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Our Motherland, Our Country: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa

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“I begged my husband to divorce me. It was the only way to solve our children’s problem. He told me, ‘Dear, after all these years you want us to separate? I can’t do it.’ Even my son kept on asking me to get a divorce.”

Scope of the Report

When sitting in a room with parents whose children have been left stateless due to gender discriminatory nationality laws, every story is different, but a similar sadness fills the air. It is always the mother, the national, who tries to remain positive, and tries to inject hope into her husband and children. The fathers will often sit silently, staring into the house, devoid of hope. They were not allowed to study, they are not allowed to work.

They cannot guarantee the future of their children, their wives or themselves. They live in a protracted state of poverty and depression, one they cannot escape because of a legal anomaly.
If their children fall ill they know there is little they can do about it. The mother blames herself for marrying someone who does not hold the nationality of her country and is stateless or unable to pass on his own nationality to his children and the children are left the new victims as they cannot obtain any nationality.

They have not been allowed to inherit the nationality of their mother; instead they have inherited despair from their parents. The Statelessness Programme at the University of Tilburg, commissioned by the Women’s Refugee Commission, conducted research on gender discrimination in nationality legislation and statelessness. Field visits were carried out during the first quarter of 2013 where interviews with women, their husbands and children took place, alongside focus group discussions. This study was conducted in four countries—Jordan and Kuwait, where women are still unable to transfer their nationality to their children, and Morocco and Egypt, where recent reforms have allowed this right. Although a global issue, the four countries identified are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; 11 out of the 29 countries worldwide that still uphold this discrimination can be found in this region.

The focus on the MENA region was also informed by the fact that the region has witnessed recent amendments in nationality legislation and broader political transition in the context of the Arab Spring, and therefore shows potential for legislative reform resulting in the removal of discriminatory laws and practices.

The aim of the research was to document and understand the impact of discriminatory nationality legislation on families, some of whose members have been rendered stateless because of

these laws. The research aimed to understand better the link between gender discrimination and statelessness, and the practical consequences of statelessness on the lives of individuals and their families. Historically it was deemed to be in the family’s best interest if all members possessed the same nationality to ensure family unity.
One of the justifications still

repeatedly given for these discriminatory laws is to protect family unity—that the family make-up should encompass one identity, and that children should consequentially be attached to their father’s country and nationality.

However, one of the most striking conclusions to emerge from the research data was that exactly the opposite is happening—gender discrimination in nationality laws is breaking up families, straining and destroying their structure. Although often conceptualized as a women’s rights issue, this form of discrimination is not only damaging to the lives of women, but to the whole family.

Gender discrimination—rendering individuals and families stateless—affects mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, wives and husbands. It is a collective sentence: a woman’s inability to pass her nationality to her children punishes everyone related to the woman.