my opinion society remains a bit more conservative. Such conservatism has grown over the past 20–30 years. I think the conservative element within society may have partly slowed down progress on potential amendments to the law when the issue started to garner more interest in recent years.
From the societal perspective, usually, Syrians may prefer to see Syrian women marry Syrians or at least fellow Arabs. You could say it’s a cultural issue. There may also be concern from both society and state that the children of a Syrian woman married to foreigner, particularly a non-Arab, may grow up with a closer bond to their father’s home country.
Another point of opposition comes from those who say “we don’t want to see our land and property becoming owned by a growing number of foreign individuals.” But I don’t know if that’s really an issue anymore, because in 2008 the 60-year-old law restricting foreign ownership was changed to allow a 100 percent foreign-owned company to buy land and property.
It’s just a question of how soon society and certain elements of the state for that matter can open up and accept the possibility of women passing on their nationality to their husbands and children. We can be progressive. History has shown that we are a progressive people. I’m sure we can adapt, but we must ensure that we strike the right balance and not upset societal sensitivities.
The conflict has also shifted dynamics within the country. Syria has changed. People have probably seen the worst situations in life, and they realize now what’s valuable and what’s not. Any cultural opposition could therefore be potentially overcome. At the end of the day, even if society is conservative to an extent, women are still more active.
In wartime, sometimes new ideas crop up. You have an awakening about what has to be done. I feel optimistic because, today, many public officials are women, unlike in the past. I think now we may have a better shot at granting women the right to pass on their Syrian nationality.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.