ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
No one ever said marriage was easy, but in one Middle Eastern country, it's even harder. That's because there are 15 different sets of rules for different religions and sects. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Lebanon on the pioneers who are campaigning for equal and identical marriage rights.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Like lots of young married couples, Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish love to show you their wedding video. They go all misty-eyed remembering that day two years ago.
KHOLOUD SUCCARIYEH: Very beautiful, everything is nice.
FORDHAM: But their wedding was special, not just as a personal milestone for the couple - it was a political milestone as well.
NIDAL DARWISH: Amazing (speaking foreign language).
FORDHAM: Darwish says their union was a challenge to the state. It was Lebanon's first civil marriage. That's a big deal because Lebanon has 18 registered sects. And there isn't one law for marriage or divorce or inheritance. Those laws are decided by different religious courts, almost one for each sect - 15 in total.
SUCCARIYEH: In Lebanon - actually Lebanon is a sectarian regime.
FORDHAM: Succariyeh explains if there was any dispute in a Muslim marriage - they're both Muslim - it would be adjudicated by Islamic judges.
SUCCARIYEH: For me as a woman, I don't accept to be submitting to the religious men and their religious courts.
FORDHAM: A Human Rights Watch report this year found all Lebanon's religious courts - Christian, Muslim and others - enforced laws that were unfair to women. And mixed-religion marriages are legal, but all religious authorities apply a tangle of conditions to them.
SUCCARIYEH: For this reason, I wanted to be independent. I wanted to be the master of my family as my husband, and for this reason, we chose civil marriage.
FORDHAM: She first met Darwish when he was a student of hers.
SUCCARIYEH: I was teaching him English (laughter) and then here, we fell in love.
FORDHAM: I will clarify, they are the same age. They're both from conservative families but aren't big on old traditions.
SUCCARIYEH: So actually, I kissed him the first time. Nobody knows this, it's a new idea. (Laughter) I gave him a French kiss for the first time.
FORDHAM: On their first date, before they even had dinner - so that was it. They started talking marriage. And although there hadn't been a civil marriage in Lebanon in living memory, that's what they wanted.
SUCCARIYEH: From that point, we worked on this.
FORDHAM: A lawyer friend studied an old law and found that for people who aren't affiliated with a sect, civil marriage is allowed. So Succariyeh and Darwish struck their sect from the official records. They had a Muslim cleric officiate at a wedding and their lawyer write the first civil marriage certificate, which the interior ministry legalized. And that was the landmark. Their supporters...
SUCCARIYEH: ...Were so happy that we did this and they really re-believed that whenever you work hard, you get what you want.
FORDHAM: They were trailblazers. After that, dozens of couples had civil marriages, though there was a downside. A leading Muslim cleric denounced them. The couple even got death threats. And last year, a new interior minister took office, and the ministry hasn't authorized a civil marriage since. Some people just go abroad for a civil marriage, but others want a new, clear law.
SERGE TORSAKISSIAN: I'm Serge Torsakissian. I'm an MP of Beirut.
FORDHAM: He's a pragmatist. Torsakissian sees the different rules for different religions as a compromise, enabling historically hostile groups to live alongside each other. He calls it confessionalism.
TORSAKISSIAN: I'm with the confessional system as it is in Lebanon. I'm not against it.
FORDHAM: He thinks a law will only pass if there's buy-in from all the sects. So he's proposed a law that would have people keep their sect and get permission for civil marriage from their religious community.
TORSAKISSIAN: Adapting confessionalism because still we have the bond with the church or with the mosque - it's still there because we can't cut with the religious atmosphere that is in Lebanon.
FORDHAM: It's essentially a watered-down civil marriage, but religious leaders are still skeptical.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
FORDHAM: Father Abdou Abu Kassem is the director of the Catholic Center for Information. We meet him at a church.
ABDOU ABU KASSEM: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: He says marriage is a sacrament within the church, not a legal contract.
KASSEM: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: He says Lebanon's not a secular state. But a new demonstration was organized in favor of civil marriage last month. The voices calling for secular civil rights are only growing louder. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.