Civil marriage, a better deal than you thought

BEIRUT: They say that money can’t buy love. But lack of it can certainly hurt one’s chances of fulfilling the dream of getting married, buying a home and establishing a family – especially in a country where religion dictates family law.

“People don’t talk about it because they’re afraid of criticizing their religious authorities,” says Jad Chaaban, an assistant professor of economics at the American University of Beirut.

Chaaban recently carried out a study on the costs and benefits of civil marriage in Lebanon. The result, he found, is that if civil marriage becomes a reality, the vast majority of citizens will be better off – not just socially, but also financially.

While most of the focus of the civil marriage debate has primarily been on the social aspects of a sectarian society, relatively little has been said about the economic impact that such a reform would bring. In fact, every monetary transaction to do with marriage is governed by a person’s religious sect.

Those who benefit are the religious authorities, while those that lose out tend to be the rest of the population, particularly women who have to contend with divorce and custody laws that tend to favor men.

“The people who would profit would be 10 times more than the people who would lose out because of the fees,” Chaaban says.

Fees for a Muslim nuptial typically come to around $200, while a church wedding can cost up to $10,000. In addition, getting a divorce in the religious courts can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, a civil marriage could cost as little as $100.

Chaaban says that it’s this small minority, namely members and employees of Lebanon’s religious authorities, who have some 6,000 people on their payrolls, that has been enjoying disproportionate power for decades and wants to hold on to a steady source of revenue.

Around $33 million of these wedding-related fees annually go to religious civil servants, adding to their base salaries.

“It’s a profitable business,” he says. Lebanon’s religious authorities, he adds, “are afraid of people going out of their system. They’re afraid of losing donations and the people they rely on.”

In addition to the cost on society of religious marriages, Chaaban’s study also points to financial pressure and poverty, which are prompting people to get married later, or not at all. In 1970, the average age for marriage in Lebanon was 22, by 2007 it had risen to 32.

Nidal Darwish, who married Kholoud Sukkariyah in the country’s first and only civil marriage in November, says that given his financial situation, he never thought of himself as someone who could get married.

“The economic situation in Lebanon is such that someone without a good salary, even a teacher, will find it very difficult to buy a house and start a family,” says Darwish, who works as a gym receptionist.

“In the Middle East, the man gets the house and he’s the owner. I want the house to be for both of us and I want us to take all of our decisions together.”

Sukkariyah, who works as an English teacher, calls obligatory religious marriages “nonsense.” After her civil marriage contract, done for around $100 using a loophole in the old French mandate law, she and Darwish had a “humble” celebration in the Bekaa Valley that cost $5,000.

In a sign that there is a growing demand for civil marriages, the rate of Lebanese civil marriages in Cyprus – the most popular destination for such unions in the region – increased threefold between 2008 and 2011 by 700. The average cost of the entire process, including plane ticket, hotel and marriage registration amounts to $1,250.

Chirine El Bitar, an agent at U Travel, which offers wedding packages to Cyprus and other destinations, says her firm has two types of clients who request a civil marriage: those who don’t want a religious union and those who are looking to save money.

She says that if civil marriage does become a reality in Lebanon she’s not worried about it affecting her business, as “destination weddings” appear to be increasingly popular in general.

“Civil marriage in Lebanon will affect us more positively than negatively,” she says. “So if they are concerned about our business, we give them our blessings.”

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